Joe Lycett is an increasingly successful, Birmingham bred stand-up comedian, whose credentials include 8 of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Live at the Apollo, Drunk History and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, alongside touring stand-up shows. His unique style borders on sassy but he never fails to enamour the entire audience with his anecdotes. His social media game is also on point; recently, his encounter with the local council over a parking fine went viral and his satirical look at celebrity culture has us in stiches.
Currently touring his show ‘That’s the Way A-ha A-ha Joe Lycett’ (with only a handful dates left), he describes the show as a love letter to Birmingham. We met Joe in the veritable Brummie boozer, The Spotted Dog and spoke about our great city, dressing in drag and getting fucked up.
What made you start doing stand-up?
A lack of attention basically. I went to Manchester University and studied drama with the intention of doing acting and then I was sort of shit at it, I just wasn’t really good at taking direction and being told by somebody what to do and read somebody else’s lines. I’d always been interested in stand-up, been to the Glee at Birmingham and seen Tom Stade and thought he was phenomenal, (he is a Canadian stand-up) an opening came up and I just thought I’d give it a go, I was in a university frame of mind where I was just trying all sorts of different stuff and it’s very addictive stand-up so that’s what kind of stuck with me and I just couldn’t not be doing it, it’s a bit of a drug, a bit of therapy, everything rolled into one really.
Was it always stand-up that attracted you?
There is no one thing and I sort of feel like this about most things in life anyway, there is not one thing that attracts me more than necessarily more than anything else, I just sort of end up falling into stuff, which is probably to my detriment because I end up just going ‘Oh I’m going to work really hard on one thing for ages that would probably amount to enough’ and I did a lot of stuff like that, but actually I think working hard on a project you learn all sorts of things by doing it, even if the project is shit and it doesn’t actually look like you created anything, you created experience for yourself I suppose. Stand-up wasn’t really on the radar at all because it seemed like a ridiculous thing to think you could make a job out of.
You had fewer preconceptions?
The only preconception I had of stand-up is that people who were doing it and were making career out of it were shit, other people that I thought were good like Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, Alan Carr, but lots of people that I was watching at the time just didn’t resonate with me, in my head most stand-up was shit stand-up, but I think that was just not understanding; a naivety to what the material was about I suppose. But that was the only preconception.
How did you get the momentum going when starting out?
It was weird, it was a student charity gig at my uni and they did auditions for it, which would be a really weird thing for anyone to do now to do a gig, you’d just go and do it, but actually I’m so glad I had to do through this process because I could try out bits in front of people and it didn’t matter. It meant I could actually rehearse a bit before I got to that first gig, so I actually got used to being embarrassed about trying to be funny. I went on after Jack Whitehall who was at Manchester University at that time and had been doing stand-up for longer and he smashed it and then came off and said to me ‘Oh yeah, so there is a guy in the corner who is a bit heckly, but you’ll be fine, if he heckles you’ll have to do a bit of put down.’ I don’t even know what it was, I was really out of my depth and then it was a really nice crowd and a really nice gig and that was the thing that sort of made me really addicted to it and then subsequently I had a lot of gigs and looked like a right twat in various places around Manchester, but that first gig gave me that kind of ‘I can do this.’
What has been a career highlight for you so far?
Oh my word, I’ve got so much further than I even thought I’d go, there’s been a lot of highlights and a lot of bits where I’ve been like ‘Fucking hell!’. At the minute, the tour has been astonishing. I just wanted to live off stand-up and that was what I wanted to do, to actually have a tour with my own name and people coming to see me rather than just a comedy gig that I’m on, it’s beyond my wildest dreams. But I think the biggest moment was when I did Live at the Apollo, because that was the show that I watched a lot of stand-ups on before I even got in to stand-up properly, I used to love watching Live at the Apollo and to be doing it, and to have a nice gig and to not feel like I’d fucked it up was probably the career highlight. But the goals change and after that I sort of half jokingly said to my agent I’m going to quit after I’ve done Live at the Apollo, because that was kind of the goal, she was like ‘you’re not quitting,’ I’m kind of glad that happened, but yeah, that was a real moment for me.
Do you prefer more intimate audiences or larger gigs like the Apollo?
The Apollo has this weird way of being intimate because it’s wide rather than long as a room, so you actually feel like if somebody heckled, you probably could hear it and have another bit of a go. I think the arenas seem terrifying, I know quite a few people who’ve done Channel 4 Comedy Gala and that is a tough gig because it’s so vast you say a joke, and you have to wait for the response and you have to really hold your nerve so that doesn’t really appeal to me, but I’ve been interested to try it just to see what it’s like, but I don’t think that would be where I’d be at my happiest.
