Michael McIntyre's laughing all the way to the bank: His first gigs earned him 160 – and left him 40K in debt, now he's set to earn 25m
02:29 GMT, 23 November 2012
Funny money: Michael McIntyre is the UK's number one comic
Six years ago, comedian Michael McIntyre was 40,000 in debt, with a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards and no way of paying the rent or buying food.
So he would keep on applying for new cards, sometimes using them just to buy milk. He was desperately struggling to make a living on the stand-up comedy circuit and support his wife, Kitty, and their newly-born baby son, Lucas.
McIntyre — who is rather more serious and practical than he allows audiences to see, hiding behind his bouncy, giggly on-stage persona — even kept a spreadsheet to track his outgoings, while obsessively checking supermarkets for the cheapest food bargains.
Today the bank statements tell a different story, for he is Britain’s most popular comedian. He earned 5 million over two years to the end of 2011, according to figures he lodged with Companies House, and reportedly he is likely to gross 25 million this year, thanks to his sell-out Showtime arena tour.
His DVDs have sold hundreds of thousands, and the current one, Showtime, is tipped to be the Christmas No 1.
‘I keep my cash flow document up to date, but the numbers are more amenable,’ he says. ‘The days when I couldn’t pay the rent and used a salvaged microwave as a dining table seem a world away. Yet I haven’t forgotten just how tough it can be.
‘I used to look at houses and dream about them being our perfect place when in fact I couldn’t even afford to pay the rent, let alone buy anywhere — how could that ever happen’
Changing times: Michael McIntyre has gone from being an unknown comic 40,000 in debt to one of the UK's favourite comics worth millions in just six years
Turning the humdrum into comedy: McIntyre's funny walks on first major television appearance at the Royal Variety Performance in 2006 was an instant hit
The McIntyres now live in a 3.7 million home in Hampstead, North London, but it took the birth of their son Lucas, now seven, to give him a wake-up call.
‘I had all these credit cards because people would approach me in shopping centres to sign up. They were easy to get and I’d use them to buy even really small items, not realising they would get me into worse debt,’ admits Michael.
‘Then when Lucas was born I panicked about how we were going to survive. I worried his first words would be: “You are in how much debt Couldn’t you have just waited before having me” So I went nuts sorting out my mess before he got big enough to tell me off.
A household name: Michael McIntyre featured as a judge on Britain's Got Talent with Amanda Holden and David Hasselhoff
‘I used to get paid 160 a gig and I’d squeeze in as many of those as possible. I even worked when Kitty was so sick that I really should have stayed by her side, except I couldn’t stop thinking: “I’ve got to make another 160.”
‘When I got my first proper show and was able to afford more things, the feeling was unbelievable and still is. I didn’t have a vision of success but, unlike rock stars who say hardship makes them more creative, I just struggled for material. The happier I am, the funnier I get.’
But he has never forgotten the hardship of being in debt, the pressure, his shame at having his credit cards cut up in front of him when he defaulted, and the trauma of having to fend off angry creditors.
In December 2009, long after he became successful, he was booked to appear at a corporate event.
Shortly before he was due to go on, he discovered his audience would be debt collectors.
He walked out, saying it was against his principles to appear before them. That act of conscience cost him his 28,000 fee.
‘In the early days, I’d travel miles to a show, then stand up telling unscripted off-the-cuff jokes in front of people who didn’t get them. Life doesn’t get much worse than being humiliated like that.
‘Then I’d drive home, thinking: “I stand there talking rubbish, people think it’s rubbish, I have no qualifications but this is all I’ve got.” It was 2003 and I had absolutely nothing else.’
Prime time TV: Michael McIntyre, pictured with Amanda Holden and Louis Walsh, doesn't mind his comedy being described as 'safe'
Michael, now 36, gave up improvisation and went to stay with his in-laws, veteran actor Simon Ward (best known for the lead role as Winston Churchill in the film Young Winston) and his wife Alexandra.
There, he scripted his act for the first time. ‘On stage I am just an extension of who I am normally, which works when the mood takes me but when it doesn’t, and this is still the case today, it can be a struggle,’ he says.
‘My father-in-law was always my greatest fan. He is dead now, but he was an enormous support. So, in Kitty’s parents’ home I wrote a strong act with a solid base of great jokes.
Scripted: Michael McIntyre started to have more success with his act after he started writing instead of improvising his jokes
‘As a result my gigs became bulletproof, I found my voice and gained my confidence.
