Johnny Vegas

Washed up. Foetal. Wallowing under Edinburgh’s setting sun. Johnny Vegas cuts a desolate figure as the camera homes in on him at a funereal pace. Washed up and witless. Washed up and friendless. “I can rely on him not to return my calls,” flashes Darrell Martin, founder of Just The Tonic Comedy Club. “I can rely on him to be shit.”

Last years Who’s Ready For Ice Cream? captures Johnny Vegas’s tortured return to the comedy capital, as he bids to rediscover the pathos that fuelled his meteoric ascent. And as the camera marches sombrely through the streets of Edinburgh, the honest and hard-working denizens of the comedy world stop to kick vitriolic sand in the face of the once-great entertainer. And he takes it because he’s no longer funny.

Johnny Vegas’s story is well documented. He was the king of Butlins. The redcoat ringleader who used laughter to reunite factious families. And then scandal wrenched the redcoat from his grasp and replaced it with 20 years worth of cheap, dirty booze. Until 1997, when the blush of shame and loathing was transformed into a crimson and blue Edinburgh Festival set that left the critics panting for more. More pathos. More pottery. More pop-song sing-a-longs to moisten their nibs. In the seven years that have followed, the nibs have remained moist as Vegas has toured, won awards for his role in Happiness, caused panel-show mayhem, stepped into the silver-screen limelight and played with a monkey. And now and again in reviews and interviews journalists might mention the name Michael Pennington.

Pennington created and plays Vegas. And parts of his story are also well documented. He trained to be a priest for a while as a child. He worked at Argos after leaving school. He studied ceramics at Middlesex Polytechnic. He lost a few years in Glasgow and St Helens. Then he came from nowhere to take Edinburgh by storm. His experiences are at the tumultuous core of Vegas. But is Pennington Vegas? The scribbling nibs have never really sharpened the already blurred line. Articles have often focused on drinking, smoking, weight, more drinking and most recently, very personal matters. At a recent show an audience member questioned why he’d spent £15 to watch a drunk, fat bloke sing badly. Soon after a broadsheet suggested that the awkwardly hilarious and fictional Who’s Ready For Ice Cream? is dangerously close to reflecting real life. Have they missed the point? Or is it my lines that are blurred? Just who is the real Johnny Vegas?

When you are cack-jawed and inappropriately damp after a vicious hailstorm, trying to get to know someone in less than two hours is not an easy task. Talk about the present, it’s always easy to talk about the present. “I’m working on I Deal at the moment (a joint venture between BBC Comedy and Baby Cow Productions, the company set up by Steve Coogan and Henry Normal), but we’ve also got other stuff coming up,” explains Pennington. “We’re still in talks with Shane Meadows about a project with the BBC and there is a series with Red Productions that Dave Spikey’s written. We’ve also done an independent pilot set in St Helens called Johnny Vegas, The Wilderness Years and I’ve had a really good meeting with Chris Evans about doing something for Channel 4.”

Occasionally sipping an industrial-strength fruit juice and frequently dishing out fags, Pennington is open and laid back. The conversation turns to The Libertine; a film he’s just finished working on with Johnny Depp, John Malkovich and Samantha Morton about the Earl of Rochester, a debauched 17th century poet. Pennington’s enthusiasm is infectious. “It was such a nice working experience,” he states. “I tend to get cast in a lot of Johnnyesque roles, so this was really nice to do because it is set in the 17th century. We were the spoilt, drunk kids whoring it about London.” I wonder if it was a challenge to get into character? “It was really hard getting into the thing of playing a snob,” Pennington remembers. “They’re the sort of people I’ve grown up resenting. But then it’s frightening when you start to enjoy it. I’m glad I wasn’t born into money as I could’ve been a right wanker really. I’ll have you and you. Have them washed and sent to my room! Everyone was sitting round going have you read such a book, it’s a really good reference point and I’m thinking, the last book that I read was on donkeys! We borrowed some books when we did the pilot for Vegas, The Wilderness Years, and one was on donkeys. There’s a chapter called Donkeys And Hernias, Just Walk Away. Oh…and there’s a picture of a girl on a donkey looking dead happy and underneath it says, ‘here is an example of a really ugly donkey.’ Tony (Burgess) is going, ‘I bet she got it for her birthday and she’s dead chuffed it’s going to be in a book. Then she got the book and I bet she’s never been on that donkey again’.”

As ugly and lame donkeys trot off into the distance, Pennington returns to The Libertine. “Depp is such a cool guy, him and Malkovich. They’re genuinely witty people so you do enjoy hanging out with them, not because of who they are but because they’re good value. We all got into the libertine spirit but everyone got on and did their job. We didn’t do the Sinatra thing of going off and playing golf pissed. It’s done me a lot of good confidence wise. I have got a bit of a taste for it but then everyone goes have you retired from stand up and you go no, I’ll do both. I enjoy both.”

