As he releases his debut stand-up DVD, Jason Manford is a comedian whose star is very much on the rise. This year has seen him continue with his first nationwide tour, as well as resuming team captain duties on Eight Out Of Ten Cats.
And after debating the merits of FIFA 10 versus Pro Evolution Soccer 2010, we settled down for a chat…
I found it quite interesting following your Twitter postings. They seem to paint a picture of the comedy touring process that it’s not demanding as such, just that there are great big long gaps in the middle of it as you go from place to place. Have you found that tough?
Yeah, it is hard. It’s been the same tour since last September. It’s hard saying the same things really. As much as you don’t want to break the magic of doing a tour, that’s basically what it is. 80% every night is the same as I said last night. And 20% is a bit of local and messing around with the audience. It’s so relieving to whack it all on a DVD and go, ‘right, finally at the end of this year I never have to say these jokes again!’
Does the show evolve much once you start the tour itself?
Yeah, it’s weird actually. When I first started, I recorded every single night of the tour. And then I ended up with 140 dates, so I thought I can’t do this every night. Not enough hard drive space!
So I was listening back to some of the first few and I remember saying to my agent that I don’t know how I’m going to do this tour. I’ve not got enough material, I’m only doing 20 minutes in the clubs and bits and bobs. And she went ‘honestly, you have.’ And I did my first gig, and they said ‘you only have to do two 45 minutes’. In Bolton I think it was, Milton Keynes, something like that. Then three hours later I came off stage saying ‘I think I’ve got enough!’
But then, obviously, stuff like Live At The Apollo and Eight Out Of Ten Cats just rinses your set. So you’ve got to be careful, that’s all.
How did you find expanding the material from those 20 minute slots into a full show?
It was tough because you’ve got to do a story, basically. You’ve got totry and string it all along. Because in a club you can just go ‘here are some jokes about balloons, here are some jokes about crocodiles.’ And it doesn’t matter that they’re not related.
Whereas on tour when you’re doing two 45 minutes, and I did it without a support act because I’ve got so much, and I quite enjoy that first 15-20 minutes, having a chat with the audience, and seeing where people are from and what people do. Because that’s what I used to do when I was hosting at the clubs and stuff, and that’s the bits that are fresh for me then.
When someone says they do a certain job and my brain has to click into gear and come up with a joke about it, that keeps you on your toes. Otherwise, you may as well just send in a DVD of your tour and everyone sits and watches it on a big screen.
Do you find that material the more satisfying, then, when you come up with the impromptu comeback line?
Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Because part of the tour people have seen on telly, and part of it’s live. So what I try to do is, with the bits that they’ve not seen, I try to make that special and so people feel that they’re getting something that nobody else has got.
Early on in the tour it was easier, because I’d not done Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, I’d only done one Live At The Apollo. And it was fine, really, because people went ‘oh, he’s making all this stuff up off the top of his head.’ Then later on it’s ‘hold on a minute, he’s told people these jokes before! He’s cheating on us!’
I’ve only done about 25 minutes on telly and you’re looking at a two hour show. There’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things. So the bits where you are ad-libbing and making stuff up, people enjoy it. And you can have a little laugh with people on the front row, or further on. And I ask a lot of questions in my set as well, which sometimes are the best bits, really.
How are you finding your audiences?
They’re great. Right from the off they were all well up for it. And I don’t think people are that fussed if they’ve seen five minutes on the telly. But I’ve just found the last couple of dates were tough because I’ve been doing it since last September, so some people have been and seen it. And they’ve come back again. And afterwards they go ‘I’ve seen it’, and I’m like ‘I know, because it’s the same show!’ That’s why I’ve not said it’s a new show. On all the posters it says ‘tour extended’. It’s only two people, but that’s all you need for a comic to go all depressed. 2000 people pissing themselves, one person not enjoying it, and you go ‘what was wrong with him?’
