Sean Lock interview: Twitter, touring and Audience Battleships

As comedian Sean Lock’s latest tour, Lockipedia, arrives on DVD, we caught up with him to chat about stand-up, Twitter and Audience Battleships…

A regular fixture on such shows as Eight Out Of Ten Cats and Live At The Apollo, Sean Lock’s stand-up is sometimes dark, occasionally surreal and consistently funny. As his latest tour, Lockipedia, appears on DVD, we enjoyed a chat about writing, touring and his invention of something called Audience Battleships…

Lockipedia was recorded towards the end of your current tour, is that right?

Yeah. I’m still on tour now – I’ve got seven dates left – but it was recorded at the Hammersmith Apollo after my 60th gig or something. 

What is it about the Apollo that makes it such a common venue for stand-up comedy DVDs?

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There are two reasons. One, the West End is a pain in the arse. It’s all owned by Westminster Council, and logistically it’s a nightmare to organise. And it’s a big public space – it looks impressive, but it’s expensive to play in.

You have to play the West End for ages and ages before you can get a reputation and make any money. But at the Apollo, you can put on a show, and if it makes any money.

The Apollo’s a big venue, but you don’t have to have it rammed to the gunnels to play there. It’s a good venue.How does your material evolve over the course of a tour? Does it change very much from how you initially wrote it?

Yes. I spent most of last year writing it – I probably started writing in February 2009, I think. I started working on stuff, worked on it all year. And that winter I did a few small arts centres, small theatres, almost like a work-in-progress.

And it’s just constant polishing. I did my first show in Leicester, and it’s so different now from what it was back then. You slowly restructure the show, taking out bits of material that don’t work, and expanding other bits.

Without sounding like a wanker, it’s an organic – you see, now I’ve said that, I know I sound like a wanker. [Laughs] It’s an organic process.

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As the tour went on, did you find that certain parts of your routine worked better in some venues than others? Is that something you become conscious of as you’re touring around?

I wouldn’t say material works better. The big thing I have identified, now I’ve done a few big tours, is the venue. In a nice theatre, like all those old Victorian theatres, in a proper, theatre-shaped room, the gig is just so much easier. They’re designed for performance. They’re designed to make people feel like they’ve had a proper night out. When you sit down in them, they’re nice places to be.

Whereas, you go to some venues, which are these cobbled-together town halls that someone’s stuck a couple of chairs in, they’re hard to play. There’s not that sense of occasion, and they’re not designed for performance.

So I often find it’s the venue that decides how hard or easy the gig’s going to be. The time of the week and the time of the month – there are lots of other variable factors.

I’ve often thought that some of your material feels improvised – there’s a part in your new tour about birds tweeting abuse at one another, for example – are these sections as spur-of-the-moment as they appear?

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What that is, is a comic idea which I mess around with – some nights I do it one way, some nights I’ll do it differently. It can expand and it can contract. It’s not a set in stone joke, and some nights I won’t even do it.

I’ll make a judgement based on the audience. Some nights I’ll think, this bit’s not going to go that well. One of the skills of being a comedian is making something look fresh and alive like it’s just happened.

There are moments where that [improvisation] does happen, but also you’ve got to make people feel like it’s happening all the time. There would have been a night it happened, and you go, “That really worked, I’ll do that again”, and there’ll be other nights where it expands even more.

But that bit on the DVD, I’d done that before – I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to lie! That bit had been honed and shaped by the time it got there. But that’s all down to my skill. I’ll take the credit for it, even though it sounds shallow. And it’s all been done before. [Laughs]

One thing that is new, though, is your idea of audience Battleships. How did that come about?

Well it came about because I was writing lots of material for the show, and I was thinking to myself that it’s hard to constantly set up jokes, a reason to talk about something. I like there to be some kind of purpose.

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So I had this idea of getting the audience involved in a way that they would request stuff. I don’t like asking people where they’re from and what they do for a living – I didn’t seem to get anything particularly funny out of that, other than a really dull postcard about someone.

That’s where it came from. Originally, I thought I could do the whole show like that, where people would shout stuff out and I’d respond. But then I realised that I can’t control what people shout out. If they shout out “Titanium”, I’m fucked!

