'The studio sitcom is worth saving' | Lee Mack on why he loves the 'unfashionable' genre as Not Going Out celebrates 100 episodes © BBC/Avalon

'The studio sitcom is worth saving'

Lee Mack on why he loves the 'unfashionable' genre as Not Going Out celebrates 100 episodes

Lee Mack has launched a passionate defence of the traditional studio sitcom as his show Not Going Out celebrates its 100th episode. 

He says that despite a critical snobbishness to the genre, it holds a unique – and popular – place in British culture worth saving.

‘It's a very unique thing, the studio sitcom and I think it's worth protecting, it's important to keep it going,’ he said. 

‘It’s almost uniquely British thing. I know the Americans do it. But the way we do it is uniquely British, so I like the idea of trying to keep that going. 

‘But I'm also very lucky that it's very unfashionable, because no younger, up-and-coming comic is trying to take my place…’

Mack admits Not Going Out was never in fashion, starting soon after shows like The Office reinvented the sitcom genre with more realism and no studio audience.

‘Genuinely, the night before we made the pilot there was a documentary on ITV called The Sitcom Is Dead, all about how the studio sitcom is now in the past and will never happen again.  And I was like, "no one's told me this…"

‘When I was growing up, all comedy was studio sitcom. Anything that wasn't in the studio was called comedy-drama. It wasn't called sitcom. That changed around 2000 with The Office and the Royle Family… 

‘Another example is Cold Feet. If they made it now they would probably say it was a sitcom, when actually, it was very much a comedy-drama. 

‘For whatever reason, British studio sitcoms, in comparison to the American ones, were failing. That was the that was the impression by the industry and by critics. People wanted to get it right  and it wasn't quite working. 

‘So I just think they just said, "Let’s call it comedy-drama instead." To me, it's a bit like, if you can't get your cooker to work and your fridge is fine. So someone comes in and goes, "Why don't we just call the cooker in the fridge? And the fridge is working."’

The most common criticisms of  studio sitcoms are that they are dated, and that hearing the laughs of the audience is distracting – neither of which holds much water with Mack.

‘When some critics say and they often do, "do we still need to hear people laughing in the background?" I always think, "how do they cope when they're watching a play?" Are they constantly  going "shush, stop laughing at this comedy, I’m trying to watch this.’

‘That’s the joy of it! We’re filming a live theatrical event… I like the idea that you’re filming something that's happening on that night. And that's what I think is different.

‘I’m the first say we're not a realistic sitcom, the language is not realistic. So without the laugh, it just sounds odd, because all the characters are quite often knowingly telling a gag. To have that to absolute silence would be weird. You need that laugh constantly  for it to make sense.’

He said he agreed with a theory David Baddiel once voiced, that critics don't like audience laughter, ‘because it negates their job’. 

‘Because if the audience are laughing,  they can't tell you what you should and shouldn't find funny, because it’s already been done to that audience,’ Mack said.

‘Whereas with the single camera, more nuanced stuff, there can be an artistic decision made by the critic to say, "This is good, or this is bad." But if your job is to make them laugh, and they laugh, then what can the critic then say? 

‘It's also odd that the negative press tends to be not about the show, but about the genre. It’s often, you know, "Oh, isn't this type of sitcom from the Seventies?" which I find odd because if you ask people to list their favourite sitcoms ever, they're all from the Seventies: Fawlty, Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son.  

‘They’re basically saying this show is too much like all those brilliant shows. It's pretty odd thing.’

Not Going Out – whose 100th episode is a Christmas special – has its roots in live performance, too.

Speaking at a press screening of the episode, Mack said his first conception of the show came when he was having a terrible time at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997.

‘It was so bad, I remember  standing on stage thinking, "If I ever come back to Edinburgh, and I have a terrible show, I want someone stood next to me also going down in flames", he re calls

‘So I did a sketch show instead. I thought hat would be more fun. So I got together with Catherine Tate [and  Dan Antopolski].  There was a sketch set in a flat, that just grew and grew and ended up being a quarter if the whole show.  Then we used all the sketches on an ITV show called The Sketch Show. And that was how it started.

‘Catherine ended up being in the pilot. Then we got a different person for the first series [Megan Dodds] then Sally [Bretton] in the second series.

‘There are not many people that are so difficult to work with, like me, that you're on your third leading lady by the time you get to the second series.’

And after showing the audience a clip of the pilot on the giant cinema screen, Mack joked: ‘She's quite scary to work with, Catherine, but at 9ft 6in she's even more terrifying… I’m allowed to say that because she’s my mate, but she's phenomenally difficult.’

