Joe Lycett’s website describes him as a ‘comedian, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, television presenter, poet, gardener, dietician, radio presenter, tuning fork, Fiat Punto manual and queer’.
He’s a lot of things to a lot of people, and right now he’s the focus of this interview about his upcoming arena tour, being from Birmingham, and righteous activism.
When I pick up the phone to answer Joe Lycett’s call, he’s just finished an interview with Ken Bruce. He’s doing a spate of interviews to promote the arena leg of his current tour, but seems just as happy to be speaking to BABMAG as he is to have just been on Radio 2.
He tells me he was in the second edition of BABMAG, and that he is very glad the magazine exists. “I’ll be with the magazine from the start and I’ll be with it until the end!”
Pride in Birmingham based projects is a mainstay in Joe’s comedy persona. Hailing from Hall Green, Joe has lived in Brum for most of his life and so it features in much of his work. He recently hosted Channel 4’s Big Pride Party as well as the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Alongside Alison Hammond, whose face happens to be on Joe’s t-shirt as we speak, he’s one of an increasing number of Brummies presenting the city in a newly positive light in the media. And Joe’s enthusiastic portrayal of Birmingham seems to be part of a real shift in the way its inhabitants view the city.
“I like to fly the flag for Birmingham. I talk about Birmingham loads, because I love it. I was so happy to see how proud Brummies were of our city during the Commonwealth Games, because that’s not a thing that we normally do.
“What’s been very interesting from a creative point of view is that it used to be very easy to write stand up jokes about Birmingham being a bit shit. And then in the last six months to a year, I’ve found that I can’t get away with those jokes slagging off Birmingham in Birmingham any more, because the audiences wouldn’t agree!”
That’s not to say he plans to stop making fun of the city entirely, though.
“I didn’t love Birmingham for a long time – when I went to Manchester University, I was thrilled to leave the city because I felt like it was boring, and there wasn’t cool stuff going on. And I was probably right! There was a real dearth of fun cultural things, not as many stand up gigs and lots of gaps in Birmingham’s cultural calendar.
“It’s really improving though, and the Commonwealth Games has helped a lot with that.
But I don’t think I’d really be a Brummie if I wasn’t a bit self-deprecating about myself and Birmingham. Birmingham is a grey place, there’s a lot of horrible architecture and mess, a lot of weird characters – but that’s what we love about it! That’s where you get a lot of amazing creative work.
“If we all lived in paradise we couldn’t make interesting work. It’s important to me that I stay in Birmingham and my work is infused with Birmingham.”
Admittedly, Joe does have a flat in Peckham that he stays in when he has work in the capital, but for the rest of the time it’s Birmingham all the way. His studio in Digbeth is where he makes art and writes his jokes, and he’s often spotted in Hall Green Waitrose and the Hare & Hounds pub, Kings Heath.
“I think I’m a better comic and a better creative for [living in Birmingham]. I interact with people that I wouldn’t get to interact with in other cities, and there’s an attitude and an approach to life which is different – even to other places that are outside of London. Manchester and Liverpool, for example, have their own approach to things, but I think Birmingham has a lot more of a sort of low-key approach. I find that more accessible and I find it more human in some ways. So, it’s all about Brum for me!”
His love for Birmingham extends to his newest material; the big, four-year-long stunt which his tour material centres around was executed in the second city.
“It’s very Birmingham. It’s all about Birmingham, really – you need to know about the bit of Birmingham that I’m talking about, about the history there, before it makes sense. I talk about all that in a funny way of course, and it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done!”
It’s a mystery as to what this stunt entails. The thousands of audience members who have seen the material performed have so far done a marvellous job at keeping it all secret, all because Joe asked them very nicely to “keep it to yourselves, if you don’t mind”.
Assumedly, the stunt has activist/social justice elements, just like the Hugo Boss extravaganza of 2020 which saw Joe legally change his name to Hugo Boss in order to help out small businesses terrorised by the luxury fashion brand of the same name. Or like his documentary, Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant, in which he parodies Shell and its CEO, Ben van Beurden, to draw attention to their greenwashing tactics.
Or in the many instances of his trolling the British government, both on Twitter with fake letters on government headed paper, and during his speech at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
Since this social criticism seems to be a recurring theme in his jokes, I’m curious as to whether Joe always intended to make important points with his more political material, or whether the points arose naturally from the punchlines.
“Oh, it all starts from the punchlines. [With the stunt in his newest show] I just wanted to increase my house price. It all came from a very selfish place.
“I didn’t write the show with the intention of it being a social justice thing at all. I thought, I do that on my TV shows, so the stand up is there to just be funny. And then suddenly, it turned into this completely different thing which is now extraordinary!”
This is true of many of Joe’s more politically or bureaucratically focused bits, as he never intended to do activist comedy.
“I just wanted to show off and make jokes! After I did a bit about parking fines on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, it just became addictive to be righteous. You feel amazing, like you’ve sort of dominated someone. If I’m cynical about what I do, it’s less about getting results, and more about that feeling of ‘I win, I make this person look silly’. I love that I get to do that as a job. It’s very addictive, but I’m glad I’m addicted to that rather than the many other things one can be addicted to in life.”
Then we’re interrupted by someone bringing Joe tea, and it starts getting psychological.
“I think it all comes down to my parents. They have a real sense of right and wrong which they instilled in me, and I’m very grateful for that. They’re good lads!”
For a moment, I feel a little like the woman at the fish counter in the Hall Green Waitrose, who Joe says is essentially his therapist and friend. That’s quickly shattered by his answer to my last question, about what’s next for the mighty Lycett, which he’s obviously anticipated and has a stock answer for.
“I’d love a lie down. A nice lie down. Maybe a nice glass of Gavi di Gavi, a mixed mezze, bit of hummus. Some of those pita crisps they do, with that olive oil. Then a dark chocolate-based dessert.” Here he makes a sort of longing groan as if he’s not eaten for days. Someone needs to get him to Waitrose, asap.
“And then after that, I would like to overthrow this government and have it replaced with someone who’s barely competent. Just a baby with a brief case would be great. And then see how things go.”
Babies with briefcases aside, Joe’s very middle-class vision of the future seems perfectly in reach thanks to the successes upon successes he’s recently had. Although with tour dates booked until late October, and many dates selling out, it may be a while until he actually gets to lie down.
After that, though, he says, “I’ll see you on Broad Street, bab!”