‘My grandfather always said, go to Ballina, this is the family place’
Lee Mack laughed twice, more than 20 years apart, when the Irish leaned towards him with words of encouragement before he stepped out in front of the audience.
The recent moment was ahead of a charity football game, live on prime-time TV, which made him smile happily just at the thought. More on that later.
The first was in Cork, in the City Limits comedy club, in the late 1990s. It was at the start of his time as a stand-up comedian and one of his first concerts outside of London, and he had just gotten off the bus.
If you came back as a single mother to Ireland in 1910, which she did, with a baby, you better pretend you got married.
“I was in the kitchen,” he says. “Dara Ó Briain was the accomplice. I remember this guy running him around putting his arm around me and wondering if I was nervous. I said, yes, I was very nervous. He said: ‘You don’t have to be – they’re a lovely audience here. Honestly, one would have to be absolutely terrible not to fall well.
These weren’t the inspiring words he’d hoped to hear as he got ready to take the stage but, despite that, the set went well. Galway was the next stop on the bus trip he shared with fellow comedian Simon Pegg.
Within a few years Mack – real name Lee McKillop, and now 53 – had grown into one of the UK’s best known and most popular comedians, filling huge venues, a household name and a regular at television.
In addition to his professional roots in Ireland, he also has family ties. Mack’s maternal grandfather, whom he knew as Joe Kingsley, was born over a century ago in Southport, the town in North West England where Mack himself grew up. He discovered the whole story in 2018 while filming the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?
Young Joe’s mother brought him back to Ballina, County Mayo, his hometown, when he was a baby. Born out of wedlock, Joe, later known as Sonny Farrell to his Irish family, was raised by his grandparents when his mother left for Canada.
“If you came back as a single mother to Ireland in 1910, which she did, with a baby, you better pretend you got married. So maybe she just made up the name [Kingsley] say she was married.
“My grandfather always used to say, ‘Go to Ballina, this is the family place.’
We are seated in the comfortable bedroom of his house in Surrey, just outside London, where he starts writing at his desk at 7:30 am each morning. Nearby is a pinball machine, a pool table set up for a game, and a life-size Dalek – he’s already appeared in Doctor Who – whose guns are pointed at us.
His daily life consists of writing all morning before going out, sometimes to dig in his garden: “Turning the vegetable patch is easier than thinking of jokes. I still think about it [writing] like building a house: you build the foundation, you build the walls and you put on the roof. And then you wallpaper it. Jokes are the wallpaper of the sitcom. The hardest part is the part no one ever sees, the foundations.
He tells me that he just finished writing the 12th series of Not Going Out, in which he also stars. The show, a studio sitcom in which he plays the hapless Lee, has remained despite, as he puts it, the “very uncool” genre. He remembers how, just as he was directing the pilot show, a TV documentary aired called Who Killed the British Sitcom? “The studio sitcom is considered by a lot of people to be old-fashioned. Whatever the truth, millions of people continue to watch, series after series, its longevity as a tribute to its popularity.
For over 15 years the show, based in a town in Surrey just along the Thames from where we sit, and Would I Lie to You, the board game where Mack appears as team captain, have made him a staple of prime-time BBC television.
WILTY, as it’s called, relies on Mack’s lightning-fast wit and lines, as well as his teasing of fellow comedians and off-air friends Rob Brydon and David Mitchell. He describes the show, in terms of work, as “the closest I’ve ever had to laughing with my friends in a pub.”
He left school at 15 but returned to college in his early twenties to study film, television and drama, and to “hang out with the arty guys.” It was also there that he met his wife, Tara, whose father is from Belfast. The couple have two sons and a daughter.
He describes an evening at the Comedy Store in London in 1990 watching comedians Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard as a turning point: “I had never heard of any of them, but it blew me away. It was a life changing moment. I thought, this is what I wanted to do.
Performance was in his blood, as his paternal grandfather, called Billy Mack, had been a stage performer, but the rise to stardom took a decade of long, hard work. He took on a series of dead-end jobs, including working in racehorse stables, to support the dream. The first time he took the stage and picked up the microphone was in a small, low-key pub in Surbiton, south-west London. Although he wasn’t an instant hit, he was addicted.
On his first trips to Ireland and the UK, learning his trade, he recalls difficult comedy locations including a nightclub in Warrenpoint, County Down. At the bar next, a man from the audience slipped in, put his arm around the young comedian, and said, with a hint of threat: “Not so arrogant now you’re not on stage, are you- not?
A big leap forward took place in 1995 when he won the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? stand-up award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Tommy Tiernan and then Peter Kay won the award in the following years.
His more recent career has taken other turns. Over the past year, he co-hosted a podcast titled I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha. “I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m interested in Buddhism,” he says. He started meditating six years ago after taking a walk in the park with Rob Brydon. Brydon’s own comedy hero Jerry Seinfeld had previously opened up about his experience with transcendental meditation, so the couple decided to give it a go.
He thinks his meditation has helped him become “a little calmer, a little more relaxed – but only a little bit.” Reading about meditation led to more research, some times when he meditated twice a day, and a deeper interest in Buddhism.
I’m not interested in telling people I’m going to Magaluf for three weeks or buying Cornish pâté. it doesn’t make sense to me
We are talking about the challenges faced by young actors who are trying to find their way, especially during the Covid, and who build their profiles via social networks, which he understands perfectly. Unusually among comedians, Lee Mack himself avoids social media.
“I never felt the need for it,” he says. “If I have something to say to someone I haven’t met – in other words, the audience – then that’s what the stage is for, what the TV is for. I have this medium for speaking to the public. I’m not interested in telling people I’m going to Magaluf for three weeks or buying Cornish pâté. It doesn’t make sense to me.
He hasn’t done a stand-up for several years and tells me he definitely wants to come back before long. He also wants to appear in a play next year, his second, and plans to perform more.
So what about the most recent advice from an Irish source? They came from Ireland’s top football goalscorer Robbie Keane last month and led sports superstars chanting Lee Mack’s name in a famous football locker room.
Keane was acting as a coach on Soccer Aid, a live televised event that raises millions for Unicef and features famous sports figures and stars from comedy, music and beyond. It was the fourth time Mack had made the squad in front of a huge Soccer Aid crowd, and in the past he had missed penalties and easy scoring opportunities.
He happily wiggles his right foot beside his desk and shows his instep. “He [Keane] spent an hour or two with me the day before telling me how to kick a ball, showing me how I was shooting it poorly.
From the pass until the moment she reached my foot, all I thought was, do what Robbie Keane told you. For god’s sake, hit the ball with the middle of your foot
The advice worked. Playing for the World XI against an England team in front of 51,000 spectators, including his own son, at the home of Manchester City, the ball came to him in front of the goal at the very end of the match.
“From the pass by the time she reached my foot, all I thought was, ‘Do what Robbie Keane told you. For God’s sake, kick the ball with the middle of your foot. ‘ Fortunately, his shot hit the back of the net, the signal for Lee Mack to be assaulted by football’s greats.
Weeks later, he’s still euphoric: “It was a bit overwhelming. They loved beating the English. They also loved that probably the worst player on the pitch, and certainly the oldest, had just scored. “