Jason Manford: 'I don't do Brexit in my show, it's more divisive than any issue we've ever faced ... there's clever and thick people, there's rich and poor people, there are racists and non-racists, and there's all of those on both sides of the debate'
Ahead of bringing his Muddle Class show to Belfast later this year, Jason Manford talks to Paul Whitington about being born funny, how he got his big break when he was 16, working in a pub and finding his place in life
Jason Manford sounds decisive: "I'll text me mum". We've been discussing his Irish heritage - his maternal grandparents hail from Dublin, but he's not sure which part. "She'll know." Mrs Manford sounds like a force of nature. She is picking up Jason's kids from school in Stockport while he does interviews over here but still finds time to ping back an instant response. "Cabra, she says - what's that like?"
I tell him it's a respectable, old, near-suburb that was mostly developed in the 1930s and '40s to house people being moved out from the city centre's notorious tenements. It could well be, I tell him, that his antecedents hailed, like mine, from one of those fabled Georgian slums. "Hang on," he says, "it's her again. Yeah, she's just said exactly what you said."
We are sitting in the plush bar of the Gibson Hotel in Dublin, and he stares out the windows towards Sheriff Street, and the spire of St Laurence O'Toole's. "It could even have been around here I suppose, couldn't it?" he says. "I must go and have a look at Cabra some day. Whenever I'm here, my attention is always pulled by cousins and aunties, and it's always, 'Come out for dinner, come out for a drink', so I don't really get to see anything. I'm not really sure where everything is."
He is on a visit to promote a tour that will take in Northern Ireland and the Republic later in the year.
Jason, who became a huge force in British comedy a decade or so ago thanks to his winningly discursive live gigs and his appearances on TV shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats and Show Me the Funny, is one of those fiercely organised modern stand-ups who can draw huge crowds. He reckons he'll do "about 10,000 seats" at gigs in Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.
The new show is called Muddle Class, and as Manford explains: "I'm actually having a pop at myself in a way. I'm from a working-class background. We were proper under the poverty line. I was born two weeks after my mother's 17th birthday, and she'd three of us before she was 21, so it was tough. My mum and dad worked at it, and even now you know, my mum's a nurse, my dad's a janitor. Then I do this job and my life has changed in this dramatic way and my kids are a bit middle-class. So the muddle-class is me, in-between, because I don't feel middle-class, although I do tick some of the boxes."
Despite the fact that so much of his TV work takes him to London, Manford has resisted the lure of the English capital and is still based in Stockport, Greater Manchester. "Our family home is there, my kids go to school there, my parents are there and my gran's 94, so there's just things you don't want to be away from," he says.
Jason grew up in Stockport, and inherited a love of singing and performing from his Irish grandparents, who performed as a folk duo when they first moved to Lancashire in the 1950s. His divergence into comedy was wonderfully accidental.
"When I was 16, I got this job collecting glasses in a pub in Manchester, my dad's local actually. They had a comedy night on a Thursday. I used to watch all the comedians and I thought they were great. Then this one night, two or three comics didn't turn up - they were driving up from London and the car broke down - and the club owner was in a bit of a panic. The landlady, Anne - she was also from Dublin - looked at me and said, 'He's funny'. I was like, 'What d'you mean?', and she said, 'You're always funny in the kitchen'. And I thought, 'That's different, anyone can be funny in the kitchen'."
With nothing prepared, and only minutes to come up with something, Manford took to the stage and just "had a chat about what it was like working in the pub". "Earlier on that day we did a funeral, we'd had a wake and now it was a comedy club, so I just sort of chatted about the absurdity of that.
"I mentioned a few of the characters that drank there, like there was this guy that used to come in and he had tattoos on his neck of his past wives and girlfriends or whatever, and he had 'Caroline', but then it was crossed out and above was 'Yvonne', like rather than getting it removed.
"I'd been mugged about two weeks before on the way home from college, so I had a bit of a thick lip and a black eye, and somebody heckled me on my first gig. 'What happened your face?' So I said I got mugged and it got a big laugh - they thought I was joking.
"It went pretty well and I thought, 'Wow!' And when I got off the guy who ran the gig said, 'Oh I've got another three gigs, so do you fancy doing them?', and he put in a word with the other clubs."
Suddenly, Jason was a comedian.
"When I started out, I remember thinking, 'Oh this is a fun hobby', and most comics you speak to who've been doing it for a long time say it still feels like a hobby. It's only in the past five or six years that people have started calling it a career, where now you can go into the career officer at school and say, 'I want to be a comedian', and he'd be like, 'Yeah, that's a good idea'."
There are, Jason tells me, even university courses on comedy.
"There's one at Salford University, one at Southampton, a stand-up comedy degree you can do. It's crazy, isn't it? I've been into those courses to speak to the students and I always tell them the same thing - if you're not funny now, you won't be funny in three years either. You can't learn that, but to be fair there are things you can learn.
"I mean, Sean Lock became a comedian after doing a comedy course, and he's fantastic. So you can learn the rules of it, the dynamics of it.
"There's comic theory and all that, like the rule of three, the pull back and reveal, the call back. The rule of three is like when you tell a joke and then you add a second one and there's another laugh, and then you add a third and it's bigger, and things just are funnier in threes.
"Pull back and reveal is when you lead people one way, and then you surprise them, you know, 'And the bus driver was me dad!' or whatever.
"Call back is when you refer to something you'd said half an hour before and get a laugh of recognition.
"So there's plenty of theory you can learn, and you can work at it, but you have to be funny in the first place."
There is, he says, a snobbishness in comedy, where the stand-ups that fill the arenas are sometimes considered suspiciously popular by their edgier peers.
"I often hear people saying, 'Oh Michael McIntyre's not funny', or 'Peter Kay's not funny'. And you can't ever say that, because stand-up comedy is a meritocracy, so nobody's made it who isn't good - they wouldn't sell that many tickets. And you can't begrudge the fact that Michael McIntyre's worth £15m or whatever, because that's from ticket money. You just don't like them."
Affable and unpretentious, Jason has his head screwed on, and of late has been branching out, recording an album of songs and appearing in stage musicals like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
"I did the album, yeah, which was great fun and it got into the top 10, so that wasn't bad. I've taken all those songs off my playlist though - even when they're sung by other people I can't stand the sound of them.
"I loved doing that and the musical theatre was great. The thing with that was I was looking at people like Brian Conley and Gary Wilmot, people who were huge TV stars. Brian Conley was like the biggest TV star for years when I was a kid and then he stopped doing it, whether it was his own choice or not, but then he's out there all the time in musicals and shows, he's always working and I thought, 'In this job you need a plan B'.
"As a stand-up, it's up to you. You get your show together and put up your posters and say you're coming to your town, then hope that it'll sell those couple of thousand seats, and maybe hopefully in 15 years you'll still be going to those towns and maybe you'll sell 300 seats, but that's still your choice - you're in charge. But with television it's very much at the whim of others and fashion and whether you're cool enough. So if you rely 100% on TV for your input then you'll be in trouble."
For Jason, though, there'll always be stand-up, and his Muddle Class tour is in full swing. Does he touch on Brexit in it at all?
"No, I do not. It's more divisive than any issue we've ever faced before, because there's clever people and thick people, there's rich people and poor people, there are racists and non-racists, and there's all of those on both sides of Brexit.
You can't say to a crowd, 'What a joke Brexit is', because half of them will probably disagree with you. So it's not in the show, no - I just can't find it funny yet."
Jason Manford will be appearing at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on September 24. For further details go to www.jasonmanford.com