[30 August 2012]
Before they became famous, many British comedians were part of the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club. Footlights opened doors for members of Monty Python and the Goodies, Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Mel and Sue, Punt and Dennis, Armstrong and Miller, Mitchell and Webb, but more importantly, it gave them the chance to develop their craft and comedic styles.
By contrast, before Sean Lock became a comedian, he worked as a labourer on building sites, an office worker for the Department of Health and Social Security, and a toilet cleaner and goat herder in France. Perhaps it was in part because of these varied experiences that when Lock did decide to become a performer, he became one of the most versatile comedians working today.
Lock’s comedy career began with stand-up. In 2000 he won the British Comedy Award for Best Live Comic, and he has consistently placed on “Greatest Stand-Up” lists since. He’s released two stand-up DVDs: 2008’s Sean Lock Live and Lockipedia from his sold-out 2010 tour of the same name.
On stage, he blends wordplay with slapstick and meets everyday observations with silly reactions. Much of his act can be rather laddish—yes, he’s got bits on drinking and football (he’s a big Chelsea supporter) and does talk about relationships and the differences between men and women. Unlike some of his contemporaries, though, he doesn’t really work the “New Lad” angle, viciously ripping into women because after all “we’re all equal now.” He’s more of a cheeky chappy; women may roll their eyes at a few of his gags (like when he tries to find a word to describe his long term partner—girlfriend doesn’t seem significant enough but “she doesn’t like ‘lodger’ and ‘lover’ doesn’t really describe our life together”), but they’re back onside for the rest of his show.
His grumpiness is definitely present throughout: his observational humour generally focuses on the things he hates—from the smoking ban to people with wheat intolerance—but most of the time, he himself is his object of complaint. He talks about going to see the first Cup Final at the new Wembley and meeting up with a member of the Response Squad security team who says he’s there to keep people from “acting like twats.” Lock reels off a list of people who’d be excluded if he were in charge: “25,000 United fans—they’d be out for a start. All the players, they’re all twats now, referees, linesmen. Duchess of Kent, she can fuck off.” He also bans anyone who has a starter before a football match, paints their face or wears a player’s name on their shirt as well as the St John’s Ambulance (“I know they do a wonderful job, but who doesn’t look at them and think, ‘Twat’”), all his mates and finally, Lock himself. But inbetween his bouts of bitching, he has moments of exuberance which show that he’s actually having a wonderful time entertaining his audience.
Part of his appeal is that he doesn’t work a singular persona: he’s clearly middle class but not snobbish (not even in an ironic way); he’s clever (the fact that he’s a frequent guest and occasional winner on QI is proof enough) but unafraid to discuss his lack of formal higher education. He can be political without being too heavy, stilly without being stupid, weird without being too weird. Steve Bennett wrote:
“Sean Lock is one of stand-up’s great lateral thinkers; able to take a straightforward comedy observation, then take that quantum leap of imagination needed to make it distinctively funny. It means his work straddles the surreal and the everyday – ensuring the audience always recognise where he’s coming from, despite the strong whiff of the ridiculous.” (“Sean Lock: Lockipedia Review”, Chortle, 5 March 2010)
This ability to appeal to many paved the way to larger audiences, on radio and on television. He’s been a brilliant panel member on shows like They Think It’s All Over, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and Have I Got News For You (which he guest presented in 2006). He’s been featured on Room 101 and Comic’s Choice and in 2006, he hosted his own show, TV Heaven, Telly Hell. He became the first team captain on 8 Out of 10 Cats in 2005 and maintains that spot today, despite also taking over for John Sergeant as the host of Argumental in 2011.
