‘I’d never have made it in the corporate world’: Joe Lycett on comedy, consumer activism and queer communities

Joe Lycett is the go-to guy for getting up corporate noses. And there’s nothing he likes more than breaking a few rules to get to the truth

One Monday in March 2020, Joe Lycett got a call inviting him to go on live TV to explain why he’d recently changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss. Long story short, he’d done it to challenge the brand’s heavy-handed use of cease and desist letters, and it was a typically Lycettian stunt, Robin Hooding the rich with humour and a small amount of rage. It was one of his rare days off, when he wasn’t filming a Channel 4 show or on a standup tour. Which meant that, when he got the call, Lycett was doing his unofficial weekend job, caring for a friend who was dying of bowel cancer. “I said, ‘They want me on the Victoria Derbyshire programme in an hour.’ And he was sat next to me in the bed like, ‘Well, off you go then!’ He loved it. All the carnage I create.”

So his friend would’ve loved what happened two years later. “I go for a swim with my mum once a week,” he says, taking a delicate swig of coffee. “And she normally takes a bit longer to come out, so while I was waiting I posted a made-up Sue Gray report on Twitter. I found the Cabinet Office logo and put it together as a little image on my phone.” It was the end of January 2022 and partygate was raging. Which was why it wasn’t a huge surprise when he got a message from someone who works in Parliament to say it had been read as a serious leak, that MPs were visibly panicking.

Among the “findings” on Lycett’s document were the revelation that one of Johnson’s staff was referred to as “Twateral Flow”, and that they played a game called “Pass the Arsehole”. He tells me the story with glee, in full and considered paragraphs, holding eye contact. “One of the things I both loved and hated about my friend was that he’d always stay at a party after everyone else had gone, whereas I love going home. So when he was told he had days to live, he defied all of it, and just kept going.”

Writing on the wall: the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, unveils a commemorative plaque at the official opening of Joe Lycett’s new kitchen extension named The Mosquito Wing in her honour at his home on 14 May 2019.
Writing on the wall: the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Yvonne Mosquito, unveils a commemorative plaque at the official opening of Joe Lycett’s new kitchen extension named The Mosquito Wing in her honour at his home on 14 May 2019. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Until of course, he didn’t. The day after Lycett’s Sue Gray report made headlines, he tweeted again. “I write comedy sometimes as a way of anger,” he began. He was angry, he said, because his friend had died in lockdown, “and I wasn’t there because I was following the rules, and we had a tiny insufficient funeral, because we were following the rules, and I drove his kids away from that funeral back to Birmingham without any sort of wake, because we were following the rules, and it felt unnatural and cruel and almost silly, but we did it because we followed the rules.” He ended quietly: “You might wonder how it feels to have been described in the papers as having caused these people ‘chaos’ and ‘mayhem’ and ‘mass panic’ because of a few jokes. Let me be clear: it feels absolutely fucking fantastic.”

It was one of those moments when a flag was stuck in the wet sand of the pandemic, an anger perfectly articulated that resonated first across the internet and then across the country. He only wishes his friend could have seen it – he would have been thrilled at the chaos. “I’m very proud of what I wrote,” he says. “And it feels like a good use for my comedy.”

Because yes, while Joe Lycett is very keen to make people laugh, he also wants his work to have an impact, and he does this largely by being lovely. There’s another comic he adores: “Quite an auntie-like figure, really smiley, and then she calls you a cunt and you love it. I think that sort of thing is quite powerful. You can get away with so much when you’re nice.” He chuckles, delightful. Recently he made a documentary about greenwashing, pointing out that the $900m Shell claims to spend on renewables is dwarfed by the $17.8 bn of their total investments. When he visited the Shell headquarters to confront them, “Our director found it so fascinating. Having worked on lots of other films where people are in your face, with a banner maybe, he saw that security don’t really know how to deal with someone who’s not being aggressive, who’s just being very lovely, telling them you like their jacket. It’s disarming. And so I run with that as much as possible.”

Balloon debate: Joe Lycett wears top by jacquemus.com; trousers and jacket by Homme Plisse (uk-store.isseymiyake.com); shoes by grenson.com; necklace by samhamdesign.com; and socks by uniqlo.com.
Balloon debate: Joe Lycett wears top by jacquemus.com; trousers and jacket by Homme Plisse (uk-store.isseymiyake.com); shoes by grenson.com; necklace by samhamdesign.com; and socks by uniqlo.com. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Along with the Hugo Boss stunt, three series of his consumer watchdog show Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back have seen him challenge Uber Eats’ hygiene policies by creating a takeaway located in an old skip, and flashmob a bank into refunding a defrauded customer. Rather than trying to fix the world, Lycett attempts to massage its smaller bureaucratic aches – Got Your Back, he offers, is a show that “celebrates the paper cuts of life”.

The Lycett I meet today is gently but noticeably different from the Lycett on TV – similarly charming, joyfully charismatic, but… “More masculine?” he suggests. “After lockdown I watched some of my old videos and I just didn’t recognise myself at all. Who is this person that’s flailing about being camp and ridiculous? It felt like another life that only exists on stage and drunk in gay clubs. Before I started performing I was always very irritating and obnoxious at dinner parties. Comedy is a good outlet for that – I can get the praise that I clearly need from that section of my life. And then the rest of the time I sort of enjoy being a bloke with a cat, doing my gardening.” On Instagram he has a fabulous sideline in gardening content, much of which involves labelling his camellias variations on “slag”.

