John Bishop on big egos and feeling lost

Whenever you meet a comedian, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll be one of two things: either they will have such funny bones that every single word they utter will be hilarious to the point your ribs will be in recovery for a fortnight, or they will be a right old misery guts in real life, clearly restricting the laughs to well-rehearsed stage appearances.

John Bishop is the first one we’ve met who is somewhere in the middle. He’s not even slightly grumpy, or a tortured artist. He’s a lovely, warm, chirpy chap and his conversation is peppered with the odd funny, but he’s also a surprisingly serious soul.

Maybe it’s the surroundings that make it so. We meet him over a posh tea in a posh hotel where there is about to be a screening of the new series of his talk show In Conversation With. And for anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s no feel-good, laugh-a-minute Chatty Man affair – it’s an hour of soul-searching, in-depth talk with just one guest a week (he’s had everyone from James Corden to Jeremy Corbyn on).

John Bishop has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. ‘I was 35 when I did my first stand-up gig and I only left my job 11 years ago,’ he says in that thick Scouse accent we’ve come to know so well from his sell-out stand-up arena shows, regular TV appearances on panel shows and epic fundraising for Comic Relief.

Yet little more than a decade ago, the 51-year-old was bringing up three sons Joe, now 24, Luke, 22, and Daniel, 20, with wife Melanie, while working as the sales and marketing manager for a pharmaceutical company. He still finds his comedy career all a bit surreal, truth be told.

‘Absolutely. And I hope that never goes,’ he says.

The J-Bish talks meteoric rises, naked selfies and being something of a lost outsider…

When you first had a crack at doing comedy, what was the most you hoped for?

I’d been to two comedy clubs in my whole life, I had no idea how to do it as a career, I knew nothing. If someone said you can have £100 for a gig, I’d have bitten their hand off.

What was your first ever gig like?

It was to seven people at the Frog & Bucket Comedy Club in Manchester. My name got called out second – if it’d have been called out third I wouldn’t have been in the building, I was about to make a run for it. It was a proper sliding-doors moment.

What’s been your worst on-stage experience?

I had one very significant death in Newcastle. It was one of my first paid weekend gigs and I died so badly that the audience just had a chat. They talked among themselves and ignored the fact I was even there. There wasn’t even a heckle – at least you can hear a heckle, but apathy? That’s worse, it’s the most heartbreaking thing when you’re stood on a stage trying to impress. There have been plenty of others too, but I’m just an optimist – if one person sniggers, I’m like, ‘Well, that went well.’

After that, you had a pretty meteoric rise…

I did plenty of gigs where no one would book me again, but then there’d be a good gig and a TV producer would see it and book me. Jonathan Ross was the big one. I was on tour doing art centres and then suddenly I was looking at whether I could do arenas. Before Jonathan Ross, I was selling about 1,200 tickets a week, and after, I sold 22,000. That gear change will never happen again.

What would you be doing now if it hadn’t worked out in the end?

At the time I was still in the day job selling immuno-suppression products that stopped people rejecting their organs after transplantation. So I couldn’t imagine I’d still be there now. The biggest thing for me was thinking I can stop doing that job and do one where I can be my own boss. So I’d probably have ended up as a window cleaner…

You came to fame and fortune later in life, do you regret not doing this earlier?

I kind of wish I’d come to it 10 years earlier. But to have had the early rock ’n’ roll years of fame I’d have had to have been a different person anyway, because I was married when I was 26. They were more rock-a-bye baby years than rock ’n’ roll years.

How do your kids feel about having a famous father?

It’s odd for them, because they get judged in a different way, which is sometimes a bit unfair, but at the same time we have a level of financial security I could never have imagined. We haven’t always lived like that, though, and they remember life before. As a family we have a base level we can go to.

