STAND-UP AND BE COUNTED

Comedian MARK LAMARR talks with James Rampton

Mark Lamarr is, to some, nothing more than a quiff on legs. Thanks to Reeves and Mortmer's relentless mocking of his slicked-back hairdo on Shooting Stars, he will be tagged forever as "the Fifties throwback". "There's no getting away from it," he sighs. "I feel like those pictures you see in freak magazines of women with babies growing out of their stomachs. But I've learnt to live with it now."

There is, of course, rather more to Lamarr than the image of a Fifties freak-show. On the live comedy circuit, for instance, he has established a reputation as the best compere in the business. Harry Thompson, co-producer of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the alternative pop quiz which Lamarr chairs, praises his way with a crowd. "As a compere, the audience have to want you back and be pleased to see you again and again. Mark has sympathy - not in the sense of `aah', but of empathy."

Lamarr, too, underlines the store he sets by audience rapport. "I was going to say the best thing is surfing the audience, but that sounds far too pretentious," he laughs. "Especially as a compere, the audience should be part of the show. They shouldn't be there just as a tool for your money-making; they should all be involved. Stand-up is the only thing I can really get a buzz from. I live off the audience - not for the adulation, but because I use a part of the brain that I don't otherwise use.

"Being a compere means thinking on your feet," he continues. "I don't know why most people want to be stand-ups because all they do is ill-thought- out monologues. They come on and talk about, say, fish. I think, `Hold on, you don't talk to people about fish'. That just isn't how you communicate with other human beings. As a compere, you talk to the audience as human beings, rather than giving them an hour's worth of stupid observations."

As you might have already gathered, Lamarr takes no prisoners. He is the SAS of stand-up: fearless, confrontational and sent in an advance party to rough up the opposition. His audiences need to bring along not their laughing-gear but full body-armour. But his remorseless attacks bring more cheers than tears. He is incisive rather than ingratiating and that makes a welcome change.

Dubbed "the Quentin Tarantino of the comedy circuit" by one producer, Lamarr himself does not argue with his image as the hard man of stand- up. "It's not something I'd try and live up to, but I've tried hard not to fall into cliches. Most stand-ups come on like smiling buffoons. I despise virtually all stand-ups, they're like court jesters. The first thing they need is to be loved. But I think audiences want other things, so I try to make them think. I don't come on grinning; I'm not Les Dennis. People think I'm unhappy and have got a grudge against the world. I also get into fights occasionally." A fact which a certain former presenter of The Word would no doubt verify.

Fists may fly, but at least there's no pretence surrounding Lamarr. Thompson stresses that "He is natural as a stand-up. There is no artifice. If I see one more Eddie Izzard imitator, I'll scream. Mark is not trying to be someone else."

A witty and intelligent interviewee, Lamarr brings the same straightforward, rigorous approach to presenting. He is currently hosting Planet Showbiz, Channel 4's new American entertainment show, which features such off-beat items as the Gonuts, a surfer band bent on persuading the world to eat greasier food. "I love American culture," Lamarr raves. "They have such an appetite for life. In America, if they want a hot dog stall, they make it in the shape of a hot dog. People wake up there and think, `Wow, another day of opportunity in America.' We say, `I might go on holiday next year, but I probably won't bother because there'll be a war'."

In September, he returns for a new series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks. "Being a chairman is a more difficult job than people imagine," Thompson asserts. "You have to come over as likeable while being rude to everyone present. It's a difficult trick. You have to have authority and at the same time be funny - which depends to an extent on undermining authority. And you have to maintain the structure while being subversive. Mark is very good at keeping order while suggesting that he's not on the side of order."

For his part, Lamarr is having a ball with Buzzcocks. A self-confessed "trivia bore", he has a 10,000-strong record collection. "It's not work," he enthuses. "It's sitting in a room with your mates having a laugh - and people give us loads of money for it. Before this, I thought, `I must stop doing television because it makes me unhappy.' I've done a lot of shit - I mean, The Word and The Big Breakfast are never going to be happy periods in anyone's life. In the past, I never seemed to have any control, but on Buzzocks they just let me get on with it. It's the first thing that's been right for me. I can't wait for September."

In the meantime, Lamarr hopes to return to his first love: stand-up. He is recording a video of his act for release later this year. "Stand- up is always work in progress," he observes. "It's a long struggle - and television only makes it harder. People would come and see Anneka Rice do a show. When I was on The Word, a lot of people would turn up thinking I'd come on with a large-breasted woman on either side of me, and be disappointed when I'd end up talking about anthropology.

"People ask for your autograph because they recognise you, not because they're fans of what you do," he concludes. "I'd tell them, `Believe me, the last thing you want in your happy lives is my pits-of-hell thoughts.' There are only two or three people living in the same darkened world."

Mark Lamarr presents `Planet Showbiz' on Wed at 8.30pm, C4

EYE TEST

1966: Born Mark Jones (he changed his name for Equity purposes in 1985) in Swindon. His mother is a cleaner and his father an engineer in a cake factory. He was a rebellious, punky youth

Mid-1980s: Faber and Faber published one of his poems about "disenchanted youth" and he moved to London. He started touring as a stand-up

1992: Got his big break on C4's The Word - a show he now views with mixed feelings. "I think there was a place for it. It was misunderstood, but also shit. I wasn't right for it, either. I was too self-conscious." Also worked on C4's The Big Breakfast, which he was equally unsure about

1995: Team captain on BBC2's cultish Reeves and Mortimer panel game, Shooting Stars. "I didn't really enjoy it," Lamarr admits. "I'm sure it was funny, but I didn't get it

1996: Hosts pop quiz for BBC2, Never Mind the Buzzcocks. "What's amazed people is how much he smiles on this," says Harry Thompson, the show's co-producer. "On Shooting Stars, his job was just to look miserable."

1997: Presents C4 magazine programme about American culture, Planet Showbiz. "Their minds are a nice place to visit," he remarks, "but I wouldn't want to live there."

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