Ruby Wax is the queen of rapid-fire comedy. But, as she tells Simon Round, humour hasn't healed the legacy of depression left by her Shoah-survivor parents - and so she trained as a psychotherapist
You do not need to research Ruby Wax particularly deeply to know she had a problem childhood. Over the years, her comedy has been peppered with lines about the strange upbringing by her eccentric and neurotic parents.
Yet more recently, Wax has stopped joking about her childhood and started to talk seriously about it. A severe episode of depression after the birth of her youngest daughter, Marina, caused her to reassess both her life and career. As a result, she decided to change career direction - and train as a psychotherapist.
This may seem a strange decision for a someone whose persona is that of a brash, motormouthed American - a kind of punk Joan Rivers, whose strength seems to be talking rather than listening. However, Wax herself believes that she self-consciously developed her outrageous personality as a defence mechanism.
"I don't think I'm a natural extrovert; it was something I trained myself to do," she says. "If I hadn't developed that side of myself, they would have overpowered me. Until a few years ago, I could discuss this stuff on a humorous level. I couldn't have a serious discussion about it, though."
The "they" Wax refers to are her late mother and father - Austrian Jews who fled from the Nazis in 1939 and settled in Chicago. Her mother was fixated on cleanliness - she never even took the plastic covers off the sofa. She also made Wax wear bizarre clothes which made her vulnerable to bullying at school. Her father, who made a fortune in the hot-dog business, would scream at his wife and child. There were also outbursts of violence.
Young Ruby was clearly deeply affected by the atmosphere in the house. Through her therapy, she has come to understand this better. "My parents were angry about their situation. There was certainly a sense of revenge in our house. I think maybe they were jealous because I was born at a time when you could be totally free, the whole sexual revolution started and I think they were unhappy that, in their prime, they had to leave their country - while I was having a heyday. When I was growing up, I couldn't understand what was going on. I don't think there will ever again be such a wide gap was between these European refugees and the American generation of baby-boomers."
Wax certainly believes that the experiences she endured as a child influenced her adolescence and even her choice of career. "It was a choice between comedy and crime," she laughs. "The lack of attention really motivates you to get someone to listen."
Certainly, the exhibitionist streak is not present when she is interviewed. She is anything but verbose, talking in short sentences, punctuated by an abrupt "yuh" when she feels she has made her point.
If her outrageous and outspoken behaviour was a way to free herself of her parents' influence, her choice of career was in part a way of getting even with them.
"The worst thing I could have done was become a comedian," she says. "They wanted me to get married and have a normal life. Just to spite them, I did the opposite. I didn't get married until really late. I didn't even go out with anyone - they got really scared."
Her parents also unwittingly influenced Wax's decision to come to Britain after she had completed a psychology degree at Berkeley in California. "One reason I came over was because I wanted to be a classical actress, but that was delusional. I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and everyone decided that I was a terrible actress. So I had to write comedy because I didn't have a choice. But I also wanted to get as far away from home as I could. My parents fought so hard to get out of Europe, and I fought just as hard to get back in."
Having ditched her aspirations to be a serious actress, Wax's career took off. She became well known as a stand-up comedian, starring in the 1980s sitcom Girls on Top before branching out into the genre which gave her the most fame and, she maintains, the most satisfaction - as an interviewer.
Her encounters with subjects including the Duchess of York and Imelda Marcos were memorable mainly because Wax was completely fearless in her questioning style. The word that springs to mind is chutzpah, although this suggestion irritates her. "If you have a career that lasts 20 years, it must be more than chutzpah. If it's chutzpah, it lasts an hour-and-a-half."
She feels that her subjects opened up to her because of the way she used humour. This allowed her close encounters with Fergie's knicker drawer and Imelda's legendary shoe collection.
"If you are po-faced, you're not going to get away with it. If you do it with the right sense of humour, you can get away with anything. Fear figures a lot, but I'm used to standing up to dictators. Other things scare me, but not dictators. I grew up with that."
The conversation has veered back to Wax's parents again. Despite the fact she is now a qualified psychotherapist, she has not studied the trauma that the children of Holocaust survivors often experience. "I haven't got into that, but I know plenty of first-generation survivors - people who escaped. Some are very well-adjusted and some are out of their minds. Who knows? It depends on the equipment you have when you are born. Who knows what your genetics were?"
Wax was first diagnosed with depression at the age of 10, and it returns periodically. She does not think it will ever go away completely. "That's all laid down in your chemical pool by the time you're four years old. There's nothing you can do. You can control it, but it's still there. It's like if you have an injury. You can take painkillers, but it's still there underneath."
She may have qualified as a psychotherapist (she is also studying for an MA in neuro-science), but she will not be taking clients - her duties will be confined to Headroom, a BBC campaign to help the mentally ill, and corporate work.
"I'll do some coaching and talk at company events. If they want someone to talk in front of people, I'm not so bad at that."
There are also a few trips to Holland on the cards. She is planning to re-work some of her old shows for Dutch TV and is the star attraction at an event in the Netherlands celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary, held by Collectieve Israel Actie, Holland's main fundraisers for Israel.
"I'll talk for half an hour or so. They want a Jewish thing, I suppose, but being Jewish myself I think that comes with the package." In fact, Wax has always been reluctant to bring her Jewishness into her work, and it is tough to get her to expand on the subject. She maintains: "I don't really do the Jewish thing. I live in England. It's not something you mention. I'm not Jackie Mason, you know. Yuh."
She is less reticent when talking about her family's Jewishness. She is happily married to her non-Jewish English husband, Ed, with whom she has three children. "My kids know they're Jewish, but I don't push it. If they want to be Jewish they can be Jewish, and they have that sense of humour, but we don't celebrate the Jewish holidays.
"I wanted to give my children a different experience from my own, so I married someone who wasn't neurotic. From him they got health and also length, because he's very tall. They are really well-adjusted. I'm sure there's never been anyone in my family history who has ever been well-adjusted. I broke the chain."
Even Wax's parents were pleased that she eventually settled down. "When I did get married, they were so grateful. By that point they were saying: ‘Marry anybody'... whoever would have me. They thought it was some kind of freak of nature that I made it."
She regrets that she never really understood her parents. "Who were they? I have absolutely no idea. They denied the whole thing. My dad would talk about escaping from the Nazis as though it were a big adventure. My mother never talked about it at all. When I asked her, she always said we had no family who were killed. Eventually, a couple of years before she died, I asked her again if there was anyone who was murdered. At that point she said: ‘Oh, yes, they were all burnt.'"
Wax is still coming to terms with the way she was brought up. But she is now more reflective about the experience. "We never had closure. I certainly loved them, and was grateful to them, but there were no hugs and they never said sorry. We didn't have that end of the film."