Jason Manford: 'People know that you're human and that you make mistakes'
The papers had a field day when they found out Jason Manford had exchanged saucy tweets with a female fan. Since then, the Belfast-bound star tells Andrew Johnston, the joke has been on him.
It's fair to say that bad behaviour has derailed many a comedy performer's career. Everyone from Justin Lee Collins to Chris Langham has suffered from 'trial by tabloid', but for stand-up star Jason Manford – who was embroiled in a media storm after exchanging saucy Twitter messages with a female fan in 2010, while still married – it was a case of confronting the gossip head-on.
The English comic and former television host worked gags at his own expense into his live show, pre-empting any hecklers and getting the fans back on-side. "I think audiences are very forgiving," says the dad-of-three of the episode which resulted in him having to quit his job as co-host of hit BBC primetime programme The One Show. "They know what tabloids are and they know who real people are. If I'd done something that was so out-of-the-ordinary – if Operation Yewtree were knocking on my door – then that's unforgivable.
"But anything else, people just go, 'Well, that's just human. People make mistakes, and he's apologised, and now he's doing his show.' And as long as you're funny, people are alright."
And if there's one thing Jason is, it's funny. The hard-working comedian – who separated amicably from wife Catherine last year – is bringing his upbeat, everyman humour back to Northern Ireland next week for a headline slot at the Belfast Feile on Thursday, August 7. The festival's comedy night has a reputation for attracting a rowdy crowd, but the veteran funnyman is used to the Belfast throng.
"When I first started stand-up, there was a reputation," Jason smiles. "Belfast Empire, Glasgow Empire, Manchester Frog and Bucket, and Up the Creek in Maidstone in London – they were the four tough gigs, you know what I mean? They were hard gigs.
"And then, gradually – maybe I've got better – but it's just got nicer and nicer, and now I love Belfast. I come for a few days. Last time I was at the Waterfront, I came for about five days around it. It's a good destination place, and as an audience, you've got one of the best senses of humour."
Though aged just 33, Jason is an old hand on the comedy circuit, having started performing stand-up in his teens after watching the likes of Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard and Johnny Vegas play his local comedy club. He has since racked up numerous club and theatre tours, as well as a much-heralded arena jaunt in 2011. But the Salford-born wag knows where he feels most at home.
"Theatres are the best," Jason says. "Clubs are obviously brilliant, because everyone's packed in and it's great fun. But theatres are where it's at its most natural. You can see the whites of their eyes. I enjoyed playing the arenas – it was an experience; it was good to do – but I sort of played them because everybody else was. I just thought, 'Oh well, all my peers are playing them, so I'd better play them as well, otherwise it'll look like I can't play them.'
"If you're Michael McIntyre or you're Lee Evans or you're Peter Kay, I think you have to play arenas, because that's your only option, otherwise you'd be touring forever. But I can get away with just doing a lot of theatre gigs."
Jason is also noted for his passionate embracing of social media, and regularly logs in to Facebook to interact with fans. "I enjoy it, and it's a good sounding board for material," he says. "I enjoy trying stuff out, seeing if it's got legs.
"It's got its negatives, obviously. People having a direct link to you can be a bit of a nightmare sometimes, but generally, it's good fun. You can plug your gigs and DVDs and all that, but I think to just do that would be a bit weird, a bit unfair."
Jason has also used his internet presence as a tool for good. Earlier this year, the caring jokesmith lodged his support for the cancer-stricken blogger Stephen Sutton, helping the dying charity activist raise more than £4m for the Teenage Cancer Trust. "The Stephen Sutton thing was a very rare phenomenon," marvels Jason, "and it wasn't necessarily down to me either. I amplified it, but actually it was the words of Stephen Sutton and his picture and that whole story around him that made it special.
"What's amazing is that when something really goes, because of people retweeting it and all that, it's got a reach of 13-and-a-half million people. So, in a way, you've actually got a more powerful tool than any newspaper or TV show. You're talking more people than watch the X Factor.
"It comes with responsibility, though, so I try and pick things to get behind that haven't got another opinion, if you know what I mean? It's not 50-50; it's not black-and-white; it's not Gaza – it's cancer and that's bad, so let's all do something."
As well as the positive side, Jason has also experienced the unpleasantness of online 'trolls' and the sometimes surprising views of the general public. "People are bonkers," Jason laughs. "You will get one in every 200 that is just a nutter, but for a comedian, that's perfect. That's who you want to be dealing with. You don't want to be dealing with normal people. They're boring. They're just thinking the same thing as me."
He has even managed to offend some of his fans on occasion, despite being one of the most mild-mannered acts on the scene. "I'm no Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr, but every so often you can't help say something a bit controversial," Jason chuckles. "I wouldn't necessarily do any edgy, touchy jokes in general that could get picked up by a newspaper and taken out of context, but if people spent as much time and effort getting angry about genuinely horrible things that go on in the news as they do about jokes, the world would be a better place."
Comedy runs in the Manford family DNA too, it seems, with Jason's brother Colin also now trying his hand at stand-up, and he's far from the first relative to take to the stage. "My gran was the lead singer of an Irish folk band, and all my uncles and aunts play instruments or were in bands at some stage," Jason reveals. "So, it wasn't a shock when I started. It's not like I'm from a long line of surgeons, and then they were like, 'A comedian? What?'
"It's natural that there'd be someone else who'd have a go, and my brother's really funny. He makes me laugh, so when he said he was thinking of doing stand-up himself, I was like, 'Go for it!' He's just as funny as me in person – it's whether you've got the drive and determination to turn being funny in front of your mates into being funny to a load of strangers."
And drive and determination are in no short supply with Jason. At an earlier Belfast gig, at the Waterfront, he even came on with a broken ankle, complete with plaster cast and crutches. "In 17 years, I don't think I have ever cancelled a gig due to illness," Jason says. "I mean, sometimes you are ill, sometimes your voice is going or your head's banging or you feel a bit sick, but the great thing about stand-up is you can use that – you can talk about it.
"It's not nice, but they call it Dr Theatre. Dr Theatre'll sort you out. Once you get up there, with the lights and the audience, something kicks in. The adrenaline kicks in."
- Jason Manford plays Falls Park on August 7 as part of Feile 2014. For details, visit www.feilebelfast.com
The stars who have made a comeback ...
Other celebrities whose careers have survived scandals and mishaps include:
- Robert Downey, Jr – from being busted for firearms possession and found under the influence of a controlled substance while passed-out in a neighbour's home to becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, it's been one hell of a career turnaround for the Iron Man star since the dark days of the mid-1990s
- Hugh Grant – when the floppy-haired English star was caught by police in 1995 in the company of prostitute Divine Brown in LA, the UK tabloids had his career all but written off. But the 'bad boy' aura worked in Grant's favour, and he went on to make some of his biggest films
- Paris Hilton – it's arguable that the hotel heiress-cum-actress is as famous for her private scandals as for any artistic endeavours, but the 2004 sex tape 1 Night in Paris certainly hasn't stopped her from inspiring countless reality shows or earning $1.5bn from her fragrance line