Heeere's Johnny! | Vegas on his new show: 18 Stone Of Idiot

Heeere's Johnny!

Vegas on his new show: 18 Stone Of Idiot

Grilling Johnny Vegas is not a job to be taken lightly. After all, interviews with the great man have been known to last for up to 12 hours, taking in many pubs along the way.

To my relief, Vegas is not thirsty today. Instead, he’s affable, intelligent, funny and, most strikingly for anyone who’s seen his stand up, quiet. Whereas his comedy persona shouts his drink-fuelled monologues, the daytime version speaks in surprisingly muted tones. The wine, beer and vodka laid on for the interview remain resolutely untouched, Vegas preferring a cup of coffee and the ubiquitous cigarette.

We’re here to discuss Johnny Vegas: 18 Stone of Idiot, his new Channel 4 vehicle. “It’s our take on a Friday night show,” explains Vegas. “It doesn’t always go according to plan and there’s a bit more danger involved. Tony Pitts [the show’s co-writer] and myself sat down and basically said ‘Let’s write a show that’ll never get recommissioned!’ And, sort of by default, Channel 4 have turned around and are really happy with it. We were expecting a really stern meeting, with people going ‘You spent our money on that?’

The show has been produced by Chris Evans, a coupling which Vegas says “looks very unlikely on paper. But what was great about him was that he came to see us with a list of programme ideas as long as your arm, and they were all far better than anything else that had been suggested to us in a long time.

“He’s also been really good at leaving us to get on with the comedy side of things. We take elements of what he does best and elements of what we do best. He shows us how to make a really great show, and we show him how to undermine that completely!”

Among the elements of the show is an angry baboon who talks to Vegas on the toilet, dancing girls who inflict pain on him every week by hitting him, or pulling huge plasters off him, a drink-fuelled reality slot called Celebrity Lock-In, and stunts that involve jumping over celebrity guests. Not to mention a game that if successfully concluded results in Vegas taking the entire audience out to get drunk after the show.

And then there’s TV Democracy in which the audience suggests something they’d like to see on their television. This led to Vegas’ favourite moment in the series: “Getting Neil Hamilton dancing for fish in a Perspex box wearing a bag that said ‘self-regard’. The man will do anything! We’re all just stood there going: ‘Where’s his fucking pride?’”

It’s not exactly what you’d call conventional; but then nor is Vegas himself. For a start, it’s difficult to tell where Michael Pennington (his real name) stops, and Johnny Vegas begins. Sometimes he refers to Johnny in the first person, sometimes in the third. And while Johnny Vegas is a heavy-drinking, self-loathing depressive, Michael Pennington is no stranger to alcohol, and has confessed to dark moments of his own.

When he first moved to London, it wasn’t the road to comedy stardom that lured him but the call of the potter’s wheel. “I did a degree in ceramics at Middlesex. It wasn’t the most practical course. The dole office isn’t full of cards saying ‘Teapot menders, must start now’; ‘Do you have experience of porcelain?’ ‘We want you for Jugs International’.”

Yet it remains a passion and his disappointing degree result is said to still rankle. Does he still find time to throw the odd pot? “I’m just now in the process of making my garage into a studio in St Helens. I’m buying a gas kiln from my old school, which is turning their ceramics department into a photography school. Shame on them.”

Would he like to exhibit? “I’d love to, after a bit of practice getting back into it. But I don’t want to become the equivalent of Stallone and his paintings – you know, he’s bloody dreadful, but because of who he is, he gets an exhibition. I’d maybe like to submit something under a different name, and see how it does.”

If imagining Vegas as a potter (sorry, ceramic artist) sounds implausible, how about Father Vegas? Had he stayed at the seminary he attended at 13, what would he have been like as a priest? “Sacked!” he laughs.

“No, I think I’d have been gregarious. I think I would’ve been good at talking to people, but I think I would’ve been constantly in trouble with the hierarchy. It’s like that thing where somebody’s been in the army 30 years, and they’re still a private. I don’t think I’d progress through the ranks. There wouldn’t be any white smoke for Pope Vegas. Or, if there was, the Catholic church would be grabbing a lot more headlines. ‘Pope Vegas Makes Sudden Speech at 3am from Papal Balcony Asking: Who Wants to Sing?’”

His faith has taken a battering in recent times, but he insists “I don’t want to give up on it. I don’t agree with large elements of [religion], but I don’t want to start saying that I’ve given up completely on my faith.”

In the meantime, one of the passions that sustains him is rugby league. He famously supports St Helens, his hometown club, and he managed to play in one of their games for another of the series’ regular slots, My Favourite Things. This also saw him take part in a live poker night on a satellite TV station, where he behaved so badly upon losing that he made the newspapers.

But it’s the celebs Johnny’s most enjoyed. “The guests were brilliant,” he says. “None of them have been the type to turn up with an entourage and want to plug something. They’ve come on for a laugh, and we needed that sort of attitude, because we use them throughout the show. We had Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Huey from Fun Lovin’ Criminals, David Soul, Rhys Ifans and Elvis Costello. Rhys was brilliant, because he came on the show really drunk.”

Not a patch on what happens in the latter stages of Celebrity Lock-In, by the sound of things. “It’s my take on these reality shows that go on for weeks and weeks. What we’ve done is squeeze all the action into one day, and just got some celebrities absolutely pissed, and it’s worked.

“You think it could be absolutely dreadful telly, but it’s great. It’s genuinely shocking, but hilarious at the same time, seeing people drunk on camera. And throughout the series, the night progresses, and they get worse and worse. Fists were thrown. I had a flaming sambuca thrown on me. I think it’ll be viewed with disbelief.”

The climax of the show involves jumping over the week’s guest celebrity using an unusual form of transport. “It’s quite daunting. We don’t tell the guest in advance. Every week, a guy from Ladbrokes gives us odds as to whether the guest will be up for it, and will be prepared to put themselves in a dangerous position for me to jump over them on different objects.

“I jumped Ray Winstone on a chopper, and another time we got one of those kids’ rides that you put ten pence in, put wheels on that and used it. And if the celebrity does it, we win the money, and we take the audience out on a big, free piss-up. We just take everyone to the pub round the corner.”

* Johnny Vegas: 18 Stone of Idiot begins on Channel 4 on Friday 27 May

by Benjie Goodheart First published: May 12, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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