The artist formerly known as Hugo Boss is talking to me about bins. Namely photographing them. He says he’s obsessed.
“I’m going to make a coffee table book of bins. Just for my own pleasure. Because I’ve always wanted to make a really beautiful coffee table book. But now the hours I’ve spent photographing bins, editing bins, looking at bins… I’ve got a wall of bin photos in my house. I’ve got thousands of pictures of bins…”
To prove the point, he holds up a picture of a bin to the screen of our video call. It’s a very nice bin, I have to admit. So, what started this obsession?
“The bin that started it off was in this bucolic countryside scene in Cambridge. And then there’s this big lump of metal covered in moss. And the two things next to each other were quite pleasing to me and there’s something quite funny about it. I like bold splashes of colour in otherwise grey scenes. If you wander around a city centre it’s often grey until there’s a bright yellow bin.”
I didn’t know the interview would go in this direction, I tell him. Joe Lycett (the name he has now reverted to- more on that later) laughs as if to say, you think you’ve got it bad? “I didn’t know my life would go in this direction!”
Bins aside, it is a direction that has seen the 32-year-old chart a course from the comedy clubs of Manchester and Birmingham, via panel shows and Live at the Apollo, to prime-time presenting gigs on TV. Thanks to programmes such as The Great British Sewing Bee he is a household name with celebrity friends (“a little bit famous,” he quickly corrects me.) He is probably the most high-profile pansexual man in Britain today; a queer artist who never shies away from addressing LGBTQ+ issues in his comedy, often in ways that make them accessible and inclusive- and of course very, very funny- to audiences of all identities and ages.
But why is this comedian-come-presenter planning a coffee table book about bins, other than an extreme case of lockdown?
Lycett cites a ‘little man in his head’ who won’t let him rest. He explains that it’s a quote originally attributed to Francis Bacon. The little man in the artist’s head tells him constantly that there is work to be done. Call it drive, or ambition, or even something darker and more restless, it is a quality Lycett can relate to. “Sometimes it’s annoying because it gets in the way of relationships and all sorts of things. But I’m just very grateful to have that drive within me that goes, you’ve got to keep making things!”
Joe Lycett quotes generously when you talk to him. Joan Rivers, Jimmy Carr, Katharine Ryan’s mum and Jack Whitehall’s dad are all cited during the course of our conversation. It never seems like name dropping but rather like he is engaged, eager to learn, and gifted with retention. It makes him charming to talk to. This eagerness (and that little man in his head) means that he can turn his hand to a multitude of creative endeavours. His website describes him as “a comedian, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, television presenter, poet, gardener, dietician, radio presenter, tuning fork, Fiat Punto manual and queer.” Shockingly, very few of those titles are jokes.
“Sometimes I do think it would be nice to not be constantly generating ideas. Because if I come up with an idea- and it’s a good one- I kinda have to see it completed. And sometimes that’s years worth of work. The mental to do list…you’re never finished. It’s never over! It’s relentless!”
His success is sometimes described as meteoric, probably solely by virtue of Lycett still being in his early 30’s. It’s not a term he enjoys “because meteors crash into the ground, they don’t rise. It doesn’t make sense as an analogy!” He instead describes his rise as being in ‘fits and starts.’
“It’s all over the place really. It’s a jagged thing. Not really a rise at all.”
I was at Joe Lycett’s first gig, in Manchester 13 years ago. At least that’s what I’ve told people for the past decade. We were both at university in the city at a similar time, and I saw the young Lycett perform for the first time at the Comedy Store as part of a mixed bill of student comics. He immediately stood out from the crowd. Charming, camp, both self-assured and self-deprecating, in my memory the consensus was that he emerged from the evening as the one to watch. All the more impressive as this was his first attempt at stand-up.
Turns out it wasn’t his first attempt at stand-up. Not really.
“I don’t want to admit to what my first ever gig was!” Lycett confesses to me that his actual first gig was an ‘absolute shitshow’ a few weeks earlier at a night where anyone could get up and have a go and “if the audience didn’t like it, you essentially got booed off.” That’s what happened to him.
“I went to watch- not to do stand up. And then I discovered that cider has quite an effect on blunting my nerves… I had an awful joke about Madeleine McCann that wasn’t even a joke. And then I fell off stage. So…not good. But I’m really glad that it happened because it put a fire in me to prove to the people in that room that I could do it. It was a necessary part of the journey. Like with any creativity, the need to fail and be humiliated a bit is necessary to get the drive to show people that you can actually do it. So I am grateful for that. But it wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through.”
