The top-draw British comic is the man of the moment following his well-publicised support for a dying teen’s fundraising campaign. We chat to him ahead of his headline gig to ring in The Laughter Factory’s 18th year on June 22-23.
There’s just no way to avoid saying it, so we’ll get it out of the way early – Jason Manford is a nice guy. So nice, he might be the most popular comedian in the UK right now. Not popular as in best-selling/highest-grossing (although he’s up there, ranked as one the country’s top comics with reported earnings of more than Dhs10 million). Popular as in most-liked. Appreciated. Admired.
Much of this recent onslaught of Manford-love comes not from comedy, but from the stand-up’s support of a terminally ill teenager’s last-ditch fundraising campaign. Stephen Sutton sadly died aged 19 on May 14, four years after he was diagnosed with cancer, two and a half years after his condition was deemed incurable, and 16 months after launching a fundraising effort which has raised more than Dhs25 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust. First meeting Sutton backstage at a charity gig, Manford became the campaign’s unofficial spokesman, appearing on TV interviews, promoting it on social media and donating more than Dhs60,000 of his own cash. Not that the comedian will take any praise. Sutton’s is among a string of causes Manford has supported over the years.
‘The difference this time, I think, was Stephen,’ he says, explaining the global embrace that saw him taking to airwaves from the BBC to Al Jazeera. ‘He was the variable really, not me, all I did was amplify what he did.’
The difference, we tell Manford, is that most celebrities don’t think like this and obviously don’t do these kind of things in the first place. His fundraising work for The Children’s Adventure Farm Trust and Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, alongside his role as an ambassador for Teenage Cancer Trust is, well, out of the ordinary.
‘I put to it down to that fact I’m just a working-class lad,’ he offers. ‘Although my parents worked very hard, we were on the breadline for many years. And then suddenly I’m doing alright for my myself – I’ve got a nice house and I sorted my mum and dad a nice house – and then I guess you sort of look out and go “right, well is there anything else I can do, anybody else who’s in need of a bit of help?”’
There’s certainly an element of ‘the boy done good’ to Manford’s story. Growing up in Manchester’s notoriously crime-ridden ‘Triangle of Death’, at 17 he landed a job setting tables at the local pub, which happened to double as a comedy club. After watching sets from Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard and Lee Evans up close, when a visiting act cancelled at the last minute the teenage Manford stood in for a five-minute slot. Seven gigs later he won the North West Comedian of the Year, but decided to shelve showbiz and head to university to study media and performance. After a stream of gutter jobs (Burger King was the worst – he lasted until noon), Manford’s evening comedy hobby became his main source of income.
The big break came in 2007 when he was appointed team captain on games show 8 Out of 10 Cats, in 2010 moving to The One Show and Odd One In (alongside Peter Andre, oddly) in 2010.
All this funniness he traces back to the ‘gallows humour’ which comes with growing up in relative poverty, an extended Irish family dodging bailiffs and scratching a living in the most deprived area of a city then nicknamed ‘Gunchester’.
‘When you’re down and out and life’s looking a bit [rubbish] then naturally you will look to humour to get you out of a bad time,’ Manford explains. ‘And of course supporting Manchester City when they were rubbish, there was plenty of humour in that.’
It’s not the first time football comes up talking to the renowned MCFC nut. The last time Manford was star-struck was backstage at Manchester City’s Premier League winners’ party (he posed for pictures with Sergio Agüero and Vincent Kompany). A YouTube clip of Manford prank-calling comedic rival (and Liverpool supporter) John Bishop, where hundreds of Mancs leave the Scouse a taunting voicemail, went viral, attracting 50,000 views in a week.
With such friendly competition in the air, we can’t help mentioning that Manford’s two-nighter at the Crowne Plaza comes less than a month after Bishop performed at Dubai World Trade Centre. Two of the UK’s best-ranked comics playing gigs so close together, comparison will be unavoidable.
‘Oh, my show will be better,’ says Manford, somehow sounding humble. ‘It’ll have to be – even John will admit that, because I’ve been on tour for the last 12 months with the same show, whereas he’s about to go on tour. So, he’s very much in the pre-season training, and I’m going for the cup final.’
Ah, football again. Time to mention that Manford is presenting a spin-off of panel show A Question of Sport for five weeks throughout the World Cup. (Predictions? ‘Obviously Brazil will probably win it.’ And England? ‘I think we’re in a transitional state, as Arsenal fans always put it’).
It’s a telling appointment. Last year Manford filmed four pilots for ITV and Sky, none of which were commissioned. For A Question of Sport he was approached without an audition by the BBC, from where he was forced to resign in 2010 following revelations about his private life. The media’s sudden embrace, and fickle nature, hasn’t gone unnoticed by Manford.
‘The thing with the media is, sometimes it’s just your turn,’ he reasons, ‘you get it in the neck one week and then they like you the week after. All you’ve got to do, really, is just be yourself. Just carry on and go “sometimes I’m going to do something stupid that they’re not going to be happy with, and sometimes I’ll do something nice that they are happy with”. [Journalists] are not the moral arbiters of the world, they’ve got a lot of things to be ashamed about, too.’
We’re surprised, we say that he wants to talk to us at all. ‘There’s definitely some [journalists] on my black list... the ones where you think “how do you go to sleep at night?”’
At this point Manford quotes us one of Aesop’s moral fables, The Scorpion and the Frog, in which the arachnid stings the amphibian giving him a lift across a river, drowning them both, with the simple explanation ‘because I’m a scorpion’.
It’s a strange moment when a comedian quotes you ancient Greek allegory, but if it sounds for a second that Manford has been jaded by being stung himself, think again. Just look to his support of Stephen Sutton for proof. ‘I’ve been organising comedy gigs [for the Teenage Cancer Trust] for the past four years, and Stephen managed to raise more money in two days than we’ve done in four years – it was unbelievable. It just goes to show you that the majority of people are just... really nice.’
Dhs300-500. Sunday June 22 and Monday June 23, 8.30pm. Crowne Plaza Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road. Buy tickets from www.timeouttickets.com.