Lee Mack interview: autobiographies, Not Going Out and writing comedy

Interview Simon Brew 2 Nov 2012 - 06:52

We chat to comedian Lee Mack about his new book, Mack The Life, Not Going Out, and writing comedy...

There are a few things that distinguise Lee Mack's new autobiography, Mack The Life. Firstly, he's written it himself. Secondly, it's very, very good. Thirdly, it's very funny. But fourthly, you get a realistic, rounded sense of just how much work goes into creating a hit sitcom like Not Going Out, and what it takes to make the jump to a full stand-up show. It's a highly recommended book, and we had the chance to chat to him about it. If you're a Not Going Out fan, there are a few things in here that may be of particular interest, too...

You struck me in the early stages of the book as someone who doesn't like the formula of the autobiography at all, something you come back to again at the end.

Yeah.

You don't like the false top and tailing that autobiographies tend to feature?

I was the kind of person who didn’t think people should write autobiographies until they’re very old. So it was a bit of a reluctant thing to start in the first place. But I was 50/50 - I've read some good ones, I've read some bad ones. I'm a comedian, not an author. It's just a different job. I'm a great believer, like with my sitcom, that I'm a comedian in a sitcom, not an actor in a sitcom. Likewise, I'm a comedian writing a book. So stick to what you're good at was my theory.

But I just thought that it might be interesting to see if I could do it.

So what tipped it to 51/49?

I suppose it's because I just thought if I don't, I'll never do it. If there's a reason not to do it now, it'll be the same reason when I'm 80. I just felt people writing autobiographies are getting younger, so at 44, I'm getting old.

I remember Kenneth Branagh putting his out when he was 29, 30...

Footballers too in particular. I think there are people in their teens who have?

I think Theo Walcott did one.

Unbelievable. But actually, I don't mind that. Thinking about it, if you want someone's life story, then you're probably better off not buying a book about someone who's 19. But you can write about other things when you're 19. You don't have to write about how it started. You could write about what it'd be like to train every day.

I just felt it would be nice to write something different to my sitcom. I spend so many hours writing a sitcom, and also, to be honest, the hard bit about writing sitcom is story. This felt like, you know what, this is going to be easy. The story is already written. But that isn’t actually true. You think that when you start, but then - like the sections where I see a psychiatrist - there are things you have to do, a process. It became as labour intensive as the sitcom had been.

At the end of every chapter, you have a chat with a psychiatrist. Were those bits written afterwards?

It's genuine. I finished the book, let her read it...

So it wasn't a family member or something?

Yeah, it was a genuine psychiatrist. I randomly searched one out, got in contact, I said there's my book, read it, and then interview me at the end of each chapter. As it happens, I then re-wrote the book a little bit, but it was genuine. What I say in the book is true, that's how we did it.

I wondered if it might end up being a family member or friend in disguise, or something?

Funnily enough, that's how it started out. I was going to get someone to interview me at the end of each chapter. One was going to be my child, one my wife, one the people I work with, one was a few mates off the telly, one was the milkman, that sort of thing. And one was going to be a psychiatrist. I just thought in the end maybe the psychiatrist should do it all.

By including the psychiatrist elements, you've gone in and put in the personal feeling and analysis into your story?

Also, there was a little bit of me thinking.... I don't want to write a big confessional book. For me, I wanted to write a book about getting into comedy. That's what I wanted to write.

As I say in the book though, you can't say chapter one, paragraph one, Lee's at the Comedy Store. I couldn't write 'I am backstage and nervous about my first gig', because people would say 'how did you get to that point'. You've got to put some context in, so I wrote about my youth, and how I got to that point, for the first two or three chapters. How do you go from the kid who doesn't want to do comedy, to the kid who wants to do comedy? I wrote that and got it out of the way fairly quickly, and then moved it on. Then talked about the journey of getting into stand-up.

I can only write what I would be interested in. If I was reading a book about a comedian, I wouldn't really care too much about their childhood. I'd care about what makes them want to get into it. That's the bit I'd find interesting.

Did you read Steve Martin's book?

Yeah, I read that. That was interesting.

