Sean Lock: "I see myself less of a standup, more of a comedian"
With his new tour about to launch at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, Sean Lock talks about the good old days of comedy and how hard it is to escape QI
Sean Lock used to do a gag where he’d suddenly announce, “I am in fact... The Riddler!” and rip open his shirt to reveal he had been wearing a Riddler costume for the whole gig.
He is something of a riddle himself these days. Comedy is currently gripped by an art versus commerce debate, with your Stewart Lees on one side and your Michael McIntyres on the other, each team furiously debating what constitutes good standup. Everyone in comedy seems to have picked a side except Lock, who manages to be weird and original while doing the panel shows and the big arena tours. So how does he do it?
“The only way to do this job well,” he says, “is to do stuff you want to do, and that’s up to you. I’m nearly 50 and I know who I am. I don’t have to worry about what kind of image I want to put across, I just do what I want to do and it seems to work.
“There are certain types of comedians and you say ‘he’s the zany guy, he’s the angry guy’ and I don’t really fall into any of those categories. That’s probably why I’m stuck driving this purple van round.”
He’s lying about the van. It’s the title of his new tour, Purple Van Man, which kicks off at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival this month. The show, he promises, is going to be heavy on jokes and low on moaning. “I don’t really talk about my real life in the show much, like ‘wurgh, I’m turning 50, I make noises when I bend down’ and stuff like that. It’s very joke-orientated. I see myself less of a standup, more of a comedian.”
What’s the difference?
“Standups have an agenda, stuff they want to talk about, it’s like ‘yeah, let’s hear my opinion on this.’ I’ll always sacrifice a good point if it doesn’t get a laugh.”
Lock has been at the heart of the debate on money in comedy since it began. He appeared on stage with Newman and Baddiel when they played Wembley Arena, and is widely believed to have opened for them, which would make him the first British comedian to play a stadium.
He still finds this hilarious. “What I like about it is that it pisses David Baddiel off. I didn’t go on first no. But I did, apparently. History is written and it can’t be changed. I really like Dave, we get on well, but I do find it funny that this big achievement in his life is stained by this lie about me. People say to him ‘Oh, so you were the second comedian to play Wembley?’”
So he’s the Buzz Aldrin of comedy?
“Yeah, and I’m Neil Armstrong.”
"About two or three years ago I was on Dave all the fucking time" – Sean Lock
Lock has a lengthy CV of telly appearances that demonstrates his range: from the much-loved, short-lived sitcom 15 Storeys High to his own crack at the panel show format, TV Heaven, Telly Hell. The latter was a great example of what happens when you strip away the horrible gameshow elements and just let the funny people do their own thing, but disappeared after two seasons. “What happens is things just don’t get recommissioned,” he says. “It’s not like you say ‘I must follow my muse in a different direction.’ People just say, ‘yeah, that’s enough’ and you say ‘alright then’.”
The rise of the panel show over the last few years has elevated him to the status of household name, although he’s beginning to cut back on those. He’s stopped appearing on QI, “but it’s repeated so bloody often that nobody’s realised yet.
“There’s a point where you think you’re on telly too much. About two or three years ago I was on Dave all the fucking time. People do get sick of you, there is a danger of saturation. I’m happy with the situation now where I do Eight Out Of Ten Cats and nothing else.”
The idea of playing live seems to excite him a lot more than expanding his TV profile and he laughs when he talks about the last time he played Glasgow, when a game of Audience Battleships ended with him having to improvise a lecture on Vitamin B12 (long story). That’s maybe the key to understanding Sean Lock: he's got such a focus on making people laugh that the format doesn't really matter to him, nor do any of the discussions apply to him.
He’s certainly not keen on jumping into the conversation about what comedy should or shouldn’t be. “I don’t get embroiled in any media debates about ‘this comedian said this,’” he says. “I like the old-style way where you’d have Tom O’Connor on, say, Des O’Connor’s show and he’d be like ‘as my mate Freddie Starr said to me...’
“And you know they probably fucking hated each other but they want the public to believe that they’re great mates and they all live together in this zany comedy theme park. You never heard Ronnie Corbett moaning about other comics. It’s a degree of professionalism I quite like. Although in saying that I am criticising other comics.”
But things are the way they are. How did it get to the point where the telly comics and the arts centre comics ended up hating each other so much?
“There’s a generation of comedians who didn’t realise how popular comedy was,” Lock says. “There’s this whole different audience and people are going to create the comedy they want to see. Young people are going to want to see young comedians, people who represent them on stage. Some people will want to see comedians who talk about things in their lives that they can relate to.
"The audiences in standup became so big, so suddenly, I think it took a lot of people by surprise. They jumped to these conclusions that people were somehow being... manipulated into laughing, just because they didn’t find it funny.
“I think the huge success of it confused a lot of people. Comedy is an experience people really enjoy. They go to a show, see a comedian, they have a really good laugh and enjoy their night. Why wouldn’t that be popular?’
Actually, when put like that it does sound pretty obvious.
He laughs. “Maybe I should get involved in these debates. Everyone could just go ‘oh god yeah’ and give each other a hug and go to the pub.”