John Bishop doesn’t just tell funny stories. He also tells the sort of life story that makes you sit up and listen. He grew up on a council estate outside Liverpool and, at the age of six, visited his father in prison. By the time he was in his mid-thirties he was working in middle management at a pharmaceutical company, had three children and was going through a divorce. Today he sells out 15,000-seat arenas, is still married to his wife and no longer works in middle management.
It was a Monday night and Bishop was looking for something to do. His friends were tired of him ‘crying into his beer’ about his divorce. So, aged 34, he decided to visit a comedy club for only the third time in his life. ‘I just needed to get out the house to stop my own sinking depression,’ he says now. The bouncer at the Frog and Bucket in Manchester had to explain what an open mic night was. If he agreed to stand up on stage himself, there’d be no entry fee.
‘So I thought, “Well I’m going through a divorce, that’s four quid I’ll save.”’ He didn’t actually expect to take the stage. ‘I’d never been in amateur dramatics, I’d never been in a school play. The first time I’d ever walked on a stage with lights on me was that very night. When I got there I just immediately felt at home.’ Bishop is talking to me in his dressing-room at ITV studios after appearing on a chat show. He’s waistcoated, firmly built, has a face that shapes easily into a smile and speaks with an unmistakable Liverpool accent.
Bishop took the stage that night after a man doing chicken impressions and did well enough in front of an audience of seven to be asked to return. ‘The decision that probably changed my life was to go back the week after.’ This time he knew what he was letting himself in for. ‘I did it and I thought, “I love doing this.”’ He began to succeed on the comedy circuit and, after six years, he had handed in his notice. But he couldn’t push up to the big time. His second agent was rebuffed by TV producers. Apparently he was a bit old to break through, didn’t ‘look funny’ and the Scouse accent was a problem. ‘I was told everything that now some people say is a good thing about me was wrong.’ But the agent believed in him, he carried on ‘being himself’ and eventually he made it on to television.
Today, Bishop’s strong dialect is an advantage. ‘An accent like mine defines you regionally, but it also gives you a class identity. As soon as I speak, I think people go, “Well, he obviously must have grown up on a council estate, gone to a comprehensive school and be working class — so I can relate to him.”’ He adds self-deprecatingly, ‘By the way, that psychoanalysis I’ve never done before.’ We laugh. ‘So it might be complete bollocks.’
Comedy didn’t just change the course of Bishop’s career, it also saved his marriage. ‘I used to do material about killing my wife, cutting her head off and putting it in the fridge. It WAS very therapeutic. It’s just cheap therapy.’ His wife turned up to one of his gigs without realising he was on the bill. She liked it and they set out on the path to rebuilding their marriage. ‘I’d lost that little thing that made me fun to be with.’
Bishop is not from the Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine school of one-liners. He doesn’t specialise in ‘succinct jokes, lovely, nice, neat things. My head’s not that neat. It’s all over the place.’ Storytelling comes more naturally. ‘I love pure joke-tellers, but if I go to see a comedian for a full show, I want to feel I know them more than when I came through the door.’ Observational comedy, for Bishop, ‘is like seeing the world through the eyes of a child because a child will point at something and go, “Look at that,” whereas adults have filtered that out.’
Bishop has played to audiences large and small. Some of the nuances of his comedy, he says, are lost in theatres of 1,500. ‘When I started doing arenas, because of the screens, I was back to getting the reaction of a very small room. If I say something and raise my eyebrow, everyone sees it. So people were laughing at the subtleties that they weren’t getting in the theatres. It was really strange.’ His second nationwide arena tour begins in October and he will be testing out his material on smaller venues in the months ahead.
‘It’s like any muscle,’ says Bishop. ‘If you don’t exercise it, you lose the strength of it and the sharpness. Between now and the tour, apart from the odd summer holiday, I’ll be four to six nights a week out. I don’t do Monday. I’ve just decided in my head Mondays don’t work for comedy. It’s too early in the week to laugh. Once you tick past Wednesday everyone starts cheering up in this country.’ His comedy is ‘not as middle of the road as people think, it’s a little bit wider than that, but there are certainly areas where I just think, “I don’t NEED to go there.”’
Although he had no aspirations to be a comic, Bishop did make people laugh before he started out. ‘Any comedian who ever says, “I didn’t think I was funny,” is lying.’ Being a comedian, he says, is akin to being a stripper. ‘When you say something you think’s funny, you can’t pretend you weren’t trying to make people laugh. When you’re a stripper and you get all your clothes off, if nobody’s impressed, you can’t go, “Well I didn’t know my clothes had fallen off.” You’re exposed. So you’ve got to have a degree of confidence.’ But confidence mustn’t give way to bravado. ‘Because if it’s in your face, people shy away from it.’
Bishop’s father served a year in prison. He was, Bishop maintains, unfairly imprisoned for ‘dealing with’ two men who had been shoving Bishop’s mother around. When he visited him in prison it was a defining moment in his life. ‘I remember thinking, “None of these are going to help yer. Unless you sort yourself out, unless you can manage your own life — the world’s not there to give you a hand. They’re all here to lock the door. It’s us against the world.”’
These days Bishop helps others. His charity work includes having completed a 290-mile triathlon from Paris to London that involved rowing, with others, across the Channel. He describes himself as ‘someone who worked hard to be lucky but knows he’s lucky’. He is, he says, living someone else’s dream. ‘My dream was to be [England captain] Steven Gerrard, but he got there first.’ But he is, it turns out, good at being funny. And he has no plans to stop. It has become his dream. ‘I’ve got the option of going on a stage and making strangers laugh. I can’t see why you’d walk away from it.’ And, if there’s an audience, he’ll still be doing stand-up when he’s 90. ‘Probably if there isn’t an audience!’