As he queued up to enter the US, Lee Evans had all the comedy baggage he needed to declare: a laughable carrier-bag and his talent. However, history was against his carrying out his aim of Making It in the States. The list of British stand-ups coming to America and hitting the big time is short; indeed, more Limeys have made it in American football than in stand-up comedy. It's been one-way traffic in recent years, as we have taken to our hearts such US stand-ups as Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jackie Mason and, surfing in on the Whose Line Is It Anyway? wave, Mike McShane and Greg Proops.
In return we've given the Americans Billy Connolly and, er, that's it. Even Connolly, after a spell in a US sitcom, now appears more comfortable here at home with his very British jokes about the weather. Others, such as Victoria Wood, have balked at spending the vast amounts of time in the US needed to build up enough observational material to play well over there. As he shuffled towards the passport desk at JFK, Lee Evans was trying to buck the trend.
Any walk around Manhattan is a Kook's Tour. All around, the abnormal is the norm. A nutter patrols the streets sandwiched between two boards proclaiming: "I like pizza, popcorn and gum". A woman in a floral dress walks down 42nd Street belting out an aria from Wagner at the top of her voice - and no one takes a blind bit of notice of her. A beggar with a placard saying he is HIV positive sits outside the disgustingly ornate gold-coloured atrium of Trump Tower. A rollerblader screeches with delight as he hitches a ride on the back of a lorry speeding down 57th Street. It's the sort of place where any comedian should feel right at home.
Lee Evans certainly did. Sitting back in a natty grey check suit on a chintzy sofa before an evening's work, he looked relaxed. He was not at all out of place in the ultra-plush lounge of the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park. Sipping contentedly on a cappuccino, he echoed Frank Sinatra in his enthusiasm for New York, New York. "It's got that creative vibe. It's all going on here. It expands you as an artist; I know that sounds a bit up-your-arse, but it's great for soaking up material. As an outsider, I notice things I never would in London. There's such a richness in the New York attitude. It's like the whole town's got the ache, everyone rebounds off each other with it. That's how they live. You could open your door, and someone could hand you a package, say 'Hold this', and run. That could happen here."
Ever the conscientious comedian, Evans had been accumulating material for his act as he went about his daily business. "I asked a policeman the way to Times Square, and he went, 'What am I, a road map? Go buy an atlas, pal. There's a store over there.' He had his hand on his gun, so I obeyed him." The attitude extends to an indifference about celebrity which also pleases Evans - a star on the arthouse cinema circuit after his winning performance in Funny Bones, Peter Chelsom's feature film about comedians. The town is so used to them that it just yawns when confronted with famous people. Taxi-drivers just shrug their shoulders as the traffic is held up by the small army of NYPD Blue second-unit film-crews. As I passed one set-up blocking traffic on Fifth Avenue, a lorry driver leant out of his cab and asked the assistant director, "Hey, you guys ever need a good-looking truck for your movie?"
On stage, Evans was not greeted with such coolness. At Caroline's on Broadway, a leading comedy club decorated with the slogan "Caroline's is Comedy" on the outside just in case you forgot why you were there, Evans seemed nervous beforehand. But after a typically schmaltzy intro from the MC - "let's have a big, warm, American welcome for a special guest who's just stopped in from London, England" - Evans soon got into his stride. Within 30 seconds, he had won applause by falling on the floor for no discernible reason - the old ones are always the best. He went on to bombard them with enough one-liners to fill an entire series of Gagtag. "I got personalised number plates - I had to change my name to CNV 485, but it's great ... All the store windows in Florida are bifocal." He laughed off any fluffs as a national failing - "I'm all over the shop because I'm British" - but the audience proved admirably unprejudiced and gave him a standing ovation, vigorously led by a well-oiled contingent of Revlon sales reps.
The finale of Evans's sweat-soaked, intensely physical act - a virtuoso mime to "Bohemian Rhapsody" that also climaxes his new video, Lee Evans Live from the West End - led the large woman in front of me to drop her dustbin-lid-sized pizza and shout above the din to her neighbour, "That was awesome". The woman next to me shared her fervour. "I think he'll do well here, especially compared to the rest of the cheap-shot
comedians we saw here tonight. They're all so straight up. This guy offers something different. Eccentric is how he'll be bracketed. I don't think the audience picked up on all the subtleties, but they loved him."
Another woman across the table piped up. "I don't think there's anyone like him in America. So many American acts are cerebral. People at comedy clubs are sitting concentrating hard even if they're bored. With this guy, there are these constant bursts of energy that make it more accessible."
Like Mike Tyson after a big fight, Evans was then spirited out of the building and bundled into a stretch limo with tinted windows which hurtled across town. His destination was The Comic Strip on Second Avenue, said to be New York's top comedy showcase club. A booker for the David Letterman show was loitering with intent to sign up new talent at the back of the auditorium. Try-outs for Saturday Night Live take place here. Drawing up outside, we knew we were in the right place; painted on the entrance was a grotesque cartoon of a frilly-shirted stand-up with an uncanny resemblance to Paddy Ashdown (does a second career beckon for him if it all goes wrong for the Lib Dems?).
Inside, a figurine of Wayne in Wayne's World stood in pride of place behind the bar. Cuttings about Eddie Murphy, who got his big break here in 1979, caught your eye above the urinals. This venue could have been re-named Comics 'R' Us. On a tiny stage in front of a blackboard offering "Enchilada Johnny's Tex Mex Grub", Evans again stormed it. His mix of daft one-liners ("I lost my dog, so I put an ad in the paper saying 'Here, boy'") and inspired mime - a dog waking up after an anaesthetic and suddenly realising he's been castrated - caused the audience to whoop as only Americans can whoop. The words "way to go" emanated repeatedly from a table of rowdy students in reversed baseball caps.
Afterwards, Evans reflected that "American audiences generally are more enthusiastic. If they clock on to you, they really go with you. In England, they're cooler. They sit back and say, 'Right, entertain me'. In the American psyche, they want you to succeed." In the bar after the show, I asked Amy, a smart twentysomething who works for a cable TV station, how she reckoned Americans would take to Evans. "I thought he'd go down like a lead balloon because of his accent," she said. "But he's cute. He's very endearing to the crowd because he's so unthreatening and silly. The physical stuff will be hugely appealing to Americans - look at Jim Carrey, who's making $20m on his next movie. Lee Evans is unusual because most American stand-ups go on and on about race. It's refreshing to have someone so physical. He stands a good chance here because his slapstick routine is universal."
That is the key to Evans's appeal; he speaks the international language of comedy, which is deeds rather than words. For comedians from over here to make it over there, they must not rant about the NHS or Virginia Bottomley; rather, they should brush up on their Jacques Le Coq miming skills. Not for nothing does Mr Bean play as in-flight entertainment on almost every airline in the world.
Lucien A Hold III, the neat, moutachioed man who runs The Comic Strip and whose card announces him as a "Counsellor in Comedy" (only in America would such a job title exist), takes up the theme. "British acts are generally either very esoteric or very highbrow, which is difficult for Americans. They love that on Masterpiece Theatre, but not from stand-ups. Lee Evans is closer to Benny Hill. His physicality is a language that transcends any culture. Charlie Chaplin in his silent days was one of the most-loved comedians in any country. I don't think Lee Evans will have any difficulties making it here. He's too cute not to make it here. Lee Evans could go to Tibet and make people laugh."
8 The video of 'Lee Evans Live from the West End' is released by VVL, at pounds 12.99.Reuse content