Earlier in his career, when he still wanted everyone to be a fan, Michael McIntyre had a list of people who’d slighted him, underestimated him, rejected him and (the ultimate slur, perhaps) said he didn’t make them laugh. Let’s call it his vendetta list. ‘Maybe mini-vendettas,’ he says, cheerily, lest I think he’s gone all Mafia hitman. ‘Vendetta is a bit strong.’
Did he have a list of names on his wall, or pictures he’d throw darts at? ‘Not on the wall, but there was a mental list.’ It included other comedians (mainly edgier, left-wing ones ‘who aren’t funny’, he says pointedly) who said he was too conservative, too middle-class, too safe, and Twitter trolls and professional critics who’d rubbished his comedy (he has a stock line for any hotel receptionist who asks if he’d like a newspaper in the morning – when he or she says ‘they’re complimentary’, he says ‘not to me!’).
Earlier in his career, when he still wanted everyone to be a fan, Michael McIntyre (pictured) had a list of people who’d slighted him, underestimated him, rejected him and (the ultimate slur, perhaps) said he didn’t make them laugh
The list also featured the names of aggrieved fans who’d shelled out to see him live, then voiced disappointment. One lingers in the memory. ‘A few years ago I’d done a gig in Amsterdam and I was using old jokes, not realising they’d gone out on TV so everyone had heard them. On the plane home there was a terribly rude message from someone saying, “You haven’t got any new jokes.”’
His face falls, even today. He was wounded, yet inspired. Furiously inspired. ‘I got on the laptop and wrote new jokes. It was a short flight – 40 minutes – but by the end I had a load of new material. So I kind of get motivated by that. It’s an “I’ll-show-you” thing.’
And so it has been all through his career, which has been driven partly ‘by the fear that all the critics and trolls were right, and that I would disappear again’. One of his most interesting mini-vendettas has been against Simon Cowell.
He tells the story of their odd relationship in his new autobiography, A Funny Life, which picks up where his last book left off, in 2006, as he started to become famous. By 2011 he was one of the most successful comedians in the world, generating huge ticket sales, and everyone wanted a piece of him, Cowell included. He may not have been a comedy fan (‘he prefers cartoons,’ says Michael) but saw the merits in having a quick-witted funnyman around, so hired him as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent.
This was a mistake. Just as Michael wasn’t at his best on TV panel shows, this wasn’t his territory either. He was better in the spotlight, rather than critiquing others in the spotlight. Simon hated his performance – and axed him after one series.
Michael can admit now that he was ‘let go’, although his publicist had said the decision to leave was Michael’s. The news was broken to him when he was on the Eurostar, heading for a romantic break with his wife Kitty. He briefly contemplated throwing himself off the train, he jokes, but it sounds like Kitty (‘who is always right about everything’) talked him down. He did do something extraordinary though. ‘After several mini bottles of red wine’ he sent a very embarrassing text to Peter Fincham, the then director of television at ITV, declaring that he would ‘now be creating an entertainment show to topple BGT or The X Factor’. He needed to feel he was ‘on a mission’, he tells me.
Mission accomplished, then. Or at least underway. Less than five years later, he had his own Saturday night series, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, which went directly up against The X Factor – and beat it in the ratings. ‘We thrashed them,’ he says in the book, with glee. It was the start of a TV career that has been used to settle all manner of scores.
As Michael points out, his path to the top has been littered with failures. He draws attention to them in his book, reliving the horror of his panned chat show, and documenting a disastrous BAFTA appearance in 2009 when he misjudged a joke about guests needing the loo, asking if they’d wet themselves yet. Most people have forgotten that. He hasn’t. He left the ceremony crushed, but vowing to one day return in more triumphant fashion. He did too, in 2017, when his Big Show won a BAFTA.
His mission continues. The X Factor is no more, but Michael’s latest TV game show The Wheel – conceived and launched during lockdown – is going from strength to strength. The format is already up and running in Germany, Poland and Portugal. ‘I’ve been on Zooms with all the hosts,’ he says. ‘It’s weird, they’re all overweight with wild hair and look remarkably like me.’ Michael McIntyres all over Europe, then. Not even Simon Cowell thought to clone himself.