In Steve Martin’s book, he talks at the end when he was playing the 40,000 seater shows, he says that all he could see was that at the back there were a few empty seats, and that’s what stuck in his mind…
[Laughs] That’s exactly it! You look out into an audience and see thousands of people laughing, and there’s one person maybe just yawning. Maybe they’ve had a tough day at work. There’s a hundred reasons why that person might not be interested. They’re the designated driver or whatever. But in your head you’re going ‘what is wrong with him?!’
Do you find yourself directing material towards them to try and break them down?
There was one bloke at the DVD recording who just, literally, for an hour of it was just staring at me. Everyone was proper laughing, and, obviously, it was the DVD so everyone was well up for it, and there was a round of applause and stuff where there’s usually just laughter. And there’s this one bloke who’s clearly just driven his daughters there for the gig.
And I said something in the second half about dogs winking or something, I don’t know what it was now. And he proper laughed for the first time. When I watched the DVD back, there’s a shot of him laughing just that one time, and I’ve got it on film. So I said to the editor ‘make sure you put that in, I want him on loop! I want him laughing about 15 times!’ When he watches it back he’ll go ‘I don’t remember laughing at it that much, but obviously I did!’ It’s documented!
I read Dara O Briain’s book that he’s just put out as well, and in there he seems to suggest that there’s almost apprehension when it comes to the DVD gig itself? That there’s a feeling that it’s consciously different to the norm? Did you find that as well?
Yeah. Completely. I did two nights of DVD recordings, actually, which was great because on the first night I had everything ready, and I’d done of load of warm-ups to get ready and get into the zone, that sort of thing. And I did about two and a half hours, and they whittle that down to 85 minutes or whatever.
And the first night went well. I came off, and very rarely come off stage going ‘wow that’s brilliant’. Most of the time I think that I’ve missed something out, or forgotten something. And the guys from Universal and the people from the production company and stuff said ‘oh, that was really good.’ The woman from the DVD was like ‘that was fine, we don’t need tomorrow, really.’ And I said ‘we’ve got 2500 people coming, we better do it.’
So for the second night, because I thought the first night was the one we were using, the second night was even better, really. Because I was relaxed and I thought it’s in the bag, that sort of thing. Like going into the second leg of a cup match 6-0 up…!
I can’t relate to that at all!
Well, same here, to be honest! But I thought I can relax. And it was a much better show, and that was the one we used in the end. We used snippets on the first one, just for cuts and stuff.
You played an abundance of dates over the course of the tour. Did you find yourself warming to particular styles of rooms?
Yeah, it’s funny. I think something like about 3000 is, for me, about the maximum, 3500 maybe. That’s perfect, if the room’s right. I’m doing Hammersmith Apollo next year, and that is a great room. Even though there’s 3500 people there, it doesn’t feel like it at all, because they’re all intimate and close.
It’s quite old fashioned, isn’t it?
Yeah. That’s the trick, really. I’ve been to lots of comedy at arenas and stuff, and fair enough if you can sell it, happy days. It’s not for me, I don’t think. Even if I got that famous and that big, I don’t think that I would.
Next year I’m doing five nights at the Manchester Apollo, which is the equivalent of doing one and a half nights at the MEN Arena. But I’d still rather do the five nights at the Apollo. It’s more interactive to me, because I’m not talking to somebody and then 15,000 at the back are going ‘I can’t see who he’s talking to.’
But then I played some really little ones, 130 to 150 seats in some towns. That was towards the beginning of the tour. That was maybe down to my lack of ego. We were booking this tour and I was saying’ I don’t think anyone’s going to come. I don’t want to look stupid in a 600-seater room, so find me a little 150-seater.’ And then I ended up having to go back three times because it kept selling out! For the next tour next year, hopefully, I’ll let them choose some bigger venues. But, hopefully, keep some of those smaller ones.
I’m a fan of Eight Out Of Ten Cats, and the one thing that always comes across – which Sean Lock confirmed with us last year – is the sheer improvisational nature of it.
