Lee Mack: The comedian who is upping the pace of British sitcoms

As Jonathan Ross returns to the BBC after Manuelgate, sitcom writer and stand-up Lee Mack tells Rob Sharp the secrets of being funny on TV
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The Independent Online

Lee Mack is concerned by writing, not trends. He is neither an "old-fashioned" comedian, nor does he vaunt the visual gimmicks of Russell Brand and The Mighty Boosh. His principle concern is simple enough: gags.

"Comedy is too trendy nowadays," he says. "Part of the role of comedy is to take the piss out of things that are too trendy. It's like when comedians are celebrities. It defeats the object. Comedians are supposed to be taking the piss out of people in power. That always used to be politicians and nowadays that's celebrities. If you are a comedian and celebrity ... it's like a politician being a stand-up comic."

He admits that avoiding the limelight while building a career is "easier said than done ... I mean I'm going to be in the paper here". But he expresses the view that Brand's stand-up career will only really come into its own when and if he ceases to be written about in the tabloids.

The third series of Mack's BBC One sitcom, Not Going Out, begins its run next Friday. It co-stars fellow comics Tim Vine and Sally Bretton, and already boasts a Royal Television Society award and a Golden Rose, a prestigious Swiss broadcasting gong.

Not Going Out operates using a simple enough format. The writing is markedly tight. The first episode of the new series sees jokes appear within its opening moments (the episode sees Mack attempting to get his flatmate pregnant by inseminating her bathwater). It eschews the realism of The Office in favour of traditional comedic values that owe more to the fast-paced timing of American over British comedy. He is clearly a fan of the former.

"Not Going Out's jokes were based on the American mentality in terms of how often the jokes appear," he continues in his mild Southport accent. "It all started because when we were doing the pilot there was a documentary on the night before called Sitcom is Dead, which said that because of The Royle Family and The Office there was no room for studio-based sitcom. But people loved Frasier, Cheers and Seinfeld. I don't know anyone who didn't like them. It seemed obvious to me. See what they are doing so well in America. It became clear to me that it was all about the writing." He says that in America 10 per cent of the production budget is spent on writing sitcoms, compared to half that figure in the UK. "In British sitcoms, you can get five minutes of nothing before the story starts."

The 40-year-old Mack is dressed semi-casually, and chooses to meet in a plush restaurant close to his home in Hampton Court, Surrey. He talks about his craft earnestly and intelligently, rather than seizing the temptation to continuously crack jokes.

This studied appreciation of television scriptwriting is a long way from his origins in Southport. Mack briefly worked as blue coat at Pontins but was fired for swearing on stage after seeing a performance by Ben Elton and wanting to imitate it. "I can't remember not wanting to be a comedian," he says. "From the age of 14, I remember thinking I wanted to be a comedian. But that was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut. It felt like a million miles away, something I could never do, but would be great to."

His heroes were the 1980s alternative comics headed up by Elton and the cast of Blackadder and The Young Ones. Mack says he honed his skills as a comedian doing hundreds of gigs, learning the hard way, "making a twat" of himself, getting to grips with what works and what doesn't. His first major success was with The Sketch Show (in which he appeared alongside Vine and Ronni Ancona), which ran between 2001 and 2003, before the first series of Not Going Out was screened in 2006.

Nowadays, he writes in the confines of a shed at the end of his garden. On a writing day, he starts off with a one-line idea for an episode and breaks it down into scenes and "mini-structures" of dramatic moments, a formula that he feels he has come close to mastering (actually coming up with the gag is the last thing he does). Mack is currently taking time off between projects, doing some do-it-yourself and preparing to re-pitch Not Going Out to the BBC for a fourth series. It is clear in his head who the final arbiters are of what is funny are.

"The Brand and Ross affair brought up a big debate about how the media is patronising towards the general public. If you overstep the taste boundary you don't need the media to tell the public that. The reason Jonathan Ross is back on television is that the general public likes him. We have all said things that are offensive when taken out of context. You don't need to tell the public to be repelled. They will tell you they are repelled. And they will take you off the air – they just won't watch you any more."