It's ironic that Lee Evans went on Jonathan Ross to announce his career's demise, because he rarely ever went on TV to fluff it up while it was alive. He did not do Live At The Apollo. He has never done Mock The Week. He never even jolly hockey-sticksed it about on Radio 4 with any combination of Andy Hamilton, Mark Steel, Josie Long and Robin Ince. He resisted all the usual things people do to get big.
Yet in the year before announcing his retirement to "spend more time with his wife", Lee Evans – a man perhaps less interesting than Yvette Cooper, a woman so boring you've just had to google her – sold some 700,000 tickets for his 2014 tour. There are only 60 million of us living on this island. That means 1 percent of the entire population (including children, invalids and the mentally paralysed), bought tickets for his shows, costing anywhere between £30 and £50 each.
Add it all up. The man was four Glastonburys. Three Rock In Rios. He's two Nurembergs, or if you prefer: 1x the entire population of Leeds. Imagine the entire population of Leeds watching Lee Evans. Congratulations, you've just imagined something numerically true.
He has been, for the past decade, the biggest underground (mainstream) comedy star in Britain, and the man who, 15 years ago, single-handedly popularised an idea we now take for granted – that standups should play arena shows.
This is troubling, because as he parts, it is going to become increasingly obvious that no one now living has ever been able to recollect anything memorable or interesting Lee Evans ever said or did.
After all, anyone you've ever met can go "Garlic bread?" in a Peter Kay stylee. Every tuppeny standup can do their own embittered version of Michael MacIntyre's wibbly voice descending from its highest pitch to resolve at an upwards intonation. Evans, however, resists easy spoofing. Do him. Go on…
His jokes are pure stock, bought-in from some shelf at the back of the Comedy Store. About his wife being a battleaxe, about budget hotels being crap, about "dyslexic" being a difficult word for dyslexics to spell. Populist? He was the Jimmy Carr of people who find Carr to be an impenetrable Stockhausen of comedy. He was Geoff in The League Of Gentlemen doing his open-mic standup: "Oh, the Tubes – the Tubes… there's, like, the law of the Tube… you don't talk to anyone on the tubes do you…", except instead of humiliation and suicide attempts, his routine ended with net receipts of 12,000 x 50 = £600,000 a night.
Evans would be the perfect hero for a time-travel movie, because his existence in the past can never affect any event in the future. If he makes a joke about the Innovations catalogue in 2001, that's fine. If he makes a joke about the Innovations catalogue in 2014 – and yes, he is still doing this – then his audience treat it as one and the same. The Innovations catalogue was discontinued in 2003. Somehow that never mattered.
On his last tour, he was the guy still doing jokes about dogs in surgical plastic collars looking like Shakespearean characters. He is the man still fearless enough to pose the question: what is up with people talking on mobile phones on trains? Imagine him in 1066. He would not be doing jokes about The Normans being uptight fascist assholes who talk funny. He would not even be doing jokes about Saxons being too stoned to dodge arrows, or how tapestry artists make you look all weird. No, he would be doing the exact same jokes about dogs that walk funny. He would be doing the same jokes about old people spilling tea.
He is the comedy changeling, the "have-you-ever-noticed" for people who have never noticed anything
He was the comedy changeling, the "have-you-ever-noticed" for people who have never noticed anything, ever. "Yes", his audience say, "You are right. There is like a law of the Tubes. I had not realised this hitherto-fore, but now that you point it out to me, I can appreciate how strange that is." This was practically remedial humour for the people who haven't even heard the first-tier gags before, so were only too happy to see them done very well, once. And well was how he did them – livewire, rubber-faced, punchy, just a consumate end-of-the-pier guy, as his dad had once been.
That was the main part genius – that he was an impeccable chassis that would take any engine. Lee Evans The Performer was a blank projection screen, ready to be loaded with whatever material could be drilled from life's banalities.
It didn't matter that he wasn't that guy from down the pub and was instead a multi-millionaire megastar. On his last tour, he found time to do a routine about the people you meet at JobCentres. No one batted an eyelid.
Of course, it's true that very few comedians ever go in with, "Have you ever noticed that Virgin Club Class they always give you the crayfish & caviar salad with that tiny little fork? It's like – how am I supposed to eat this huge gourmet Pierre Marco White signature salad with this tiny fork?" or, "Have you ever noticed that BUPA reception rooms are always really cold?" These are not relatable anecdotes.
But the irony is that despite the gaping disconnect between man and material, the first thing that strikes you about Evans The Man is precisely how genuine this pathologically insincere entertainer was deep down. He couldn't be more 4real if he carved the words into his forearm in front of Steve Lamacq. He still lives in the same two-bed house in Billericay he has occupied since his career first started to take off. He gives a lot of money to charity. He drives his daughter's Ford Fiesta around town.
Despite the gags to the contrary, in reality he loves his wife – she's not a crazed battleaxe at all, she's a girl he met when she was 19, his childhood sweetheart whom he clings to with a moist-eyed affection.
If you wanted pop-psych the guy, you might say that his childhood spent moving from school-to-school following his father's flickering career from one pier to another eventually fed within him a deep desire for constancy. That he was conservative in the best way possible – he valued life's simplest, most wholesome pleasures. The sort of guy capable of drumming up a ripe nostalgia for the present. Rip it up and start again was the opposite of his motto. He wanted his audience to feel life as an unending spool of continuity, not a series of fissures and revolutions.
That was the way he rolled. If he made a joke about the Innovations catalogue, it is because we would all like to believe that somewhere out there, we still lived in an age where people purchased useless gadgets through mail order, instead of an age where Amazon strips immigrant labour units to the quick in starship-hangar depots outside Milton Keynes. A Britain where the clock still chimes at three, there is honey still for tea and the dyslexics still can't fucking spell the fucking word. We don't always need people to challenge us. Sometimes we just need people to pat us on the head and tell us tomorrow will look just like yesterday, and it's all going to be just fine.
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