‘At the same time I fired my agent, who said I was making the biggest mistake of my life, but although I was horribly in debt and had a baby, I was so pumped up with confidence that I’d never felt better.
‘My new agent didn’t even know who I was — that’s how little impact I’d made — but he got me onto the Royal Variety Performance in 2006, my first major television appearance. I did a set of funny walks which everyone loved, and that show changed my life immediately.’
The day after it was screened, he went to a cab office to order a taxi. ‘The man behind the desk told me the fare would be 16, and then he said: “But if you do that funny walk for me, it’ll only be 10.” It was the first time I’d been recognised, and it felt wonderful.’
The result is a mass appeal which comes from Michael’s ability to turn the humdrum into comedy, and himself into a fall guy with an infectious giggle but without a sniff of political commentary or mockery at anyone else’s expense.
Fellow comedians have ridiculed him for being safe and mainstream, like a comfy pullover, but he couldn’t care less. ‘Why get upset over something so irrelevant when everything’s going so well At first it never occurred to me there’d be jealousy or nastiness, but I’ve never had much to do with other comedians,’ he says.
‘I’ve got my work cut out pleasing those people who want to see me, not those who I’ll never please anyway.
‘At the warm-up gigs before my Showtime tour, I told a dentist story then I heard a bang and everyone stopped and said: “What’s going on” A man in the audience who had a phobia of dentists knocked himself out as he fainted. I thought: “Great — now people are allergic to my jokes.”’
Kitty, an aromatherapist, is his best joke barometer, which is just as well since she and their sons Lucas and four-year-old Oscar, feature prominently in his show.
‘I totally trust Kitty’s judgement of a joke,’ he says. ‘When she laughs I know it’s good. But it’s terrifying — and partly hilarious — putting on a new show as tickets go on sale when I haven’t even got a single joke ready.’
Happily married: Michael McIntyre runs his jokes past his wife Kitty to get her opinion
However, he knows the problem only too well — laughter has literally been his life.
Michael’s father, Ray Cameron, was one of the late Kenny Everett’s TV scriptwriters. His part-Hungarian mother, Kati, used to dance on the shows, and she and Kenny became close friends.
‘I was only seven, so to get some street cred at school I told everyone Kenny, who was the kindest man, was my dad and his sidekick, Cleo Rocos, was my mum,’ he says.
‘They all believed me, so it took some explaining when it emerged that Kenny was gay. It was embarrassing, too, when there was a picture in the paper of Kenny and Mum, with a caption saying: “DJ Kenny Everett with his girlfriend, Melody Bubbles” — a name Kenny just invented.’
His parents divorced when he was still a child and he and his sister, Lucy, then five, moved from their large Hampstead house to a smaller one in nearby Golders Green.
He remembers being told someone who eats bats was buying their home and the new owners turned out to be Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne.
Grounded: Michael McIntyre says he still struggles to believe his success
Ray moved to LA where Michael and Lucy flew out to join him once a year until he died in 1993. Michael still struggles over the loss.
‘I’d just learned to drive and Dad was really upset that he couldn’t afford to buy me my first car as he’d fallen on hard times. He’d bought me a book about classic cars for Christmas instead, which made me feel quite tearful. The next day, we got a call to say he’d died of a heart attack.
‘I don’t have many memories of Dad when I was young because he was working really hard and I’m very aware of that now, because I work hard too and there’s no room for complacency, but I have to balance it out.
‘I could have gone on working immediately after my Showtime tour, but I’m not doing that because I miss my sons and they miss me.
‘Kitty also needs my help in telling them off. Moments before I go on stage, you can hear me in the wings having a video chat on my mobile, saying: “Lucas, look at me — why are you shouting at your mother No, say sorry properly.”
‘But I need to go home and be with them because when I’m on tour one turns naughty and the other clings to my leg when he sees me.’
Michael has gone from the schoolboy who talked aloud to himself as he rehearsed comedy sketches, to the adolescent who didn’t fit in, to the student who couldn’t get girlfriends at Edinburgh University — to a blissfully happy married man who focuses only on the positive and even sometimes wakes himself by laughing in his sleep.
‘I will never accept I’ve made it and Kitty gets so worried because I’m so nervous all the time,’ he says. ‘I tell her: “Darling, this time I don’t think I’ve got it any more and that’s not funny,”’ he says, roaring with laughter.
Michael McIntyre’s DVD, Showtime, is now out on Universal.