Mack the Life, a review

When Lee Mack’s autobiography, Mack the Life, arrived in the post, I thought What the hell kind of editor let a comedian get away with his first book clocking in at 415 pages? I was recently the editor of a comedy memoir, and one thing I learned from researching the genre was that readers don’t want more than 250 pages of listening to you. Even Lee Mack says he only does one half of a standup show (meaning no intermission) because that’s more than enough to ask of people to sit through listening to one person. However, despite my initial reaction, the 415 pages flew by, and when I got to the end, I wished there were more pages because I was sad it was over.

Mack the Life is a chronological telling of Lee Mack (ne McKillop)’s life from growing up in a pub to today’s status of one of Britain’s best liked comedians. It’s strictly a “how I got into comedy” with a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in book, and so does not go into family life or much else.

This is a self-aware book. You get the sense that Lee Mack has a first-time-author glee, as he will sometimes purposely leave in typos because he found them amusing when coming across them in the proofread. He will footnote certain marker points, like 70,000 with a Jaffa Cake reward. He doesn’t do research and admits his ignorance if he forgets someone’s name or has made something up because he doesn’t actually know how it works. He’s also a comedian who likes to second guess his audience, as you’ll know if you’re familiar with his “some wanker always says comedian” t-shirt routine, so in the book you’ll find gags like this one:

Comedians don’t go round seeing funny things, they see things that they can make funny. There’s an important difference. In fact, some comedians do the almost impossible and see funny things that they then make unfunny, but enough of _ _ _   _ _ _ _ (fill in your own name according to who you dislike. And if you’re thinking of putting my name in there, count the dashes. I’m ahead of you.)

Although there are a lot of interesting pre-showbiz stories–riding Red Rum, being fired from the bluecoats for calling the audience the C-word, training to be a professional darts player–the book really peaks once Mack starts to break into the industry. That first moment he was ever in a comedy club and got to see the likes of Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan, how his career kicked off with a live sketch show he did with Catherine Tate, how Steve Coogan later offered him a TV gig based on those sketches, how he was cast in the American remake of that show opposite Kelsey Grammer, and the agonizing scenes of his So You Think You’re Funny performance going horribly wrong from inside a prop wardrobe. Mack’s analysis of showbiz is thorough (and largely what I was hoping most to read about). He talks about the differences between actors and comedians who act, sitcoms vs. realism comedy dramas, and American sitcoms vs. British sitcoms. If there’s anything missing from this section, it’s characterization. Although he seems to have liked a lot of people, you get no sense of “what was it like to work with Catherine Tate?” for example. You get very little real-time scenes, except for the wardrobe scene, of course. It’s hard to tell if this is something he could  have improved upon or if it was a conscious decision because he thought characterization wasn’t relevant or it was dangerous from a legal standpoint.

In the same way that Hot Fuzz highlights paperwork because it takes up most of police officers’ time yet is never mentioned in films and TV, Mack the Life highlights the writing process because a key to comedy success is making the jokes look effortless, which means it’s easy to forget (and yet essential to forget) that most of a comedian’s time is spent writing. We see in detail the thought process that went into creating the characters, situation, and plot of the Not Going Out pilot, as though we are experiencing his brainstorm in real time. One of the best parts of the book is when he gives us a bunch of his awful early one-liners.

Picking up a rubber snake and doing a deliberately bad ventriloquist act saying ‘One plus one is two, two plus two is four, four plus four is eights.’ Then, looking at the audience, I would say ‘He’s an adder.’

Creating Not Going Out is personally my favorite part of the book. In many ways, the British sitcom (as a genre) was dead by the time Not Going Out started shooting, but that’s why they did it. Mack talks about his research in creating the sitcom, how he’d been directed that there needs to be a joke a page, but when he looked at American sitcoms, which have a big team of writers instead of just one like British sitcoms, he realized they needed a lot more than just one joke per page. He goes on to talk about casting and how he preferred working with comedians who could act rather than actors who could deliver a joke. His original co-star left after one season, which he blames on himself for being difficult to work with as a control freak, but also recognizes an underlying problem of cultural differences (her being American and him being Lancastrian). In fact, if you are American (which, this blog is geared toward), this may be a very good bio for you to read because of the occasional musings on the differences between British and American comedy/showbiz/psyches.

Mack has nothing but wonderful things to say about his current co-stars and talks about how happy he is that his cast are all normal people. This is something else I like about the book: He recognizes the difference between telly people and normal people. He’s annoyed that telly people are all yes-men who will tell you that your ideas are great even if they aren’t, when all he wants, as a writer, is some proper, truthful feedback. He’s also a comedian who has said that his real friends (save perhaps Sean Lock and Catherine Tate) are not comedians. I like that he’s able to take a few paces back from showbiz and recognize that it isn’t how the rest of the world functions and it isn’t a world he wants to be completely consumed by. Although this book isn’t about his family, you definitely come away from it understanding that his wife and three kids are his priority and he looks forward to retiring early so he can potter about the house and eat chocolate in the shed.

Finally, each chapter ends with a transcription of meetings he had with a psychologist who read an earlier draft of the book. He hired her in hopes of adding some depth to the book (which he says he did go back and retool the book some after meeting with her). Toward the beginning of the book, she diagnoses him with ADHD and explains his self preservation, likely built up in reaction to his father walking out on his family. Mack’s distracted thoughts intermingle with the dialogue. After these initial sessions, the later psychologist segments just serve as devices for gags, such as admitting he changed something she said to make him look better. I wish these sections went more into depth, but what I found most interesting was his own self analysis. He recognizes that he (as well as many comedians) value the trait of being funny as more important (and sometimes it is the only important trait) than anything else, like being kind or loyal.  I can relate to this. I was recently asked how my job interview went. I replied, “I made the HR person laugh a few times.” I thought nothing strange about my response until I read Mack the Life and realized that that is not the traditional response to someone asking how a job interview went. Usually people talk about the questions or their answers, showing up on time, whether they were asked back. I realized that I responded to the question in the way I did because coming across as funny was really the only thing I valued.

Mack-the-Life-pbBefore I read Mack the Life, I’d heard that Lee Mack had written the book completely on his own, no ghostwriter (possibly no developmental editor either?), so as a developmental editor myself, I was wary to the quality of the writing. There were definitely things that could have been edited, as he does that thing that comics do where they write the same thing two or three times but in different ways. I think this must come from writing for the stage because if you can get three consecutive laughs by saying the same thing in three different ways, that’s three times the laughs you would have gotten by saying it once. The book medium doesn’t have the same rules because it’s not about quantity of laughs but about moving the story and giving the reader new information. This is a minor point and something other comedian book writers do sometimes. Overall, the book is well-written. He doesn’t get in the way of his writing more than he needs to, he manages to address the reader directly without turning the reader off, and he keeps the prose lively with surprising gags that will make you laugh out loud in a crowded train. As much as he dances around the ending, discussing the difficulties in ending a book (so difficult, in fact, he wanted to do two books so that he could put off writing the ending), it actually has the perfect tone. It’s slowed down. It’s slightly reflective but mostly opinionated, conversational. You can almost hear the fasten seatbelt sign ding on as the plane gets ready to relax into it’s final descent. I know, not a good metaphor as Lee Mack is afraid of flying.

Okay, here’s the story about Lee Mack getting kicked out of the bluecoats. In his list of greatest things that ever happened to him, he lists “making John Cleese laugh.” I can only assume it’s this moment. Cleese is practically rolling on the floor.


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