Vegas: Kitson made me quit stand-up

....but he says he might be back

Johnny Vegas has revealed that Daniel Kitson is the reason he gave up stand-up.

But the Ideal star says that he has unfinished business with live comedy – and could make a return to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Vegas said he decided to quit around four years ago because he couldn’t hope to compete with the younger comic. But his decision came as he was becoming disillusioned with stand-up anyway – as the more famous he became, the less of a challenge it was to win over audiences.

Speaking at Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival, Vegas said: ‘Kitson is the reason I stopped stand-up.

‘I was getting to the end of my journey anyway, when I did three gigs with him. On the first, I thought, “This is brilliant, I’ve got to pull my socks up and get my act together.”

‘On the second, I felt I’d gone 15 rounds with the comedic Mike Tyson.

‘And on the third, I felt I’d seen comedy take its next evolutionary step. There was no bitterness - but almost a pride in the direction that comedy was going. But I thought I would never have the talent to match that... I’ll never rise to that.’

He said that his audiences had begun to change as he moved from clubs into theatres, and people had come to see him just because they recognised him from the TV.

He said: ‘The most fun I had was with gigs where I was a complete unknown and had to fight and win the night.

‘But the tone of the gigs changed. People were more polite and they would come up at the end with cameraphones and wanted their picture taken.’

He said he had mixed feelings about fame, because it gave him financial security and opened doors for him, but admitted: ‘A comfort zone made me less of a comic.’

However, he said he might return to Edinburgh with a new show at some point, because he needed ‘closure’ on his stand-up.

He said his act never really transferred to TV and ‘my stand-up DVD was the worst example of what I did; and I’d hate to be remembered that way’.

Vegas added that he was now enthused by being a director, having been behind the camera for the recent daytime TV play That’s Amore, starring Jason Manford, and the forthcoming Sky Arts short Ragged, part of the Playhouse Presents strand,

Speaking to fellow comic Mark Olver on his Dancing About Architecture talk show yesterday, Vegas also told of how he never wanted to comply with the strictures of the more corporate comedy clubs.

He remembers doing an open-spot for Jongleurs and deliberately overstaying his seven-minute slot... yet still being offered more work as he had gone down better than the comics fretting about doing exactly the right thing for the venue bookers.

But he turned them down, saying: ‘I hated giving them what they want, being told “that’s what we do here”.

‘These people who took those gigs, five years later they are bitter because Jongleurs is dictating what they are doing,’ he said. ‘They want to keep you where you are when they first booked you, but I wanted to evolve.

‘After five year, these other comics would say to me “it’s all right for you” – but I never took the devil’s coin.’

He was backed up by Norman Lovett, who said of comedy: ‘|’ve never treated it like a job’

However, other panelists including Markus Birdman and Carly Smallman, said there was nothing wrong with entertaining club audiences – and the money was useful so they could do other work for love, outside of the weekend gigs.

But Birdman admitted: ‘The circuit is a conservative place. Like pop music, you have to do certain things that the audience expects.’

Vegas added that the rise of the new comedy scene from the ashes of the stale club comics of the Seventies simply ‘replaced one set of rules for another’.

‘Who voted for that?, he asked. ‘Who set these new rules up? There are people who think of it as their job to safeguard comedy, or to decided ‘this isn’t pure comedy”. It’s evolving – you don’t get to dictate.

And he said he noticed a north-south divide on the issue. ‘I did find in London a pressure to do generic stuff about relationships or about cats and dogs,’ he said of his early career. ‘While up north I felt like we had more freedom. It was a smaller pool and we felt we had to be different from the next act. We wanted to stand out.’

When asked about his favourite comics, Vegas cited Stewart Lee, but conceded Olver’s point that Lee was in danger of becoming a ultimate arbiter of comedy taste that could stifle others. Adam Hess admitted that he would once reject jokes he’d written because he thought: ‘Stewart Lee wouldn’t like that’.

However, Vegas defended Lee’s right to pass comment on the ‘very safe’ comedy of the likes of Michael McIntyre. ‘We are allowed to stand up as comedians and say “this doesn’t represent me”,’ he said.

When Olver asked the panel who was the best comedian they had seen, Lovett said without hesitation: ‘Jack Whitehall, by a mile.

Then – after a very long pause – revealed he was joking, to the obvious relief of the room.

Published: 11 Feb 2013

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