Interview: John Bishop, comedian

Striding around the drawing room of a plush hotel, John Bishop is blethering on his phone and making apologetic faces to me. In blue jeans and an untucked blue shirt, he looks like an ageing footballer in casual mode. The kind of man who wouldn’t look out of place on the Match of the Day sofa. If his shirt was tucked in.

Actually, Bishop was a semi-professional footballer once upon a time, playing for Southport and Witton Albion amongst others. That was after Manchester Poly and before he became a sales director for a pharmaceutical company. And long before he found himself, separated from his wife, miserable, stepping on to the stage during a talent night in a Manchester pub called the Frog and Bucket.

Bishop did his first stand-up performance when he was 35. He didn’t give up his sales rep job until he was 40. Now at 45 he’s one of the most successful stand-ups around. There have been sell-out tours, acclaimed appearances on Live at the Apollo and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, followed by his own Saturday night BBC1 show, John Bishop’s Britain. Unsurprisingly, as well as dry and pithy observational comedy, a lot of Bishop’s schtick is to do with his disbelief at what’s happened to him. There’s a joke he used to do in his show that goes: “I still feel I’m living someone else’s life. There’s a sales rep driving a Mondeo round Birmingham who’s thinking they should be doing a show tonight.” The fact that he can pull this off without seeming disingenuous says everything you need to know about him: John Bishop is a nice man.

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Ouch. It’s not usually a compliment, is it? And niceness isn’t really a prerequisite for someone who makes their living giving other people a laugh. In fact, it might be seen as a bit of a drawback for a job in which taking the piss is the point. But being a nice bloke is the biggest part of what John Bishop does. His comedy isn’t soft – his humour is dry, his wit acerbic, the kind, he says, that you find in working-class cities (he was born in Liverpool but grew up in Runcorn) where humour is a positive way of dealing with “all the crap”. But if there is a butt of Bishop’s jokes, it’s him. And that’s just how he likes it.

“In my comedy when there’s a victim, it’s me,” he says. “And I think that’s how it should be – self-effacing and honest. It’s very gratifying sometimes to make yourself the butt of the joke because it bursts your bubble.”

As Bishop talks on his phone (he’s not showing off – he’s on the phone to his GP sorting out how to get a prescription since the family are just about to move house) I pour tea and try not to listen. It’s not easy. I distract myself by thinking about the sound of his voice. His scouse accent is so thick you could chew on it and he’s still sounding a bit rough after his Sport Relief adventure, during which he cycled, rowed and ran from Paris to London to raise money to vaccinate African children against tetanus, diptheria and whooping cough. Dubbed “John Bishop’s Week of Hell”, it was just a bit harder than he anticipated.

“I’m on the rebound,” he says, folding into the armchair beside me and sloshing milk into his tea. “My voice is croaky, I’m picking up viruses and hayfever. I’m just run down. Everyone said I’d get that little kick back a month or so later. But I’ve started training again, just trying to maintain myself. I couldn’t when I finished because I was on crutches for a week.”

David Walliams swam the Thames, Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days. For Bishop, the gruelling task was to step into James Corden’s shoes when he pulled out to head to New York with his hit play, One Man Two Guv’nors. Bishop cycled from Paris to the coast, rowed the Channel then finished up with three marathons. I try to compliment him on surviving it, but he’s having none of it.

“The challenge doesn’t matter,” he says, sounding genuinely embarrassed. He had, he admits, massively underestimated not only how hard the experience would be, but also how interested people would be in how he got on. It’s obviously still a bit tricky. “What’s good is the money that it raised.” His “week of hell” brought in £3,421,261 of the £50+ million total. “It’s a physical challenge but people do those every day. I know one lad who’s just run 50 marathons in 50 days for Help for Heroes.

“The most humbling thing about it is no matter what I do now it’s probably the most significant thing I’ll ever do in my life because it’s been passed on to other people – that money has gone to other people. From my point of view it’s the money that matters, not the event. If I could’ve made the same money by skipping for a week, I’d have skipped.”

