Funnier on his feet

On television he's snide and sulky. Live, he's all smiles. So says James Rampton. Will the real Mark Lamarr please stand up?
Mark Lamarr, you think, I know that guy. He's "TV's Mr Misery", either sitting there glumly as a team captain on Shooting Stars, Reeves and Mortimer's spoof panel game, as Vic and Bob hurl insults about "the Fifties throwback" at him, or putting down the guests as the sarky host of the laddish pop quiz, Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Yes, that's him, the bloke with the quiff who would rather forswear Brylcreem than crack a smile.

Well, actually, there is rather more to Lamarr than that. He's not just a shallow combination of scowls and sulks. Beyond the miserablist, "bad- attitude" TV persona, he's one of the country's most profilic and - would you believe it? - likeable stand-ups. Through his quickfire wit and dazzling banter, he builds up an unmistakably friendly rapport with an audience. "Lamarr smiles" may not be quite on a par with "Garbo speaks" as a revelation, but it's up there.

Peter Fincham, the executive producer of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, had just such a Damascene conversion when he first saw Lamarr live. "On the face of it, Mark seems quite an edgy guy," he admits. "But live, he has this underlying warmth that surprises you. He is very sharp, but he's also warm. On things like The Word, he had a lot of attitude, but now you feel there is something else going on - which is endearing. People might have thought he was someone you couldn't take home for tea with your mum, but in fact your mum might like him. He won't thank me for saying that," Fincham adds with a laugh.

Lamarr is a similarly amiable interview: alert, intelligent and, yes, outright smiley from time to time. A Diet Coke in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other, he sits upstairs in a dingy north London comedy club - where else? - and ponders his image. Quite rightly, he gets slightly fed up with people who place him in a box marked "misery-guts." "People come up to me and say, 'You're so miserable, you must hate Vic and Bob.' Give me strength. I have to say to them, 'I'm acting, and it's a comedy show.' For them to miss one of the two jokes on offer in the whole programme is sad."

He is hopeful that people will get a more rounded picture of him with the forthcoming release of his first stand-up video, Mark Lamarr - Uncensored and Live. For a start, it demonstrates that he is as quick on his feet as Linford Christie. Early on, he spots an audience member in a brace and asks him what he's done. The man replies that he's broken his back and is not allowed to laugh. "Of course, you're not allowed to laugh - you've come to the right show, then," Lamarr retorts. "That's already the worst review I've ever had. You thought, 'I could have sat in tonight watching videos of Les Dennis, but I'm not allowed to laugh too much, so I thought I'd come and watch you instead and sit in the front row'."

Lamarr feeds off his audience, and likes to go on with as little as possible pre-scripted. "Every night there'll be something different happening," he says. "I hate watching those 'fourth-wall' comedians who do a monologue and then leave. That's treating the audience with contempt. I can do two-hour shows with no ad libs, but I don't go up there to say, 'here's some stuff I prepared earlier'."

The other previously unseen aspect of Lamarr showcased on the video is his breathtaking blueness. One routine about the poses the Queen should strike on banknotes would even make Roy "Chubby" Brown blush. Later, Lamarr espies a beetle crawling towards the edge of the stage, and instantly imagines it to be passing judgement on the gags he is telling about women's periods. "I feel he's really bored with the show," the comedian surmises. "It's like he's saying, 'I'm not into all this menstrual stuff'."

Apart from the insect variety, however, Lamarr is not afraid of critics. "If you're worried about people complaining, then become a Trappist monk," he snorts dismissively. "Though people complain about them, too."

Turned out in a brown leather jacket over a Yankees baseball shirt, Lamarr is full of such forthright opinions, particularly when asked to comment on other stand-ups. "I despise the have-you-ever-noticed? type of humour," he sighs. "Audiences might as well sit at home and watch The Sound of Music. It's the lowest form of comedy. Stand-up should be about making people think of things they've never thought of before ... I'm not a love-me, love-me comedian," he continues. "I think we should have moved on from being court jesters and wearing silly hats. If you're just there as a buffoon, then you've given up all self-respect. Who was the philosopher who said 85 per cent of everything is dreck? That's a golden rule."

Lamarr can seem arrogant - he's certainly opinionated - but what he never is is dull. And, he says, it is stand-up that keeps him on his toes. "There's nothing like it," he affirms. "Every comedian says it and it always sounds shit, but it's that drug. It's not the fame or the money or the adulation. It's that personal thrill of when you're caught out and think, 'where do I go now?', and then suddenly come up with something. People say that in your everyday life, you only use a third of your brain. When I'm on stage, I use bits I never knew I had. "

"Nick Hancock asked me recently why I still went around the country doing gigs. It's what I do. I love it. I even loved it when I hitchhiked, and got 10 quid for dying on my arse. All television is fun, and it earns me a fortune. But I'm not a TV presenter; I'd top myself immediately if I ever thought I'd become one."

'Mark Lamarr - Uncensored and Live' (18) is out on 17 Nov.