Around 10 years ago Chris Addison had a spot to fill at a stand-up night. It was the launch of Political Animal, set up by his friends John Oliver (lately of The Daily Show) and Andy Zaltzman in London, and Addison felt like doing something a bit different. So he put on a linen suit and some wire-rimmed spectacles and took to the stage in character as Dr Tristan Hardy, a right-wing columnist with some bracing views on immigration to share.
In the audience that night was Armando Iannucci. "To this day it remains the only time he's ever seen me doing live comedy," says Addison. "And it's the only time I've ever done a character on stage. I think it stuck in his head." A year later, Addison appeared on Radio 4's News Quiz, produced at the time by Iannucci, who told him that he was thinking of writing a modern Yes, Prime Minister. A few months after that, Addison found himself in a room with his idols Peter Capaldi, Chris Langham and Iannucci on the first day of read-throughs for The Thick of It.
Addison played special adviser Ollie Reeder – or as Capaldi's spin doctor Malcolm Tucker liked to call him, Andy Pandy, the anorexic Leo Sayer or Christopher fucking Robin – over four whipsmart series of the BBC satire. An odd mix of geek, bighead and occasional lothario, cherubic curls and spectacles hiding a lily-livered core, he was one of the show's favourites. Still, if he wanders into Westminster, he is mobbed like one of One Direction at an airport. On the last election night he went to a BBC party and even got a sneer from Alastair Campbell. "He just said, 'Oh. It's you.' I've never met him in my life but that was his opening line. He's so prickly about The Thick of It. He'll say, 'Well, you know it's very unrealistic. I find it boring. Bo-ring'. Like a 14-year old.'" He giggles.
The Thick of It came to an end in 2012. Addison does not think it will return – "Maybe a special if some subject comes up that Arm feels particularly strongly about…" – but it continues to shape his career. He is just back from Baltimore where he directed three episodes of Veep for series three. He directed some of the last series of Iannucci's White House satire too. And now he is the star and co-creator of a new sitcom with Simon Blackwell, writer on The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep.
Trying Again is a romcom, but "a grown-up, non-fluffy, non-cosy" one, says Addison. "It's such an awful genre most of the time." Addison plays Matt, boyfriend of Meg (played by Jo Joyner, aka EastEnders' Tanya Branning); both are trying to move on from Meg's affair with her boss. "It doesn't fit the shape of what we normally see," says Addison. Elsewhere, romcom rules are broken by the setting – the Lake District, not London – the characters' jobs – she is a doctor's receptionist, he works in Kendal's tourist information centre – and regular, awkward therapy sessions. Think Him and Her but a little more grown-up, fraught and with more fresh air.
Addison is not an average romcom hero either. Before this, his only straight-ish role was in The Look of Love in which he played Tony Power, the sleazy editor of Men Only, opposite Steve Coogan's porn baron Paul Raymond. "It was SUCH fun to film," he grins. "Just a big laugh. We were drunk for pretty much the entire time." Don't they use Appletiser or something on set? "No, it was real champagne. We were phenomenally drunk." What about the clouds of cocaine? "We used stage cocaine. It's 100 per cent scientifically safe, but to this day I don't really know what was in it."
Trying Again was more challenging to film. "Playing Matt, there are lots of things I've never done as an actor. The Thick of It is not an emotional comedy, apart from the emotions of fear and anger," he says. On the whole, he is more at home improvising insults than pillow talk. "If you're a comic, you're always thinking, 'Where's the gag?' Ollie talked in jokes a lot because that was the only way I could respond. Playing Matt involved being quite open, playing aspects of being a person that I've never had to do before. My previous roles have been all very cartoony in their own ways."
Off-screen too, Addison is a bit of a cartoon. Today he is wearing a loud orange and turquoise lumberjack shirt with mustard and violet cuffs. He is tall, beanstalkishly so – as he puts it, he "looks like a child has done a collage with some Twiglets" – pink-cheeked, curly-haired and could pass for at least a decade younger than his 42 years. He talks very fast, and is quite camp. When he runs, he says, he looks like "four gay windmills".
Addison never particularly wanted to get into comedy. At Manchester Grammar School, and then at Birmingham University, where he studied English literature, he wanted to be a theatre director. After graduating, he was temping and unable to find theatre work, so started stand-up as "a creative outlet". It was a bold move, made bolder by his choice of the Frog and Bucket in Manchester for his first gig. It was 1995 and the city's comedy scene was on a high – Caroline Aherne, Steve Coogan, Craig Cash and John Thompson had all just broken through. "The first people through the door were Caroline Aherne and Peter Hook. I remember going up and doing five minutes to complete silence and Peter Hook just sitting with his chin on his hand, staring at me like I was a murderer. It was horrific, awful." Luckily, Dave Gorman was also there. "He introduced himself afterwards and said, 'There are some really nice jokes in there. This lot are shit. You should have another go.'"
It took him three months to try again, and then he was hooked. There is nothing in his family to suggest why this should be, although his mother went to drama school. "And my Dad's family are Jewish and comedy is a very Jewish thing so…" He spent a decade on the circuit, and was nominated for the Perrier Award in 2004 and 2005. His last tour was last year and he is not sure when he will find time to write another show. "Any comic will tell you the most terrifying bit is not the standing on stage. It's the beginning of the process with the blank page."
He still keeps his hand in thanks to Mock the Week. The panel show remains the thing that most people stop him on the street for. "Because it's on every night. Ev-ery. Night." What does he make of recent criticisms about its lack of female guests? "The kerfuffle?" he says, off-hand. Is the show really a macho zone? "I avoided doing it for years because it had the worst reputation. Awful. It reduced people to tears. I only did it because I was going back on tour and I had a lot of units to shift… And to my great surprise I enjoyed it. It isn't now the bear pit that once it was. It's very collaborative. Previously it was all about closing a subject down, having the final word. Bang bang bang." Does he think there might be too many panel shows on television? "Err. Well. Are they all thriving? If they are, it should be fine, shouldn't it? If there were too many, I think one or two wouldn't survive." Bang bang bang.
He is braced for criticism of Trying Again. "Very rarely do sitcoms get a good review straight off the bat." His first sitcom Lab Rats was cancelled after one series and reviews which ran the gamut from "not very funny" to "appalling". "I'm still very proud of it, actually. I'd love to remake it, there are so many things I'd do differently. It's absolutely full of jokes but doesn't have any emotion in it. I'd love to make a cartoon of it now." Of recent sitcoms, he likes Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Louie and children's shows, like Horrible Histories ("a fantastic sketch show that hasn't been scrutinised to death because it's for kids") and Phineas and Ferb. "There are far more interesting things happening in those sketch shows than there are in grown-up ones, for the most part."
That view might be coloured by his home life. He lives in Bromley with his wife, son and daughter, none of whom he uses as guinea pigs. "No. Never do that. It's bad enough being married to somebody in my job, you don't want to be making it worse." Do his children think he's funny? "Well, yeah, but the great thing I can do with my children, which I can't do with an audience, is tickle them. So I will always, always get the laugh."
'Trying Again' starts on Thursday at 9pm on Sky LivingReuse content