Live Johnny Vegas shows have been rare in 2004, as Pennington concentrates on his TV and film commitments. But he is planning to hit the road in November and December. And he’ll be at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on July 1st to play Just The Tonic’s 10th anniversary show. It’s clear that Pennington has genuine affection for Darrell Martin and the club. “It’s one of them clubs where you can do material that you wouldn’t necessarily do anywhere else. It’s a unique show,” he explains. “Darrell’s one of the few that has managed to stay in business with Jongleurs. It tends to be that Jongleurs moves in and a lot of clubs suffer. But I think there’s a real love of Just The Tonic. Darrell will make money one week but then bring new acts through that he knows they will lose money on. But then you are seeing people that three or four years down the line you won’t be able to get tickets for.”

Pennington spent the mid 90s playing gigs in St Helens, Manchester and Nottingham, at clubs that were prepared to nurture new talent. It was during this period that Johnny Vegas lurched into life. “It was a bit of an accident,” recalls Pennington. “The first comedy open spot I went to do, I’d written some stuff that I thought was funny. When I got to the pub I realised I was going to die. In a drunken panic I got up and went ‘I’m not a comedian, I’m an entertainer. I don’t do jokes.’ I started coming out with some horrible things that had happened in my life. You’re not saying them to be funny but you’re getting laughs. Johnny Vegas was really born out of that gig. There was a mix of stories that were real but with this false background of him being a redcoat, a proper entertainer. Stand up is just a one night stand but cabaret, it’s a romance.”

Vegas’s conception may have been alcohol-fuelled but he was brought up on an intuitive wit and hard work. “I had found something that interested me and was self-taught,” explains Pennington. “I enjoyed the learning process and I felt I had something to prove. I didn’t like a lot of the stand up at the time. You couldn’t get gigs in London and it all seemed to be like, ‘cats are different from dogs’ and ‘aren’t girlfriends odd’ and ‘don’t you get hungry when you’re stoned.’ What about us that never had a girlfriend and were allergic to cats?” In Manchester Pennington spent a lot of time comparing, which has had a big impact on how he approaches live shows. “You work on material because you want stuff that’s funny so you don’t dry up,” he states. “But comparing was really good…talking to an audience…playing with an audience, not going on and just doing your set but learning how to break it up and introduce stuff. If there’s a tangent worth going on, go on it. Put the work in and have the material there as back up but normally the crowd will always come up with something far more interesting to talk about. Just involve them. If someone gets the better of you after a good five minutes where the audience has enjoyed it, then it’s worth it. As long as you’re not going on there with an ego thinking I have to be the funniest person in the room. It’s about opening it up and going it’s as much up to you to entertain yourselves as it is me.”

Pennington is canny, as well as extremely likeable and appreciates that the increased exposure has brought with it a shift in his live audience. “There’s people there that have followed you from the start,” observes Pennington. “But there’s those that come along who don’t know what you do as stand up, are not real fans of stand up. They’re going because you’re that bloke off the telly and they can sit through the show looking really confused, amazed that you haven’t got the monkey. You can’t water it down or make it more approachable for those people.” However, Pennington accepts TV does have some limitations. “Johnny Vegas live is different to Johnny Vegas on TV,” he states. “If you did a stage version of Johnny Vegas on Shooting Stars he would just wander off five minutes in, or be singing in the audience. But I don’t bear the broader audience in mind unless it’s something to do with Johnny. You can only put out what you believe in. To do something where your idea of failure lies with how many viewers it got would be soul destroying.”

Pennington featured and believed in the recent film, Sex Lives Of Potato Men. And the critics were scathing in their condemnation of it. “Every actor I talked to in comedy said it was the funniest script they’d read. Now if people want to say it hasn’t worked out as a film, maybe so,” sighs Pennington. “But there was a lot of, ‘he was in the worst film of last year and is in the worst film of this year and possibly the ugliest man working in films.’ I was waiting for the, ‘plus his mum is a whore. Oh yeah! She’s one big, bad, loose lady.’ That detracts from any kind of professional criticism. Up to that you might have had a point but now you’ve just lost it.” Not that Pennington is anti-critics. “If you’re going to put something on in public you are offering it open to scrutiny,” he suggests. “You can’t moan about it if you don’t get the response you want.”

This even-handed approach seems to typify Pennington. He is lucid, objective and lacks pretension. And as he applies his immense talent to a broader range of mediums he’s wise enough to realise that not everyone will make the distinction between Michael Pennington and Johnny Vegas. “I didn’t want to distance myself from stand up and say, ‘I’m now working under the name of Mike Pennington. Stand up was a joy for a while but theatre was always in my blood.’ I don’t mind that blurring of the lines. I don’t want to have to clarify everything.” Pennington finishes by recounting a tale of tomfoolery on the set of The Libertine. It ends with him sat on the beach singing The Who classic, The Real Me. I think I can picture it. Unwashed, beer in hand Pennington belts out the chorus line, “can you see the real me?” Well, can you? Can you?

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