Viva Johnny Vegas

He's been called a comic genius - and a drunk. But where does Johnny Vegas begin and his real-life creator end? Interview by Brian Viner
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The Independent Online

The comedian Johnny Vegas and I have met before. He recalls the encounter, which is remarkable, as he was extraordinarily drunk at the time. It took place about three years ago in a shabby Nottingham pub. I was there to watch my friend Peter Kay perform his stand-up comedy show, in the days before he mutated into a stand-up comedy phenomenon, playing a 160-date tour to audiences of 3,000 and more.

Anyway, Vegas, whose real name is Michael Pennington, had played the same venue the night before, but had hung around in the hope of getting lucky with a girl he had met. At the end of Kay's act, he staggered down into the basement, which doubled as the changing-room, to say hello.

They gave each other a powerful hug; an impressive engagement of northern blubber. But apart from being overweight, and from north-west England, and very funny, and disinclined to forsake the north for the bright lights of London, they had and have little in common.

Kay is ambitious and hard-working; Vegas, as his friends cheerfully concede, is neither. Kay is happily married to a former Boots till assistant; Vegas is separated from Kitty, his wife of scarcely a year, by whom he has a five-month-old son. Kay's comedy has mass appeal; Vegas's is much edgier. Kay is almost teetotal and has a complexion smoother than a baby's bottom. Vegas, that evening at least, sported a massive, unruly beard. And as I have said, was nearly legless.

Today, by contrast, he is stone cold sober. It is a rainy afternoon on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, and we are sitting in a room at the Century Club, yet another Soho private members' club where media types stand four-square with showbiz types and try to remember not to look excited.

I am shocked by how much weight Vegas has put on since I last saw him. He was big then but now he is enormous, his girth emphasised by his height, which is not very much more than 5ft. Acres of chin are covered, this time, by a more modest growth of beard. He is wearing a voluminous tracksuit top and a baseball cap bearing the badge of his beloved St Helens rugby league team.

We start by talking about alcohol, inspired by his recollection of just how pissed he was that night in Nottingham. Far too much attention is paid to his alcohol intake, he protests, but then, as he performs his stage act either drunk or pretending to be drunk, the preoccupation is perhaps understandable.

"There's a label for every kind of drinking now," he says, "so if I say I spend a fortnight drinking tea and then go out and really enjoy myself, they say, 'Ah-ha, that's binge drinking'. It's not. I know I'm good at drinking. I could do a lot more of it. But I enjoy sobriety as much as having a drink. I don't wake up and crave a drink."

His voice, in truth more of a rasp, seems to emanate from somewhere behind him. It is a miracle of vocal engineering, doubtless polished by years of fags and booze. He likes, he says, to remain mysterious about whether or not he is hammered on stage, although I know that he has thrown up before an audience, which seems like a good indication of where the truth lies.

"The debate rages on about Dino [Dean Martin], doesn't it?" he continues. "Did he perform drunk, did he not? I love that little mystery. When I do a gig, people come away with their own opinions. Some people say, 'When you came on I thought you were steamin', but when that fella heckled you, you were right on aim!'

"It's really a fish-in-a-barrel thing to say I'm a big drinker. I can't claim I'm not. You've seen me completely inebriated. But I read in the papers that my friends are concerned. I'm going, 'Which friends?' If I'd had a single phone call off a friend saying, 'I'm concerned about you ...' but I haven't. And at the end of the day I'm not going to drink loads to become a martyr to an image someone else has come up with."

It is a bright, eloquent answer, which he delivers between sips of cappuccino. He is a hugely engaging character, right down to the cappuccino froth on his whiskers, and fiercely intelligent. It is admirable that he does not feel the need to let his stage persona inhabit him; it shows a self-confidence that not all funny men possess. Indeed, he later gives me a rather beautiful account of the joys of fatherhood.

We'll come to that, as it seems central in the quest to find where Johnny Vegas begins and Michael Pennington ends. He is prepared, incidentally, to help me in that quest. "I'm not confrontational," he explains, "but comedy gives me an outlet to be confrontational."

First, though, some bare facts. He is 32. He studied ceramics at Middlesex University before drifting into stand-up comedy. He was raised, one of four children, in a loving working-class family in St Helens, where he still lives.

"If I spend too much time down here I'm desperate to get home," he says. "There's no shame in admitting that you miss your mum and dad. As you get older you wonder how much longer you're going to have these people around. You don't want to be off building a great life for yourself, and then getting back and ... it's easy to fall into the belief that if you don't do it now, you'll only get one chance. I don't think that's true. You've got to have faith in your talent."

Is that an extended euphemism for the fact that he can't be arsed to work harder at his comedy? I don't know. I do know, however, that his latest DVD and video, Who's Ready For Ice Cream? is an only sporadically funny and at times cringingly self-indulgent exercise, predicated on the notion that he has become so rich and successful that he has forgotten how to make people laugh. His hard-core fans will probably love it; I could hardly bear to watch it.

I hope he won't mind that verdict too much. Despite the conceit of the video, it's not as if he is remotely insecure about his ability to be funny. "Comedy is the one thing I get," he tells me. "It's like the way some people get certain playwrights. I've a friend who's desperate to get me into Pinter, and I read it, and I'm going, 'I'm sorry. I don't get it, not on the levels you get it'. But comedy I'm very opinionated about. I understand the workings of it."

