The Den Of Geek interview: Sean Lock

Our stand-up comedy week continues, as Sean Lock talks 15 Storeys High, Eight Out Of Ten Cats, his new stand-up DVD and the film he’s writing about comedians…

Mr Sean Lock

From the genius of 15 Storeys High, through to his acclaimed stand-up and his work as team caption on Eight Out Of Ten Cats, Sean Lock has emerged as one of the nation’s favourite comedy talents. As he launches his new stand-up DVD, he spared us some time for this chat…

I’ve been through the tour documentary on your DVD. You say on there something I’ve never heard a comedian say, that it’s very rare you ever get a tricky audience. What do you mean by that, and has that always been the case?

Yeah, generally. Clubs you can [find a tricky audience], because they don’t go to see a comedian, they go to spend a night out. But generally if people come and see shows, they want to come and see you. They want to have a good night out. So generally they’re pretty positive about the whole experience. Unless you’re absolutely chronic that night, you can only spoil it really.

And how do you go about building your shows?

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Sit down really. I’ve got ideas, and scribble down a few ideas. But I don’t really carry about a notebook around with me. I just sit down at a desk and write. And it’s hard. It’s a long, hard, tedious painful – no, not painful, that’s the wrong word. It is painful, but it’s just effort. You just have to sit down there and do it – that’s how I do it anyway.

Is it the hardest thing you write, stand-up?

It’s very hard. To write anything decent, it’s hard. Anything you want to be good is hard. The hardest thing to write is sitcom. 15 Storeys High is the hardest thing I’ve worked on. 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. To do a decent sitcom. To do a shit sitcom, you can do that without much effort, and there are plenty of those around. I’m sure they dash those out without any bother whatsoever. A decent one is very hard, and that’s why there aren’t many of them around.

And did the long hours of 15 Storeys High put you off doing another?

No, no. The way it was tossed away by the BBC really. I just thought you put in all that work and you’re at the mercy and whim of someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Did you feel any vindication when the show got such acclaim?

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Yeah, it’s a good show. To me it was always a good show. But it’s such a complex organisation, the BBC. It’s not that anyone’s to blame, it’s just how it works. If you’re a large organisation that makes so many shows, some stuff is going to get tossed by the wayside. It’s not just me, it’s quite a few shows. I mean I always knew it was a really good show, and what I really like is that it has another life on DVD, which is great. And it’s had as much interest on DVD as it had on television.

And it was a particularly unique type of show. We took a lot of risks with it. You can’t be resentful if they don’t pay off immediately.

Did you find it easier to develop it when you were doing the radio version, rather than the television?

I preferred it on television, I much preferred it on television. But it was a different type of show. That was a kind of light-ent audience show, but I thought it was a much better show on television. But some people like the radio show more. It’s more accessible, the radio show.

I’d imagine you could take more risks with the radio version?

Yes.

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Going back to your stand up, do you ever consider the size or type of audience you’re playing to when writing your material? When you know you’ve got a big tour coming up?

Unconsciously you do that, because whatever material you write, you try it out. And if it doesn’t work, you try it out a couple more times and then go, hmmm, that doesn’t work. I don’t know if that’s because of the size of the audience.

I don’t think it’s any secret that the bigger the venue, the subtlety and artfulness of comedy declines. I think that would be a fair observation. The larger the crowd you play to, you have to sell it in a much more sort of up front, route one kind of way. You are forced in that direction. That doesn’t mean it’s not as good, it’s a much more targeted job rather than a subtle rambling that you could have in an Edinburgh show. It does change it, but it doesn’t necessarily make it any worse, but it makes it very different.