And with fame comes free stuff…

I don’t get loads of free stuff, but the best is sports stuff – it’s a proper bonus, because it makes me feel like an actual athlete, like someone thinks I’m worthy enough to give me kit for nothing. At Soccer Aid, Puma were giving away free trainers. Now I’m doing OK, I can buy training shoes. But I grabbed a load for my kids and we were like, ‘Look at this, they’re free, they’re for nothing, how great is that?’

Are you an embarrassing dad?

Don’t ask me, ask them. I can’t even tell them to shut up any more because they’re men. I have three actual adult men. The youngest turned 20 recently, so I haven’t even got teenagers any more. Proper men. I mean, look at me, I don’t deserve that.

Do your wife and kids mind being the subject of your comedy?

Not really. Because it’s coming from a place of love and anyone who is watching it can see that. It’s hard work being a kid these days, a lot harder than it was in my day, and the last pressure I want to place on them is that their dad is taking the p*ss out of them, there’s got to be a bit of respect. I say to them, I’m not really talking about you, I’m talking about them – the audience. Because if they don’t recognise the person I’m talking about, it’s never going to work. They’ve got to be able to relate it to their own life.

Are there positives to coming to fame when you’re older?

Comedy is one of those crafts where it helps if you come to it with age because you’ve got more to say, you’re more comfortable in your own skin, you’ve got your own voice. I was speaking to Lee Mack about this and he knew he wanted to be a comedian when he was 17, I can’t imagine that.

What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been recognised?

Rwanda. By an African tour guide who was into British comedy. We’re looking for gorillas in the jungle and he’s spouting my material about a fridge at me. Also, when I was first famous, I was coming out of the shower at the gym, stood there completely naked, and a bloke came over asking for a selfie. That’s when I thought ‘Well, this is ridiculous now.’

How would you describe yourself in three words?

That’s hard, what do most people say? I bet they say kind. And brave. I had a mate who was doing an online dating thing and he described himself saying, ‘I’m a Sagittarius and I’m brave.’ Brave? How? What does that mean? OK, I’d say I’m optimistic. Hopeful. And lost.

Oh, that’s sad. Why are you lost?

Because, as a comedian, I think you have to be. There’s something about being a comedian that’s different to everything else, you have to feel a little bit outside, otherwise you can’t look in. If you’re at the centre of everything and everything is working brilliantly, then you’ve got nothing to say. There’s something about us as a breed that means we have to stand outside the shop looking through the window, rather than be in the shop buying stuff.

What would surprise us about you?

I’m really a woman… I dunno. Well, no one thought I could be a talk show host, so let’s say that.

Your chat show is all very serious. Was that weird at first?

It’s not weird for me, it’s me being me, isn’t it? I suppose it’s a leap in perception for other people, though, and at first it was like, ‘Where’s the funny bit, then?’ People were like, ‘Are you sure you can do it?’ It’s just talking to someone, innit? It feels very comfortable.

How do you feel about asking the tricky questions?

We don’t tell them what we want to talk about before, so that helps because they’re not trying to avoid something. I’ve never asked anything where someone’s gone, ‘I don’t want to talk about that, why have you asked that?’ Yet.

A lot of the people you’ve had on your show are your mates. Is it weird talking to them like that?

You never sit with a friend and say, ‘Let’s talk about you for an hour…’ Not when you’re a comedian like me – I’ve got an ego, so it’s always got to be about me. I never ask anybody to do it as a favour because we’re mates, but people probably feel safer with someone they know. I know I do. This new series, Paddy McGuinness’s interview is brilliant – normally, he’s a show, it’s the Paddy show, but he talks about his life more than he’s ever done before.

Who is the dream guest?

I could say Robert De Niro. Or Barack Obama, but who wouldn’t say that? I enjoyed Jeremy Corbyn when he came on, because it wasn’t a political interview, and I’d like to do Theresa May. She doesn’t seem to have the charisma of other leaders, but no one’s asked her about her, and there’s something interesting about why someone would choose that life. Why would you?

John Bishop: In Conversation With starts on Thursday, 10pm, on W

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