I realised what was good about it was the element of “How does he get out of this?” You put yourself in these ridiculous situations. It’s good to change the pace and tone of the show, and it’s good fun. I think people to get that.  

It almost becomes like escapology, really…

Yes, that’s what it is. It’s a bit of fun, and it gets people involved in the show in a new way. Sometimes I get lucky, and come up with some fresh bits and pieces from things people have shouted out, and other times it’s how I wriggle out of it.

But you couldn’t do it without the stand-up. I tried to do that at the very beginning, and I realise that it was really going to test people’s patience. You need the solid base of a stand-up show.

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I noticed on the extras that there’s an extended version of the Battleships segment, and there’s a real air of anarchy in the room. Is that quite hard to control?

It’s quite exciting. I like it. It’s harder in big rooms like that – it works better in the smaller theatres, since you can control it a lot easier. It’s never going to get completely out of hand, but when there’s people just shouting out anything they want, it’s usually something filthy!

Has there ever been a time on tour where you’ve become completely stuck on an audience member’s suggestion?

Oh yeah, loads of times. But I don’t really mind that. When I first started, I’d deconstruct stand-up as I was doing it, but I’ve stopped doing that because people didn’t really enjoy that. They didn’t enjoy having something they liked being ridiculed in front of them.

It was like I was ridiculing them. Like I was performing to the dressing room rather than to the audience. There’s that saying about playing to the gallery – I was playing to the dressing room. I was amusing myself. I was saying “Comedians – this is what they’re doing.”

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I stopped doing it, and concentrated on telling funny jokes. I’m glad I did that. I enjoy it a lot more, and there’s a more sincere relationship between me and my audience. But I’m still quite fascinated by the idea of finding out how funny people think I am. I’m quite fascinated by that.

I can come up with something quite funny sometimes, but I’m not always going to do that. I’m just like, “I’m going to mess up.”

I don’t think comedians should be so processed and so slick, and that they should have no chinks in their armour or flaws. Audiences generally like that you show that you are capable of being crap in places. Some nights it works, some nights it doesn’t work.

There’s this impression given by comedians that they’re impregnable, that they’re perfect, formed things, and that they can’t go wrong. That’s another thing that attracted me to doing it.  

There’s an element of that fallibility elsewhere, I thought. I liked the running joke you have, where you have these confrontations with people, and can’t think of anything witty to say until it’s too late. As you say, that’s not something that comedians necessarily do all that often.

Yeah – most of the time, you think of the funny stuff much later. Nearly always.Without getting too personal, how much of your set is as autobiographical as it sounds?  There’s the man in the car who you almost had a fight with – did he really exist?That’s absolutely true. I wasn’t actually carrying a carrier bag, I had my girlfriend’s bike, with a basket on the front, and I was walking across the road. It was a real ladies’ sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a basket, and he obviously thought, “I’m going to beat the shit out of this bloke.”

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I don’t say it in the piece because it sounds a bit too cocky, but I realised that if he was going to hit me, he’d have got out of the car straight away. And when I said, “It’s not mine, this bike”, I didn’t realise what a potentially provocative, confrontational thing it was to say. But he really did spit at me and drive off.

I think he was angry with himself because I’d kind of trumped him!

As a comedian, do you find yourself in real-life situations and automatically think, “This has to go in the routine. I’m in the middle of a sketch?”

Sadly, not often enough. I wish it happened a lot more, because then my job would be so easy. One of the sad things about being a successful comedian is that you lose your anonymity, and those moments in your life become shorter and more brief, because you don’t put yourself in those situations anymore. You’re recognised, you don’t go to pubs. You don’t do things where randomness occurs. So your source of material diminishes, definitely. You stop being the observer, and become the observed.

I would like that to happen more often, but I wouldn’t like to be threatened more often – if anyone’s reading this and thinking I want to be threatened more, I don’t!

If I may say so, your on-stage persona can appear quite bitter at times. In your latest tour, Twitter comes in for quite a dressing down…

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It’s one of the tools comedians have. I try not to be one particular type of comedian – I try to be foolish, and silly, and surreal, and quite angry and sarcastic and dry. There are certain types of stand-up, who are very successful, who do one type of joke, and never stray out of that. The audience knows that he’s the depressive comedian, he’s the up-beat, crazy comic. He’s the one that talks about real life.