He had a slightly lateral approach, especially where he left it.

Yeah. I remember thinking there was a jump, quite a big jump from doing gigs to arenas. I remember thinking 'where did the arenas come in'?

I just thought you never know. If you're involved in an industry, you lose track of just what the perception is outside of that industry.

I made an absolute decision not to have anyone else help me to write this book. Now I've written it, I am now totally more open to the idea of having, for want of better words, a ghost writer. Because ghost writers are... sometimes, an outsider's perspective can really help. I could have missed out five chapters of this book, that you might find really interesting, because I didn't find it interesting. An outsider might have a better view of that.

What also comes through the book, though, is the skill of writing. I find it as interesting a book about getting into writing, and what forces you to write. You say, though, that 'writing is God's punishment for being a comedian'.

Yeah. I wrote that 'writing is God's punishment for having the best job in the world'. I then realised that I had to change it. I was a bit worried, so I changed it to 'one of the best jobs in the world'. I realised I spent the whole book talking about how a footballer has got the best job in the world. But yeah, a footballer would probably say that training is the punishment.

The rules of comedy are, don't complain, it's a brilliant job. You complain, and you're seen as losing touch with reality. But then you're not being honest, because the truth is, 80 to 90 per cent of comedians I know find writing a bit of a struggle. You're not being honest by pretending it's all dead easy. If someone's reading this book and wanting to get into comedy, and I go 'yeah, it's a dead easy job this'... if you pretend to sell that you're a man of the people, going 'it's much better than being a coal miner', then the truth is that you're selling a bit of a lie.

The truth is that you have to be able to do a nine to five job to do this. You have to sit in front of a computer, day in, day out, and get it done. If you can't do that, you'll survive doing 20 minutes on the circuit for years. But if you want to write a sitcom or tour, or write a book, or do anything that involves copious amounts of writing - which, let's face it, most comedy does - you've got to be able to do it.

I remember Jerry Seinfeld's film Comedian, and he drove past some workmen at one point. And he had a bit of a moment, I think he said, where he looked at these workmen and said they come in the morning at nine o'clock, they finish at five, it isn't an option. They just have to work, and I have to do that with comedy. And I sort of have that feeling a bit. It's just no choice.

If you have a sitcom, you will not write it unless you sit there from nine until the afternoon. I start very early. Usually six or seven in the morning, then I work through until two. That's a common day when I'm writing a sitcom. Without that, I just wouldn't get it done. So when someone says 'you're a really hard-working comic', I'm not. It's like you say to a marathon runner: you're a really hard-working runner aren't you, because you run for 26 miles. Without that, he wouldn't be a marathon runner! There's no choice!

I remember Ben Elton talking about writing Blackadder, and how Richard Curtis would outline a plot, such as the re-writing of a dictionary in a weekend. And he talked about how that was the hard bit. Finding the start, middle and end.

In terms of the labour intensiveness of it, writing the script takes the longest time, but the hardest bit, in terms of banging your head against a brick wall, is the writing of the story. So the process we have is that I will start off with a blank sheet of paper. I'll have a list, maybe, a back catalogue of ideas I've not used yet. But generally, in a sentence or a very small paragraph, what is this story?

So for example, one of my favourite episodes is when they go on the camping thing in the last series. I really like that one. Sometimes I get help with writing, sometimes I write them on my own. Now for something like that, I will write in a sentence what I think would be funny. What I will write is 'wouldn't it be funny if they were all trapped in a car, with a lot of dialogue'. And I think in my head, my gut reaction, is that there's enough in that to work with. So you take that into a much bigger paragraph, there's half a page.

Then you make your decision. That's taken me half a day,  or a day, and I've got a sheet of A4 paper. Then I have to decide do I quit, or do I stick? If I stick, I'm now committed to this episode, even if I don't like it after three weeks, I'm stuck with it. Then there's about five or six layers to it. The early layers are the hardest, because there's nothing worse than trying to think of a joke on a blank piece of paper. You're better off thinking of a joke when the rules are all set. You get the ingredients, and the jokes write themselves.

It's a cliched analogy, but the story is the foundation.