He is insistent that he’s not a political comedian. “I’m not!” You are, I say. “I’m not.” You are. “Am I?” He uses his shows as a sharpened tickling stick, embarrassing corporations into behaving better. He speaks vividly and regularly online about LGBTQ rights. Though less obviously political, the matter-of-fact way he discusses his own mental health is striking. For the last year of his friend’s life he couldn’t eat or drink, and later Lycett realised it was this association that led to him getting panic attacks where he was convinced he was going to be sick. “And so I started to sort of close myself off from the world, which was obviously the wrong thing to do. Because what I’ve since discovered through therapy is to overcome those things, you have to do tons of it, and see that you’re OK.” He grimaces. “I had ‘an outbreak’ just before going on live TV. I thought I was going to be sick on Lorraine. Which actually would have been amazing. Ten minutes of standup writing itself.” He tweets Boris Johnson after PMQs as if he’s his best girlfriend, and he channels his anger into jolly but subversive stunts, which have led to him becoming a national treasure in waiting.

Pump it up: a stunt as part of Joe Lycett vs The Oil Giant.
Pump it up: a stunt as part of Joe Lycett vs The Oil Giant. Photograph: Isobel Frodsham/PA

“I do worry. There’s genocide happening all over the shop and I’m worried about somebody who’s been attacked in a gay village in Birmingham. Is my anger proportional here? But I suppose I’m cross because it’s my community. And at the moment I can see how the same mistakes and judgments are being made that I’ve seen before. I feel like we’re going backwards, and so that does make me cross.” In what way? “Trans rights for instance. The way trans people are talked about in the British media is completely different to America. It’s really important to talk about. I thrive and I exist and have rights because people before me fought for them. It’s my duty to do the same for the trans and non-binary community. I’m not a woman, so I can’t comment on what it is to be a woman. But I know it’s not right to treat people inhumanely.” When he talks about anger, sometimes it seems more like fear, or grief. “Stonewall, like any organisation of that size, will have made mistakes. But if you lose it, there’s nothing like it. You won’t see it again. And some people’s lives depend on it. It feels like the attack on Stonewall is emblematic of the attack on LGBT rights at large.”

He’s bisexual, which means (he joked to an audience), “You’re all at risk.” How much does his queerness inform his work? “I think if I wasn’t queer, I’d probably be working at” – he hmmm’s – “Ernst & Young. Doing some sort of mid- to top-tier accountant role. Probably pulling in around £100k? I’d have a very nice wife, two children, one with learning difficulties, but nothing that will hinder them too much.” He looks a little wistful. “Subconsciously, very early on, I knew I was not going to thrive in a corporate environment. The way I speak, let alone dress, was not encouraged. And so it’s not even really about sexuality, it’s about identity – it’s not about who you’re fucking, it’s about what you want to say. And my very existence was always sort of… questionable. I think the anger that I sometimes feel towards institutions is probably pent-up anger from that time. The institutions that turn you into the men that work for these institutions only serve the ones that conform, and anyone who can’t do that is left behind.” A few years ago a particularly nasty school bully served him in a Tesco Express, and told him how funny he was on TV. Lycett didn’t quite know what to do, so he said thank you, brightly.

On a signet ring Lycett wears on his left hand is the dialling code for Birmingham, his home and, arguably, his muse. He was born there in 1988, and after a decade of touring the country’s comedy clubs, and going viral after an 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown appearance in which he recounted a battle with York Council over a parking ticket (apart from popping down to London to film The Great British Sewing Bee or, for instance, Iceland to film Travel Man), Birmingham is where he’s stayed. In 2019, after buying a house in Kings Heath he invited the Birmingham lord mayor Yvonne Mosquito to officially open his kitchen extension. “It’s just a quietly creative and brilliant place. And it’s not showing off about being brilliant, it’s just getting on with it.”

Just for kicks: Joe Lycett wears jacket by kidsuper.com; jumper by sheepinc.com; trousers by jwanderson.com; shoes by eu.christianlouboutin.com; and necklace by samhamdesign.com.
Just for kicks: Joe Lycett wears jacket by kidsuper.com; jumper by sheepinc.com; trousers by jwanderson.com; shoes by eu.christianlouboutin.com; and necklace by samhamdesign.com. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

His new show is built around a stunt he’s been working on for three years, which began when he realised he’d paid too much for his house, but ended up as, “a love letter to my local community – it’s the thing I’ve made that I’m most proud of.” Why? “Because at its core, the show’s not about me. It’s about my neighbours’ goodwill.” The stunt includes aliases, drag queens, estate agents and phone calls from the police. “And it’s kind of amazing doing the previews and watching audiences as they realise what’s happening. It’s beautiful to see them go, ‘Wow, people; people are good.’ We all needed that; a reminder that out of something as silly as me trying to get my house price up, this incredibly empowering event can happen.”

The new show is called More, More, More! How Do You Lycett? How Do You Lycett?, with previous standup shows titled I’m About to Lose Control and I Think Joe Lycett and That’s The Way A-Ha A-Ha, Joe Lycett, which correctly suggest audiences dancing into the theatres, and him cheered before he’s even tried to bring down the government or told an impish story about his visit to the post office.

He brings up a specific comic strip. The first square is a comic on a podcast, quietly and seriously explaining the importance of comedy as an artform, as a political tool. And the second is the same comic on stage shouting about all the pussy he gets. “I know comedy isn’t high art, it’s basically just men shouting shit into rooms of drunk people,” he says, twinkling. “But I do love it.”

Tickets for Joe Lycett’s tour, More, More, More! How Do You Lycett? How Do You Lycett?, are on sale now, joelycett.com

Styling by Krishnan Parmar; assistant Bertie Oakes; grooming by Tyler Johnston using Kiehl’s Crème with Silk Groom and Tom Ford Beauty; shot at Big Sky studio

If you’d like to hear this piece narrated, listen to The Guardian’s new podcast, Weekend, on Saturday, April 2nd. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Eva Wiseman

The GuardianTramp

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