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Being a comedian is where I feel at home and enjoy myself. It never feels like work ; Here's looking at you, kid Jason Manford, is a comedian, TV...

September 21, 2013

YellowBrix

Being a comedian is where I feel at home and enjoy myself. It never feels like work ; Here's looking at you, kid Jason Manford, is a comedian, TV presenter and actor. He won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition in 2000, aged just 18

My dad was a big comedy fan, he had tapes and we watched a lot of the old greats such as Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper, and newer stuff including The Young Ones, Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton.

Really, it was seeing people like Billy Connolly and Dave Allen, Victoria Wood and Jasper Carrot - comedians who told stories and made real life funny - that stood out for me.

As a kid, I was always messing about at school, not unlike most lads, but I don't think anyone thought, that guy will go on to be funny''.

My mum is Irish and was a singer in a folk band, as were much of my family. I'd spend my Sunday afternoons in the pub, my gran leading the singalongs. It was great.

I was 16 when I started working at The Buzz, a comedy club above my dad's local pub, in Manchester. I'd collect glasses at weddings and funerals and then, on Thursday nights, they'd have stand-up.

Peter Kay, Steve Coogan, Frankie Boyle, Lee Evans, Eddie Izzard - anyone who was anyone used to play there - as well as loads of people you'd never heard of.

It was just a part-time job, but that place was part of my falling on my feet.

One evening there was a spare spot, a gap in the schedule. A couple of acts hadn't turned up and me, a 17-year-old who thought he could do anything, took the chance to have a go.

I was panicky. I'd sort of got material in my mind, I was always thinking about doing it and had daft stories, so it wasn't such a surprise.

It went fine too, weirdly. If you think, that was the summer of 1999, I had my first proper gig in July and was entering the North West Comedian of the Year competition, soon after.

I'd only done eight gigs when I won that. It was bizarre, knowing Peter Kay had won it the year before and Caroline Aherne and Johnny Vegas before that. I don't really know what happened or how. I'd only played pubs and little comedy clubs in Manchester. I think people liked the idea this kid had just got up and done it. Yes, I was nervous. I still get nervous now. That never leaves. They don't all go well!

The Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year was the February after.

Another comic on the circuit mentioned this competition and I thought I'd have a go.

It was a big deal. It was my first gig outside Manchester and my mum drove me to the venue. We didn't stay the night. I wasn't thinking about directions, I remember worrying about how my material was going to translate, if it was a bit too northern.

What I've learnt now, is that if something's funny, it's funny. It's not like it's that abstract anyway, that I couldn't possibly relate to somewhere an hour and 40 minutes down the road.

Yeah, I remember my set. At the time, there was a big wheel in Manchester for the Millennium. There were signs up telling people not to spin it and I had a joke about how the scallies doing it were unscrewing the carriages and it was actually natural selection.

I also told a story for the first time about getting mugged in Manchester and having my bike stolen, which stayed with me for years and was on my first DVD in 2008.

The others in the competition were good. Ah, yeah, Jason John Whitehead - I remember him. He's on the picture they took of us, my nana has the cutting from the Leicester Mercury on the wall. Between Jason and another of the entrants, Silky, they had five or 10 years experience between them. I'd done 14 gigs by that point.

I was in a good position, just before the interval, which is the best in competitions, people going into the break talking about the last act they've seen. I don't know whether it was nerves or what, but I was roasting. The Y Theatre is notoriously hot, though. I've played there a few times since.

I remember having my picture taken in front of a newspaper A- board. They asked me to pull a funny face. What? Nowadays I wouldn't bother. I'd say no.

Back then wasn't like now. I couldn't just turn up and they'd let me straight on. I had to book myself in, eight months in advance.

In this job, your horizons should become your middle distance. And when you get there, you have new ambitions and aims. It's a good philosophy for anyone. It's always been like that for me.

When I think back to winning Leicester, I was hoping it meant I could start getting weekend gigs at bigger clubs.

