Few set-up lines have unleashed such wild comedic digressions as “Sean, have you got a mascot?” The fundamental genius of 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown was encapsulated in the next – utterly unpredictable – few minutes, as Sean Lock reached beneath the desk and let his imagination run riot. A condiment bra. A DIY banana boat. A naked dad-bod onesie. The Cat Litter Challenge. Or a wicker basket containing what he’d modestly describe as “total comedy”.
The inventive lengths that Sean would go to in order to turn a couple of minutes of casual quiz show air-filler into extended, unfettered odysseys of comedy gold spoke to the brilliance of this much-loved comedian, who died today age 58 following a long battle with cancer. His work straddled the observational and the fantastical with a rare seamlessness, his everyman persona belying the madcap comedy mind at work behind the specs.
The deep respect Sean commanded in the comedy field was the result of decades of background groundwork beneath the mainstream radar. He emerged from comedy’s boiler room over the course of the ‘90s, having previously worked various odd jobs from labouring to (he’d claim, at least) goat-herding in France – while making his name as a stand-up he contributed material to shows by Harry Hill, Bill Bailey and Lee Evans among others, and would make sporadic cameo appearances on TV and radio. One of his first was as a regular player in Rob Newman and David Baddiel’s Newman And Baddiel In Pieces series in 1993; as their support acts on the pair’s peak-era shows, he became one of the first comedians to perform at Wembley Arena while still a virtual unknown.
He certainly earned his fame. Becoming a regular panellist on various radio comedy shows, Lock made the leap to TV when his own 1998 radio series 15 Minutes Of Misery – in which he’d eavesdrop on the comic antics of his neighbours in a south London tower block – was developed into the Radio 4 sitcom 15 Storeys High and then on to the BBC in 2002. The show’s merging of grey estate life with outlandish scenarios (Lock’s downbeat character Vince found himself destroying graveyards with stolen ploughs or accidentally revealing his secret history of swan murder) showcased Sean’s ability to remodel deadpan everyman humour for the Mighty Boosh era. At the same time, his stand-up was becoming increasingly acclaimed – he won the 2000 British Comedy Award for Best Live Comic and would later be included in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups.
From there it was a natural leap to 8 Out Of 10 Cats in 2005, where his regular role as team captain married the familiar glasses-waggling aesthetic of the traditional panel show with the unpredictability of 21st century comedy. When the programme fused with daytime TV favourite Countdown from 2012, Lock’s humour was given free rein in his individual segment to the point where all eyes were on him for the first 20 minutes of any show. Here, in his element, he took his elaborate prop work as seriously as the numbers game, and revealed himself a secret grandmaster of ‘Carrot In A Box’.
His wider panel appearances made for unmissable TV too – who could forget him expressing his boredom with Rory McGrath reciting Latin names for birds on QI by pretending to get sucked into another dimension under the desk, or giving a children’s play on The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year a scathing review: “If I was their drama teacher I’d be absolutely ashamed. I’d throw myself in the canal.”
His own reviews from his peers today have been rather warmer. “Funny on stage, hilarious off” tweeted Alan Davies. “Seeing his ad libs, improvisation and wit play out first hand like it was the most natural, fluid thing in the world never ceased to astound me” wrote comedy writer Laura Claxton. “One of the funniest, most influential comedians of a generation” Ricky Gervais tweeted. It’s an outpouring of affection that speaks of a deep fondness and respect for a comedian capable of drawing audiences down elaborate rabbit holes, and who encapsulated the art of the comic curveball.