He’s still mildly bewildered by some of the vitriol he has attracted over the years, but has realised he’s in good company. ‘I saw a documentary recently about the rough time the Bee Gees had. People were burning their records and holding marches. I had no idea.’ That people could hate the Bee Gees is as baffling to him as the idea that people could hate him. ‘When you’re new, it comes as a surprise because it’s a harmless job, isn’t it? What I’m trying to do is make people laugh. I’ve never tried to make anyone upset or angry, but so many times it will. I realise now that it’s human nature. It’s how we deal with success. We criticise, but you’ve got to realise you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
‘What I’ve also come to understand is that the “I-don’t-think-they-really-enjoyed-it” thing gives you another reason to fight, to do better. If someone disrespects you or puts you down, use it as a motivation.’
But in the book he doesn’t dwell on the Twitter haters. He says he didn’t want to give them oxygen. ‘It would make it seem as if the snidey stuff mattered.’ But it did! ‘Not as much as people think. You always have to remember that the opinion of Twitter isn’t reflective of the rest of the world. Look at election results.’
His book is a winning combination of the laugh-out-loud funny and the surprisingly poignant. He documents the loss of his agent Addison Cresswell, a legendary figure who steered the careers of everyone from Jonathan Ross and Lee Evans to Alan Carr. Today Michael calls him ‘an Alex Ferguson figure’ and says he owes him his career. When Addison died suddenly from a heart attack in 2013, Michael was lost and rudderless. He sat on his sofa and cried. ‘It was the first and only time my children have seen me cry,’ he admits.
He draws parallels with the loss of his father, the comedy writer Ray Cameron, who also died suddenly, in 1993, and (or so Michael thought at the time) in similar circumstances. He says, candidly, that Addison’s death hit him harder because his father, who was living in the States at the time, had not been a day-to-day presence in his life. Addison was. His father’s death was more complicated too – 17 years later Michael was devastated to discover that he had actually taken his own life. Although Ray Cameron had achieved great success in his career, notably writing for Kenny Everett, he also learned what it is to have that success disappear. It’s been claimed (although never really by Michael, and he is uncomfortable with the subject) that watching his father struggle in the business has left him permanently uneasy about his own place in it.
Let’s call it his vendetta list. ‘Maybe mini-vendettas,’ he says, cheerily, lest I think he’s gone all Mafia hitman. ‘Vendetta is a bit strong.’ Pictured, the comedian in September 2021
Whatever, the loss of Addison was up there in terms of emotional impact. ‘I did wonder what I was going to do without him,’ he says. He references the funeral, and watching some of the biggest names in comedy file in. It highlighted the conveyor-belt nature of what Addison did. ‘You had the younger ones he was bringing through, like Josh Widdicombe and Kevin Bridges. He knew how far to push them. I didn’t always agree. I remember saying to Kevin, “Are you sure you should be playing big stadiums?” but Addison was sure, and he was right. He’d seen it all before.’
This book does offer remarkable insight into the reality of becoming famous – and rich beyond your wildest dreams. He giggles today about the thrill of the path that took him from up-to-his-neck-in-debt to getting his first big paycheque (‘which was like winning the lottery’), to the point where he could, on a whim, decide to buy his children’s nanny a car. That happened during a jokey exchange about whether they could throw a tea bag into a bin. He said he’d buy her a car if she managed it. She did, and – voila! ‘It’s outside,’ he says, pointing out of the window.
So if he’s giving cars away, surely he’s stopped worrying about being broke? ‘Yes! You reach a point where you know you’re OK.’ At the age of 45 he’s worth a reported £58 million, but he’s still taking on work that you would imagine he could say no to, mainly corporate gigs. He says in lockdown he was booked to entertain the ‘people who make PCR tests. Obviously they’ve had a good year.’ It was a stressful experience because the company boss, who was meant to introduce him then disappear, lingered on screen, looking po-faced. Michael started to sweat as he did his routine, becoming increasingly furious that this man was refusing to laugh. ‘Later I discovered it was a still photograph of him. I was getting myself worked up about a photo.’
IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR LIONEL RICHIE…
Michael is hilarious – and very honest – in the new book about some of the more toe-curling parts of being a successful comic. He documents a part of the job few big-name comedians admit they do – the private bookings to entertain very rich clients.
He’s done his fair share of being flown in private jets to entertain at kids’ birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Mind you he’s in good company. ‘I had a call once when I was on holiday, asking me to do a set at a birthday party at a castle in Scotland. I said, “I can’t. I’m in Majorca.” They said, “It’s only one night. We’ll fly you here and back.” And they did.
‘At breakfast the next morning I was saying to all the other guests, “Guess where I was last night.” They said, “Did you try that tapas place?” and I said, “No, I was in Scotland!”’ But even at this point he would have been rich enough to say no, wouldn’t he? ‘Oh you’d be amazed who does it. At this one, Lionel Richie was there too. If it’s good enough for Lionel Richie…’
One insanely rich family booked him to entertain at a mere dinner party. Michael objected. ‘I said, “I can’t stand at the end of a table and tell jokes. I need a stage.” I got there to find this thing in the hallway. They’d built a plinth. I said, “Do they come out to the hall?” and they said, “No, we wheel you in.” And they did. They’d put a curtain around it, like a shower curtain.’
It says much about his motivation. He needs to make people laugh. He tells me that at various points in his career he has wondered about taking time off. When his eldest Lucas (now 15) was a toddler, he became distressed about how little time he was spending at home. He actually brought a cardboard cut-out of himself back from a tour and installed it in his son’s bedroom. ‘He was more of a father than I was,’ he says of the cardboard Michael. Is he being serious? ‘Yes, I was away so much.’ He asked his wife if he should take a year off. She said no, he needed to work for his own sanity. What happens when he doesn’t work? ‘I go odd,’ he says. ‘When I’m working I’m sharper, happier.’
I assume he’s talking about past experiences and ask when he last felt ‘odd’. ‘Well, I’m not a million miles from it now,’ he admits, referencing the bleakness of the past year and all those cancelled tour dates. He currently has one date for a stand-up show in the diary, and is obsessively monitoring sales.
Yes, Michael may say his fretting-about-his-career days are over, but he admits he still logs in as if he’s going to book tickets to his own shows, to see what seats he’s offered. ‘I go all the way to the credit card details bit,’ he says, then starts worrying about holding up true fans who want to book. My biggest fear is empty seats and drapes. Not the drapes!’ The what? ‘They’re when you fail to sell enough tickets, they cover up parts of the seating to disguise it.’
He once told me he thought he’d find writing a second book difficult because the struggle to become famous offered more comic potential than the reality of being famous. Clearly, his observational humour has survived the journey. He’s disarmingly honest about his neediness. Yes, he forces Lucas and his brother Oscar, 13, to watch him on TV.
When Big Show first aired, he invited the show’s producer and his wife round, with their family, to watch. They were TV executive Dan Baldwin and Holly Willoughby. Michael was furious, then intrigued, when, as he and Dan sat glued to the screen, the others’ attention wandered. Holly and Kitty were discussing nail varnish; the kids were running riot. ‘But that was a lesson,’ he says. ‘That is how people watch TV. They’re having conversations, cooking, on their phones. I learned from it.’
He reveals certain segments of the show were tweaked because of the way his family reacted. ‘During the Unexpected Star part [where talented members of the public are lured to the studio, given a glamorous makeover and invited to sing], there was a section where we’d meet the person’s family in the audience. My son hit his phone at this part, so I knew he found it boring and we ditched it.’
The Michael McIntyre show continues. This week he’s off to the US, where The Wheel is launching. He is beyond excited. ‘It’s like the Premier League,’ he admits. He does hope Simon Cowell is watching.
A Funny Life by Michael McIntyre is published on Thursday (Macmillan, £20).