‘I’ve had to sleep with the entire legal team’: Joe Lycett on making TV's most risk-taking comedy

Alexi Duggins

“I feel bad about having designed uniforms for the Nazis,” sighs Hugo Boss as he stares into a plate of falafel. “I definitely shouldn’t have done it.” It is rare to hear Boss talk about his past so candidly but, over a plant-based lunch in a London health food restaurant, he is coming clean. Sort of. “Actually, whilst I’m glad you brought it up, in my defence it wasn’t me. It was the other Hugo Boss.”

This is a confusing time for the identity of the Birmingham-born comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett. As we meet during a break in filming for series two of Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back – his Channel 4 show that’s like a comic take on Watchdog – it is now one week since he changed his name to Hugo Boss by deed poll. The intention: a stunt to protest against the fashion brand, which has been accused of aggressively pursuing small companies and charities who use the word “Boss” in their name. The execution: using his new name to wind up the couture company in gloriously silly manner.

“I will now make a number of statements which I REALLY hope do not get confused with the opinions of @HUGOBOSS,” tweeted the comic. “Just to clarify, these are the statements of Hugo Boss, not of Hugo Boss. Hugo Boss microwaves fish in the office. Hugo Boss always asks: ‘What percentage are you on?’ before he lets you borrow his charger. Hugo Boss has a smelly bum bum.”

But what started as one of the campaigns in the upcoming show has caused all sorts of difficulties. After all, what does he now do with the name of a programme whose first season was called Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back? Completely change the whole thing? Or rename just one episode, risking it being incorrectly billed in the press? “Presumably I’ll have to find a way of changing my name between episodes,” shrugs the comedian. “The logistics of it are a nightmare.” On top of that, his manager has registered a desire for him to return to his previous name “as soon as possible” and the DVLA has refused to issue him a new driving licence, as it had some concerns about the calligraphy of his new signature. “It’s a cock and balls, so they said it could be deemed as offensive,” he laughs.

It has, however, done his profile no harm, generating some of the biggest headlines of Lycett’s – sorry, Boss’s – career. This is no mean feat given that he is not short of high-profile gigs: his easy presence and eye for a wry quip has also seen him replace Claudia Winkleman as host of BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee. And he has taken over from Richard Ayoade as the anchor of Channel 4’s Travel Man. As well as filming season two of his consumer-affairs show. “Things are very busy,” he sighs in mock exasperation.

But the thing that The Comedian Formerly Known As Joe Lycett is primarily known for is a flair for daft schemes that pit him against institutions. In 2015, he went viral after an 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown appearance in which he recounted a battle with York Council over a parking ticket. Nearly 4 million YouTube users to date have viewed his account of how he successfully evaded the fine by badly Photoshopping the words “the moon” on to a photo of his car and claiming that he was parked in outer space at the time of the offence.

Last year, he made headlines by getting the terrifically named Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Yvonne Mosquito, to come to his house and officially open his kitchen extension. And, in the early days of his career, he took Jim Davidson to task after he heard him use a racist term for a Chinese person during a set while they were sharing a bill. “Next time we shared a bill, he got to that bit, turned to look at me … and didn’t say it. I had an amazing moment where I was like: “Oh my God, I’ve censored Jim Davidson!’”

So it was only a matter of time before his love of campaigning made it to television. Series one of Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back managed to set up hilarious pranks and brilliantly weird celebrity interventions, then team them with astonishing revelations into the poor practices of big companies. Uber Eats had to improve its policy concerning eateries’ food hygiene after Boss né Lycett successfully set up a dirty skip as a restaurant on the app. When a viewer complained they had lost £8,000 to a scammer who had somehow got access to intimate details of their NatWest account, the comedian flashmobbed its parent company RBS until it refunded the money. It is a format that manages to be funny while also punching up at the establishment, even if it has caused headaches for Channel 4’s lawyers.

