Jason Manford on occupying the middle ground

Comedian Jason Manford
Comedian Jason Manford
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His stand-up act is unapologetically mainstream, but Jason Manford never forgets his struggle to escape Manchester’s Triangle of Death or what the price of a ticket to one of his arena gigs might buy

I’M SPEAKING to Jason Manford on a conference call. I’ve logged in, typed in a number, said my name to an automated voice, but he has yet to arrive. Then there’s a click and the recording of his booming voice shouting: “Jason” plays. I laugh. “I always think I should say something funny,” he says when the line connects, “but there’s never any time.”

Not all comedians are funny interviewees. They don’t have to be – I haven’t bought a ticket so they’re not really on duty. Truth be told, though, it can be a little disappointing when they’re not. Happily, Manford, in keeping with the cheeky chappy style of his comedy, is as amusing on his hands-free sitting in his car outside his mum and dad’s house as he is on stage. It’s not that he’s running through routines, busting out gags instead of just talking, he doesn’t even really seem to be trying; he’s just funny.

“I just travelled back up from Salisbury where it was baking hot, a beautiful weekend in the New Forest,” he says, “and now I’m in pissing-down Manchester. You know in the morning when you dress a certain way because you think it’s sunny? I’ve got the kids all day so I thought we’ll go to the park, maybe to the outdoor swimming pool. Nope, it’s going to be the indoor playcentre.”

At this point, I should probably offer a disclaimer. If you’re reading this to find out salacious details of Manford’s marriage break-up, which happened last year but which has only recently become public knowledge, or of his supposed penchant for sexting, I’m sorry to disappoint, but you’re not going to find them here.

Partly, the deal was that I wouldn’t ask him about the stuff that has made him a tabloid favourite, but more than this, to be completely honest, I’m not that interested. He’d only have told me what he’s told the other hacks who got to him when he thought by being honest about it – he can’t blame anyone else, it was his fault, it’s embarrassing – that he’d draw a line under it once and for all. Now he knows that probably won’t happen and so he refuses to talk about it. I get it. And, genuinely, there are other more interesting things to talk about, like what he’s doing back on tour when he’s got four-year-old twins and a younger daughter aged just two?

“I was just talking about it with friends and they were saying, ‘Oh, off on tour, it must be lovely’. They’ve got little ’uns as well. You know, you spend so much time trying to get kids and then when you’ve got them you get quite a lot of time trying to get away from them.

“I remember my first tour and it was great. I used to do a gig in a city and then I’d go out with the audience. Maybe another comedian would be in town and we’d have a laugh and the next day I’d sleep in until three in the afternoon then drive to the next gig. It was exactly what you thought touring was going to be. Now it’s a case of getting off stage at half ten and thinking, ‘Right, I reckon I can be home for half two and then the kids will be up at 7am.’ I’ve worked out I only have to be happy while on stage. The rest of the time, I can just fake it.”

Manford is only 32 but he’s been a stand-up for 16 years. He was 17 when his mum told him to find a job, so he went looking in the nearest pub, the Buzz Comedy Club in Chorlton, Manchester. He started work clearing tables and collecting glasses and was able to watch comedians including Peter Kay, Johnny Vegas, Eddie Izzard and Lee Evans doing their sets. One night, two comics who were coming up from London were stopped by bad weather, so Manford suggested that he take over with the five minutes’ worth of material he’d tried on his mates. Six gigs later he won North West Comedian of the Year.

Still shy of the legal drinking age and now with a gargantuan seven minutes of material, he received plenty of offers but decided he’d go back to university and do his degree before embarking on his comedy career. After that, there was a stint of minimum wage jobs – in a cinema, in a factory, in a Burger King, perfect comedy fodder – then he played the Edinburgh Fringe with a show called Urban Legends in 2005 and landed himself on the last ever Perrier Award shortlist.

“My name was chalked on the board as a sold-out, and that just breeds, so then there was a second one and a third,” he says. “I went up expecting it to be a nightmare, to cost a fortune and for no-one to turn up, and that does happen to people, but I was lucky.” The worst thing he can say about the Fringe was that it was damp. He came back in 2007 and did a month of stand-up, then in 2009 he did a week at the EICC. It’s pretty much the Edinburgh dream scenario for a comedian. In between times he’d come up with his dad for a week just to see shows. “My dad loves Edinburgh,” he says. “It’s the only place apart from Manchester that he’d live. Often I end up going to bed and leaving him out with the other comics. He’s 60 now, he’s just not bothered.”

As a career trajectory, it must have made his comedy brethren seethe with jealousy. Manford has made it look effortless, even with the abortive stints in mainstream telly on The One Show and ITV’s Comedy Rocks. But stand-up isn’t easy, he says, telling me that if I’d spoken to him six months ago and asked him how writing the material for his tour was going he’d have “broken down in tears”.

“For me, it’s not a writing process,” he says, “otherwise I’d do a Jimmy Carr and tour non-stop. He’s got a formula, a rat-a-tat this is a set-up and this is a gag. Mine is observational so I’ve got to wait to observe it. I’m sort of watching my kids and my family and it’s like, ‘You’d better start doing funny stuff because daddy’s got a tour in July and unless you start doing funny things you’re not going to university.’” He pauses. “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure on the family.”

The other problem is that his family know that he mines them for laughs so they’ve become more self-aware. There’s none of the, ‘Here’s a funny thing my nana said’ or, ‘There’s that funny thing my dad does’ he says, because now they know they’re going to end up as part of an arena tour. Still, though, Manford’s brand of comedy remains unapologetically mainstream, observational, gentle laughs rooted in family and the stuff of everyday life.