Certainly, nobody in the business is in any doubt that Vegas is a kind of comic genius. Andy Harries, the powerful controller of drama and comedy at London Weekend Television, told me that when he saw the then-unknown Vegas perform his potter's wheel act at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997, he realised instantly that he was in the presence of greatness.

"It was truly, truly extraordinary, one of the finest comedy shows I had ever seen and I was just blown away. In fact, the following day I was in a queue at some restaurant, and I heard an American woman behind me saying that she was over to spot comedy talent for 20th Century Fox or someone. So I turned round and said, 'There's one person you should see straight away'. The next day he was duly signed by a Hollywood studio, a deal I think he had for about a year, although nothing came of it.

"It's hard to know what to do with him on television. I tried to put him in Cold Feet but f the producer refused to have him, she thought he wasn't proven as an actor. I'm not sure he was managed very well in the early days. I think he was steered into things that were wrong for him, although I liked him in Shooting Stars. At the end of the day he's best live. When he came on to present a prize in last year's Comedy Awards he held the place spellbound. There's a dangerous, John Belushi quality to him. But he's very English. What other country could produce a comedian whose act revolves around the potter's wheel?"

Indeed. Although actually Vegas is deadly serious about ceramics and its effect on his comedy. "It teaches you to question things. How can you do it better than the next person, or just how can you do it different? In pottery you have to put your mark on something, and I've taken that into comedy. Be original. I used to watch hours of comedy on TV, but what I loved most was Vic and Bob's Big Night Out [sic]. A lot of people go on about Python. That was my Python. It was rebellious."

As a kid he was never the funny one in the family, as Steve Coogan, for example, had been at the other end of the East Lancs Road. "I never used humour as a defence mechanism, or anything like that. My dad was the funny one. Just really dry, and brilliant at summing something up comically with five words where I take 30. I give him a hard time in my act, as this ogre, but it couldn't be further from the truth. You can put a twist on things he says and make them seem cruel. The classic was when I got the lowest possible grade in my exams, and he said, 'You've not let me down, I never thought you'd pass.' But really it was said in a funny, disarming way. And he's very good at making sense of things."

Very good, in particular, at making sense of his boy's burgeoning celebrity, which surreally owes a lot to a stuffed monkey - Vegas's sidekick in the adverts for doomed ITV Digital.

"They have a healthy disrespect up there for what I do. They're the first people to defend me, but also the first people to give me a right ego kicking. I caught myself ringing home and saying to my dad, 'I've had such a hard day - five interviews back to back.' There was this silence on the end of the phone and you sensed him thinking, 'You poor little lamb, it must be so draining talking about yourself.' There's no point saying, 'It's mentally tiring, dad.' 'Yeah, all right son, it's raining here, I'll get your mum ..."

Whether or not because of his strong northern roots, Vegas, according to his peers, is one of the most grounded of celebrities. Craig Cash, co-creator of The Royle Family, told me: "I love Johnny, I really love him. He's genuinely warm and kind." Paul Whitehouse is similarly effusive, and cast him in his comedy-drama Happiness, albeit more or less as himself. Vegas, for his part, calls Whitehouse his hero, and the older man, who has suffered a marriage break-up of his own in recent years, has by all accounts been unfailingly supportive during Vegas's own matrimonial difficulties.

This is painful territory and Vegas is understandably reluctant to discuss it. But he is more than happy to talk about his infant son Michael. "He's got the Pennington sunken jaw, and what somebody referred to as my fishy lips, although I think he's looks more like his mum.

"When fatherhood happens, you've been listening to all these people talking about the fantastic experience of becoming a parent, and you think, 'What if I don't [like it]?' But you do. And you realise that you've got something in your life more important than you; you realise for the first time how much potential you've got to be selfless, that you would do things for your son you wouldn't do for yourself, stand up for him in situations where you'd let yourself get trounced.

"It's that lovely knowledge that you've got the capacity to love something unconditionally. It's all the things people say. It enriches life, and ultimately I just want to work one day a year, to fit five films and a tour into one day, and spend the rest of my time with him."

Is he looking forward, I ask, to buying his son his first pint, taking him to his first rugby league match? "Yeah, but I'm enjoying it at the moment. I want him raised the way I was raised. There was no talk of who or what I was going to be, no sense of my mum and dad living their lives through me, or telling me that I wouldn't be allowed to make the same mistakes as them. He might grow up despising rugby, but it won't create a rift between us."

So young Michael Pennington will be allowed to be himself, as the older Michael Pennington was. "I was never into football. There was that odd thing of being the one brother who never collected football stickers. My first obsession was Star Wars. When I first saw that, it was a defining moment for me. And I'm still doing that Michael Jackson thing of filling your life with stuff you didn't have as a kid - I buy all the Star Wars Lego.

A pause. "In fact, you know what I was saying about fatherhood, that it won't matter if he doesn't like rugby, well if he doesn't like Star Wars, that'll put a hell of a strain on the relationship." His eyes water with mirth. "And if he comes home with a Battlestar Galactica annual, the door will be locked."

'Who's Ready For Ice Cream?' is out now on DVD, price £14.99