There seems much less script and rehearsal. Is it complimentary more than competitive?
I think that’s the trick. I’ve seen other shows and they are competitive, and they are about having a go. And even if you’re not turning on a celebrity who’s not there, you’re turning on the people who are there. That’s never been the case with Eight Out Of Ten Cats. You do feel like you’re on the same side, even though you’re on opposite sides. Of course, the record is about three hours, so there’s a lot of shit! But what does make it in is always good fun!
What I enjoy about it is it’s not scripted, really. And that’s down to Sean. He probably doesn’t get any recognition for it, because he’s got such a sense of comedy and pride in comedy that he won’t allow it at all. Even if a producer thinks it’d be better if we scripted this, he would not allow that on the show. And as much as it is Jimmy’s show, he presents it, Sean is a big cog in the machine, he keeps it ticking over, keeps it cool, in a way.
I’m quite mainstream and in the centre, and certainly a lot of comedy aficionados would watch it because Sean’s on it. And he’s been doing it longer than I’ve been alive, I think!
Obviously, the beginning bit, the stories from the week’s news, you’d be a fool not to read the papers and jot a few gags down before you turn up. But then, after that,it’s just a free for all. If a picture comes up or a question comes up, please have a joke about it!
The atmosphere seems more relaxed too?
Yeah, that’s the thing. You get a lot more women on our show, too, and they’re able to have a laugh. And even if they’re not all comics – and I think that’s part of the trick, as comics can be ultra-competitive – if you get Claudia Winkleman and Carol Voderman alongside Rhod Gilbert, it does mean that you’ve got something else to bounce off. It rounds off the corners a bit and makes it feel a bit nicer.
Are you happy to keep doing the show yourself?
Yeah, I’d love to. It’s back in January, and they’ve asked us to come back. It’s one of those staple things now for me. I’ve got to a point where after taking over from Dave Spikey, where you are filling his shoes and thinking ‘am I going to be accepted’, I’ve now actually done more episodes than Dave ever did. And nobody seems to mention it that I’m the new one, and that’s fine. It’s not like the Sugababes where they get rid of somebody every few weeks and have to replace them!
So you’re starting working on the next tour? It sounds like a relief to be writing it!
It is, yeah. It’s hard because those gags have been with you through doing the clubs, doing the telly and working your way up. They’re like your kids, and you’ve sort of got to let them go. Once you whack it on a DVD, you’ve got to draw a line under it. As tempting as it is, you know they work. It’s not fair on people.
If people are buying your DVD, if they buy your next DVD it has to be all new. Your first DVD is more a ‘best of’. You might have seen bits on the telly. It’s like seeing people performing a single, and then buying their album. Something like that.
I presume the next year is preparing the tour and looking after your kids!
Yeah, I’ve got two little girls.
Congratulations on those. They’re going to cost you an absolute fortune!
I know, I know! Do you know what, it’s funny. Once I went back to work, I went back with this gusto that I’d never felt before. As much as I do quite a bit on telly, I’ve been picky with stuff. I turn stuff down that I think is a bit naff, and even if I do something that’s not brilliant I think ‘oh well, it’s on a certain channel that I’d better do some work for.’ Whereas now I’ve looked at some stuff that’s come up and thought ‘I’m just going to have to do that.’ I remember how expensive University was when I was there, so imagine how expensive it will be in 18 years time!
Will the repeat fees on Dave sort you out?
If Dave paid repeat fees then, yes, I’m sure it would!
If Dave paid repeat fees, surely no comedian would need to work again?
That’s one of the most annoying things! I did a gag on stage, and a bloke goes ‘I heard that.’ And I said ‘yeah, I have told it before.’ ‘I’ve heard it about 15 times’, and I went ‘I only told it once.’ He said ‘it was on Dave. Dave-ja-vu!’ I said ‘your problem is with Dave, that’s who you need to be writing to! And maybe you need to stop watching it!’
Jason Manford, thank you very much!