Does the length of a tour have a part to play, in the era of 100+ venue tours? Those seem to have exploded in the last five to ten years…

They have, yeah. It’s like the property boom, it’s bound to go wrong! It’s bound to all collapse – they’ll be some hidden toxic nonsense somewhere and it’ll all fall apart. But yeah, it is ridiculous the amount of people who are on tour. When I went out on tour, I did 67 dates, and I’ve never done anything like that before. Because once you’ve written the show, and it’s going well, and you’re enjoying it, you think well why not carry on? But there seems to be a real boom in it at the moment. I don’t think it makes any difference though, the length. Not for me, anyway. It didn’t affect the material.

And is stand-up still your main love out of all the things that you do?

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Yeah really, I suppose. I did enjoy it, and I enjoyed the writing. I hadn’t done it for about three years. I enjoyed the creating of the show, and pottering around the country in Autumn. It’s a nice time of the year. It’s not a bad job, really.

Lots of stand-ups now don’t have support acts, and you did support for Baddiel and Newman when they were at the height of their powers. The modern stand-up comes to consciousness more it seems through the panel games. Do you think that’s an improvement, or that we need support acts back?

The reason support acts … I don’t take them for two or three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, is logistical. I’d have to take into consideration their thoughts, feelings, desires and needs while I’m on tour. Whereas when I’m on tour, I’m like a bounty hunter! I’m just cut loose, I can leave when I want, arrive when I want, go eat what I want, do what I want. It’s quite nice, that. Whereas if you’ve got someone else to take into consideration all the time, I quite like the freedom of it.

Second reason was the audience have paid to come and see me, and I’ve got hours of material, and might as well do it. And also, financial. I can pay someone to do a slot, and pay for their hotel, and travelling around. But I don’t really need to do that. You only have a support act if you think you’ve got a really strong hour and ten minutes, but you think you’d be short-selling the audience if you did them two hours of show. I think that’s why you did it.

You talk on the documentary about measuring signs of success. Firstly, is it a sign of success when you get a DVD menu with a smoking squirrel on the menu screen?

I think so, yeah! And I didn’t even ask for it! Someone just did it! The conversation comes up at the start of the show about ideas for the show, and someone just did it, it’s brilliant. I feel quite successful when someone does that for me, and sense that that’s what I require! Sniffing the air, going “I wonder what Sean wants?” So yes, I do definitely feel that.

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You also say that you’d rather be Wolves than Birmingham, specifically the words “Fuck Birmingham”! Apart from the fact that I’m a Birmingham fan, does your popularity in the scheme of things filter into your mind?

No, just a joke. The guy who was driving me, Mark, is an old friend of mine, a very old friend of mine, he’s a cab driver. And one of the nice things about the tour was that, other friends of mine did some driving but we filmed it over the week he was there, we spent a lot of time together. We’ve both got families, and so it’s an opportunity for us to hang around together. Have a laugh. I paid him to drive, and he’s great company.

I didn’t have a tour manager, and a lot of the gigs I drove to on my own, and did myself. I’m a very low maintenance act, really. So that was one of his jokes. He’s not from a showbiz world, so he’s always taking the piss. He’ll say something like, I think it was I was Wolves.

So no, I don’t think about it. You’d drive yourself crazy. “I think I’m Blackburn!” [laughs]

One follow up I did on that is there’s a web service called QDOS, which ranks people’s popularity. And it managed to gauge that you’re more popular than the man who directed Die Hard 2, Albert R Broccoli, which I thought was quite cool…

Currently, currently. But when the toxic stand-up boom passes…!

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You’re catching up Vince Vaughn too, I spotted.

Vince Vaughn? Am I catching up him?

Three places behind him, and improving month on month…!

[Laughs] I definitely won’t look there because that would send me mad every day. That would send me crazy!

Talking Eight Out Of Ten Cats for a minute, it just feels more ab-libbed than the majority of panel shows. It certainly comes across that way…

Good. I have battled for them to keep that in. I’ve really sort of campaigned for it, because I think that’s what people want to see on shows.

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What would happen in the edit was that they’d be tempted to put the prepared stuff in, because there is a certain amount of prepared stuff. If you’re doing a topical show, you have to write some stuff to start off. But the stuff that people really want to see is the stuff that comes off the back of that. And it takes time to include that in a show.

