‘I walked into the comedy desert and a part of me died’ – the standup who became a therapist | Comedy

‘I thought you might have come to kill me,” says Oscar Jenkyn-Jones, sipping tea in the sun-dappled garden of an east London cafe. His wariness is forgivable. After all, it must be disconcerting to be contacted by a journalist who saw you perform a dazzling half-hour of absurdist character comedy in 2014 and has been searching for you ever since. In his black felt hat, pine-green jacket and trousers, and with a blue kerchief knotted around his neck, the tall, bearded 33-year-old resembles a hipster Robin Hood. Ask why he vanished from the scene and a smile plays on his lips. “The real question isn’t ‘Why did I quit comedy?’” he says. “It’s ‘How did I get as far as I did?’”

The disappearance from public life of a comic who was compared favorably to Chris Morris seems more mysterious when set beside the fortunes of his friends. Jenkyn-Jones made his fringe debut in 2010 as part of Bristol university’s Revunions sketch group, described by the Telegraph that year as “wow-funny”. Among his cohort were Jamie Demetriou (Bafta-winning star and creator of Stath Lets Flats), Charlotte Ritchie (Fresh Meat, Feel Good) and Ellie White (another Stath regular, soon to be seen with Timothée Chalamet in Wonka).

From 2013, he was on the roster at the Invisible Dot, the London comedy venue where his contemporaries included Tim Key, Mae Martin, Lolly Adefope, the sketch groups Sheeps and the Pin (from Judd Apatow’s Netflix film The Bubble), and Demetriou’s sister Natasia, star of the vampire sitcom What We Do in the Shadows. In the Venn diagram of early-2010s UK comedy, Jenkyn-Jones was slap-bang at the centre.

He was also one of its most gifted stars. White calls him “a fascinating genius enigma. Actually, like, mad, and absolutely hilarious.” Ritchie tells me he had “a really big impact on the rest of us. He had these unique cadences, and a direct line to being silly, but there was always a delicacy and thoughtfulness. There was a hilarious boyband move he used to do with his arms which I still do just for myself sometimes. Whenever that pops into my head, I think of him.”

'On some primal level, everyone was competing' … the Revunions in 2010;  from left, Jenkyn-Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Ellie White, Charlotte Ritchie, Joe Hampson.
‘On some primal level, everyone was competing’ … the Revunions in 2010; from left, Jenkyn-Jones, Jamie Demetriou, Ellie White, Charlotte Ritchie, Joe Hampson. Photograph: Bristol Revunions

I saw Jenkyn-Jones on a Saturday night bill in June 2014, where he was daft, cerebral and divisive. When he began one question to an audience member with the words “What do you think about …”, there was every reason to expect that a noun might be in the offing until he repeated the line with a shift of emphasis: “What do you think about?” His characters included Thomas Pocket, who skipped on stage to Peter and the Wolf before reading a poem about tetanus, and a man who bombarded the crowd with lemons and bananas after an epiphany about the healing powers of fruit. Two thirds of the room sat in baffled silence.

His one-man show at the fringe that summer climaxed each evening with him repeatedly running off stage to extinguish an electrical fire. A reviewer described him practicing “a high-risk, all-or-nothing strain of comedy guaranteed to alienate those whose tastes aren’t as refined as his”, before wondering whether this “frustratingly contrary maverick” might be “guilty of aiming too high too soon”. I booked tickets for two of his gigs in London that autumn; both were cancelled. He has not performed since.

In 2016, he trained as a therapist. The leap from fringe to Freud is perhaps not as unlikely as it seems. “Therapy uses the same part of my brain as acting because it’s about empathy,” he tells me. “Even the listening skill has something in common because you disappear for a bit if you’re absorbed in someone else’s story. I have probed some dark, weird, perverted corners of reality as a therapist. I’ve watched people talking this strange interior language.”

Does he still consider himself a performer? “I walked further and further into the desert, and I think that part of me died,” he says. “I’ve got friends who are pissed off at me for not even doing TikTok videos. But I’ve come this far. I’m prepared to never act again.”

