I’m looking forward to the second series of ‘Potatoes and Tomatoes’, for that’s what the elfin actor and comedian, Kevin Bishop, claims he would have rather have called his sketch show.
It was either that or “Kev +” to highlight the Sky box format that he uses to serve up a barrage of pop culture pastiches. “When we suggested that they [Channel 4] said ‘how about Kevin Bishop+?’ and I was like ‘guys, we’re missing a trick here, it’s a syllable thing.’”
Ultimately The Kevin Bishop Show is a title that is matter-of-fact about the contents of its proverbial tin and probably the best way to flag up that this was ‘son of Star Stories’, the magnificently silly series of celebrity skits that propelled Bishop away from his acting background and into comedian country where he now roams free still taking pot shots at celebs but mixing in sketches such as his inspired interactive take on ‘Sophie’s Choice: The Musical’.
Over a lunch that consists partly of a comedy shaped ‘doughnut peach’ Bishop tells me that not only was the title of the show a matter for compromise but also the series itself: “When Channel 4 told me that they were going to give me my own show I thought that a sitcom was the obvious progression was from Star Stories, I wasn’t keen on sketch because it seemed like a saturated market. I had a sitcom in development with them but they cleverly held off until it was a case of a sketch show or nothing.” Some might call that manipulation but arguably it was a decision that turned out well if you’re a fan of the show. If not then there’s always FM, the ITV2 sitcom Bishop stars in with Chris O’Dowd. Someone at Channel 4 was possibly resting their case as I wrote that.
Having survived the terrors of being a child actor (Grange Hill and the film Muppet Treasure Island number among his child actor credits) and then 60 hour shifts as a chef, Bishop managed to carve out a career in TV drama, theatre and even French films in the Nineties, all the while studiously avoiding soaps. A briefly recurring role in My Family in 2001 eventually led to a proliferation of pre-Star Stories comedy roles including part of the Spoons sketch series cast.
Though the 29 year old has always kept his hand in with theatre, drama and has an open invitation to go to France to make more films he knows that he’s now crossed a line into comedy and feels that there is a journey to make with it.
“Once you are in you have to commit. If you waiver it will read on screen. I think that’s why I think comedy is only successful for young people. You have to be fearless. It’s like old professional footballers who have been injured once or twice and don’t tackle as hard as they used to. It’s the same for comedians. Look at Horne and Corden. Next time they may not go in as hard as they did after getting burned, and you can say the same about Jonathan Ross after Sachsgate too.”
Going in hard for Bishop means sitting down with his producer Lee Hupfield adhering to strict office hours and coming up with 350 sketches for a series, experiencing a discipline that was hitherto unknown to him as an actor and the onset of a different mindset.
“Sometimes I find myself sitting at a table with friends and family and reminiscing about people that would be good for the show. I think all the time in sketch mode now. I was walking round IKEA the other day and I was talking to a guy with a ‘Can I help you?’ badge on and I asked him 'can you tell me where these chairs are?' and he said ‘I don’t speak no English.’ Immediately you are in ‘Sketchville’. You train your brain to be receptive to that and it becomes easy.”
A self-confessed subconscious student of Paul Whitehouse, Bishop gives a priceless example of someone he has met and who has ended up in the show almost unedited: “The Michael Rockerfeller character in this series was based on an assistant in a department store in America who I met with my brother. When my brother asked him about an item of clothing this guy went [here Bishop goes from his normal Kent twang to an immaculate camp American accent] ‘Oh my god are you from London? Oh my god I love London, Princess Diana, why did they take her from us? She was so tragic. I’ve got a tattoo of her on my ass do you wanna see it?’ Obviously we didn’t want to see it but he showed us anyway. He loved England but knew nothing about it and was saying things like ‘I hear that Scotchland Yard they were saying that the Prince of Wales, ya know, the Prince of Charles…’ We just had to write him. But had I not met him it wouldn’t have worked if someone had written it for me."