He didn’t watch the documentary about it – he did a gig at the Comedy Store instead, to make sure that he missed it.

“I’ve watched it since but I watch it through my hands. It’s like it’s someone else.” It turns out that what he means by that is that it’s not John Bishop the comedian, it’s just John Bishop.

“We had all these considerations about allowing clips to be used of Melanie and the kids [Bishop’s wife and three teenage sons, Joseph, Luke and Daniel]. That’s the first time I’ve ever allowed that. I’ve never allowed their names to be mentioned in interviews because it’s like this is our life, this is our world. But when they wanted to have various celebs cycling or running with me I just said I’d rather have me mates on their bikes and the kids running the last mile with me. I’d rather have that because I thought it made it more honest.”

Bishop’s comedy works because he’s seen as just an ordinary guy, talking about family and being in his 40s. And yet, he’s obviously uneasy – a bit shy – about the attention from Sport Relief because it was focused on him, not as a comic, but as a man.

“I did think, do I have to change my material? Can I still swear? I do swear but then will people say – ‘isn’t he the nice man who did Sport Relief?’ and then they see me doing that?” He pauses, punchline emerging. “I just thought bollocks to it. F**k ’em.” He laughs. “No, I just thought you have to keep on being yourself.”

But it’s not easy to be yourself when your life has changed dramatically, especially when your stock in trade is being just like everyone else. It’s not just the arena tours and the Saturday night telly either. There have been acting roles in Skins and in Ken Loach’s Route Irish. His most recent dramatic role was in Jimmy McGovern’s Accused. Bishop is well known enough now that he worries about being photographed with his family, struggling to keep them out of what he’s in.

“I can’t ignore it and the audience wouldn’t ignore it either,” he says. “But the core of who I am and where I’m from – it’s never going to change.”

Bishop grew up on a council estate. His dad was a labourer. The only way to get out was to play for Liverpool or be in a band he says. Things are very different now, but he’s not taking any of it for granted.

“We’re moving house and it’s a really nice house but it’s half an hour from the first estate we lived on. When I took my kids to see the house that we’re buying I took them in the car to the estate I grew up on.” He says that it was pretty much as he remembered it – a place where people were taken from Liverpool because they’d got jobs in the factories. But now the factories are all closed. There’s no work and nothing to do.

“I got the kids out of the car and explained that this is where they’re from. They might not live there but it’s where I’m from and if I hadn’t have lived there then they wouldn’t be about to move to their new house. This is what we’re all about.

“I told my brother the same thing. He went and nicked the road sign.” He laughs. “So in my posh house, I’ve got the road sign of the estate we grew up on. It’ll never, ever be forgotten.”

Bishop refused to promote his tour during Sport Relief because he wanted to keep the two things separate. Now he feels that enough time has passed.

“I don’t think anyone will say I just did Sport Relief to get material because there are much easier ways to get material than that.” He laughs. “‘Look at him, nearly killing himself for a joke. He got five minutes out of that.’

“I wasn’t going to tour for a while after the last one, but I’ve got to be honest, I just missed it. I had six months of not gigging and I didn’t realise but I was just miserable. My Mrs said ‘Get out you miserable bastard. Go and make some people laugh because you’re doing my head in.’”

It’s not that different a story to how things started for him, really. Bishop got up on stage because he was a bit miserable. He was bored in his job, he had separated from his wife (they later got back together). He was looking for something else and he found it on stage with a microphone in his hand, making people laugh. It wasn’t easy. There were rotten gigs and tiny audiences. But, as it turns out, what he liked then and what he likes now about getting up on stage and telling funny stories hasn’t really changed.