I think I would probably miss that human connection. Whenever I get to a new venue for the tour, I always try to find out ways that I could get closer to the audience, I quite like getting off the stage and getting in to the room, I really like that, so yeah, I think intimacy is the one of the key things for me in stand-up.
You have a book coming out? Can you tell us about it?
Yeah, I’m working on it quite a lot at the minute, it’s long writing a book, it takes fucking ages. It’s being presented as a manual for modern life, so it’s like a self help guide that won’t provide any help, it’s a way of putting my letters and emails and correspondence with people but also a few other bits into a kind of book form. It’s a comedy toilet book and I’m illustrating it as well, it’s been a really lovely process, I used to be a graphic designer, so I love print and I love a good font and I love working with blocks of text and making them look nice.
Are you art directing the illustrations?
I’m doing pretty much the whole thing. I’m going to let the publishers put it together at the end because that’s long, this project particularly is an absolute dream to do because it’s paring up my comedy writing and the being able to make something.
You’ve chosen to stay living in Birmingham, was that a conscious decision?
Lots of people presume that I live in London and a lot of people said that I should move to London, but I’m going there when I need to and I’m also all over the place anyway. I love being in London, I think it’s a cool city, but I love being in Birmingham. If I’ve got a night off and I’m in Birmingham I’m so happy, I feel so chilled here. Also the fear that I think a lot of people have is they’ll get bored in Birmingham, but there’s so much cool stuff happening; I’m sat here with you guys doing this interview and seeing the work that everyone’s up to and I just think there is such a lot of energy and excitement here. London is actually a bit boring to me, I’d much rather spend time looking at the graffiti work in Digbeth than I would in any of the works going on in east London. People are doing it because they want to do it, not just for the sake of doing it, which is what the arts is about for me. You get a purer person doing stuff here I think, whereas in London it’s all about ‘I get recognised and then I do this.’ It’s not about that here. It’s about doing good stuff.
Do you think it has helped your career staying in Birmingham?
Yeah, I think it just kept me from getting caught up in silly town, which London can be, it’s forced me to not go out to silly stuff every night. I find a lot of the things that go on in London they all sound really cool, but actually I find them quite stressful, like awards do’s and things like that, I find really stressful, my favorite thing is to sit in the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath, just getting fucked up; it’s my favorite thing to do.
Are there any clubs or comedy nights in the Midlands that you suggest people try out?
No. They are all shit. The Glee is probably the best live stand-up club in the area, but then my friend Karen Bailey runs a brilliant gig in The Station pub in Sutton Coldfield, which is really good and then there is a fun one at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath. Another is the Fat Penguin at Patrick Kavanagh, which is a free one in Moseley, I did that one last recently, and it was a really nice, great atmosphere in there. Rough Works at The Glee is my favorite to do it’s a new material one, which is really fun. But yeah, there are a lot of opportunities and increasingly so, because when I started doing stuff that was one thing that Birmingham suffered with and I think it’s doing a lot better, it’s like gigs local to the area, there was a great one in Cradley Heath, I can’t remember what that was called [The Holly Bush], but it was in a proper rough pub and I did a couple of gigs there and that was quite interesting, working that kind of room.
You’ve got to love a rough pub, any favourites in Brum?
I still love a shitty pub and we used to do quite a lot of shitty pubs, Trocodero is an old favorite of mine, I love the Trocadero, and I really like Bacchus as well because it’s just got that sort of really solid identity to it, but it’s quite badly executed.
I did a shitty pub tour the other week when I came back from the tour a stand-up tour, there is a friend of mine Lauren O’Rourke who lives down the road from me, who does the E4 roadshow Drifters and she was actually writing one of the series and I text her and I said ‘Do you fancy coming to some shitty pubs with me?’ She was like ‘yeah’, so we went to the Red Lion in Shirley, we went to The Maggies and she bumped into her dad there, he was having a pint. Her dad was chatting to this guy, who came up to me and he went ‘oh, you are that guy off 8 Out of 10 Cats, aren’t you?’ I said ‘Yeah, yeah’ and he said ‘oh, you are so funny.’ and I said to her, ‘he’s got a really bad throat’ and she said ‘he had his throat slit here 20 years ago.’ He still goes to the pub and that’s how he talks. I love a shitty pub.
