ARTS / Show People: Different not Alternative: Lee Evans

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The Independent Culture
LEE EVANS is often compared to Norman Wisdom, or, failing that, Frank Spencer - hardly figures from the cutting edge of comedy, but that is to Evans's advantage. Long after the shouters-about-the-Tories have been consigned to the bin marked 'topical political comedians', Evans's approach - a beguiling mix of gymnastics and gags - will remain popular.

Snarling, down-with-Thatcher comedy now seems as passe as the lady herself, superseded by the sort of defiantly apolitical entertainment epitomised by Evans. On stage, he plays the role of a nave, nervy stand-up - shyly grinning, dopily blurting out 'My wife's fat' or 'My kinda town', miming frantically to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' - without a single reference to Virginia Bottomley.

Decidedly less dopey off stage, Evans reflects on the new trend: 'I'm not going to ram anything down anyone's throat. Comedy's getting more honest, in that people are doing what they think is funny instead of saying: 'Isn't John Major a bastard?' It was very easy to say to a white middle-class audience, 'What about Thatcher?', and get a reaction.'

Over the coming months, we are going to have ample opportunity to enjoy Evans's more timeless talents. On Friday, he starts a regular spot on Channel 4's stand-up showcase, Viva Cabaret; in the autumn, he has his own C4 series; and he is now shooting his first feature film, Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones, in which he plays Jerry Lewis's long-lost son.

Evans travels the circuit light, refreshingly free of ideological baggage. Spurning the arrogance of youth, the 28-year-old has nothing but respect for the veterans of comedy, the pro-celebrity golf wing. He has done the unthinkable and appeared on Des O'Connor Tonight. He had Bruce Forsyth on his C4 Christmas show and even expresses an admiration for Bob Monkhouse. 'These guys are not 'pay your rent' comedians, they don't just do a load of old gags that they've heard down the pub.'

Evans knows all about 'pay your rent' comedians - he used to be one himself. His father was - still is - a nomadic musical performer (sax, piano, clarinet) on the working- men's-club circuit, and because he didn't know anything different, Evans followed him. The cabaret circuit was preferable, however, to some of the jobs Evans did between leaving the last of his 12 schools at 16 and settling with his wife in Southend - laying rubber sheeting on the bottom of a reservoir in Barrow-in-Furness, welding cars together in an Essex Matchbox factory, working in a pub in Scarborough.

This doesn't mean that Evans, with his subtle, cumulative brand of comedy, had it easy on the circuit. In Brighton, he was spat at and had a fire-extinguisher chucked at him. And then there was Liverpool: 'I was doing some observational stuff and a bloke stood up and said, (dons an impeccable Scouse accent) 'You've got no punchlines, mate.' 'Do I need a punchline?' I replied. 'You do if we're gonna laugh . . .' Then he and about 20 mates stormed the stage.'

Evans got on no better with his fellow club-comedians, who cold-shouldered him for trying out a new type of material. The triumphant opening to his live show - the stand-up cretinously following the instructions on comedy walks and cheeky waves from a How to be a Comic LP - is 'having a go at those blokes. Their gags were old, the people were old, and there was no conveyor-belt of new stuff coming in. And they wonder why the clubs closed. Every comic I saw had that Kevin Keegan haircut, the little 'tache and a golfing hat. You might as well go and find a normal job, because you're not creating. There's a way forward by not relying on the old cliches.'

Evans saw the way forward and it was called the Comedy Store. 'They were doing stuff off the top of their heads. I thought: 'What they're doing is what I've been trying to do for four years.' So in 1989 I did an open spot and they offered me six months' work there and then.'

During this period, he developed his trademark verbal and physical acrobatics. He also honed the nave persona - a sort of comic defence-mechanism - which has led some to dub him, unfairly, a one-joke wonder. 'I really wanted to be slick - I used to wear a suit just to be slick. But the suit got a bit ragged, and I got faster and faster, and I became an exaggeration of myself.' Thus a wicked self-parody was born. In dreamier moments, Evans still hankers after slickness: 'I'd love to be Jack Dee - he's brilliant.' Evans even spent some of his pounds 3,000 winnings from last year's Perrier Award on a Dee-ish suit.

The man's a workaholic. Last year he went straight from Edinburgh to a 40-date, three-month tour of college venues. It's not a gentle act, either: he expends so much energy under the lights, he carries a towel on stage. Within 30 seconds of his appearance on Viva Cabaret, he's sweating.

He pushes himself hard off stage, too. 'If I go out, the guilt is incredible. If there's a spare hour, I'll be at my desk at home working.' He researches at the local library - he studied books on body language for his LP routine - and always carries a notebook, which he flourishes under my nose. 'This is what I call my Bible. I write all my sketches out in full.'

Comedy is a bit like police work: you're never really off duty. 'At a show, other people just go: 'Ho Ho Ho'. But you're thinking: 'How did he get that idea? Was it a reverse, or a non sequitur?' It's sad, really, because you don't see anything as funny anymore.'

In this as in everything, Evans is something of a neurotic. He is even dubious about his own star quality. 'It's best to do what you can in the short time that you're there, because you don't last.'

As he left me with a comedy walk and a cheeky wave, I couldn't believe he'd be right.

'Viva Cabaret' begins at 10.30pm this Friday, Channel 4, and runs for 6 weeks.

(Photograph omitted)