Peter Kay: Funny bones

He is bigger than Connolly, warmer than Wood and as perceptive as Bennett. He is also crueller and shrewder than he looks, which is why he packs out theatres, shifts hundreds of thousands of DVDs and is well on his way to Britcom immortality

It's not easy to storm it on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, but there is no other way to describe Peter Kay's appearance the other night. As the first guest to emerge, he bounced on in an unglamorous cream suit and brown shirt, and crooned his way through "Is This the Way to Amarillo?" - a favourite tune from his show Phoenix Nights - with Ross's all-boy backing band. The next 10 minutes were so riotous that the next slot, an interview with Gwen Stefani of the band No Doubt, was all but invisible. This was the naughty boy at the back of the class subverting all the conventions - and revealing all the secrets - of the chat show, and the audience adored his cheek.

It's not easy to storm it on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, but there is no other way to describe Peter Kay's appearance the other night. As the first guest to emerge, he bounced on in an unglamorous cream suit and brown shirt, and crooned his way through "Is This the Way to Amarillo?" - a favourite tune from his show Phoenix Nights - with Ross's all-boy backing band. The next 10 minutes were so riotous that the next slot, an interview with Gwen Stefani of the band No Doubt, was all but invisible. This was the naughty boy at the back of the class subverting all the conventions - and revealing all the secrets - of the chat show, and the audience adored his cheek.

It was a masterful act of on-air hijacking from a man with a face capable of switching to the babiest of smiles in a second. It also showed someone utterly at home in a studio, knowing which camera to face, denouncing and deconstructing the system even as he posed and mugged for it. Another, more crafty by-product of all the high jinks was that he had to answer comparatively few questions about himself.

Being the son of a factory worker, performance may not have been in Peter Kay's genes, but it got into his blood to such an extent that when he was shortlisted for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1998, no one was surprised that it was for the main award, not Best Newcomer even though he had been performing for only two years. "There was a feeling that the Perrier was already too small for him," says one comedy insider, as if Cilla Black were to feature on the front of the London Review of Books. Kay, aged 26, had bigger fish to fry.

Kay's new series is called Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere. The show is a saucily comic TV road movie which follows the fairly hopeless fortunes of the two doormen from Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights. That show featured the wheelchair-bound Brian Potter who had himself grown out of That Peter Kay Thing, which was Kay's first proper platform on Channel 4. Kay's comic tree is, thus far, fairly linear. One good idea spawns another, and Channel 4 has had the taste and good sense to leave it to him, and it has certainly paid off. For one thing, the DVD of That Peter Kay Thing became the fastest-selling TV DVD of 2004, selling more than 145,000 copies in its first week, exactly a year after the Phoenix Nights 2 DVD sold 160,000 in its first week.

There is cruelty and mockery in Peter Kay's comedy, but it is redeemed by the twinkle in his eye and his innately "funny bones", to which all his producers testify. His comedy is sweetened with an anecdotalism which recalls the greatest of our northern playwrights. The first episode of Max and Paddy nods at porn movies and one-night stands, but Max (Kay) and Paddy (Patrick McGuinness) are such buffoons that anything off-colour - Kay famously hands the Lord Chamberlain's blue pen to his mother each time he writes something - soon becomes affectionately impotent. More impressively still, as with Phoenix Nights, Kay wrote and directed this himself.

Peter Kay lives where he was raised, in Bolton, Lancashire. It was while he was exploring the stand-up part of his media performance course at Salford University that the performing bug bit him. He entertained friends, and was left in no doubt that he should pursue this interest.

In between gigs, he has also roughed it in the real world, slaving away at the sort of jobs whose current holders are probably now among his most ardent fans. As well as being a mobile disc jockey and a cinema usher he also packed toilet rolls and worked at Spar, a bingo hall, a cash and carry, a video shop and a bar. In fact, these experiences were the growbags for his comedy. He took careful notes, and has said many times that he couldn't have made up some of the things he heard. Keep a notebook, he could have reflected, and one day that notebook will keep you.

Comparisons have been made with another great TV dramatist and famous eavesdropper, Alan Bennett. Bennett's family life was as Anglican as Earl Grey tea, while Kay's family life was noisily Catholic. Both have been accused of patronising their constituencies, but such a shallow allegation is easily rebutted. These writers champion the narrowness of people's lives.

What proportion of the young men who came to laugh at Kay's live shows last year were applauding comic routines which mirrored and satirised their own lives? And it wasn't only men. "I've always been able to write female characters," he told a journalist in 1998. "I find women funnier than men, and I love the rhythm of women's speech. They have no taboos about what they'll discuss."

Kay might well appreciate girl talk, but he doesn't enjoy the occasional spiky media comments which come with celebrity. Kay prefers his own counsel and his own gang. Patrick McGuinness, who co-wrote and stars in Max and Paddy, is an old friend. Loyalty is valued, and rewarded. It was Martin Amis who said you can make new friends but not old friends. Kay, the least bookish of comedians, draws for his humour on the people and television programmes of his childhood.

Kay's parents separated, reasonably amicably, while Kay was still at school. He remained close to them both until his father died in 2002. He married Susan, his first proper girlfriend, in 2001 after a courtship lasting nine years. And with the birth of a son, Charlie (named after his father), last year, Kay is even more of a home-lover than ever. Not for him the bright, if seedy, lights of Soho bars, clubs and restaurants. In any event, what comedy value is there down south for him?

Kay ventured out on the Mum Wants a Bungalow tour - his main impulse for going forth - from June 2002 to July 2003, during which he played to 180 packed and adoring houses. "He did two warm-up nights in Leicester and he was absolutely sensational," says Geoff Rowe, director of the Leicester Comedy Festival. "He is currently more in demand than Victoria Wood or Billy Connolly."

His adverts for John Smith extended his fame still further. The boorishness of a fellow who kicks footballs through greenhouses or belly-flops off a diving board is redeemed by Kay. His charm lets him get away with it. To compound his fame, he fulfilled a childhood dream by appearing in Coronation Street earlier this year.

When he won the City Life Northwest Comedian of the Year in 1997, Kay had to beat another larger-than-life method comedian, Johnny Vegas. But Kay's comedy avoids Vegas's drunken excesses, as well as the mischievous cruelty of Ricky Gervais or the sophisticated southern character quips of The Green Wing. Steve Coogan could be invoked, perhaps, but Kay is becoming his own reference point. Some comedians might once have resented his rapid rise to fame, but few could deny his prodigious talent. Max and Paddy may not know exactly where they are going, but Peter Kay obviously has a pretty shrewd idea.

The first episode of 'Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere' is on Friday 12 November at 9.30pm on Channel 4

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