I heard a thing on Radio 4 once about a bloke who’d dedicated his life to studying sea anemones,” Frank Skinner recalls. “And someone asked a very good question – ‘how can you tell when they’re dead?’ And he said, ‘well, you have to find evidence of growth. If there’s no evidence of growth, we officially class them as dead’. I think that’s the same for stand-ups.”
On the cusp of 57, the veteran comic still feels pretty vital. He returns to television next week as host of the pet peeve series Room 101 but confesses that he struggles to nurture resentment towards anything too deeply nowadays, give or take 500 years of religious schism. A devout and high-profile Roman Catholic, he chuckles remembering the trailer he once shot on his personal hates for the series, followed by a call from the BBC wondering if enough people knew what The Reformation was.
Still, despite just presenting Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year with the evergreen Joan Bakewell, he ventures “that the human face on television can be quite shocking once you get to about 60. I would prefer to see young faces on telly generally and I include my own in the ones that would be rejected. You kind of want them to look nice and fresh. When I see myself on telly, I think I’m just about getting away with it at the moment.”
Mindful, perhaps, of being drawn into the ageism-in-broadcasting debate, and possibly on sexism too, he swiftly and indelicately adds: “Old people on telly tend to be men because a lot of women as we know find it harder to get work because they want pretty women or whatever. I’m not anti it. But I can imagine people thinking ‘wouldn’t it be nice if Room 101 had someone who looked a bit better than that old bloke?’”
A few of Skinner’s insecurities will be familiar to anyone who’s read his 2009 tour memoir, On The Road, including his neurotic, almost allergic reaction to Edinburgh Fringe reviews. And yet in my experience of comedians, he still seems uncommonly content. You can attribute that to faith, his recent, late entry into fatherhood with his 18-month-old son, Buzz Cody, the recovery of his fortune after the credit crunch or simply his inherent “cheeky chappie” disposition.
But he argues that he’s not unusual, “that a lot of comics have this mix of ‘tonight could be the night it all goes wrong’ combined with ‘I am the funniest man on the planet, it’s just that not everyone has worked that out yet’.
“It’s a strange contradiction but I recognise both of those things in myself, it’s just a bit easier to talk about your terrible insecurity than it is about your enormous confidence. People really don’t want to hear that.”
A consistent theme running though recent profiles of him has been ill-disguised incredulity that someone who enjoys football and near-the-knuckle jokes about sex could also be passionate about art, opera and spirituality. I wonder to what extent he’s absorbed that snobbery. But he insists that he’s “honestly blessed” to be able to indulge his broad scope of interests, which “obsessionally” include the works of Samuel Johnson, George Formby and Elvis Presley. And that he really has matured.
Tellingly, his first UK stand-up tour since 2007, announced this week and arriving in Glasgow in April, is self-deprecatingly titled Man In A Suit, “that derogatory term now for a certain type of comedian who’s very slick and polished, male, white and in a shiny suit”.
But the name also reflects “the fact that I wear a suit every day now, like a middle-aged man should”. And that his act “really has changed”, to the extent that he’s fretted about it working in the provinces.
Though forever associated with hosting Fantasy Football League and recording the Three Lions anthem with his friend, David Baddiel, he really doesn’t “talk about football on stage anymore and there are less dirty jokes than there used to be. I felt that the people who’d been watching me since the late 1980s, early 1990s, they wanted me to be Jack the Lad. And I don’t feel like that person anymore.”
Unfortunately, he adds: “I caught myself being regionalist. I’d thought to myself that would be alright in London but if I go out and about, are people going to say, ‘hang on a minute, where are the knob jokes?’ I began to feel guilty. Me, a bloke from Birmingham, being dismissive, stereotyping that everyone outside of London wants laddish comedy. So I’ve decided to take on the challenge.”
Material about his son is out of bounds as well, as he dismisses the topic as alienating for anyone without offspring. Yet thanks to his autobiography, Frank Skinner By Frank Skinner, published in 2001, the reformed alcoholic and former ladies’ man has long been a sort of (metaphorical) father to a whole new generation of stand-ups. Glaswegian comic Kevin Bridges is far from alone in citing the book as the reason he got into comedy.
“It’s brilliant,” Skinner enthuses. “On one level, it’s an ego thing, you realise it must have been good if someone’s moved by it. I hate to say it but I’ve felt very proud when comics have said that to me and it’s still the thing I’ve done in my career that people mention most.
“I never really thought of it as a “how to” manual, it’s just that some comics seem to have taken it like that. But I like the elder statesman role because I like comics, I really am a big comedy fan. I’m not going to name names but I don’t get comedians who don’t laugh at other people’s jokes. Why go into comedy?”
Indeed, given the opportunity, he’d like to die performing, in the manner of Tommy Cooper. “Well, I’d like to say goodbye to a few people first but maybe I could blurt that out as I disappeared,” he suggests, adding that he regrets spending too much time away from the live stage.
“I took the easy option, which I’ve rarely done,” he says of the period he dedicated to his chat show, which ran from 1999 to 2005 on ITV, after three years at the BBC, following the corporation reportedly baulking at his agent’s £20 million contract demands.
“Now, I don’t need the money,” he says. “And I don’t need to be in a hotel in Grimsby on a Tuesday with a beautiful woman after a show. I just like being able to look in the mirror in the morning and think: ‘I am a stand-up comedian, not someone who used to be a stand-up comedian.’”
“I always felt that I was a middle-aged man in waiting when I was a teenager,” he says, but adds that he’s eschewing retirement as “the greatest threat to humankind. I’d put it above all the major illnesses. It killed my mum and dad. I want to be doing stand-up into my eighties and certainly more than I was doing it in my forties and fifties. Genuinely, I’m not planning to retire pre-death.”
Frank Skinner plays the King’s Theatre, Glasgow on 27 April.
Room 101 returns to BBC 1 on 24 January.