That's the great thing about this job. Even now, you have busy times and lean times - it's the nature of the beast. But when you realise, what you thought was the worst point, was actually the best it could be - you can't lose. It just keeps getting better. Of the Pounds 500 winnings, I gave about Pounds 150 of it to my mum, because she's my mum and I was living at her house, and the rest went on getting to other gigs.

So many cities try to start comedy festivals and they just don't work, but Leicester's has become part of the comedy calendar. Just to be there, and growing every year, is a real credit to Geoff (Rowe).

The nature of this job is competitive. Winning competitions was important to me, at the start, but you can find positives out of winning or losing.

At the end of the day, you can win a competition with seven minutes of material, but you can't close Jongleurs or The Comedy Store.

I'd met Peter Kay at a couple of clubs on the circuit and he was about to launch into superstardom. He did encourage me to go to Salford and study media and performance, but it was something I wanted to do anyway.

It's weird to think he was a huge comedy hero of mine and now, well, I saw him only the other morning.

Billy Connolly; he's a trailblazer, a genius and pioneer of what we do now. I bought tickets to see him at Manchester Apollo and, during the interval, I was asked if I wanted to go backstage and say hi''.

Oh my God, he's the sort of person I don't feel like I can say I'm a comedian to. I feel like a junior footballer speaking to Lionel Messi.

I've never thought I've made it,'' never felt my act is good enough. I always think I can do better.

I didn't get the part in Sweeney Todd because I'm a comedian or anything. I was always interested in musical theatre, I could sing well and, more recently, had extra training when I learned opera for Save The Children's Born To Shine (ITV).

After, I said to my agent, I would love to do a musical. She came back to me with there's no money in it'', but that didn't bother me.

Nothing came up for a while and then we saw an ad in Spotlight for someone to cover for Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, during the summer.

Get us an audition,'' I said. I had three before I got the part.

It was paid about Pounds 800 a week, but it ended up costing me a couple of grand because I don't live in London and had to travel. I loved it, though, being on stage with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball.

Right now, my concentration is on the tour. Stand-up is my first love. I'll always be a comedian, it's where I feel most at home, where I enjoy myself. It never feels like work.

Even financially it makes sense, there's nothing as good. People think, oh right, he's doing TV,'' but it's the other way round. You need TV so people get to know you and what you do, so they'll come to your show.

It's funny really, in a way, the one thing I don't really enjoy - and it comes with the job - is being well-known,.

I can walk through town and nobody bothers me... if I walk fast enough.

Fame is a by-product of success in this industry, but it shouldn't be an ambition. That's where people go wrong. If I could be successful without all that. I'd take it.

I used to wake up in the morning, five years ago, and think, what am I doing today? Now, when I wake up, I'm thinking what am I doing with the kids? That's what changes. Before, I was happy go lucky with work, but it's a necessity now to make sure my children get a better start in life. They're a massive part of my life, as is comedy. I wouldn't want to live without either. But if it came to it, I could stop for the kids.

Thinking back, when I was a lad, I didn't see my dad until a Saturday afternoon because he was working two jobs. I'm in a lucky position. I can pick and choose my work.

Although, when I've got the kids all day, I'm usually looking forward to the evening gig and time to myself in front of 2,000 people. Proper time to myself? No, not ever.

The tour show is very much like me as you've seen before and the funny things I've noticed. It's called First World Problems, but don't worry too much about that. If you like my stuff, you'll like this, and if you don't like it, well, I've not changed.

I've been surprised by the great feedback online. I know I shouldn't, but I can't help reading it. I'm genuinely my own worst critic, I'll chastise myself for days if I do something wrong.

I think that's important. If you get to a point where you think you're brilliant, the audience will tell you otherwise.

You're only as good as your last gig - and your next could be shocking. .M: info: Jason Manford plays De Montfort Hall on Monday, September 30 and Tuesday, October 1. Tickets are Pounds 22.50. Ring 0116 233 3111.

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