That episode of Not Going Out, Camping, you took it out of the studio, and you also took it out of the genre. And, for a good five minutes of it too, it was really creepy.

I've had some feedback saying that it is actually quite a creepy episode. What was amazing about that episode was that when we get out of the car, and we're on location, you just can't see the join. The car was in a studio in front of an audience. When we got out of the car, we jumped to the location shots that were filmed a month earlier. It's so well lit and filmed, it looks real.

Whoever lit and shot it liked their horror movies.

Possibly, yeah! I've always been a big horror fan. When you're writing a sitcom, whenever you're spoofing a genre, it's always phenomenally easier to write. This is why I've always been a bit dubious about these spoof films...

They're not spoofs though, are they? A genuinely good spoof, something like Top Secret, has enough love of the genre, but also has ingredients of its own. The rubbish ones just copy a scene, and anybody could have done that. They don't have the appreciation of the material.

Absolutely. Story's the hardest thing in the world, though. So if you do a spoof of something, the story is already existing. Spoofing a horror thing was easier to write than a normal episode. It's my favourite episode, but I'm always more proud of the episodes that are the least favourite of other people. To get an episode that just isn't working out, and is bad, and making it good, is more of an achievement. If they start off dodgy and you make them good, they'll never be as good as the ones that immediately work. Yet I'm more proud of them.

We’ve talked about Everybody Loves Raymond before. The thing about making a show like that, or most American sitcoms, is if an episode isn't working at the recording, they can gather a whole bunch of writers together to try and sort it.

We haven't got that in our culture.

Do you think we need it? There's a sense if might be the proverbial double-edged sword.

For me, the reason why American sitcoms have been more successful than British sitcoms over recent times is they have more respect for writers. That simple. I was once told that the average British sitcom budget, five per cent is spent on writers, and in America it's 10 per cent. So, even if there's more money in America, the percentages should be the same. It's obviously seen as more important in America than here.

People who are stand-up comedians in America want to write sitcoms. In Britain they don't, because it's not such an aspirational thing to do. Look at the credits of any American sitcom, and there are about 17 different versions of a writer. Script editor, script supervisor, story supervisor... Now I've been involved in a sitcom myself, I realise why that is. I totally see if from both sides of the fence, because I'm in it, but I'm also the writer.

I've always said that, as the writer of the show, that's more important to me than being in it. As someone who lives and breathes my sitcom, if someone said to me you can do an episode where you're not in it, or one where you've not written it at all, I would definitely write it and not be in it. In fact, I'd quite like to do that anyway.

So where are you taking Not Going Out now? Because Tim Vine has left the show.

Yes, Tim's gone.

Earlier in the year, it was said that new characters were being brought in?

There are always new characters in the show anyway. We haven't made our minds up yet, but at some point in this series, a character or characters will be introduced, who we may decide to use again in the future.

So the same way you introduced Katy Wix?

Absolutely. There's that going on, we just play it one series at a time. You learn to do that after you've been cancelled with a sitcom! You don't plan too far ahead!

You did get two series commissioned in one go last time, though?

Correct. We're doing the second one now. So after this series, we'll have done as many after the cancellation as before. The big thing we've got to decide is the two endings.

Every year, there's an ending where me and Lucy get together, and an ending where me and Lucy don't get together. We always plan to film the getting together one as an option in the edit. You don't then have to decide until the new year, because you're editing it quite late. So I give myself Christmas to decide what to do, and decide what's going in the show.

But we always never film the getting together scene, because when we come to it, we always go 'oh forget it, we're never going to do this'. This year, we really are filming both versions. The chances of them getting together is bigger than it's ever been, because we're filming it. At this point, I've written the ending where we get together, but not the one where we don't. But I'm going to write that. It's still 50/50.

You should try the split screen episode they did in Coupling. That'd give you another year to decide, then. It could be like Sliding Doors!

Yeah! We always film until Christmas, we always show it after Christmas, so I've got until the end of January to decide. There is quite a lot of importance in that in terms of what then happens. Get the couple together, then you're then opening a whole world of family sitcom, which I've always been interested in. Don't get them together, and then that will involve bringing in new characters. There's quite a lot riding on it, so I always take it to the wire.

