Mack's back | Lee Mack talks to Steve Bennett about the return of Not Going Out © BBC

Mack's back

Lee Mack talks to Steve Bennett about the return of Not Going Out

We may be living in tough financial times, but economic meltdown isn’t bad news for everyone. ‘Fingers crossed, it’ll be a long recession,’ says Lee Mack cheerily.

‘Comedy does well in slump,’ he argues. Or, more particularly, it’s the sort of upbeat, daft comedy in which he specialises. ‘In the economic climate of Seventies we had the likes of Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army, but in the booming Nineties we had more gloomy comedy. But if you’ve had a tough day at the office being depressed about your future, you don’t want to come home and watch a gloomy office on TV. You want an escape.’

That may prove a boon for his own sitcom, Not Going Out, which has just begun its third BBC One series in a peak-time Friday night slot. The show has bucked the trend for underplayed, realistic comedy in favour of the unfashionable formula of plenty of gags, a studio audience and convenient plots.

‘It’s no great secret that studio sitcom was considered dead when we started doing Not Going Out,’ Mack said. ‘It was definitely the industry belief. But we looked at what American comedies did, and tried to move it on.’

‘And I think it’s bonkers for a stand-up not to want to do studio-based sitcom. I’m not an actor, it’s not my forte, but delivering jokes to a live audience is.’

‘Mainstream’ is the adjective that inevitably attaches itself to the show, and indeed Mack himself. The 40-year-old former Pontins bluecoat is happy to accept it, but argues against the bad connotations, saying that popularity doesn’t have to mean compromising quality.

‘In this country we suffer from snobbery,’ he said. ‘Our mentality is that if too many people like it, we can’t be special. We want to feel as if we’re in a small select few, and that other people don’t like what we like because they’re not as clever as we are.

‘But in America, they have no concept of mainstream. Seinfeld was considered the best sitcom ever made and it had the biggest viewing figures.’

Ricky Gervais famously says that he would rather make a million people’s favourite TV show than ten million people’s tenth favourite show, reflecting a prevalent attitude for niche programmes among comedians.

But although he accepts that a show airing at 9.30pm on BBC One comes with certain expectations, Mack insists: ‘No one should be aiming to get 10 million viewers, or trying to please all the people. You shouldn’t aim for anything, or try to target any type of person. It shouldn’t matter – it should be what you think is funny. And what makes me laugh isn’t realism, even though, critically, it’s always seen as a positive

‘But comedy is the opposite of reality. If you went to an art gallery and complained that an abstract paining doesn’t look anything like a horse, you’d be called a heathen. So why is comedy the only art form where reality is considered so important?’

Despite its apparent unfashionability, Mack found getting Not Going Out on air easier than expected – and it was even originally planned as a BBC Two programme. ‘It wasn’t as hard a sell as we thought,’ he said. ‘Lucy Lumsden, the BBC’s commissioner, was a fan, and former BBC Two controller Roly Keating seemed keen on our sort stuff. It was harder to gain critical acceptability.’

But the programme was still a long time in the making, stemming from a sketch Mack first performed at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe alongside Catherine Tate and Dan Antopolski.

‘I did my first Edinburgh in ’98 and didn’t have a good time,’ Mack admits. ‘I was very new – I had only been going about two years – but because I’d been on Gas on Channel 4, I thought, “I’ve been on telly, I’ll be fine”.

‘I didn’t put much effort in, and found out the hard way that telly counts for very little. I had a bad month. So I thought next time I do this, I want people either side of me, so if I die, there’s people there with me.

‘We did a sketch show, including a five-minute show about me sharing a flat with Catherine as my girlfriend. We developed most of the items into ITV1’s Sketch Show, but that one I wanted to keep back.

‘We kept trying it out as a sitcom at places like the Latchmere Theatre, but we couldn’t get it right. We couldn’t solve the relationship, until we hit on the idea that we’re not going out.’

That – eventually – is where the title came from, thanks to co-writer Andrew Collins. ‘We tried a thousand names,’ Mack says. ‘But I thought Not Going Out was tempting fate since we were trying to get the show commissioned.

‘We’ve tried every possible way of writing: going to an office and sitting opposite Andrew Collins, and on my own with different writers. This time around I wrote some on my own, and some with another person. Plus we have fantastic joke writers to punch up the script.

‘It’s always intense, and you’ve got to do the work. An eight-part series takes eight months. I’ve children aged two and four and I’m often up before them. I can work from 7.30am to 10pm. I’m exaggerating slightly, but most days I work from 9.30am to 6pm. I never had a 9-to-5 job, but that’s what I do now.

‘I originally thought we might be able to do it the American way, with a team of writers, but there isn’t that industry here. In America, if you’re a stand-up you want to be a Hollywood star or write a sitcom. Here, if you want a co-writer, you’ve got to ask your mate if he doesn’t mind helping out if he isn’t doing Jongleurs. And there’s less money than the States. Writers here aren’t respected as much, nor paid as much.’

Not that Mack ever saw stand-up as simply a stepping stone to TV. ‘The downside of a sitcom is that stand-up suffers a lot,’ he said. ‘I really miss it. When you’re doing a club – especially a weekend at the Store – there’s a certain excitement . I love it

‘I’ve had to turn down more telly while doing the sitcom than when I was doing stand-up. There are things like Live At The Apollo you can do ,or you can put out your own DVD, which goes on to TV. [The panel show] Would I Lie To You? is different as there’s no preparation, so it’s not work. It’s like going to school and knowing you’ve got double PE and can slack off. I was even asked to do Celebrity Mastermind, but had to turn that down.’

And the specialist subject he would have chosen? Morecambe and Wise. Mainstream till the end.

Lee Mack's Not Going Out is on BBC One on Fridays at 9.30pm. A DVD of the second series was released today. >a href=''>Buy

Published: 2 Feb 2009

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