Jason Manford: interview

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Jason Manford, star of '8 Out of 10 Cats' and new C4 show 'Tonightly', talks to Time Out about hitting the big time as a stand-up comedian, and how to get a career in comedy

  • I have never killed a comedian before, but for a few anxious minutes I believe I have been responsible for the death of Jason Manford. The cold snap has struck and many of the country’s roads are covered in black, glassy ice. I have been given a number to contact him and as the phone rings I picture his pleasantly squishy Mancunian face grinning away cheekily on his
    Channel 4 chat show ‘Tonightly’.

    ‘Hello?’ He answers, sounding a little distracted.
    ‘Jason? It’s Tim from Time Out. I think you were expecting a call?’

    ‘I was indeed, pal. I’m ready when you are.’ There’s a low rumbling sound in the background. ‘I’m driving at the moment but it’s all right – I’m on the old hands-free.’

    ‘Okay, but if I hear any loud noises, like a crash, I’ll just stop shall I?’

    ‘It’ll be fine, if I go quiet it just means I’m concentrating on overtaking somebody on a country road somewhere in the middle of nowhere, so don’t worry.’

    At this point, there’s a loud crackle in my ear and the phone goes dead. I nervously look at the receiver. Did my talking about him crashing in some karmic way cause him to skid to his death? Do I have that kind of power? If so, could I use it for good as well as evil? I have more or less written Jason off when the phone starts ringing.

    ‘Sorry, mate, I just went into a dip and lost reception. Should be all right now. Fire away.’

    Is the story about how you started in comedy actually true?

    ‘I know what you mean, but that’s exactly how it happened. My mum told me to get a job when I was 17 and so I popped round to the nearest pub. They were looking for people to set the tables and the like, because sometimes we’d do funerals in the day and then there’d be a comedy club at night in the same room. It was really surreal, you’re in the same uniform watching people die at both ends of the day. I got to watch all these brilliant comedians up close, like Peter Kay and Johnny Vegas, Eddie Izzard and Lee Evans. Then one night there was a couple of acts coming up from London who were sharing a car but couldn’t make it because of bad weather. I could hear the promoter calling up all these local comics asking them if they could stand in, and I just went up and said: “Listen, I’ve sort of prepared about five minutes and I’ve tried it on my mates and they think it’s funny, can I have a go?” And that was it. Luckily for me it went quite well.’

    And that was the start of a long and fruitful career?

    ‘Well, almost. I worked up a short routine, did a handful of gigs and then entered the North West Comedian of the Year competition. I dunno what happened, but I won it. So there I am, I’d done about seven gigs and already I was the North West Comedian of the Year. Then people started ringing up going: “Oh can you come and do half an hour at my pub?” And I’d be like: “I’ve only got seven minutes, mate.” In the end I knocked it on the head and went to university. I thought: I’ve embarrassed myself here by not having enough material and, besides, what’s a 17-year-old gonna tell your average 45-year-old punter about life that they don’t already know?’

    It wasn’t until three years later, after finishing his degree in media and performance at Salford University – the same course that Peter Kay had done a few years before – that he returned to stand-up.

    Did you go full-time straight away?

    ‘No, I had loads of jobs. I was on that minimum-wage conveyor-belt of jobs. I worked in a cinema, at Burger King, in a factory and was even a builder for a while. I always felt that stand-up, even though I wanted it to be a career, was really just a well-paid hobby. It was only when I got to a point where I thought: I’m actually earning more money doing this stand-up lark than I am in my minimum-wage jobs that I knocked them on the head. It gives you a very different drive when you’re doing gigs to pay your bills and to live, rather than just doing it for a laugh.’

    With his quick wit and easy, accessible humour it was only a matter of time before he got plucked out of the clubs and plonked on to television, replacing fellow Lancashire comic Dave Spikey as a team captain on C4’s hugely successful ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’.

    ‘That was my big break really. Although coming up with topical jokes every week is hard, it’s actually a very relaxed show to do, it’s just like messing about with your mates. I really enjoy it. A lot of guests on it aren’t comedians and sometimes they’ll say some of the funniest stuff, like when we had one of the contestants from “The Apprentice" on. The question was “Who would you least like to have as a passenger in your car?” I think the top answer was something like Ken Livingstone because it was a week when there was some story about the transport situation in London. Anyway the question came up and he butts in straight away with “A rapist?” I mean technically he’s right, isn’t he? But I wasn’t expecting it and it just made me cry with laughter.’

    The phone crackles and I lose Jason for a second.

    ‘Hello?’ Silence. ‘Hello?’

    ‘Hello,’ he says back. ‘Well this is fun, isn’t it? Stupid phones.’

    ‘I was just worried that you’d driven off a cliff or something,’ I say, hoping not to jinx him with my new-found powers.

    ‘But hey, if I did, what a story you’d have there.’ I just catch this last comment before the line goes dead one final time.

    Jason Manford will be performing at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Jan 21, and Richmond Theatre on Feb 7.

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