'Since becoming a therapist, I've realized the demons around me were very real' … Jenkyn-Jones.
‘Since becoming a therapist, I’ve realized the demons around me were very real’ … Jenkyn-Jones. Photograph: Anna Gordon/The Guardian

It was at the fringe in 2013, where he and White each did a half-hour set in Ellie and Oscar Share a Time, that he first experienced misgivings about his fledgling career. “I did some mysterious stuff,” he recalls. “I tried to drive a really hard bargain, being off the grid, no social media, saying no to lots of agents.”

He did find one with whom he felt a rapport, though when she was in the audience he kicked over his laptop, which he needed for the show, “so she only saw me do, like, five minutes”. She went out of her way to catch him on another occasion, only for things to go awry again. “I had this joke where I made the rest of the audience laugh at the expense of one person. And somehow, in the dark, the person I picked on was this agent.” Other opportunities were squandered or sabotaged: “I was booked for a gig on the BBC stage but I forgot the day.” A recent breakup also had him feeling isolated. “There were mental health issues,” he says.

The following year, he tried to pull out of his first solo hour on the fringe. Simon Pearce, who as manager of the Invisible Dot was producing the show, made sympathetic noises at first. “Simon was like, ‘Nah mate, come in, let’s have a chat.’ He took me into the Dot, sat me on the stage and said: ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’”

Jenkyn Jones ended up going through with the month-long run. “But I hated it. Something was horribly wrong. I wanted to write scripts that I could cast all my friends in, but to do that I had to pass through the eye of a needle and be this one-man show. When did this become normal? Everyone in Edinburgh is stressed or miserable. It’s this dairy farm of unhappy clowns.”

Jenkyn-Jones’s mock documentary Inheritage Now, co-starring Jamie Demetriou

His instability led to him “getting more and more extreme to get my kicks. I’d make stuff up on the bus to a gig. I did an hour back-to-back with Mark Watson – he was on after me, so all his fans were there – and it was the worst show of my life. I really lost it. I did loads of material I hadn’t tried before. The room was so hot and I blanked out at one point.” He looks sheepish. “So, um, sorry to Mark Watson’s fans.” At an evening compered by Sara Pascoe, he realized that “my confidence had become indistinguishable from contempt. If you’re so confident, then at what point do you care any more?”

His breakdown was exacerbated by the competitiveness found in any group of comics. “Since becoming a therapist, I’ve realized that the demons around me were very real,” he says. “I can now put a name to that enormous social pressure. Everyone on some primal level was competing.” A chasm opened between him and his peers. “They all formed a sketch group by 2015 and got a BBC pilot,” he says, referring to People Time, which starred the Demetriou siblings, White, Claudia O’Doherty and the members of Sheeps. “There were exclusion threats. I suddenly and quite violently felt like I wasn’t chasing the same thing.”

Jenkyn-Jones… 'This is a story that no one should emulate'.
Jenkyn-Jones… ‘This is a story that no one should emulate’. Photograph: Anna Gordon/The Guardian

How does he feel now? “There’s been a hell of a lot of loss,” he sighs. “It’s mad to watch your friends get very successful very quickly. To walk out of uni straight into work, like Charlotte did with Fresh Meat.” Is he able to enjoy their comedy on TV? “It’s been painful. Of course, I watched Stath Lets Flats. Love it. And I’ll catch myself not knowing I was going to see them in something – ‘Oh, Ellie’s in that!’ But their game does seem different to mine. The longer it’s gone on, the more I’ve had my convictions strengthened.”

Today he is starting to get back to where he wanted to be: theatre. He is writing a play commissioned originally by BBC radio in 2014, which he was unable to finish at the time, as well as 30 others that he planned in detail back then. He hopes to cast them with non-professionals. “I want to turn shit on its head,” he says.

Anyone looking to sample Jenkyn-Jones’s comedy, however, is largely out of luck. Less than 10 minutes of his material exists online, including the mockumentary Inheritage Now, co-starring Jamie Demetriou. There is no archive. “It’s gone. I didn’t record anything. There are characters I did that only 20 people ever saw.”

He isn’t joking, then, about his desire to be “invisible as fuck”, as he puts it. “I’ve done things the hard way. This is a story that no one should emulate. It’s a story of stupidity.” Or just of someone who got lost temporarily. “I’ve been hibernating,” he says. “But I have mad, mad ambition now. I’m going for the crown.”

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