The Big Interview: John Bishop

John Bishop
John Bishop
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JOHN Bishop is worried he may have scared off any aliens from visiting our planet.

The Liverpudlian comedian was one of the people invited to carry the Olympic Torch as it made its way round the UK and ended up climbing 26ft to the top of the Jodrell Bank observatory in Cheshire, back in May.

“It was a brilliant thing to be asked to do and when I got there they said, ‘Do you fancy doing it from the top?’ So I went on to the antennae and there’s a moment in history that if aliens did get in touch they’ve only got a scouse voice in reply saying, ‘I’ve got a Torch in me hand’. They’ll probably hear that and say, ‘Let’s move on’.”

He says it was an honour to be among those selected to carry the torch and was pleased to find out he could keep it afterwards. “You also get the chance to buy the Torch, but interestingly what they do is decommission it so people can’t use them again. I asked them why they did that and they said they didn’t want people lighting barbecues or running into the pub saying ‘Look what I’ve got’,” he jokes.

Bishop is in Yorkshire for a flying visit to promote his new, Rollercoaster Tour, which starts in September and includes three shows at the Sheffield Motorpoint Arena the following month. It’s going to be a busy finale to what has already been a remarkable year for the 45-year-old comic.

In March, he completed what was billed as his own personal Week of Hell after finishing his punishing Paris to London challenge, in which he raised a staggering £4m for Sport Relief. He cycled, rowed and ran from the French capital to Trafalgar Square, covering more than 290 miles in just five days.

But he’s quick to play down his own heroics. “Loads of people do all kinds of things that are a lot harder than what I did. I knew it was going to end, so mentally no matter how hard it feels you know it’s going to be over, I just had to keep going.

“It didn’t matter what I did if no one had put their money in. It only gets measured by how much money is raised not by how hard it is. If someone said you can raise £4m by doing hopscotch for a week I would have done that.”

So was he shocked by how much he helped raise? “I was shocked that anyone was bothered and I don’t mean that flippantly. It was an incredibly humbling experience and it’s likely to be the most significant thing I ever do in terms of the effect it’s going to have. But what blew me away was when I got to England there were people cheering me on and beeping their horns.

“For whatever reason it just connected with people,” he says.

It’s also given him some material for his forthcoming shows, although initially he hadn’t planned for this. “I wanted to keep it all separate from my tour, but it’s now become such a big thing it’s impossible for me not to get some material from it and use it on the tour. If I just ignored it people would wonder why,” he says.

“The rule I try and work to is if I’ve done stuff on telly I don’t do it on tour and the stuff on tour goes on to the DVD and I don’t do it again. It means this tour will be different to the previous ones I’ve done. So I basically spend all my time now walking round hoping that something funny happens. The challenge I have between now and September is taking all of those things that have happened since I was last on tour and putting them in some kind of order.”

Some comedians get criticised for using material people have already seen on TV, which Bishop tries to avoid. “I want to give people value for money, that’s the main thing for me. But it can be a double edged sword because I’ve had people say to me they came to my show because they’d seen my DVD and wanted me to do those jokes.

“But if I’m doing a show in front of 8,000 people in Sheffield I don’t want them sitting there thinking, ‘I know what’s coming’. Because comedy is magic, there has to be a trick and at the end I pull a rabbit out of a hat. If you know the end then as amusing as it is you wouldn’t want to see it again. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe I should do all my best jokes on tour and stop banging my head against a wall trying to come up with new stuff.”

Bishop comes across as someone who’s naturally funny; you don’t get the impression he’s a troubled clown like Tony Hancock or Kenneth Williams. “People often ask me who my favourite comedian is and I always say, Billy Connolly. And the truth of the matter is I’ve only ever seen him once and that was about 18 months ago. So for 10 years in every interview I’ve been saying he’s my favourite comedian because before I became a comedian I never watched comedy.” But he likes Connolly’s story-telling style of humour. “I like comedy where you learn something about the person. Someone telling one-liners can be really funny in short bursts, but to sustain that over two hours is difficult, so for me telling stories gives it a bit more fabric, without wanting to sound too poncey.”

What’s unusual about Bishop is that he was in his 30s when he did his first gig. He became a stand-up largely through happenstance. “I’d split up with my wife and I was depressed and half drunk and in a comedy club. It was an open mic night and if I got up and did something I didn’t have to pay to get in, so that was the start. I knew within three minutes that I just loved doing it.”

He then started dedicating his spare time to learning the craft. “People began giving me money for it and I thought it was a great little part-time job and then people I started with, like Alan Carr, were going up the ladder and you start thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can make a living from this’.”

The problem was Bishop had a good job, he worked as a sales and marketing director for a pharmaceutical firm, and had a family to support. So deciding to become a full-time comedian was a huge decision. “I thought if I didn’t take that chance because I’ve got a wife, kids and a mortgage I’ll blame the kids when I’m 50. So I thought I’d rather have a go and fail than place that burden on them.”

He did a show at the Edinburgh Festival called Stick Your Job Up You’re A***, a few years ago based around this idea. “I was doing it in a Portakabin with less than 60 seats and throughout the run I had about 50 per cent capacity, so there were some nights when there was just 12 people in. Afterwards, some people who came to the show wrote to me and said they were inspired by the fact I’d left my job to follow my dream, and that were doing the same thing,” he says.

“They’re all homeless now,” he says, causing both of us to laugh.

Bishop grew up in council estates just outside Liverpool , but he doesn’t think there’s a great North-South divide when it comes to comedy. “In Liverpool, I’d say they’re more optimistic, while in Yorkshire the humour tends to be drier. But generally I find audiences the same – if you’re funny they’ll laugh and if you’re not they won’t.”

It’s interesting to hear him say, given the fact he’s kept me and the photographer entertained for the best part of an hour, that he thinks some of his friends are funnier than he is. “I go out with my mates and they say, ‘I can’t believe anyone pays money to see you’. I go out with them and I’m not the funniest or loudest. I went on a stag do to Barcelona a couple of months ago, there was seven of us and we were sat there chatting, the craic was going on and everyone was laughing, and I thought if someone was to look at us and guess who the professional comedian was I would have probably been fifth choice.”

He’s being self-deprecating here because, as he points out, it’s one thing to be funny in front of your mates, it’s another to get a room full of strangers falling on the floor with laughter.

But having become a full-time comic, he made a name for himself pretty quickly and had three big breaks. First, he appeared on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, then Live at the Apollo and before appearing on the Jonathan Ross Show. “It was one after the other and that made all the difference,” he says.

Bishop has become a household name in the past couple of years and is among an A-list of comedians that includes the likes of McIntyre, Peter Kay and Alan Carr, who can sell out venues that used to be reserved for rock and pop stars. “I wanted to do at least one tour in my career that was all arenas and then I’ll step back and decide if that’s the way I want to continue,” he says.

Not that he ever dreamt he could fill these kind of places. “I didn’t come into comedy thinking I could do arenas. Peter Kay and Eddie Izzard started it off and there’s probably a small band of people, if we’re being fair, who can actually fill an arena and to be within that band at the moment is great.”

He’s on a roll right now and loving every second. “Getting paid to make people laugh is a privilege and I genuinely enjoy it that much if I don’t do it I start getting irritable,” he says.

“It’s a great thing to be able to do and because I’ve had a normal life and a normal job I’m used to going to work... So I can’t complain – I’m living the dream.”

John Bishop is appearing at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena from October 26 to 28. Box office 0114 256 5656.