I’ve always maintained that I’m quite hard to describe, and I’m proud that I can’t describe exactly what I do. I don’t want to be that type of comedian – I like the ability to do whatever feels right at the time.

So the fact that I take the piss out of Twitter – which is so ripe for the mockery and contempt levelled at it – it’s a good topic, because it’s so ludicrous. It’s a ludicrous inflation of vanity when connected with celebrities, and there’s enough inflation of vanity connected with celebrity as it is.

And it’s all pretty basic material that’s knocking around on there. I think I’m actually quite mild about Twitter. I used to go on about it a lot more, but the jokes that worked, worked so well that I took out the ones that didn’t. I used to go on about it for about ten minutes. It’s a weapon in  my comedy toolbox.But I think, also, that your demeanour on stage lets you get away with quite dark topics without actually being insulting.

Can you give me an example?There’s the routine about the IBS sufferers at the Olympics, which you could almost imagine small pockets of the audience reacting against, but it doesn’t come across as offensive or ill willed…

Yeah. I’m quite pleased by that. I’m glad you’ve noticed. It’s nice to talk to somebody who’s actually bothered to watch it! [Laughs]

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I think the reason I get away with it is because of the way I say it – I treat it as a celebration. I say, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome weightlifting!” like it’s a good idea. You often get away with things that are potentially very distressing and dark if you act like they’re a really good idea, and everyone involved will have a really good time.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but now you’ve asked me that question, I think that’s probably the reason why I get away with it.

But IBS isn’t that bad, is it? I’ve got a sister-in-law who has it. She probably won’t be very happy about it, but I don’t think I’m going to get attacked!

Do you think that’s a balancing act on stage, though? I remember Stewart Lee once saying that you can sometimes feel that you’ve divided the room on a certain topic, but that’s often quite exciting.

The thing about stand-up is the amount of assumptions you make about what’s going on in the audience’s mind. It’s a constant commentary of paranoia from the stand-up. All you’re doing is measuring all the time.

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I’m being very honest here, and I don’t know how many comics would admit to this, but we all do it. You’re guessing how it’s going down. It’s up to you how much you care whether it’s going down badly or not, but it’s never going down really well all the time, every second that you’re speaking.

Often you’re wrong, you misjudge it. You speak to someone afterwards and they say, “No, they loved it”, and I’ll say, “It was a bit quiet, wasn’t it?”

As a comedian, you’re making so many observations, so many measurements. You might catch someone’s eyes as you’re telling a joke, and they can have this sort of glazed expression on their face, and that can set all your dials off. You can misinterpret the sense of the room.

Then you speak to someone afterwards, and they’ll say, “No, it was great.” So it’s all how you’re measuring it in your head. It’s a very strange experience. It can take a while to talk yourself round.

Comedy’s the only artform where the appreciation can be measured. You can’t measure whether people are enjoying a song or a play, or darts, or film. You can’t measure it while it’s happening.

I realise I’m giving quite long answers, Ryan, sorry about that!

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It’s great! So what’s next for you, once these last few dates are finished?

I’ve got nothing in the diary, so I don’t know. Usually something comes about. I remember 10 years ago, when I decided to go out on this tour, in the December I had one day’s work for January, and my third son was due to be born. And I said to my wife, “I’ve only got one day’s work!” and I had a kid on the way. But then work started to come in, and I’m sure it will this time, too.

Is there any more TV work in the pipeline?

I don’t know. Eight Out Of Ten Cats might come back. I’ll probably do QI again. I need to sit down and decide whether I’m going to do another stand-up show or another TV show. I’ll take a few weeks off and make a decision about that.

I really like doing stand-up, because it gives you an immense amount of freedom. You haven’t got anyone telling you what to do. It’s great to have that much power over what you do. You don’t have that in television.

So I’ll make that decision in January, and decide what I’m going to do in the year. Then I’ve got an idea for a sitcom, but I don’t know if I want to go down that route, with all the hurdles involved. [Coughs] I’m also hoping I’ve gotten rid of this cold by then!

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Sean Lock, thank you very much.

Sean Lock’s new stand-up DVD, Lockipedia, is available now.

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