The end of the world, but it's not as if you'd know it
IT'S been a while since comedian Lee Hurst's last major tour so you'd be forgiven for thinking the show name, Too Scared to Leave the House, might be a personal reference to his long absence.
Nothing could be further from the truth though because if Lee's worsening health problems aren't enough to keep him at home then any fears he might have certainly won't be enough to keep him cooped up either.
At the age of 50, the former star of hit television quiz show They Think It's All Over, often feels much older than his years because he suffers from a severe from of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, a condition which causes acute back and joint pain.
Lee also lives with the after effects of a terrifying heart scare and breathing problems caused by surgery to fix his heart.
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With his usual good humour, Lee makes light of what must have been, and continues to have, a massive impact on his life.
"It's a question of what's going to break down next," he laughs during a pause between tour dates.
"I've started running again and doing a couple of miles but for most of last year I couldn't because of foot issues. For three gigs I had to sit down for all of them because of a ligament issue.
"I had an MRI scan on my foot and I was told I had a broken ankle that had happened in the past. I didn't even know!
"Now I've got a shoulder issue which I've had for years and it's getting progressively worse. You just carry on. It will beat me when it beats me.
"I had a heart operation a couple of years ago and my back is incurable. All down my left shoulder is giving me gyp and my right knee is worse with stairs, but I've learned a trick from my 13-year-old dog who goes up the stairs at a diagonal. It's actually better for me too because it reduces the amount you have to lift your knee. We look like someone is trying to shoot us with our zig zagging!"
Luckily for Lee he won't get to demonstrate the technique when he arrives at Exeter's Corn Exchange on Saturday, February 2. Instead of clambering up its front steps and stairs leading to the auditorium, he will get to benefit from his access-all-areas privilege.
In the new show he casts his comic's eyes over the many end-of-the-world scare stories, from acid rain and global warming to bird flu and mad cow disease.
"Originally I was going to call it The End of the World Show because of the Mayan calendar thing, but I Googled the title and someone had already used it for a theatre production," recalls Lee.
"Then I changed it to Whatever Happened to Acid Rain? which was supposed to slaughter us all but nobody even talks about it anymore.
"Then I came up with Too Scared to Leave the House, and unlike the other one, my friends really liked it! It was just going to be about disasters to humankind but it has gone in a different direction."
Lee is referring to the format of the show which is partly based on the response he gets from the audience.
"The first half is pretty much a warm-up where I go on and mess about and have a good laugh and fun," explains Lee. "Before the interval I ask the audience to write down their fears, phobias and stresses.
"Almost 99.9 per cent is personal fears rather than things like the war on terror or diseases, and this has totally changed the direction of where I was trying to lead them with the show!
"The second half is the bit I enjoy most because I read out what the audience have said and if people own up to what they have written I delve into it a bit more and try to make it funny."
Earning a living out of making people laugh was never part of the original plan for Lee, whose first job at the age of 16 was as a trainee telephone engineer. His path to becoming a comedian instead stemmed from wanting to be his own boss and realising he had a talent for writing comedy.
Lee recollects: "I sold a few gags to the BBC when I was 19 or 20 and just ended up stumbling along doing pub gigs. I now love what I do but I never set out to do it."
It was on BBC sports quiz They Think It's All Over that Lee made his name. He appeared as a regular panellist in the first five series and then left in 1998.
"If I'm brutally honest I don't remember a lot about it as I was concentrating so much when I was there and it kind of burnt me out," admits Lee.
"I've never watched it and I think I've only seen three clips from the show. One of those times was very embarrassing because I was being introduced on This Morning by Richard and Judy. They showed a clip and I had no memory of it and I laughed out loud at myself and had to put my hand over my mouth because how lame would that look? It was funny though!"
The other confession Lee makes is he definitely wasn't picked as a panellist because of his sports knowledge.
"I knew nothing and I have not retained anything from the show," laughs Lee. "I'm still in contact with Gary Lineker and we mess about on Twitter and set each other live challenges of words to say. He recently managed to get in conquistador on Match of the Day.
"He gave me the challenge of saying metatarsals on the Alan Titchmarsh show which was much harder for me to get in during an interview!
"We only do it once in a while and it's just a little laugh and there's no harm to it. It just brings a smile to a few people."
Creating happiness on a regular basis is Lee's East End comedy venue, the Backyard Comedy Club. In 2010 he closed the club and on the site will soon be a seven-storey hotel. The ground floor will be home to a bar and the new comedy club, which opens on February 10.
"One of my tour dates is there the week after so it better be on time," laughs Lee who has been involved in some of the labouring work, despite his health problems.
"The plan is to not be involved as much as I used to be. I will do the odd compere spot and one-man shows from time to time, but that's it. I'll see how it goes but I could be like Al Pacino in the Godfather – he tries to back out but gets pulled back in. But I won't assassinate someone at the end though!"
Dabbling in property development has left Lee eager to do more, but he's far from ready to stop performing just yet. "This tour isn't even over and I'm already talking about the next one," he says.
Lee also hasn't ruled out a return to television if the right show came along. "If something came along I thought was worthwhile and fun I would do it. But it would have to be very little work because of my inherent laziness. I like to just turn up and play the game!"
Tickets for Too Scared to Leave the House cost £16. Call 01392 665938 or visit www.exeter.gov.uk/cornexchange