Necessary or not, the desire to avoid that humiliation again meant that Lycett would thoroughly prepare before the next gig. Whilst still ‘not a triumph by any means’ it was this performance in front of his peers that sparked an addiction to the ‘buzz’ of live comedy that has been a constant for him for almost 15 years.
Interestingly, also performing that night was an actor/comedian called Jack Whitehall, who at the time was just beginning to become ‘a low-level celeb around campus.’ Unlike Lycett, however, he wouldn’t stick around to finish his degree, a fact that Whitehall’s father Michael points out whenever they bump into one another.
It’s important to have something to fall back on. “At least I have that Drama and English degree that is wildly useful,” he jokes.
From that ‘official’ first gig onwards, Lycett embraced the itinerant life of a stand-up comic, honing his craft over the next few years at gigs up and down the country, before securing appearances on national TV and headlining venues. He describes being driven by the desire for a full diary, feeling in demand. “I didn’t care what the gig was, I just wanted to add another date to the list.”
Far from a meteoric rise (or another analogy that actually makes sense) those first years felt incremental, with the goal posts constantly moving.
“I really wanted to be able to play a weekend at the Birmingham Glee Club, because that’s where I first saw stand-up live. And I never thought I’d ever get there. So when I first got my weekend at the Glee Club I was blown away by that. And thought, I’d done it. And I’d always said to my agent that Live at the Apollo to me was the pinnacle. If you’ve done Live at the Apollo you’re a stand up. So the night I did Live at the Apollo I was like I’ve done it! And she was like, ‘no there’s loads more to do!’ Each stage you go a bit further.”
The actor Jameela Jamil is a friend of Lycett’s, and has claimed in interviews that the ‘good bits’ of her character Tahani in the hit sitcom The Good Place are based on him. I ask him if it is surreal to be the inspiration behind a character known and loved by millions of people worldwide?
“Yes! I need to watch The Good Place. Because I know people love it. Is it a compliment?”
I tell him that it probably is a compliment, and he deflects by launching into a story about how he came to know Jamil and how much fun she is to be around. So then, what is the most surreal moment of his career to date?
Lycett struggles to answer, keen to emphasise he doesn’t have a very ‘celeb-y life.’
“I remember when I was at the Royal Variety Show and I had done the Johnathan Ross Show the week before. Robbie Williams came up to me backstage and said, ‘you were really funny on Johnathan Ross!’ I thought, fucking hell Robbie Williams knows who I am! That’s weird isn’t it! There’s points when you realise there are people who know who I am and have opinions on me… I’m just fascinated I occupy any space in the brain of someone like that or Stephen Fry. If you say Joe Lycett to him he goes oh yes! And has thoughts and opinions.”
So does he enjoy being ‘a little bit famous?’
“I suffer from anxiety a little bit. And somebody asked me the other day if I suffered from anxiety because I’m famous. Which I think is almost certainly true, because you check yourself a little bit more than the average person, in case you get photographed etc. And they asked if maybe I had realised that I didn’t want to be famous? And I was like no! It’s definitely better than not being! No, I’m a fan [of being famous.]. Of the two options, I’ll stick with this one!”
But for Lycett, as for everyone, the pandemic has changed everything this year. After almost 15 years of performing live, he is now experiencing his longest ever stretch without a gig. He knows he is fortunate both in being able to financially survive the slump and in being able to fill the time with other projects (that little man in his head again.) But he’s very aware that others- and the industry as a whole- may not be so lucky.
“We will lose some comedy clubs, there’s no getting round it,” Lycett warns. “And we will also lose a younger generation of comics who would have spent this year doing those early gigs. We’ve lost them. They’ve moved on to something else. It doesn’t seem like a viable thing anymore. It’s been exposed as a risky place to be if a pandemic hits again. And that’s a real tragedy because the whole industry is reliant on new fresh voices and people pushing the existing voices to be better and more thoughtful and to progress.”
I picture the 19-year-old Joe Lycett being denied the opportunity to discover the buzz of live performance in front of a real audience. How many potential unique voices have we lost this year when our live culture fell silent? Through the privations of lockdowns and disease?
“You’ll never be able to quantify it. You’ll never know how many you’ve lost. But there’ll be bloody loads.”
“I was attracted to men so I thought that I must be gay. And was sort of horrified by that, embarrassed by that, all the things that people of my generation talk about…there weren’t out people at school. It wasn’t a cool thing to be in any way.