But over the years they have got a lot better at it, and I think the last series and this series they’ve really concentrated on that, and I think that’s what people want to see. It’s the most fun thing to do as well. And I think Jimmy’s good at it, Jason can do it, it’s really what the feature of the show should be. So I’m glad that people are noticing that.

You’ve hinted in the past that some of the guests can be quite hard work, and don’t always buy into that. It almost sounds like you’re left to carry them?

Well, yeah. Some guests take to the show, and go along with it, and don’t have an agenda. Other guests, I’m not slamming it, some guests have an agenda, there’s something they want to achieve by going on the show. Or something to avoid happening. So it is different. But the guests have been great actually mostly this series, a good selection of people on.

You’ve never got close to having the moment on Have I Got News For You when Ian Hislop was set next to Derek Hatton, and the two of them look miles apart.

There were people I didn’t get on with on the show, yeah. I won’t say who they were. You’ll have to watch the shows, and it’ll be clear. There are people who I’ve just lost it with. Not lost it with, but people who I’ve lost my will to work with. Mostly they’re fine.

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I read earlier this year that you were embarking on a movie script about a stand-up comedian?

It’s about stand-up comedy. I’ve been working on it for a while, but because I’ve been doing it for other things, I can’t finish it. It’s for Film Four, and I can do another big section of it this weekend now. I’ll go away for the weekend and work on it.

It’s still ongoing for the foreseeable future?

Yeah, I’ve got to finish a draft of it, and hand it into Film Four, and they’ll either say yes or you must be joking. But it’s going very well, yes.

It’s about stand-ups. I don’t think stand-ups have ever been accurately portrayed on screen, it’s always like some tortured, battered genius who has overcome terrible childhood or whatever, and has risen. It’s always that cliché. But comedians are far less dramatic than that, and I like comedians a lot. I’m very fond of comedians. They always display this really twisted, bitter old hack whose time has gone, or a sort of ruthless, young, ambitious arsehole. And those things exist, but they’re far more skilfully disguised. Nobody would actually wear that as their persona. They exist in people, they exist in all of us in varying degrees. And comedians are very good at disguising things, by the medium of humour. And they’re charming, witty people.

It’s a world that isn’t documented. I think one of the things I like in films is seeing someone they don’t normally see, seeing the world they don’t normally see. You know those documentaries on Channel Five about crabfish in the arctic? And you go “ah, right!” I want to do that, but with comedians.

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You talked about liking comedians. Are there any you’d go out of your way to get a ticket for yourself?

Yeah, yeah. I don’t go to a lot of comedy, but I love Harry, I’d always go and see Harry Hill. Frank Skinner, I really like Frank, he always makes me laugh. I like watching Bill Bailey, he’s very good. There’s always something different going on. So yeah, there’s a few! Ross, Ross always makes me a laugh. There’s a lot of good stand-ups now.

Just two more questions, then. You talk about Dragon’s Den in your gig – is it the biggest sham programme on television right now?

Sham? What, because of the credit crunch?

Yes, but also they have this knack of picking failures and rejecting successes.

Yeah, yeah. They don’t seem to make any money!

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They sit there with a pile of what is presumably plastic cash, with no intention of investing it.

Yeah, well he says it’s real! We had Theo Paphitis on the show, and he was quite good. He’s quite cocky, and very assured. I liked him, but they believe they have this acumen and this skill to spot something and make it into a huge success. Because they’ve done it in the past. But they might be spent like an old footballer with wobbly legs. I think there might be a touch of that going on. You’re Michael Owen, not Michael Owen 98, but Michael Owen in 2008. So there might be a touch of that.

And finally, what are you up to next? Presumably it’s finishing off your script?

Yeah, got to finish the script. Eight Out Of Ten Cats finishes in November, and then get this script done!

Sean Lock, thank you very much!

Sean Lock Live is out on DVD now.

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