Bishop does collaborate with other writers of course, the show’s turnover of sketches wouldn’t be sustainable if he didn’t, but he draws the line at some of the one-dimensional ideas of which he mentions have been submitted; Mr Spunkyman and Mr Stupidman among them. More quality submissions are subject to the principle of ‘use it or lose it’; deciding immediately on submissions and this heading off interest from other sketch shows such as Armstrong and Miller. However, the sketches generated by Hupfield and Bishop can be a source of consternation too.
“We have a similar sense of humour and agree on most things, but there are tussles and sometimes we won’t speak for a couple of hours. There was one sketch that re-enacted the road safety ad where the girl comes back alive. I said ‘no, you are not killing a child in the name of comedy, that’s offensive to me because I have got little sisters’. However, I have to be honest and say that it’s hilarious to me to do ‘Fred West Side Story’, so what’s offensive to me isn’t offensive to others. This particular sketch sparked a huge debate and the whole group was split. One of the cameramen said ‘well I think it’s funny and I’ve got daughters’ but it didn’t happen.”
In the area of celebrity, however, Bishop sees that he has a duty to spoof certain people such as ‘man of the moment Simon Cowell though even here he maintains a right to veto. “I’ve been told ‘do Jeremy Clarkson’ but I don’t watch him. I don’t mind him but I’ll only spoof people I watch so someone like Harry Hill or Bruce Parry because I liked Amazon.”
The spirit of the show is encapsulated, to some extent by the lyrics of its closing song Adam and the Ants’ Dog Eat Dog that runs “You may not like the things we do/Only idiots ignore the truth.” The second series promises some longer and truthfully-observed set-pieces like Michael Rockerfeller and The Trustafarians, a BBC 3 show about some posh kids who find everything ‘a bit annoying,’ as well as the fast-paced skits fans are used to, one of which includes a Frost/Nixon spoof, Parky/Emu.
The sometimes zany nature of the show has inevitably had US producers sit up and take note. They see the energy of the show as easily transferable and would be happy to substitute the Premiership for the NFL and make similar cultural adjustments. But, despite Bishop’s transferability he’s no plans to make a Stateside move just yet. While the money thrown at pilots could make series over here Bishop knows first hand some of the reasons why, figuratively speaking, ‘cousins never marry.’
“I gave some American producers the Star Stories DVD and those that could be bothered to watch it saw the Tom Cruise one. One guy went ‘…you can’t do that it’s Tom Cruise man…[we’ve done it]…yeah but you can’t do that on TV…[it’s already gone out]…what you’re talking about Scientology, are you fucking nuts?…[er, look we’ve done it it’s been on telly and everyone loved and we’ve had no complaints]…has Tom Cruise seen this?!”
As Bishop reminds, while the barriers to parody have come down over the years that doesn’t mean that it naturally follows that it has to plummet down to the lowest common denominator: “Anyone who is famous is fair game in a sketch show but we don’t set out destroy anyone. I don’t think it’s funny to do that, it’s bit like being at a party and someone having the piss taken out of them all night. It reaches a point where it’s not funny any more. I like to think that Simon Cowell watches his sketch and likes it.”
Imitation as flattery will be the perception of anyone who has seen the FX show No Signal which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Kevin Bishop Show, offering yet another plug for the Sky TV format. No Signal was aired after Bishop’s show which was lucky for Bishop and he considers it another stroke of luck that it was “terrible”.
“A friend of mine who worked on it told me that everyone was on set one day and apparently someone said ‘guys has anyone seen The Kevin Bishop Show? No? Well, it’s kind of like this. How much like this? Exactly the same…’ I thought that was a lie and he said honest to god they genuinely didn’t know that it had been done. Thank god we pipped them to the post it would really have fucked things up.”
Once again comedy and timing prove they are inextricably linked.
The Kevin Bishop Show, 31 July, C4, 10pm