Jack Dee hosts a new comedy panel show in which the spotlight falls on members of the public.

Jack Dee’s first experience of audience interaction as a stand-up comedian was fielding the heckle ‘Tell us a joke’ with a defiant ‘No’ as he tried his luck at an open-mic spot at London’s Comedy Store in the mid-1980s.

Next week, however, British comedy’s favourite misanthrope will be positively encouraging members of the public to get involved as he hosts a new Sky Atlantic comedy panel show, Don’t Sit in the Front Row, in which comedians interact with pre-selected audience members as a test of their ad-libbing skills.

TV&Satellite Week magazine caught up with the 51-year-old comic to find out more…

Don’t Sit in the Front Row is as much about the audience as the comics.
“Was that part of its appeal for you? When I was approached, I thought it sounded like shooting fish in a barrel. But it quickly became obvious that the people in jeopardy are the comedians, who come on not knowing what is going to be thrown at them. It’s a level playing field where it’s all down to how quickly you can think on your feet.”

Who will be guesting?
“We’ve attracted really high-quality comedians, including Phill Jupitus, Frank Skinner, Sue Perkins, Josh Widdecombe and Milton Jones. They all reveal a very new side to their talent that you wouldn’t access through their stand-up.”

What sort of people volunteer to sit in the front row?
“They’re not like hecklers, but it’s fair to say they’re all pretty extrovert. We do vet them to make sure there’s comic potential and they’re not nutters, and we’re certainly not picking on them.”

Would you say you have a different persona when you are hosting a show?
“I don’t exactly try to be Mr Bubbly, but the role is different from stand-up. You have to be sensitive to what is going on and make sure everyone is getting a look-in and, if someone is a bit nervous, help them through that. It requires a generosity as you’re making a space for people to do well in.”

Do you interact with the audience much in your own live shows?
“I’ve never been a comedian who comes on and asks someone: ‘Where are you from?’ But when something happens in the audience, part of the fun of going to a live show is that it can suddenly totally change direction. Otherwise it’s a bit like going to a play, isn’t it? That said, while everyone loves heckle stories, the good ones are few and far between, and it’s usually just abuse.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your career in comedy?
“The first time I got a laugh on stage, it was like finding the missing link in my life. You have to listen to your instinct and go with it, even if it feels dangerous.”

What’s been your toughest comedy gig?
“I remember I did one years ago in a prison. There were warders either side of the stage, and rows of these hard-looking blokes sitting there with their arms crossed. I started my routine by saying: ‘I was on the bus the other day…’ and one of them shouted ‘Lucky you.’”

In your current live tour, you’ve been getting your guitar out on stage. How do you rate your musical chops?
“I wouldn’t dare do it unless I thought it had a reasonable chance of being funny, and I’m not trying to convince people that I’m a musician. It’s not like I’m going to lay a heartfelt song on them about the demise of coal mining.”

How are you finding life as a fiftysomething?
“It gets worse and worse, to be honest. Everyone says ‘life begins at 40’ and that wasn’t true, and it didn’t start at 50 either, so I’m still waiting.”

You have teenage children. Do you remember what you were like at that age?
“It was an incredibly difficult time and I was very morose. But the great thing is I that I came through it.”

Do you have a ‘happy place’ you can go to when you feel negative about life?
“Not really. Audiences laugh at what I’m saying, and I think: ‘Yes, you can laugh, but I’m stuck like this after the show as well.’ There’s no escape.”

Have you ever tried to train yourself to think positively?
“I’m actually a positive thinker and I think I’d be a good motivational speaker. People think I’m a massive pessimist, but the truth is I’m really an optimist. I wake up feeling really optimistic and, by about 8.30am, I’m all disappointed again.”

Don’t Sit in the Front Row begins on Sky Atlantic HD on Monday, October 29 at 9pm