He’s managed to be almost everywhere, but without ever making audiences tired of seeing his face virtually everywhere. In fact, Channel 4 has recently commissioned a new series for him, called Hillbilly Holidays, in which he and his 8 Out of 10 opponent Jon Richardson will travel to the US to “see how real men live.” (“Channel 4 Send Sean Lock and Jon Richardson on a Hillbilly Holiday”, Channel 4, 5 July 2012) Lock’s charm is his incredibly quick wit and his ability to adapt to each one’s purpose and audience, without slipping into pretense or affectation, and while maintaining his own enjoyment of the experience. A great example of this was the 22 June 2012 episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats. The show is “about opinion polls, surveys and statistics,” and each week takes a “light-hearted” look at the news. The news this June was the show’s host, Jimmy Carr, who had just been outed (and criticised by the Prime Minister) for being involved in a tax dodging scheme. Lock’s attacks on Carr, whom he clearly likes, were consistently wicked yet never over-the-top nasty. There was no way the show could ignore the story, but public opinion on Carr’s wrongdoing was somewhat mixed, so Lock’s judgment on how harsh to be (and how not harsh to be) was perfect (in fact, it was in this episode that Lock called the Queen “a tax dodging bitch”, taking the heat off Carr at least temporarily).
Lock’s contribution to television hasn’t only been in the light entertainment department, though. In 2002, he moved the radio show he created, wrote and starred in, to television as 15 Storeys High. The show, set in a tower block, is a sitcom but with no studio audience or laugh track, and in many ways feels more like a series of short films, shot with interesting angles and transitions and making impressive use of awkward pauses. The tower block becomes a character itself, as many scenes feature residents we never actually meet but just eavesdrop on as they interact with each other and their imposing living conditions.
Lock stars as Vince, a pool lifeguard whom a colleague defends as “not creepy really, just a bit weird.” No one really likes him, including himself. His life is boring that he resorts to pretending he only has one testicle to make him appear more interesting to women. He ruthlessly bullies his child-like roommate Errol (Benedict Wong) in an attempt to protect him from the rest of the world, whom Vince hates, primarily because it hates him back.
The humour in 15 Storeys High is unlike the jokes Lock does on stage or panel shows (though one scene is based on a bit from his stand-up); however, it’s similarly sharp and funny. It’s often described as a dark comedy, and this is in part due to its realism: the world Vince and Errol live in is not pretty and neither are they. Vince, who shares grumpiness, wit and a striking physical resemblance with Lock, is not fanciable in the slightest (unlike the man himself). This distinction is about more than just the absence of eyeglasses (Lock wears them, Vince doesn’t); Vince seems hollow—when we are given glimpses of his emotional vulnerability (in Episode 1, we realise Vince is confusing other people’s lives with his own because his truth is just not interesting enough), he seems pathetic, rather than endearing.
But the dark realism is balanced with an amped up sense of surrealism. Vince and Errol get into some unusual circumstances, such as when Vince is sentenced to half a day in the public stocks (specially built outside his flat) after he’s accused of killing a swan. (He hadn’t; the swan committed suicide). But much of the surrealism centres on the neighbours: a man keeps a pony hidden in his tenth floor flat, a couple tries to break some upsetting news to their son about his grandmother (her tights stop below the knee, she’s got three pairs of glasses, false teeth and a built up shoe) because he needs to know that his nan “ain’t all she’s cracked up to be”; the man who is convinced that if he could just punch the wall hard enough, his girlfriend will come back. It’s a weird world.
15 Storeys High met with critical acclaim, and achieved cult status once the DVD was released, but has been described as “criminally overlooked” by the BBC (it’s never been repeated since its original broadcast). Lock is often asked if the experience has put him off writing another show. On Channel 4’s Comic’s Choice (20 January 2011), he said: “I’m not bitter. I think what you learn in this business is people always encourage you to take risks and we did take loads of risks with that show, and you have to accept sometimes that if you take risks, they don’t always perhaps pan out how you’d hoped. Artistically, creatively the risks paid off, but commercially they didn’t.”
Hopefully, he’ll continue to take risks in a variety of formats. I’ve yet to come across anyone who doesn’t like Lock. While he’s definitely got a dedicated following, even those who wouldn’t necessarily say they’re big fans seem to find him a genuinely funny guy. Fellow stand-ups like Frank Skinner and Bill Bailey have nothing but respect for him as a comedian and a man. He’s clearly committed to his craft and seems to enjoy his own work as much as audiences do. A jack of all trades, Sean Lock has managed to master the comedy world.
Christine Brandel was born in the American Midwest but came to life in England's East Midlands. She is an educator and a writer. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was a columnist for the arts and literature magazine, Incorporating Writing. She rants and raves through her character Agatha Whitt-Wellington (Miss) on her blog, Everyone Needs an Algonquin.