“You get caught up in this whole showbiz thing with everything else that comes along, but I’m a comedian, that’s what I do. It’s why I find it odd when people – comedians or singers – just stop. Like Phil Collins just stopped. How can you do that? How can you just stop? You go down. Of course you do. I’m sure I’ll end up on a cruise ship and I’ll be doing this for a couple of years longer than some people want me to, but it’s not about the venue, it’s about the fact that you’re stood in front of people making them laugh.”

When you watch Bishop perform – on telly or on stage – what you notice most is that he seems totally relaxed. It’s as though he’s just having a laugh with 
his mates.

“It’s a lucky thing,” he says. “I think because I never planned to do it as a job and I had no ambition to do it, the stakes weren’t very high for me. If I failed as a comedian then fine. The fact that I wasn’t seeking to do it but I found a voice that allows me to do it is just a massive bonus.

“I also think if it doesn’t work – I mean the stakes have got higher as the venues got bigger and it’s now my job, this is what I do to feed my kids, but it’s not life or death. If it all goes terribly wrong at a gig,” he shrugs, “no one gets hurt, it’s not a big problem.”

Sitting drinking tea, having a blether, Bishop doesn’t seem very showy. He’s not trying to blow me away with gags or one-liners. He’s funny – and he finds himself funny – but in a low-key way, just like he is 
on stage.

But can that be all there is to it? I want to know when he was selling pharmaceuticals, driving his company car, giving powerpoint presentations to executives was he overdoing it ever so slightly, a frustrated stand-up in a business suit?

“No. Not at all,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve never been like that. I’m not that type of person.” He tells me that one of his mates has just got married for the second time. As an aside he explains that he was the best man the first time round having been promoted from being an usher when the best man’s wife went into labour. He had started doing comedy gigs in clubs about eight weeks before so the groom thought he’d be able to pull off a funny speech.

“That was a lesson. I got up and oh...” he shakes his head. “It was one of those best man speeches when all the lads at the table absolutely killed themselves but the mother-in-law was in tears. One of the uncles said something while I was talking and I just gave him every heckler put down in the book. It killed the atmosphere.” He laughs. “So don’t get a comedian as your best man. Or at least not someone who’s been a comedian for about two weeks.”

The groom forgave him because he was recently on the stag night for his second wedding.

“There were seven or eight lads. We were all sitting in a hotel room in Barcelona having a quick drink before we went out. One of the lads said do you know how long we’ve all known each other? The shortest length of time I’d known anyone in that room was 
21 years.

“We were out and having a laugh. In that company, if someone had filmed it and then said pick the person who’s the comedian professionally, you wouldn’t have picked me. That’s what they all say – ‘can’t believe anyone would pay money to listen to your sh*te.’” 
He smiles.

But they do. And I can understand why. Bishop’s good company and he’s easy to like. It’s true sitting with him drinking tea and it’s true when he’s onstage in front of thousands of people. If he was going to let it go to his head and become too full of himself, he would’ve done it by now. He’s just not really like that.

“I get a lot of new comics asking for advice and all I can say is do it because you love it. If you do it for other reasons it loses its meaning because you can’t quantify laughter – boof, I’ve cracked it. It doesn’t work like that, it’s too personal, too human.”

Finishing his tea, Bishop checks his watch. He’s got a taxi booked to take him to the train station. And by taxi I mean chauffeur-driven Jag. The chauffeur has opened the back door of the car for Bishop. He shakes my hand and slings his holdall on to the back seat and opens the passenger door. The chauffeur looks a bit confused but Bishop just smiles and then waves goodbye to me.

When my taxi arrives the driver asks who I’ve been interviewing. I tell him. “My wife loves him,” he says. “And I like him too. That’s unusual for us, because usually whoever I like the wife doesn’t like and whoever the wife likes I don’t like. But we both like him. We’ve got his DVD. And that Sport Relief thing? What a man.”

John Bishop’s Rollercoaster Tour is at the SECC, Glasgow, 8, 9 and 10 October and at the Aberdeen Exhibition Centre, 30 and 31 Oct. For tickets go to www.ticketmaster.com