There's something about Lee Evans

Lee Evans has made a film with Cameron Diaz. But he won't watch it.

Lee Evans's manager is trying to persuade him to join us at the local multiplex in downtown Montreal for an afternoon screening of There's Something About Mary, a new Hollywood comedy starring Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon and, er, Lee Evans. "It's embarrassing," mumbles the comedian and actor, before promising to meet us there. We wait for him in the foyer - in vain. Later he mutters something about not being able to find the cinema. Yeah, right.

That winning, very British sense of embarrassment is Evans all over. Whether spectactularly failing to get the girl in There's Something About Mary or accidently-on-purpose walking into the mic-stand on stage, his whole persona is based on nervy, yet charming incompetence. He might as well have "LOSER" branded on his forehead. He has turned the (deliberate) cock-up into an artform. His schtick is that he'd rather be anywhere than up there performing in front of thousands of punters. In conversation he refers to himself as "an idiot."

And that's why people warm to him. They can identify with his portrayal of a person constantly at two with the world - the man who disastrously misuses a French "hole in the ground" lavatory or who is baffled by hotels: "I opened the wardrobe and there was a pillow and a blanket. That was the worst night's sleep I've ever had." He closed his recent show at the Montreal Comedy Festival with a song about how he messed up a suicide attempt: "I tried cutting my wrists. I tried, but I missed." Failure has made Evans a roaring success.

He now has the pulling-power - matched in comedy by perhaps only Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly - to fill a London West End theatre for 10 weeks. That is to say nothing of a burgeoning movie career which includes the acclaimed tale of fading end-of-the-pier performers, Funny Bones, the zany box-office hit comedy, Mouse Hunt, and the culty futuristic Luc Besson picture, The Fifth Element.

In There's Something About Mary, Evans tones down his clowning to deliver an impressive performance as a tweedy English academic who is trying to woo the delectable Diaz. Made by the wonderfully daft Farrelly Brothers (responsible for Dumb and Dumber and King Pin), this is a film that taste forgot. I won't tell you what happens when one of the characters zips up his flies too quickly - you might be eating. But if you're prepared to check in your PC sensibilities at the cloakroom, you'll find Mary a belly-laughs, no-brainer romp. It's also a showcase for Evans's growing talents as a character actor.

He went down a storm in Montreal, too. He puts so much into every show you almost fear for his health. You look on in awe as he hurls himself into acting out everything from a drunk trying to urinate to the last item of luggage left on the carousel: "Don't leave me here, I don't know anybody." Towelling himself down on stage, he remarked at one point: "If I went to the toilet now, I'd pass steam."

At the curtain-call, the whole front row insisted on shaking his hand: "What I'd like to do now is shag you all," he exulted. But as soon as the show was over, he dashed for the haven of his dressing-room and just sat there quietly with his shirt off, cascading sweat and puffing out his cheeks.

The next day was less frantic. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and blue jeans, Evans unwound by improvising some show-tunes on the grand piano in the corner of a conference-room at the hotel. A bit later, putting his feet up on the sofa, he shook his head and said: "I'm just not built for schmoozing. In England, we're brought up to think 'don't get too big for your boots'. We prize modesty. I'd never fly into Heathrow and say, 'Out of my way, don't you know who I am?' They'd fill you in on the spot in Immigration. They wouldn't stamp your passport, they'd stamp your chin."

Evans, now in his mid thirties, has always been spurred by a desire to prove himself. In the late 1970s, after school in Southend (where he still lives with his wife and young daughter), he followed his musician father onto the working men's club circuit. He admits that his innovative comedy was not always a hit with audiences expecting mother-in-law gags. "That's when I started doing physical comedy, because then you're like a moving target."

On one notorious occasion he didn't move fast enough. "I was beaten up in Cardiff. These six guys tried to steal me car after the show because I was so bad. But the steering lock was on so it just went round in circles."

For a while in the mid 1980s, Evans was a comedian in search of an audience. "I was wearing a glittery suit and performing on a circuit where everyone was doing traditional stuff: 'The wife's fat' - the wife was always fat. I remember doing the West Ham Working Men's Club one night and I died on me arse. Someone said to me afterwards, 'What you're doing isn't going to work here, but there is a place where it will - the Comedy Store.' At last I'd found somewhere you were allowed to say what you liked, rather than all that racist, sexist crap they wanted in working men's clubs." An appearance on Friday Night Live soon followed, and Evans never had to worry about lairy punters in car parks again.

For all that, he still manifests what psychologists would no doubt label Classic Neurotic Comedian's Syndrome: he's a man who can't quite believe his own popularity. "I'm motivated by fear of failure. It's a personal mission to say to all those people from years ago, 'Look, I'm seriously not a failure.'

"Stand-up is therapy. I'm sure every comedian has something wrong with them. The Montreal Comedy Festival is just a massive therapy session. Every day you get bouts of depression and think it's not working. If it's going well, you go, 'Yeah? Why?' You're never pleased. That's why you're a comedian."

It would be wrong to get the impression from all this that Evans is a morose, depressive, Hancock-esque figure. Hitting you with a devastating right-left combination of patter and gags, this former boxer makes for invigorating company. He's just driven - as all the best performers are - by a nagging sense of insecurity and a restless urge to improve.

He isn't, for instance, relishing the prospect of a West End run: "It fills your pants, but you've got to keep challenging yourself." That's one reason why he is keen to develop his acting; he's reading up to a dozen scripts a month.

"It's best to have a few strings to your bow. That's what Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rik Mayall have all done. I wouldn't want to be one of those 50-year-old guys still going 'Wa-hey' and dancing on pianos in a crappy suit and a shirt with big collars - 'Well, he was all right till he fell down and couldn't get back up again.' It's not a very good gig when the audience have to rush on stage to help you up." That gig is some way off, you feel.

Edinburgh Playhouse (0131 557 2590), 4 & 5 Sept; Apollo, W1 (0171 494 5586), 14 Sept-21 Nov. There's Something About Mary is released on 25 Sept.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?