Mack also commented on the evolution of the comedy over its 13 series – making it the second-longest-running British sitcom in terms of number of seasons,  behind Last of the Summer Wine – from an edgy show about a feckless singleton to a family comedy about a couple with children.

List of top 5 longest-running sitcoms

’It's fair to say that in the first couple of series we pushed it a little bit more, he said. ‘There was an episode about cocaine, Barbara [Miranda Hart’s cleaner character] was swearing, we used the F-word without beeping it 

‘ But as the years have gone, we decided to make it much more family-friendly and cosy like this one [episode 100] about Santa Claus with cirrhosis of the liver!’

Many of the changes have been down to cast members moving on, including Hart, Tim Vine and Timothy West. ‘At the time, it was quite hard. But I realised now  it was actually a bit of a blessing because it meant that the show was constantly evolving and changing.’

A major change came after the first series, when Dodds quit as Kate, the love interest and landlady of Mack’s character, also called Lee. And it took a lot of effort to recast the role, with Bretton saying she was called back to audition around half a dozen times.

‘It was difficult because we knew that after the first series we had to get this right, because if you go to third series with another [co-star], it starts to look like I'm the difficult one,’ Mack joked. 

Tougher was the death of Bobby Ball, who played Lee’s dad, Frank, in 2020.

Lee with Bobby

‘My first recollection of doing any something that was remotely performance-based was on the roof by the  playground, doing an impression of Bobby to show off to the kids at school,’ he said.

‘When we were looking for someone to play my dad, I wanted a comic to do it rather than an actor. And Bobby, the second he walked in the door, was so much like my real dad it's unbelievable. 

‘When Bobby passed away it was Covid from nowhere, there was no planning for it, I just got the phone call. It was unbelievable, he's been so much part of my life.’

One thing, perhaps, that he wishes he could change is the title. ‘I can't lie I don’t think it's a great title,’ he said. ‘It's just odd: Not Going Out. It just doesn't really say what it's about. It sounds like some sort of obsessed cricketer - it doesn’t mean anything.’

‘The reason we called it Not Going Out because in the pilot, me and Catherine, we weren't going out. But in the live read-throughs [once it was commissioned] we were a couple. 

‘We kept trying this in front of an audience and we just couldn't get it to work. We even got a letter from somebody, 10 pages long, somebody who just watched the show, giving a detailed examination of why it wasn't working. It's the most middle-class heckle ever.

‘We got so fed up trying to get to it. We just said, "What if we're not going out?" Just abort this, we're not going out. And then we called it Not Going Out.

‘It was also about the fact that I was like you're on the dole so I never went out, but no one ever realised that.’

The show almost never made it to 100 episodes as it was cancelled after the third series. 

Mack says the timing was ‘perfect’ as  the internet was just starting out, which helped galvanise support. ‘Nowadays you get asked to sign some on a weekly basis, but it was quite unusual at the time and there was a bit of a campaign going to bring [us] back. So that helped, I think.’

Then, in 2017, the timeline jumped forward seven years to become the family sitcom it is now – and to reflect the real life of Mack and Bretton. 

‘I just thought it would be nice to just move it on.’ he said. ‘There’s only so long they can have a "will they / won't they" thing with the bloke sleeping on the sofa before it becomes a bit creepy because he's now 50. 

‘So we thought of maybe moving on and us getting  together. In fact, there was quite a few series where we would end with something  just in case we wanted to start the next series with a relationship

‘Then one year we just said, let's do it. And we did the jump. because I just thought I want to write about what I know – which is having  three kids’.

And will the show extend beyond 100 episodes?

Not Going Out 100th episode

‘Discussions are ongoing now,’ Mack says.  We will be back with you shortly with some more information one way or another.  I’d love to do more. I love doing it. It's great fun and I love the cast.  

‘But it’s not always my decision. You  just wait for someone to say, ‘Here’s a bag of money get on with it".’

• Not Going Out's 2023 Christmas special – and 100th episode – airs on  December 24  at 10pm on BBC One.

Thanks for reading. If you find Chortle’s coverage of the comedy scene useful or interesting, please consider supporting us with a monthly or one-off ko-fi donation.
Any money you contribute will directly fund more reviews, interviews and features – the sort of in-depth coverage that is increasingly difficult to fund from ever-squeezed advertising income, but which we think the UK’s vibrant comedy scene deserves.

Published: 12 Dec 2023

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.