As a comedian, Lee Mack has the lot: a successful sitcom, panel show, sketch show, a stand-up career spanning nearly two decades and, now, an excellent autobiography Mack The Life all under his belt. On top of that, he’s very, very funny indeed. As in laugh-out-loud, makes-you-guffaw-without-trying funny.
So when Mack selects his five favourite comedians ever, it’s worth taking note; this is a man who is not only imbued with comedy – naturally funny bones to complement the hard work – but also has a deep understanding and respect for the medium’s rich history.
“These aren’t in order, are they?” asks Mack. No, they’re not. So, without further ado, here are Lee Mack’s top five favourite comedians:
1. Johnny Vegas
He is my favourite live stand-up performer. I saw him in Edinburgh in the Nineties. No one had heard of him – it was when he started doing the potter’s wheel. I’d met Johnny and I’d gigged with him a couple of times, but never seen him do a full show. It really was fantastic. I didn’t believe anyone could be that funny over one hour.
Probably my most memorable night in comedy was a night out with Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas in Dublin. Johnny and I were absolutely pissed, and Ross doesn’t drink. I’ve never laughed so much – we laughed all night. For years after, Ross and I would talk about “That magical night in Dublin.” Then years later I bumped into Johnny and said, “Remember that memorable night in Dublin?” He went: “What night?” He had no recollection. He couldn’t care less.
Johnny used to tell a story about his pet rabbit dying and his dad making him eat it. I don’t know if it’s true, but if it came to a choice where you either had to be that funny because your dad had made you eat your rabbit, I’d rather be not that funny [pause] and have a pet.
2. Frank Skinner
Frank is the epitome of straight stand-up. No gimmicks. No fashion. You’re not buying into anything. It’s as good a stand-up as you’ll see.
When I was thinking about signing for my management company (Avalon), they gave me two tickets to see Frank Skinner (also with Avalon). So the wife and I drove to Oxford to watch him. It was brilliant. He talks to people on the back row as if they’re next to him; he makes the room feel really small. He seems so unnerved. Him and Ross Noble are the same: no fear. They can do anything. I remember talking to Ross about the Ricky Gervais gig at the Diana Memorial – the Wembley gig that went a bit wrong. When they said, “Elton John isn’t ready,” I felt for Ricky Gervais, but Ross said, “I’d have loved it.” I wouldn’t. I’d have hated it.
Frank’s second book (On The Road) inspired me to put the psychiatrist stuff in mine (each chapter of Mack The Life is followed by an exchange between Mack and a psychiatrist). Frank’s book is so revealing and I felt mine wasn’t revealing enough, so I put that in. It’s funny how many people have asked if it’s real. I wrote in the front: “This is all genuine,” for that reason. It’s true.
3. Stan Laurel
Talk about people standing the test of time – we’re getting on for 100 years and it’s still funny. I’ve always been fascinated by him. Take the voice: he’s got a weird American and Lancastrian accent, and a bit of Cumbrian. I went to the Laurel & Hardy Museum in Ulverston in Cumbria. It’s one of the craziest museums you can go to: it’s a pound to get in, there’s bits of old paper on the floor, it’s a mess. They had nothing in that belonged to Stan Laurel; they had a bowler hat that said: “This is the kind of hat that Stan would have worn.” And an old chair: “He might have sat in this when he was a child.”
I’m from near where he’s from: Ulverston. I saw a documentary about them coming over here, when they did a tour of Britain. People were lining the streets – it was unbelievable. There’s surviving footage of them doing an act on stage, and then you’d then see them walking down the street being mobbed. There was no television then, so Laurel & Hardy were film stars. It was such an amazing time, because moving images were all so new.
Stan actually went over to America with Charlie Chaplin on the boat [from England]. He then bumped into Oliver Hardy; Stan was the writer, while Ollie was on the golf course; Stan was the brains. Because of the character you’d assume it was Ollie.
There’s footage of them on This Is Your Life, which originally was an American show. It’s sad in a way, because Stan was so old. “Do you recognise this voice?” And he didn’t. Then they’d say, “It’s Alice Smith!” And he still didn’t. Then she walked on. And he still didn’t.
4. Eric Morecambe
Morecambe & Wise spent years and years touring before they did television. They were together for so long, then did a TV show in the fifties that was a disaster (Running Wild), which led to that famous newspaper quote: “Definition of the week: TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.” Eric Morecambe had done that thing that I did years later: when you work in television, there’s an assumption that people you’re working with know more than you. When you start working in telly you think, “What do I know about making television?”
Then the next time they did it (with the phenomenally successful The Morecambe & Wise Show on BBC1), Eric and Ernie said we’ll do exactly what we did on the tour: even with the orange curtain behind them. They recreated everything they did live. That’s why Live At The Apollo started working: do it as a gig and let them film it. Get it out of the studio. Trust that you know more than them because you’re a comedian. Trust your gut reaction. Do it the way you think is funny.
I’ve always loved Morecambe & Wise. I’m aware of ‘fashion’ in comedy. Comedy never used to be in fashion – it was outside of fashion. Before alternative comedy, comedy had nothing to do with fashion, any more than food was in fashion. In the Seventies, food was there to keep you alive. Now it’s a lifestyle choice, there’s TV shows and you buy books. What happened? The likes of Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise – they were never in fashion.
5. Ben Elton
Everyone has a problem with Ben Elton, so I’m going to big him up. He is unfairly derided. He has done fantastic stand-up, wrote a fantastic sitcom in The Young Ones and, of course, Blackadder and he was the host of Friday Night Live, making him one of the purveyors of alternative comedy. If you’ve done those things, you could go on to be a serial killer and I’ll still like you because you’ve done enough to warrant respect.
He was then seen to have done something which appealed to a lot of people: a musical. I have to hold my hands up, I was in a theatre one night doing something else, and I popped my head round the corner and it wasn’t my cup of tea because I don’t like musicals. But to then say, “You sell out,” I just think you’re an idiot. The complaint is: leftie comedian is now part of the establishment, meaning he wasn’t really a leftie, it was all an act. I don’t care if that’s not true any more than I do finding out that Bernard Manning’s mother-in-law was of normal weight. I never assumed she was really fat because I’m not an idiot. I didn’t believe, “Oooh, Ben Elton’s really angry about Thatcher.” If you believed that, you’re an idiot. It was an act, a joke, it was funny. You might have believed it on some level, but I wasn’t looking to him for politics. I don’t look to comedians for politics, which is why I don’t like comedians going on Question Time: stick to your job.
Mack The Life is out now in both hardback and on e-reader
(Image: Rex Features)