wed 21/08/2019

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Lee Evans | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Lee Evans

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Lee Evans

Rubbery comedian is back on the day job touring arenas. There's more to him though

Evans grew up near the Avonmouth docks in Bristol. As a child he used to accompany his father, a musician, on the old variety circuit and once watched Tommy Cooper from the wings. He has had a much more widely ranging career than those who dismiss him as a gurning, prodigiously sweating arena stand-up care to remember. His film roles - Funny Bones, MouseHunt, The Fifth Element, There’s Something About Mary etc - while not especially stretching were mostly shot out of Hollywood, where he also spent two years as an NBC sitcom gagwriter. It is also rare for anyone so well known to put himself down so vigorously. “I have been accused of being a bit of a moron,” he says. “Sometimes I say something completely ridiculous and watch the director’s face sink. They go, ‘I’m sure he’s the wrong bloke.’ They say that constantly.” Don’t believe a word of it. Lee Evans talks to theartsdesk.

Watch Lee Evans open at Wembley Arena last time round

JASPER REES: Was Norman Wisdom ever a hero?

LEE EVANS: Not really. Not really. I saw his films as a kid. That’s not to say I am not aware… I am aware of the process that he goes through on a physical level and a mental level. I can only take that as a compliment.

You are seen as a latter-day version of him.

Which surprises me because if you watch my act it’s nothing like it really. What I say.

I think the comparison is physical.

It must be. He sweats a lot so he’s the same. I would never ever put another comic down because I understand the process.

Did you ever meet him?

No. No. Never. It would be the same as Tommy Cooper. I’d be the same, even if I was meeting Ben Elton. I went to this thing with Billy Connolly. As I’m talking to you now I wouldn’t be the same as that if I met those guys. I swear to you, I ain’t.

Even though you can fill Wembley Arena and they can’t.

Yeah, but that’s insignificant. Think about it. It is. It doesn’t mean anything in the scale of things. I suppose I’m very lucky in order to do that. There is no explanation for it. But I don’t take it that serious. What’s more serious is hopefully it’s a fucking good night.

It’s a far cry from doing Beckett with Michael Gambon.

Yeah, and that was probably one of the best blokes I’ve ever worked with, one of the best times I’ve ever had, I swear to you. I remember having this conversation with Michael. Since I was about 17 I’ve been writing and performing and going up to Edinburgh and it’s always been really painful and difficult and exhausting. Years ago, doing the Comedy Store you would get the papers that week, go through the papers, see what material you can get down. I would get up early, 6 o’clock start writing, finish about three cos I get really hungry. You hone that material and switch things around. And then later on I won the Perrier and went on one-and-a-half-year-long tours, Canada, Australia, Britain, and it’s fucking exhausting. You’ve got to survive, basically. And you’re using your material. We went to see the theatre. Michael has worked with Olivier and he said, "It’s just magic, isn’t it? The stage is a magical place." And all I’ve ever felt on the stage is pain and exhaustion. I said, "I’ve never ever had that experience, Michael." He was quite upset by it. He said, "You’re telling me you’ve never walked on stage and felt magic?" I said, "No, I’ve just felt it’s going to be a fight." And he said, "That’s terrible." He said, "Hopefully you will feel that."

EndgameThat’s what acting is. You’re into the moment, and you’re using somebody’s material that has been rewritten and honed and you’ve just got to get the character. And I really did enjoy that. I used to do this unbelievable thing. The curtain is always closed before we start. I used to come in, not eat all day, and then we’d stand backstage behind the curtain and I’d walk up and down because of nerves. Michael (Gambon pictured above with Evans; photo by John Minihan) would sit there concentrated in the chair waiting for the curtain to open. I can hear the crowd but in my head I’m going, I must survive. In Michael’s head he’s saying, get the character right, think about the words, do the play. And I’m just thinking, fuckin’ hell, what’s going to happen? And every night I’d say to him, "Has anyone ever shouted out?" He said, "Not in the 40 years I’ve been doing it, no." And the curtains would open and you’re into it. With me there is always a sense of energy. I love that energy. I always looked at Michael just before the curtain opened and he was just concentrating so much and I always felt so safe with him there, so safe.

Did you feel almost like going into the ring with him?

We don’t think like that in Britain. It’s more of a team spirit. In America it’s “Gotta beat dat guy”. I’ve never been intimidated by people. I look at the bigger picture. Working with Chris Walken and Spielberg you can get overwhelmed, but if you look at it on a much bigger scale it’s much more interesting. You go, “What’s going to happen a year down the line? I’m going to learn from this guy.” What’s important is not at that time.

How did your involvement in the London run of The Producers come about?

Just before Endgame actually. I knew from Nathan - a friend of mine, Nathan Lane. I was touring Canada and he came up to see us. We did a film together years ago. MouseHunt. So he’s an old friend.

mousehunt1I must confess that’s one of yours I’ve not seen.