Will you be going to Edinburgh Fringe this year?
Briefly, yeah, I’m going to take last year’s show because I’m writing a book, I need to work on that, so I haven’t had the time to write a new stand-up show, so I will, I’ll go with last year’s show for there nights I think we are doing, it might extend if it sounds well, but I think three nights is the plan. I’m going to try and do year on year off, because to do a new show every year is madness I think.
I saw you at the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society at last year’s Fringe trying out a routine as character, Nigella Farage. Are the alternative characters something that you’ve always done alongside your stand-up?
Very good, well researched question this one, not many people know of my other work. When I’m doing stand-up as me, I’m kind of a brand for want of a better word, in terms of I’ve got to do my thing and do what my audience want, to some degree, sometimes it’s quite restricting because you want to try different styles of stand-up and when you get paid by an audience who’ve come to see you specifically, I see it as rude to not do your absolute best worked up stuff. But the ACMS (the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society) have always been really good to me, they allowed me to just sort of come along and do a character act, so I’ve devised a lot of characters and Nigella is the most bonkers one. I wanted to try drag and it was a way of doing drag. I worked with a guy called Scotty who is a performance artist who did my make up and helped me create the kind of look, I have done a lot of ACMS and they’ve always been really stupid and ridiculous. The first one I did was John Roast, it was a failed American shock jock and he had the catch phrase ‘That’s the roast’. He had a lot of material about his wife and things that happened with his wife, you kind of need to see it, but it was really dumb and then there was one called Jack Daniels, who was an old man from the past, American kind of South West, who would talk like this [imitates an American western accent] and then come out with a little stick and pretend to be an old person, and then there was butler David Deville. There was a lot of really stupid acts that kind of only have one joke and I’d only do for five-ten minutes, but Nigella Farage, her thing is that she is incredibly anti-immigrant, whilst making a goat massaman curry as the joke. She’s from Lancashire and her catch phrase is ‘you dozy crow’ and she likes hitting people.
In your current show, you use some multimedia bits, is that something you’ve always used?
I’ve done a lot of emailing, every show that I’ve done has had like emails I’ve written to people and I’ve read stuff that I sent to people, I love writing letters and emails, and that’s what this book is about really. But the PowerPoint and stuff is very new to me. What I’ve always loved about stand-up is that you are not reliant on anything but yourself, so long as you are there you can make the show happen. I’d like to have a show where I don’t use any of that stuff, because then it’s at it’s purest, but also an audience needs different things going on to stimulate them. So, that’s kind of the reason for having it, none of the jokes necessarily rely on having the images there, I could probably get rid of them, but it keeps the energy and the interest going, it’s a kind of double edge sword I suppose.
Can you tell us a bit about your next show?
Not really, because, who knows what it will be. The current show will be touring till the last show at The Alexandra Theatre (Birmingham) and then I’ll do a few more in Edinburgh and then I’ll start really putting together the show end of this year, so I don’t know what it will be, but I hope it will be as I say, a bit more of being in the room rather than working with PowerPoint. I’d like it to be purer in terms of stand-up and what I’m really getting to grips with now is the ability to use stand-up to tackle quite difficult issues. I talk about ISIS in this current show in a very brief way and actually I’ve got new stuff about ISIS that I’ve been working up, which I tried to do on Cats Countdown a few weeks ago, but they cut it from the show, probably quite rightly, because the routine is about trying to solve the issue by putting members of ISIS on Grinder. I think it’s funny and I think it works, but it’s so sensitive for TV. I was amazed they let me do it in the room to be honest. I think that comedy can be a very powerful way of taking on something like that, like ISIS, they don’t have sense of humor and we do and I think that’s our power, that’s out skill and so using it to tackle things like that, I feel like I’ve built up a skill and it’s about what can I do with it, so that will be an inspiration for that show.
The current show is going to end up at Alexander Theatre in Birmingham, is it going to be your biggest solo show to date?
I think it could be, yeah, I think it will be. Well, if it sells. It’s 1300 seats, so could be the biggest venue that has had 10 people in it, but yeah. What will be crazy about that is I used to sell ice creams there, so that will be really weird, being on stage there at my tour show, will be very, very strange, that’s the big finale farewell of the tour and I’ll get really fucked up after that. I might hire that out and get ‘Shutdown’, I might hire out the Vic or something and maybe just put all the money I’ve made from the tour ever behind the bar, fuck my career and let’s see what happens.