It’s only 20 minutes to show time and Lee Mack’s still got to do his ironing and get his suit on. Not that he’s worried – or doesn’t appear to be – backstage at the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne where he’s about to face the second of three sell-out audiences in the last of his preview shows before a mammoth, 100-plus date tour.
“To be honest there’s not much that fazes me these days,” he tells me when I ask if the previous night’s interjections from a particularly well-lubricated member of the audience had put him off his stride.
“I can handle heckles. I mean, you’re in a theatre for one thing and you have to think people share a similar sense of humour to you for a start.
“It’s not like a club where they don’t know who you are and don’t care until you win them over.”
It has been a couple of years since Lee last toured with a new show and he’s heading back to Dorset to play two dates at Bournemouth’s Pavilion Theatre (March 14 and November 25).
I wonder if a diet of panel shows like Would I Lie To You and Have I Got News For You and Not Going Out, the BBC1 sitcom he co-writes with close mate Tim Vine, have sharpened his appetite for live work – and does he suffer from stage fright?
“No, I don’t really get nerves – I’m certainly not sick anyway.
“I spent 10 years, from the age of 16 to 26, wanting to be a comedian. That was when I was toe-tapping and finger-biting, building up to my first gig.
“They say the best way to be is very calm on the outside but nervous inside.
“If you can’t be that, then be nervous. But don’t be so calm that you’re bored or apathetic, because you’ll get 10 minutes into the show and realise you haven’t been paying attention and then you’re in real trouble.”
He’s only a few dates into his tour, but the amiable Lancastrian is right back at the top of his game.
A rapid-fire, frequently frantic blend of old school gag merchant and cheeky audience baiter, he’s not out to make any big points, only to have a laugh – as much at his own expense as ours.
“Yes, I pick on people, but I can tell who is up for a chat and who wants to be left alone.
“A front row seat is a risky ticket, which is why I’ll talk to people in the second row or the third row – so nobody’s safe. You might come away thinking I’ve spent the whole show talking to people in the audience, but if you watch it back you’ll find there’s a lot of other material as well.
“It takes me a good few months to write a show, and when I write I do eight hours at the computer – like proper work – then I’m on the sofa watching telly.
“I’ve stopped work – a naked woman could come in and fall in a bowl of custard and I wouldn’t notice!”
There’s a blokeishness about Lee Mack that people like – he seems ordinary, matey even, and unaffected by whatever degree of fame has come his way.
It was like that back in the mid-1990s when he first played Bournemouth’s comedy clubs.
“I didn’t know anyone who wanted to be a comedian in those days, and when I started out doing open mic nights you’d see maybe 10 acts a night.
“Two or three would be OK, three or four were awful and the rest were usually these lunatic, dysfunctional characters from the very fringes of society …but some were absolutely inspired.
“And I miss them. These days you go to open mic nights and the young comics look like they should be in boy bands – they’ve all got their haircuts and their finely honed five minutes because they see comedy as a way into telly.
“It’s all a bit samey. They used to say comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, but it’s actually the new pop.”
And like many a boil-in-the-bag pop star, the identikit comedians tend to struggle with overnight success.
The thing about Lee Mack and his kind is that they’re professionals, they’ve paid their dues many times over and they have no intention of giving up.
“It’s taken me 16 years to get to this point because this is all I wanted to do.
“When I was playing the London circuit, that was all I ever dreamed of, it wasn’t a stepping stone. In that way I think I’m closer to the original alternative comedians who are a bit older than me – they had a particular mind set and it was all about being comedians.
“Don’t get me wrong, I make good money out of these shows, but we spent a long time pricing them and our tickets are among the more reasonably priced.
“I’m always happy to play, but that’s partly why we put the extra dates on later in the year because I get fed up with touts selling my tickets. Front row seats at four times the face value …it’s not on.”
As I leave, he’s ironing his stage shirt and seems completely at ease. I wish him well for the night.
“Oh yeah, mate, cheers. Are you coming to Bournemouth? Well, come and say hello.”
Bet he was scared witless inside!
Lee Mack on…
Being recognised: “These days I don’t mind being recognised, it’s part of the job. But there have been times when someone’s asked me for an autograph and someone with them asks them who I am and they just say, ‘He’s off the telly,’ then their mate asks me to sign something as well. And that results in reality TV – where being on telly is all that counts.”
Being a Blue Coat: “I was the sports organiser. The only thing being a Blue Coat prepared me for was being recognised. We were like stars in that camp – the kids wanted to have pictures taken with us, the parents bought us drinks and the attention of the 18-year-old girls was very welcome!”
• First published in Bournemouth Echo.