“I’ve had to sleep with the entire legal team,” laughs Lycett/Boss. “Genuinely, no one’s made a show quite like this before and lots of it is quite hard to get legally right. There are loads of things I want to do that they have to stop me from [doing]. Last series, I wanted to steal a car to show how easy it is to nick new ones that don’t have physical keys. And they went: ‘No, we can’t do that because that’s just committing crime.’”

Traversing this legal minefield seems to have paid off, though. Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back has captured the public’s imagination to the point where they now approach him in the street asking for help with weirdly specific problems. (“Things like: ‘The lip of the kettle I bought doesn’t work properly, what can I do?’”). There is something genuinely impressive about his show’s commitment to taking companies to task. Lycett insists that they are obsessive about “journalistic rigour” in pursuing corporations over their poor practices. It is hard to imagine this will not still feel relevant while the nation is on lockdown: even in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, some of the stories to really capture public attention are tales of corporate wrongdoing.

Twitter is awash with people railing against Mike Ashley’s suggestion that the nation cannot function without knock-off leggings. The employment practices of Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin are all over the #COVIDIOTS hashtag. And the internet cannot stop pointing out that the wage bill of Virgin Atlantic staff is the kind of money Richard Branson accidentally drops between sofa cushions – so his request for them to take unpaid leave seems, well, a bit rich.

So, if anything, coronavirus might have made this show even more urgent. There is a quip that really sticks in the mind in the days after our interview, one that was made weeks before the full devastation that Covid-19 might make to society became clear but that has nonetheless proven eerily prescient.

“I did say half-jokingly when we launched that I wanted to destroy capitalism with this programme. Give us one more series and capitalism will probably have destroyed itself by then. We’ll just be doing the clearing up.” Maybe. But Boss/Lycett’s wry take on holding power to account will still be joyous to watch.

A cut above... The Lord Mayor of Birmingham opens Lycett’s new kitchen extension. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Five mischievous moments

Recording Bastards
Harry Hill! Noel Fielding! Paul Chuckle! Lycett and his comedic “friends” cram the word “bastards” into John Lennon’s Imagine 17 times in 90 seconds for a gleeful Instagram satire of Gal Gadot’s celeb-packed performance. Altogether now: “Imagine all the bastards, living life like a baaasstaaarddddd!”

Changing his name to Hugo Boss
At the peak of the hype around Lycett’s taking on of Hugo Boss by adopting their name, one article claimed that the comic “stands to make £1.5m” from the name change. Since then, a Welsh brewery threatened with legal action by the fashion giant has won a marketing award for being “brave”. And, given that Lycett has also trademarked a yet-to-be-released product called “Boss La Cease en Desiste”, this stunt looks set to get even better.

Creating a fake hotel for Pat Sharp
How to point out that a hotel chain’s rooms are so thoroughly grim that even former Fun House host Pat Sharp has complained about them? Cheekily redecorate one of their rooms in the style of a cosy Alpine ski lodge to lampoon the CEO’s non-dom status in Austria for tax reasons. Then launch it as a boutique hotel, obviously. The first guest Lycett convinced to stay the night? Pat Sharp.

Getting Birmingham’s Lord Mayor to open his kitchen extension
“Joe, this is the first kitchen extension I’ve ever opened”: so speaketh the Lord Mayor of Birmingham upon cutting the ribbon on the room in which Lycett does his microwaving. After Yvonne Mosquito’s initial refusal due to it being a “private event”, Lycett convinced her by raffling tickets on Twitter and dubbing Radio 1 its “exclusive broadcast partner”.

Exhibiting a multimillion-pound artwork at the Royal Academy
The value of a wonky clay face you’ve drunkenly moulded around a Pringles tube? Clearly more than the Royal Academy expected, judging by the email it sent Lycett to check that his submission to their summer show was correctly valued at £10.5m. “Gosh!” he replied, “it should be £12.5m!” How strange that when the piece made it into the exhibition it didn’t get its own plinth.

Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back begins Friday 10 April, 8pm, Channel 4