John Bishop: 'When my kids left home it was hard... I was surprised as I wanted them to leave forever'
Ahead of his two gigs in Belfast next month, which will kick off his UK tour, John Bishop talks to James Rampton about turning 50, empty nest syndrome and why he's still a normal guy
John Bishop is every inch the down-to-earth scouser and makes no bones about the fact, despite being one of the UK's best-loved stand-ups who regularly plays to sell-out shows all over the UK as well as hosting a TV chat show.
And the comic, who has just turned 50, will play two gigs here at Belfast's SSE Arena on Wednesday, October 4 and Thursday, October 5 which will kick off his latest UK tour with the new live show Winging It.
So where did that title come from? John takes up the story. "You have to come up with a title for every tour. I was in my promoter's office one day, and he said to me, 'We need a title so we can start selling this tour. What are you talking about in the new show?' And I replied, 'Nothing. I'm just winging it.' 'That'll do.'"
This is typical of John's honesty and warm, open sense of humour that have made him one of the most in-demand comedians. It is this sheer likeability that means he can sell out arenas in the blink of an eye. And reviewers have been queueing up to heap praise on John too, proving he is at the top of his game.
You will be very pleased to hear then that John is just as entertaining off stage as he is on it. He can be summed up by all those adjectives beginning with C: charming, charismatic, compelling, captivating and comic. An hour in his company is like being treated to a command performance - to an audience of one.
The funnyman manifests that quality that we prize perhaps above all others: self-deprecation.
He is winningly modest about his stand-up success, which came relatively late in life, as he only gave up his full-time job as a medical representative for a pharmaceutical company a decade ago.
It is very appealing that even today the comic can't quite credit his luck. "I still can't believe that I do this as a job," John almost whistles in wonderment.
"I still think, 'This is amazing!' I wrote a book four years ago about that very feeling - that's why it was called, How Did All This Happen?
"But now I realise this is the reality. It's not going to go away. There is no chance that I could never ever go back. Whatever life I had in the past, I'm now officially in showbiz. I will retire from showbiz, or it will retire me."
The great thing is, John has never become jaded about his career as a stand-up. He still possesses an infectious passion for the job. And that's why he cannot contain his excitement about the Winging It tour.
Despite establishing an extensive TV career, he declares that stand-up has always been his first love. "I sometimes feel that maybe I don't need TV. But I can never see myself not wanting to do live stand-up," he says.
The comic, who is now embarking on his fifth major nationwide tour, proceeds to explain the unalloyed thrill that he still gets from stand-up. "There is probably a real scientific explanation for it. I was recently reading a report about how people are hung up on social media. We get a dopamine rush when we get so many 'likes' on Facebook. Being on stage is the same.
"When you say something funny on stage, you get your judgement instantly. You get joy and affirmation straight away. You don't have to think about it. It's either funny or not. You're only ever four words away from joy or the fear that nobody will laugh. You're always only four words away from success or failure. That's a brilliant tightrope to walk. That gives me an absolutely huge buzz."
John, who is happily married to Melanie and has three grown-up sons, goes on to reveal what subjects he will be covering in his shows. "The show has three themes. I start by talking about being 50. It never struck me as being a big thing before, but now I realise that being 50 is like being five.
"At five people say things like 'that's good for your age', they start saying that to you again when you're 50. 'That's good for your age, you can carry your own bag, well done that's good for your age.'"
The comic, who has also shone in straight acting roles in Fearless, Accused and Route Irish, says: "The second part of the show is about all the kids leaving home. I admit, that was hard. We're suddenly living in an empty nest, and it's really strange. I was surprised as I wanted them to leave forever, but when they did actually leave, I went into an odd sort of depression. I thought, 'That's over now. I can't ever be a dad again. I'm just a bloke who they know.'
"We've adjusted to it now, but there is still part of you that thinks, 'Wow, you only get one go at being a dad, and that go was their childhood.' As a parent, you're busy building a nest to share with the kids, but sometimes you wish you'd done more sharing and less building. I really wasn't expecting to have those feelings."
John proceeds to outline the third part of the show. "The third theme is mortality, which is a thing you think about when you know you have already passed half way in your life."
Somehow, the comedian has managed to find the time to film the third series of John Bishop: In Conversation With, his enormously popular talk show on W. In the new run, he has fascinating, in-depth conversations with stars such as Dame Joan Collins (below top), John Cleese, David Williams and Katie Price (below bottom).
John says: "I really enjoy shows like Inside the Actors' Studio and Desert Island Discs, where you have no idea who is coming on each week. I wanted to make something with that intimacy and a guest list you couldn't necessarily predict. I've absolutely loved doing it.
"What really counts is the fact that I am one of them. There is an immediate empathy there because I've been through some of the things we're talking about. And because we just sit and talk for an hour and a quarter, everyone relaxes into it. There is no agenda behind it. I don't have any questions written down, and there is no producer talking into my ear piece. The second question is based on the answer to the first. It just flows. That's why it is a genuine conversation. It's a complete joy to make."
As Winging It approaches, his first national tour for three years, John cannot wait to re-establish his tremendous rapport with his very loyal fans. "I've built my career on not being someone from the showbiz world. Even at this stage, I spend most of my life doing normal things, and I am still learning this job. I'm very fortunate that people of all ages come to my shows. It's great to have a relationship with them. The key is to remain plugged into the normal world. Once you start being removed from that, you run out of things to talk about."
John proceeds to give an example of how he is still in touch with his fans. "I got on a flight and was sat next to an older woman and her husband had the window seat. 'I thought you would be on a private jet,' she said and I just laughed and said, 'they all get there just as quick'. She smiled and said, 'I knew it would be something like that, he said you were just tight.'
"But I still get the Tube in London and still have the same season ticket at Anfield I've had for years. There are only so many things in my life that have changed. There's not a lot in my life that I'm unhappy with. Lots of people think that there is a planet called 'Celebrity', where everyone has a tan and white teeth, but I don't live there."
Before we part, John tells me what he hopes people will take away from his shows. "I hope that if people come in harassed, they soon forget their daily troubles and leave feeling a lot happier. The essence of comedy is to make people feel better. It's not complicated. You're not trying to change the world - you're simply trying to make people feel a lot happier."
And nobody does it better than John Bishop.
John Bishop plays the SSE Arena, Belfast on Wednesday, October 4 and Thursday, October 5, at 8pm. Tickets cost from £27.50. For details Visit ssereward.com or johnbishoponline.com