She'd an unhappy childhood and was bullied at work, but now ... Jan's having a laugh
Comic Jan Jack, who will be appearing at the Belfast Telegraph's Women of the Year gala on Thursday night, tells Stephanie Bell how she began her career in stand-up at the age of 47
Published 24/02/2014 | 10:30
Jan Jack just can't help herself. She has only sent a brief text and an email and already she has made me laugh. We haven't even had a chance to chat yet and the funny asides are flying through cyberspace, lightening my dreary working day and making me look forward to our interview.
My research into the comedienne and inspirational business speaker has found a story which I can't wait to hear as it features a real life knight in shining armour in the form of her husband Alastair.
We might all dream of a handsome hero riding in and rescuing us from a life of drudgery – but for Jan it was no fairytale.
At 47 – when most of us feel our lot in life has been decided and we are stuck – Alastair gave Jan the push she needed to escape a miserable work life and follow her dream of becoming a stand-up comic. He did it in the form of a thoughtful love note urging her to hand in her notice from her job as a secretary where she had become a victim of workplace bullying.
Now at 54 she couldn't be happier or more fulfilled, running her own comedy club Jan Jack's Laughter House in her home town of Basingstoke and even more importantly to Jan, working as an inspirational business speaker.
While her story is a happy one, there is pathos too, and all is delivered with her sharp humour which she will be sharing for the first time with a Northern Ireland audience when she appears as a guest speaker at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in association with The OUTLET in Banbridge on Thursday night.
Reviews describe her as "Poignant, entertaining and inspiring", "Warm, engaging, funny – Jan Jack is a definite must see."
I start by asking about Alastair (51) who works as a web content manager and she doesn't hold back on just how very special her husband of 16 years is to her: "He IS particularly lovely," she says. "Actually when I met him I was in a bad way.
"My first marriage had just broken up six months earlier so he really does have the patience of a saint. He has always been very kind."
She laughs as she recalls the amusing story of how they first met in 1995.
"I was a member of my local health and fitness club and I was making my way to the Jacuzzi and I could see this chap was sitting in it.
"I was getting in when I fell and then emerged wet and dripping.
"I said to him 'I do that all the time' and he made a joke and we got talking and that started it.
"There was nice karma all the way because it just so happened that an ex girlfriend of his, who had become just a friend, was with him.
"She said to him afterwards that she liked me and then bought him membership of the health club so that we could meet again.
"We met a couple of months later and he asked me out and that was it.
"About three years later I suddenly realised that this person I was closest to in the world was not even legally my family so we married."
Jan had worked for a major company as a secretary for 32 years. She enjoyed her job which she excelled at but everything changed when some changes were made in her department.
She recalls: "Quite a few of us became very unhappy with the person in charge but I seemed to get the worst of it and there was bullying.
"I got depressed. I lost all my energy and I dreaded work. I would have a bit of a cry on a Sunday night at the thought of going in on Monday morning.
"I just felt I had to stay because of our mortgage. I felt as if I was in a trap. I was frustrated and very unhappy."
Alastair had tried everything to cheer Jan up over the two years she struggled in work but she just got more depressed.
It was after yet another tough day at the office that Jan returned home to find a note from Alastair sitting on the kitchen table.
She ripped open the envelop and read: "Dear Jannie everyday you go to work looking so unhappy and I hate to see you like this. I want you to give up your job and go and do something you really enjoy. I want us to talk about this. We will manage".
Jan says : "I just cried my eyes out. As I read it, a part of me was still thinking we can't afford it. We talked that night and Alastair assured me we would be fine and the next day I handed my notice in."
Jan had always been a natural joker and knew that she wanted to entertain people.
She reveals that as a child she endured a difficult home life and learnt to cope by making people laugh outside her home.
She says: "I didn't come from a close family and my parents used to look at me as if I was bonkers because of my sense of humour and the fact that I loved to write silly poetry.
"There was a family rift and I didn't get to know some of my family. I only met my dad's two sisters when I was 40 years old and I remember going into their house and seeing book shelves filled with poetry.
She adds: "My mum used to say I was odd because I wrote poetry and it was only as an adult that I realised that I got it from my aunts.
"I learnt to be funny to cope with life at home and was always joking and making people laugh."
After Alastair's letter, Jan decided that her natural desire and ability to make people laugh was what she wanted to do and she began by getting herself booked on what is known as The Open Mic Circuit in London.
It was a tough introduction to the business but a huge learning curve as she explains: "Some of them are so rough; you could be playing to two men and a dog at 10pm at night.
"I stuck it for about a year and it gave me a wealth of stories.
"Because I knew what a really terrible gig was I also knew what a good one was.
"I also realised quite soon that I had a lovely home life and didn't want to be constantly on the road travelling to gigs up and down the country so I decided to open my own comedy club."
Jan Jack's Laughter House is now a well established comedy club in Basingstoke which features some of the UK's best comedians and entertainers.
Jan, who has been described as a cross between Pam Ayres and Victoria Wood, still enjoys doing her own stand up routine at the club at least once a month, but her bitter experience from the corporate world has given her a new outlet for her talent as an inspirational business speaker.
It is in trying to persuade company leaders that humour has its place in business that her real passion now lies.
She says: "It kind of morphed for me into speaking at business events and now I am setting up corporate workshops.
"It's about showing how humour can help in business.
"Sometimes I feel like I've become an advocate for humour. I used to sit through presentations all the time and they were so boring that often people fell asleep.
"I would tell my audience that humour in business is as rare as a pole dancing penguin and it shouldn't be.
"I talk about how they can make presentations funny. People buy from people they like and if you can make someone smile in an appropriate way then they will want to buy from you.
"Things are so much easier with humour. It's not about telling jokes or being flippant; it's about telling funny stories and creating empathy.
"It's about finding funny things in your situation that you can share with your audience and brighten up presentations."
Jan has never been to Northern Ireland and is genuinely thrilled to be visiting for the first time this week to give one of her inspirational talks at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in the Ramada Hotel.
It will be a flying visit but she hopes to get a chance to experience Belfast while she is here.
She says: "I'm really looking forward to it.
"I have a lovely friend who is coming with me and she just keeps telling me how gorgeous Belfast is and I've always wanted to visit Northern Ireland.
"I'm quite overwhelmed and absolutely delighted to be invited to speak at such a prestigious event. The fact that it is a celebration of what we can do as women makes it even more special. I've had so much support from so many women in my little journey and I'm really looking forward to hearing all the inspirational stories of the special women who will be there at the awards as well as sharing my own story."
Life couldn't be sweeter for Jan.
Her dream now is to build on her new corporate workshops, spreading the new message that humour has its place in business and ultimately one day be so financially secure that she can do for her lovely husband what he has done for her.
She adds: "My mission now is to earn as much as him and maybe more one day so that I can say to him 'It's your turn now, you go off and follow your dreams'.
"I don't know if that day will come but I'll do my damnedest to make sure it does."