“Someone’s got to stay in the middle,” he says. “We can’t all be on the edge or we’ll all fall off. And without the middle there is no edge. Someone has to do comedy for the bulk of people and that’s who I am aiming for. Even when I did the circuit I never came on and did the, ‘You’re fat, you’re bald, you’re ginger’. I was never that comic, I was always more celebratory. If someone had a ridiculous shirt on I’d be like, ‘Look how amazing he is wearing that shirt.’ I always thought it was a bit of a breach of contract when comics come on and just insult someone. I mean they’ve paid 20-odd quid.”

If it sounds like Manford is pulling the ‘I’m still a man of the people’ routine, it’s probably worth noting that he’s reduced his ticket prices for his tour this year. He didn’t have to – tickets are selling plenty fast. He just gets “wound up” with booking fees and doesn’t want it to look like he’s charging them.

“People would be like, ‘You’d better be worth 36 quid’, and I’d be like, ‘I’m not charging that’,” he says. “It was a fiver booking fee per ticket and you had to print them yourself. My tickets were £25 and I’ve made them £22.50 and so it’s like we’ve gone halves each on the booking fee.”

Manford grew up in an area of Manchester known as the Triangle of Death, notorious for gangs and gun crime. The eldest of five children, his family was a big Manchester Irish-Catholic family and they were poor. Even when he was first gigging, he wasn’t making much money and he’s not forgotten how that feels.

“I remember working 60 hours and seeing how much money wasn’t coming in,” he says. “So now when I look at the ticket prices, I remember how hard it was to earn that. Then there’s a babysitter, and they want to go for a meal and a few drinks after, so you’re talking a hundred quid for a night out. That’s a lot of money, even when there isn’t a recession.”

Financially, of course, things are very different for Manford now. Tickets for his tours sell by the thousand and his DVDs shift by the barrow-load. There’s been an autobiography and all those panel shows. Still, though, he says that when he looks at his audience he sees people who are like him – thirty-somethings with little kids and mortgages to pay.

“Things like parenthood and family, those things don’t change, they’re universal. Look at Jerry Seinfeld, the guy’s worth $700 million and he did an hour of stuff about relationships and kids. He’s just a funny guy who’s found something to talk about.

“I still get the bus into town. I spend a lot of time on public transport going up and down to London. I suppose what’s changed when I think about my life before I started being successful is that I live in a nicer place and I drive a nicer car. But my mum and dad and my family aren’t any different. I’ve tried to book my mum and dad into a five-star hotel and they don’t like it, they’re not comfortable, they don’t feel like they belong there. They want to go to the same place in Spain that they’ve always gone because they like it. The only thing that has changed is that I don’t have as many worries.” He corrects himself: “I have a different kind of worries, not the ones about not being able to pay the bills or bailiffs knocking on the door as I had years ago. I probably don’t spend as much time in the pound shop as I used to. But I still like a bargain.”

He’s not exactly cutthroat when it comes to the work he does either. Recently, he did a stint in Sweeney Todd in the West End, with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. He’d always wanted to do a musical, he says, and he thought his way into it would be to say as much on the Jonathan Ross Show. “I was completely under the illusion that the phone was going to ring – Cameron Mackintosh would give me a bell and that’d be me in a musical.”

It didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, Manford’s agent was sent a load of casting requests for fill-in performers in West End musicals for six weeks over the summer. Manford had told her that he wanted to do something like that so she put his name down.

“It was seven hundred quid a week or something, doing eight shows a week,” he says. “I just turned up at the audition like everyone else would. I think they were a bit like, ‘What’s going on?’ But in a good way. They obviously realised I really wanted to do it given that it was going to cost me money to move to London to do it.”

He did three auditions and then landed the part of an Italian barber, looking like the “Go Compare man with a ridiculous ’tache and crazy hair”.

“I’ve never worked so hard. I started in the March, I had a singing teacher three or four times a week. I don’t know how much it cost me in the end – I spent hundreds on singing lessons. But I loved it.”

It’s clear that after 16 years in comedy Manford is looking around for what else he might do. He says he’d go back to the West End without a hesitation and he’s still keen to do a sitcom. Something “warm” for all the family. He filmed a pilot last year and he liked it.

“My dad always said if you love your job then you’ll never work a day in your life,” he says. “That’s definitely how it feels in this job. It’s relative, there are definitely times when it feels easier, when something isn’t very nice, but everyone has that moment in their job.

“I’ve always been nice to people and so people are nice to me. When I need a bit of help or a bit of a lift, they’re willing to do that because I’ve helped them too.”

The trick is, he says, not over-complicating what it is that he does. Strip it back and it’s just a man or a woman on stage trying to make people laugh. “I’ve got no agenda, I’m not telling you how to live your life, I’m not telling you what your politics should be, I’m literally telling you this is a funny thing I thought of the other day and I want to share it with you.”

He laughs, then pauses. “This is better than I ever thought life would be when I was growing up and a teenager. I look at my parents – I’m parked outside the house now that I helped to buy them. To move them out of that council house where we used to have a lot of trouble, it’s so good. My kids don’t have to worry about the same things I had to. So when I go on stage I’m a bit like it’s not that hard is it? It’s only a bit of a laugh.” n

Twitter: @ScottieSays

• Jason Manford: First World Problems is at the Dunfermline Alhambra on 12 and 13 July, the EICC 20-25 August, Aberdeen Music Hall 28 and 29 August and Glasgow Pavilion 30 and 31 August. For tickets go to www.ticketmaster.co.uk or telephone 08444 99 99 90