Lee Mack: interview
One of the UK's most beloved stand-ups, Lee Mack talks to Time Out about bonding with the audience and why he's so prone to weird heckles.
After a blistering hour of razor-sharp, whirlwind comedy, Lee Mack, sweating and panting, takes time out from his rapid-fire joke assault on the audience. He sips some water in a vain attempt at momentary rehydration and surveys the audience.
'Right, come on, then. That's the show over, has anyone got any questions?' His cheeky invite to take on allcomers in a virtuoso display of comedic pugilism is met with silence. He smiles. 'What? Nothing?'
Suddenly there's an explosion of questions from five or six audience members all at the same time - an undecipherable barrage of whats, whens and hows. 'Whoa, there! All right, calm down. One at a time. You there, madam, in the second row. What was that you said?'
'Who's your hero?'
'Fuck knows. Who's yours?'
'Anita Dobson,' comes the reply, without a moment's pause. The audience roar with laughter as one, with Mack their chief cheerleader.
'Anita Dobson? Anita Dobson? Of all the people you could have chosen. It wasn't Gandhi or Florence Nightingale, no you plumped for Anita fucking Dobson.' He's genuinely tickled by this: 'Why Anita Dobson?'
'Because of her hair, of course,' the lady shouts out, as if shocked that he even had to ask. 'I love her hair.'
'Brilliant! Of course, what was I thinking?' He's reduced to tears. His laughter infects the crowd again.
'Thank you, Tunbridge Wells, you've been amazing. Odd…' - he gives the Dobson fan a quick glance - '… but amazing.' He leaves the stage to a rapturous standing ovation.
As I push myself through the throng of happily bubbling punters on my way backstage to interview Mack I overhear a couple discussing the show. 'I couldn't believe that last woman: Anita Dobson, that was precious!' The man is still chuckling.
'Having said that, she was very good as the Wicked Queen in that panto,' his wife counters. 'Yeah, but, a hero?'
'No, I mean really good!'
By the time I get to the 'Not Going Out' star's dressing room he is remarkably chilled out - totally unlike the fizzing ball of energy he was on stage.
As the actress said to the bishop, how was that for you?
'It was fine. It's very hard to judge, though, if you're doing it every night. But you whittle your set down to all the good bits that work, to the point that at this stage you sort of expect it all to work, so you're only looking at the negative. Tonight was pretty solid, I thought.'
You seemed to really enjoy the Q&A section at the end…
'For that bit I always try and think about what it was like to make your mates laugh in the pub - you don't feel nervous about it, you just talk. You're just having a chat with that one bloke in the balcony. It's a bit more intense than that. Half way through the chat I can't just say, “I'm going to the bog”, and then think of something funny while I'm in there. I would also say that I'm helped slightly by the fact that my mean average of slightly weird heckles is higher than most. I think that's because people on stage generally play the high-status comic or the buffoon - I'm the latter, so the punters don't feel threatened: they know I won't rip the shit out of them.'
You could have called the show 'Relentless': it's non-stop gag after gag
'I do write a lot of stuff for my tours. I think I just want to give people their money's worth. They've paid to come and see jokes so I try to give them as many as I can.'
Do you write more jokes than you actually need for the show?
'While I'm working on the show I will probably sit at a computer for two or three hours, and churn over about 30 things. And out of that 30, two thirds will never see the light of day. The ones that make it through will be tried out at a new- material night to see if they work. The process
is a bit like a football manager picking his squad, some of the gags are Premiership standard, others will be Vauxhall Conference and not make it in the long run.'
Was it making your mates laugh that made you think of becoming a comic in the first place?
'Not really. At about the age of 15 I got into “The Young Ones” and “Friday Night Live”, and I remember thinking I'd like to try and be a comedian. I didn't do stand-up until I was
about 25, 26, so that was a good ten or 11 years between saying I'd be interested in doing it to actually doing it. I remember being captivated by Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard and wanting to do what they did. That generation of comedians was my main influence.
A lot of people think that because of my style I must have had an obsessive upbringing on Morecambe & Wise or Tommy Cooper but those people really passed me by. I also got called a “mainstream” comedian because of my northern accent. Your voice determines people's perception probably more than your style or your jokes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm under no illusions, I've got a very old-school, mainstream leaning to the way I present my comedy because I actually like jokes and don't just do observational stuff. Interestingly, each year that goes by I find it a little bit easier to do my stuff, because when I started it wasn't fashionable to actually tell jokes. But, luckily for me, there seems to have been a joke revival.'