It depends, basically, on how good your Christmas presents are this year, then?

Possibly, yeah!

This one, then, it sounds like you've not been told about a series beyond this. So it's very much back to taking it a series at a time?

It was a massive help to get two series this year. We’ve always existed from series to series. If you film something every year, you start writing it in February, film it in the autumn, have Christmas off, it gets shown in the new year. And then after it’s been shown, they go yes we want another one, or no we don’t. And if you live like that, you don’t know what you’re doing in February. It’s very hard to plan anything, to get actors to commit.

This time, it’s been fantastic. To get given two made it a lot easier to make, a lot more viable as an option. There’s no way I could have kept living like that year on year – I’m a stand-up comedian, I’ve got other things to do. We’ll have to see what happens this time – at the moment, we’ve not been commissioned again, but who knows what’s going to happen? Touch wood, everything is going well at the moment. We’re getting the best viewing figures we’ve ever had, there seems to be renewed interest in it since we came back on air. Who knows, though, you’re in the lap of the gods.

I’m not sure the interest ever really went away, though. From our side of the screen, it was always curious that it got cancelled in the first place.

I think what happens, for me, if they’d cancelled it after the first two series, I’d have gone fair enough. You know how much impact a sitcom is having by walking down the street, it’s that simple. The first two series, not a lot of impact. Series three, something happened, which I think in the industry they call ‘breaking through’ or ‘the tipping point’. I thought something’s changed. Bear in mind when you write a sitcom, you barely go out of the house for four months. So you don’t know how well it’s going. Then suddenly, one day you finally get a day out with your family, in a packed public place, and you realise it’s having an impact. People start mentioning the name of the characters and stuff. That was the time when it was a shock to be cancelled.

I’ve been involved in many shows over the years, and you get used to it. Shows come and go.

This one’s different for you though, isn’t it?

Yes. But you never know. The second you personally start thinking you’ve got a God-given right to be on the telly, you’ve lost touch with reality. Because it’s a bonus to be on telly working, not a given.

I’ve often heard comedians say in a quite annoyed way things like ‘I see you’ve done Live At The Apollo, I’ve not been asked to do Live At The Apollo’. Well yeah, but neither’s my brother. Admittedly, he’s not a comedian, but the second you are in a certain job and you think everything is a God-given right to you, you’re losing touch with reality.

Stewart Lee said earlier in the year that it was important for the public to fall out of love with comedian a little. That comedians have been perceived as the people’s friend, on the side of the people…

Yeah. I sort of say in the book that in the Royal Variety Show, you work front of cloth. And that your job, like in the old days, is to fill in between the main acts. I quite like that. Comedy’s got a bit too big, and the idea that you’re bottom rung of the ladder on the bill is good. You stand in front of the curtain, while we set up for Take That behind you. That’s what we’re really here for, and you do a bit of a turn. I think there’s a good leveller in that. Comedians at the moment are massive, and that doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure why.

Did you get a sense of that on your last tour? Because you talk in your book about the escalation of the rooms you play, which dramatically shifted upwards on the Going Out tour?

There was a jump, yeah. But if you’re used to performing to 50, then the jump from 50 to 500 is a lot bigger than the jump from 500 to 3,000. It’s what you’re used to and what you’re now doing. All I do know is that there’s a lot of comedians talking about whether it’s right or wrong to do arenas. I’ve done arenas. I’ve not done my own arena tour, but I have performed in arenas, to 15,000 people. The truth of the matter is that it’s just not as fun. That’s really what it comes down to. If I’m going to be honest, the ones that are absolutely magical, more than any others, are the 200 seater art centres when you’re warming up. The 2,000 seaters are still good enough that you still want to do them.

Still, however much I enjoy doing 200 seaters, I quite like being at home with the kids, so you can’t have it both ways. If you did 200 seaters, you’d never be off the road. The balance for me is a large theatre rather than an arena.

