Lee Mack: ‘My grandad used to always say, Go to Ballina, it’s the family place’

The comic on his Irish roots, meditation, stand-up and advice from Robbie Keane

Lee Mack is laughing about two occasions, more than 20 years apart, when Irishmen leant towards him with words of encouragement before he stepped out in front of audiences.

The recent moment was ahead of a charity soccer match, live on primetime TV, which makes him grin happily just at the thought. More on that later.

The former was in Cork, in the City Limits comedy club, back in the late 1990s. It was early on in his time as a jobbing stand-up comedian and one of his first gigs outside London, and he was just off the bus.

If you came back as an unmarried mother in Ireland in 1910, which is what she did, with a baby, you were better off pretending you had got married

“I was in the kitchen,” he says. “Dara Ó Briain was the compere. I remember this guy who ran it putting his arm around me and asking if I was nervous. I said, yes, I was very nervous. He said, ‘You don’t need to be – they’re a lovely audience here. Honestly, you would have to be absolutely terrible to not go down well.’”


They were not the inspiring words he had hoped to hear as he was about to walk on stage but, despite that, the set went well. Galway was the next stop on the bus trip he shared with fellow comedian, Simon Pegg.

Within a few years, Mack – real name, Lee McKillop, and now aged 53 – had become one of the UK’s best known and most popular comedians, packing huge venues, a household name and a TV regular.

As well as career roots in Ireland, he has family ties too. Mack’s maternal grandfather, who he knew as Joe Kingsley, was born more than a century ago in Southport, the town in the north west of England where Mack himself grew up. He discovered the full story in 2018 while filming the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?

Young Joe’s mother took him back to Ballina, Co Mayo, her hometown, as a baby. Born out of wedlock, Joe, later known as Sonny Farrell to his Irish family, was brought up by his grandparents when his mother left for Canada.

“If you came back as an unmarried mother in Ireland in 1910, which is what she did, with a baby, you were better off pretending you had got married. So she may have just made up the name [Kingsley] to say she was married.”

“My grandad used to always say, ‘Go to Ballina, it’s the family place.’” On the filming trip, he met relatives, and he is planning a return visit with a cousin.

We are sitting in the comfortable room in his home in Surrey, just outside London, where he starts writing at his desk at 7.30am each morning. Nearby is a pinball machine, a pool table set up for a game, and a full-sized Dalek – he once appeared in Doctor Who – whose weaponry is pointing at us.

His daily routine involves writing all morning before emerging, sometimes to dig in his garden: “Turning the vegetable patch is easier than thinking of jokes. I always think of it [writing] like building a house: you build the foundations, you build the walls and you put the roof on. And then you wallpaper it. The jokes are the wallpaper with sitcom. The hard bit is the part which no one ever sees, the foundations.”

He tells me he has just finished writing the 12th series of Not Going Out, in which he also stars. The show, a studio-based sitcom in which he plays the hapless Lee, has stuck around despite, as he puts it, the genre being “very uncool”. He remembers how, just as he was making the pilot show, a TV documentary ran called Who Killed the British Sitcom? “Studio sitcom is seen by many people as an old-fashioned thing.” Whatever the truth, millions continue to watch, series after series, its longevity a tribute to its popularity.

For more than 15 years, the show, based in a Surrey town just along the River Thames from where we are sitting, and Would I Lie to You, the panel game where Mack appears as a team captain, have made him a staple of BBC primetime TV.

WILTY, as it is known, hinges on Mack’s lightning-quick wit and one-liners, and his teasing of fellow comedians and off-air friends Rob Brydon and David Mitchell. He describes the show, in work terms, as “the nearest I’ve ever had to having a laugh with my mates in the pub”.

He left school at 15 but went back to university in his early 20s to study film, TV and drama, and to “mix with arty types”. It was also where he met his wife, Tara, whose father is from Belfast. The couple have two sons and a daughter.

He describes a night at London’s Comedy Store in 1990 watching comedians Steve Coogan and Eddie Izzard as a turning point: “I had never heard of any of them, but it blew me away. It was a life-changing moment. I thought, this is what I wanted to do.”

Performing was in his blood, as his paternal grandfather, called Billy Mack, had been a stage entertainer, but the rise to stardom took a decade of long, hard slog. He held down a string of dead-end jobs, including working in racehorse stables, to sustain the dream. The first time he stepped on to a stage and took the microphone was in a small, low-key pub venue in Surbiton, south west London. While he wasn’t an instant hit, he was hooked.

On his early journeys around Ireland and the UK, learning his trade, he remembers tough comedy venues, including a nightclub in Warrenpoint, Co Down. At the bar afterwards, a man from the audience sidled up, put his arm around the young comic, and told him, with a hint of menace: “Not so cocky now you’re not on stage, are you?”

A big leap forward came in 1995 when he won the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? stand-up award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Tommy Tiernan and then Peter Kay took the prize in the following years.

His more recent career has taken other turns. Over the past year he has jointly presented a podcast called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha. “I’m not Buddhist, but I’m interested in Buddhism,” he says. He started meditating six years ago after a walk in the park with Rob Brydon. Brydon’s own comedy hero, Jerry Seinfeld, had previously talked about his experience of transcendental meditation, so the pair decided to give it a go.

He thinks his meditation has helped him become “a bit calmer, a bit more chilled – but only a tiny bit”. Reading about meditation led to more research, and some periods where he meditated twice a day, and a deeper interest in Buddhism.

I'm not interested in telling people I'm off to Magaluf for three weeks or that I am buying a Cornish pasty. It doesn't make sense to me

We talk about the challenges facing young comedians trying to make their way, especially during Covid, and who build their profiles via social media, which he entirely understands. Unusually among comedians, Lee Mack steers clear of social media himself.

“I just have never felt the need,” he says. “If I have anything to say to anyone I haven’t met – in other words, the audience – then that is what the stage is for, what the telly is for. I’ve got that medium to talk to the public. I’m not interested in telling people I’m off to Magaluf for three weeks or that I am buying a Cornish pasty. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

He hasn’t done stand-up comedy for several years and tells me he definitely wants to return to it before long. He also wants to appear in a play next year, his second, and plans to act more.

So what of the more recent words of advice from an Irish source? They came from Robbie Keane, Ireland’s highest soccer goalscorer, just last month, and led to sporting superstars chanting Lee Mack’s name in a famed soccer dressing room.

Keane was acting as a coach on Soccer Aid, a live TV event which raises millions for Unicef and features famous sporting figures and stars from comedy, music and beyond. It was Mack’s fourth time as a team member in front of a huge Soccer Aid crowd, and in the past he had missed penalties and easy chances to score.

He delightedly waggles his right foot beside his desk and points to his instep. “He [Keane] spent an hour or two with me the day before telling me how to kick a ball, showing me how I was kicking it wrong.”

From the pass to when it reached my foot, all I was thinking was, Do what Robbie Keane told you. For the love of God, kick the ball with the middle of your foot

The advice worked. Playing for the World XI versus an England team in front of 51,000 spectators, including his own son, at the home of Manchester City, the ball came to him in front of the goal right at the end of the game.

“From the pass to when it reached my foot, all I was thinking was, ‘Do what Robbie Keane told you. For the love of God, kick the ball with the middle of your foot.’” Thankfully, his shot hit the back of the net, the signal for Lee Mack to be mobbed by wildly celebrating soccer greats.

Weeks later, he is still euphoric: “It was a bit overwhelming. They loved beating the English. They also loved that probably the worst player on the pitch, and definitely the oldest, had just scored.”