Nor have I and I was in it. I watched half of There’s Something About Mary because we had to go with the Farrellys to the premiere, but I couldn’t sit through it all. I have a problem with myself. I’ve looked at myself in wedding videos. That’s why I do what I do, out of insecurity. "A cry for help" is what my wife said. I haven’t seen Funny Bones. I watched the end quarter of that. I don’t like all that fucking red carpet stuff. I know it has to be done to promote the film but I always find that insignificant as to when you’re doing it.

Back to Nathan Lane.

He came backstage and I asked him what he was doing. He said, “Mel Brooks is doing The Producers and he’s asked us to do it. I thought, oh fuck, it’s one of my favourite films. If you’re a comedian you’re into Mel Brooks big time. I thought, fuck, brilliant. I’ve always wanted to try and do a musical of some kind because I absolutely passionately love the stage, I can’t help it, it’s just the way I am.

You said you associate it with pain, and yet you love it. That’s a paradox.

How? The pain is through my own insecurity to get it right. But I do realise what it is capable of. And then just before Endgame somebody mentioned they were going to bring it to the West End and I said, "Fucking yeah, yeah." 

You know when you want to meet your hero and they turn out to be some nightmare? Mel Brooks wasn’t that


For someone who says he’s not an actor you’ve made a lot of movies. Can you really say it?

When you see proper acting then you can tell [laughs]. I can’t look at it like that. You are going to have a go at me if I say this. It’s just so much bigger than that.

Was it a dream come true?

Absolutely. I’ve worked with Jerry Lewis and I loved every minute of that, I truly did, and then I went to see Mel Brooks. When I was a kid I used to quote his lines from his films. I know he’s worked with Woody Allen and Sid Caesar, another hero of mine. I just stood there and smiled. I grew up with him and laughed at his stuff so much that when he walked in the room he probably felt slightly uncomfortable because I’m staring at him and slightly giggling. Nervous. There was nerves there. But in saying that he didn’t let me down. You know when you want to meet your hero and they turn out to be some nightmare? He wasn’t that. He was Mel Brooks and it was brilliant. He talks like a drum kit. He talks in rhythms. "How you doin’? D'you have a good flight?" And I’m like laughing. "What are you laughing at?" And you go, "I know you’re having a normal conversation but it sounds like a fucking drum kit." And he goes, "That’s funny, I used to play the drums." He’s fantastic.

producersResizeHow was it for you learning to sing on stage?

I didn’t realise. I can bang out a number on the piano down the pub, which I have done. But to make your voice last… I wanted to go and find out what that was. Then I went away with a pianist and worked with him for ages and then I went over to see this dance woman. Fuck, they make you sweat there. "And go and one and two." And I’ve lost count at eight. I go, "When you get to eight, what happens then?" She goes, "It’s just eight." And they don’t go anywhere else. There’s never a nine or a 10. She would drill me. Fuck.

Do you have a compulsion to make people laugh?

I suppose I do have a compulsion to do it. I don’t know why though.

Why haven’t you got a Bristol accent?

I lost it when we moved over here. You talk all like that over there [does a Bristolian accent] and it don’t go too well over here. And my wife is from over this way. I pick accents up so I just went into it.

Did you feel self-conscious?

Yes, you might as well walk home with fucking straw sticking out your hat. But I’ve never seen a combine harvester, I’m from a council estate, but that’s how you sound. If you talk like that you’ve been ploughing the field or summat. I loved it there. We lived near the docks in Avonmouth. Fantastic place. Really good community. Because there was no money about, thinking back it was quite black. I suppose at the time it wasn’t that fucking funny but looking back…

Did you get taken to the theatre?

My dad’s a musician. I was always hanging about. Never took me to see shows or anything.

Did you take yourself off to Beckett?

I had a look at Beckett when I was at art college. They sort of had a go at us for doing it but I always thought it created a lot of imagery. We used to have day trips to London to go to galleries and museums and stuff. I was always good at art so I knew I had to do something of significance. I’m quite OK with my own company, I like to sit down and write and paint and draw, and I enjoyed art so I thought I’d have a go at that. I used to read Beckett’s texts and try to do pictures. I didn’t do a picture of Clov although I had a lot of fun trying to create the make-up. I’m into Beckett’s fascination with clowning, I took that route, just because I knew from art college that he was into all that sort of thing. I researched clowning and got the make-up from there.

I’m not like really famous. I’m a pleb, I suppose. No one wants to kick me head in, which is good


Anyone else who’s right up there in your gallery of comic heroes that you’ve met?