And then I did come out as gay, maybe towards the end of school, in sixth form. And I realised that I found girls really attractive too. So I realised I maybe I hadn’t nailed it down. I ended up as bi. But these things happen quite slowly.”
These days Joe Lycett defines as pan. Or bi, still. Or queer. He’s not precious about terminology.
“The pan thing…to me it’s an intellectual way of thinking about sexuality. I do not expect to see it on any forms or whatever. It’d be nice to use it more than I do. But it’s not something that I get that fussed about. Pan articulates the beauty of how complex the thing is.
Someone described themselves as ‘spontaneous-sexual.’ I thought that was quite interesting. It moves with the times and with your moods and so many other things. Bi didn’t feel quite right, so when I heard the word pan- how that just means ‘all’- I thought yeah, fair enough. That sounds a bit more correct.”
Lycett is very aware how it’s easy to get distracted by myriad labels and identities when there are still larger injustices to battle.
“As I’ve got older I’ve realised that sexuality is this slightly intangible thing. Like a lot of people, I would ideally like to get to a point where nobody gives a shit either way. But unfortunately being anything but straight in some places is a death sentence. So, whilst that remains the case, people who have similar experiences of sexuality and are persecuted for it, need to help one another out and need to speak when injustices are happening. But in an ideal world, there would just be none of it. There would just be consent. And not hurting people.”
Lycett adds a suggestive “unless they WANT to be hurt…” to ensure things are kept appropriately silly.
This is central to his comedy persona. He is a big believer in the power of ‘the silly stuff’, as he describes it. To be able to smuggle complicated points about trans rights or the gay-washing of Pride festivals into surreal, charming routines. It proves an effective way of reaching people who might otherwise be new to the concepts.
“There were people who were messaging me after coming to my stand-up show to say, ‘I was with my mum, and she didn’t understand any of this before, but she loves you on the Sewing Bee, so she wanted to see your show. You educated her, which meant that I didn’t have to do it.’ That’s really exciting for me.”
And if it meant losing a few audience members? “Then I’d always get them back on side by talking about my arsehole or whatever.”
Not that it’s always that easy being a pansexual in the public eye. Lycett was deeply affected by witnessing the backlash that accompanied Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran coming out as pan.
“That was one of the toughest days I’d had as a pansexual. Seeing that response.” Why does he think some people still react in negative ways? In short, what’s their fucking problem?
“I think essentially it comes from intellectual laziness, a lack of curiosity in the human condition and wanting to return to some era that didn’t really exist. For me, it’s fucking interesting when people have got different things and want to describe themselves in different ways. As Katherine Ryan’s mum said to her, ‘if we were all the same we’d all be shagging your father.’ I think that’s brilliant.
Life is fascinating and there’s always things to discover. And I think if people see the world in a different way, great! Let’s ask them why and see whether that can inspire a different way of doing things. Surely it’s better to be excited by the possibility of a new future and new things? Even if they are novelty. Even if the word pansexual morphs into some blob or whatever. Whenever there’s friction I think that it’s people taking a thing too seriously, regardless of whether they are pro or anti it. We’re all going to die. We haven’t got long. Fucking chill out. That’s my rule.”
It doesn’t sound like Joe Lycett is chilling out anytime soon, to be fair. The week of our conversation he won two Royal Television Society Awards for his work on the Sewing Bee and on Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back. The comedy-consumer rights programme is coming back for a third series soon and may be the achievement he is most proud of.
“We’re working on it now. We’re looking for stories. I particularly would like to do more stories from queer voices and trans voices. And all minority groups really.”
Not that it’s easy to make. “It involves me camping outside a company’s headquarters for two days in order to grab the CEO. It’s really involved, what we do…it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up in jail for the show!”
And of course, changing his name to Hugo Boss in order to protest the fashion house’s overzealous brand protection.
“Changing your name. It’s a lot. But in a really good way. But I’m so proud of it and so glad that it’s the show that has my name on it. That it’s not Joe Lycett’s Tits of the Year, or whatever.”
Is that next in the pipeline? I think he could probably pull it off.
“I’m working on Tits of the Year. I think it’ll be a huge hit.”
And if that doesn’t work there’s always the coffee table compendium of bins to fall back on…maybe?
“I’ve looked into the costings! It’s going to cost like 40 quid to make each copy! Hopefully there’s other people out there passionate about bins, because if not I’ll have a lot of copies of a book about bins!”
It seems unlikely the little man in Joe Lycett’s head is going to let him rest anytime soon.
Joe Lycett was interviewed by Joe Von Malachowski