You do say in the book that getting a laugh is much less important to you than most of the comedians you know. Yet with the sitcom, it seems much more crucial to you. You cite a line in Not Going Out where you say that if that doesn’t get a laugh, then the episode hasn’t worked. Is that a structural distinction for you?

It’s structural, but also, the idea of standing there and people laughing at me, I don’t live and breathe that. I’m not saying I don’t like it, but I’m more of a writer. So if I go on stage and find out that a joke works that I’ve written, it’s very exciting. If I do it 50 times, I know by the 20th time it’s going to work every night because it works every time. It’s a lot harder to write a joke than tell a joke. It’s the thrill of writing them.

I’m not saying that other comedians are needy people and I just don’t care about the laugh. I’m saying that there are some people that, if you took performing away from them, they would be hollow shells. It’s everything about what they exist for. I like it a lot, but I haven’t toured for two years, and that’s fine.

Are you planning another tour?

Yes. I’ve got a contractual obligation to do it, but I want to do it anyway! End of 2013, 2014. I’m going to start in January. I’ll wake up with a blank piece of paper on January 1st, and do that thing where I go around little clubs. That’s what I love doing. Writing this book has made me realise how good it was doing the circuit. I miss that.

Have you ever thought of turning Not Going Out into a stage show and taking that on tour?

Very much so. We’ve had long conversations about it, and we want to do it. It is going to happen. But I’ve just got to find time to write it and get the show together. I definitely want to do that at some point, because I know it works as a live show, because that’s how we do it every week.

We were going to do it this year, but the problem was with Tim leaving, we would have toured it possibly before the broadcast of the episode where he’s left. You have to get the audience used to the fact that he’s not in it before you tour it, otherwise they wonder when Tim’s turning up.

Is there anything else on your list of thing you’re going to do?

Not definite. I want to do a film at some point, but it’s a long way off. At the moment, I’m full with what I’m doing, which is I was writing a book and eight episodes of a sitcom… this year’s been the most amount of writing I’ve ever done. I thought I could write a book and a sitcom in one year, and it would be fairly alright, and it’s actually been a push. It’s been eight, nine months, and I’ve pushed it a bit far. What I’m doing now is record the series, then go out with a bit of scrap paper and get things together for a tour. Those are the only plans I have. At some point, vaguely, get this live Not Going Out together.

But then presumably, if the BBC call you up in March and say they want another series, you’re back where you were when you were doing the tour and the sitcom at the same time?

Yeah.

There’s a bit towards the end of the book, where you’re debating writing a second book. You said earlier that you’ve written a book now, and you know what it entails. Has that whetted your appetite at all to do it again?

When I finish any project, the last thing I want to do is start it again. At this moment, it hasn’t whetted my appetite, what it will do is make me probably realise that there are other ways of writing than doing a sitcom. I’ve written a book. But who knows? If the book is universally slated I may never want to do it again. It’s new territory for me. I know how good an episode of Not Going Out is. I know how good a joke is. I know how good my stand-up tours are. I’ve no idea how good this book is, genuinely.

When I did the first Not Going Out, suddenly I was expected to act. If I had been told I was the worst actor ever, it would not have come as a shock! And likewise, if I had won an Emmy for me performance – actually, that would have been a shock! You just don’t know where you are on the swing.

Then you start realising, like with Not Going Out, it’s passable, it’s not about acting, it’s about jokes. Maybe they’ll say the same about the book – as a stand-up comedian, it’s quite good.

What I have enjoyed is remembering starting out doing comedy. I’ve found lots of old memories, bits of posters, remembered people I used to work with. It just reminds me that when you start out in comedy is very exciting. Doing your first gig at The Comedy Store is as good as it gets. And to remember that, to write about my first visit there, these are exciting things. You realise what a great job you’ve got.

The question that I’ve been asked four, five times today is this: why are you doing this now. And it’s a hard question to answer. Why do you do anything? Why do you do stand-up? Why do you do a sitcom? But there’s something about a book that makes you go why now? Nobody said that about the sitcom. If I’m going to be honest, the reason why now is that I thought I might be able to do it well. That’s why. And so that’s why you have a go at doing it.

Lee Mack, thank you very much.

Mack The Life is out now in hardback.

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