I never said anything to him but my dad was working with Tommy Cooper years ago. I remember seeing him walk in late in the theatre. He was really late. We were eight or nine or something and Tommy Cooper came in really late and I can’t remember the club. Tommy Cooper then was with his son and the audience were getting quite angry. I remember him coming and he’s getting his stuff ready and he’s given a big stick to his son and said, "You know what to do." And his son went, "Yeah yeah yeah." Tommy Cooper switched the mike on as he’s getting his props ready and going "I don’t know where I am" and all that sort of stuff and his son was prodding the curtain. This went on for at least 15 minutes. The crowd are absolutely falling about. By the time he walked on he’s brought the house down. Before this point the manager is mad and saying, "I don’t know if he’s coming." And they are all getting real tense. And then he walked in and done this. I just thought, that’s so amazing.

LeeEvans1Why do you make people laugh with your physical performance?

I don’t analyse it too much. I have no idea why. However I do understand that it’s through survival, conditioning, a way of making friends and getting on, breaking barriers down. This actually happened to me - I was walking over Hungerford Bridge and there was a couple of really big guys the other side of the bridge just standing talking, and it was really late, about 1 o’clock. I had just met me mate from New York and I was on my way over there. And these two blokes were chatting and I was looking at them because I thought they were quite interesting. I can’t help it, that’s what I do. I was looking at them and one bloke turned round and went, "Yeah?" And I went "Yeah" like that. "Yeah. Eh?" "Yeah." I thought, what the fuck’s this all about? And then I walked over to him and he had that real look in his eyes like he’s going to kill me and I suddenly realised at that point that he might do something real dodgy. And he said, "What’s the matter?" And I said, "I was just thinking that I need some witnesses for the violence that will now take place." [Laughs]. And I just walked off. Luckily I suppose I kind of reversed it. Somehow. What I do know is the look in his eyes changed.

Did he recognise you?

I’m not like really famous. I’m a pleb, I suppose.

Do you get recognised much?

I suppose so. By the odd person. No one wants to kick me head in, which is good.

In our family you had to get up, go to work and be a bloke. I was slightly odd if you like


You used to box when you were young. Were you any good?

I was a fantastic runner, I swear. I always wanted to do it because of my dad. My brother’s fantastic. I thought I’d do that. He’s much bigger.

Ever win a fight?

I think I won one. I didn’t like it. It was very painful. I never understood what I was doing there. I think what it was now was just to be in with the family and do what I thought to be a bloke. That’s how we were taught to be in our family. You had to get up, go to work and be a bloke. I was slightly odd if you like. A bit quiet and a bit odd. They’ve accepted that now. My dad said, "Oh, I know now why you was an idiot. I see what you’re doing now." Molly [Evans's daughter] is very much like me. She’s quite content with her own company.

I read that when you went to America and made all those films, you saw your family once in two years.

Twice or three times, something like that. Even that was brief as well. It was extraordinary. It was very destructive. I really wish I hadn’t done it. It was the unhappiest time of my life. Really so unhappy. We had Molly and I was not sure of what was going on and I was working. I was writing for NBC, that’s what my job was. We done MouseHunt. I know the guy who runs the Improv Club in Los Angeles. The reason I know him is because I used to go to New York a lot and do stand-up. We got more known over there than we did here at one point. And then Canada and all that. He said, "Come and do a run at the Improv Club." I said, "All right, fuck it, I’ll come over." I was only banging around on the circuit over here anyway. I said, "I’m not doing none of that 10-minute shit." They always put the British guy on the end. He’s not going to do very well, he’s British. So he give us a couple of hours a week on stage. Word got about apparently, I don’t know. Spielberg’s mob came down and then NBC came down and said, "Do you want to come and work with us?" I said, "Yeah sure," and I went over to their lot over in Burbank and phoned me missus and said, "I think I can earn a living here." She went, "Well, try it, you know, you haven’t achieved anything else in life."

LeeEvans-Banner tcm167-184407So I sat there with loads of writers at a table. I went in there every day. We were writing new ideas for NBC. Some blokes from Cybill, some blokes from Taxi, Cheers, M.A.S.H... I loved it. It was really interesting. Their resources are incredible. They had this big white board and he goes, "OK what’s the story?" And somebody will go, "Oh, an old school friend." And he goes, "OK, OK, what happens then? We gotta complicate matters." Three of us would go off and write half of it. I was working on physical stuff for them. I loved every minute of it.

Did any of your sitcoms see the light of day?

I’m not sure. We went in every day, intermittently making movies. And I swear to you it was like, what the fuck is all this about? I mean I had phone calls - "So-and-so wants to meet ya." I went, "Who?" "Well, you know he’s a director." I said, "I’m not that good at that sort of thing, you’ve got the wrong bloke." So I wouldn’t go. Or I was invited to a party and I wouldn’t go. After a while I have to say I got really down.

To return to the stage. You associate comedy with pain but once it gets going do you start to love it?

I like it if there is a good atmosphere in the room. That’s what comedy is about. It’s about people gathering. That’s what that moment is about. It’s taking pieces of crap, pieces of contemporary society, turning it around and presenting it and hopefully people will have a commonality in that. We all find a commonality in it and laugh at it together. That’s my job. I am a stand-up, that’s what I do.

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