Peter Kay is phenomenal. When he announced, via an advert in the middle of the twenty-second series opener of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, that he was finally going back on tour with a new stand-up show after 12 years away, the demand for dates and tickets was extraordinary.
His previous run, 2010/2011's The Tour That Doesn't Tour ... Now On Tour holds the world record for the most successful stand-up comedy tour ever: by the time it went into the Guinness Book of Records in 2012 he had played to 1.2 million people - now that's dedication!
Of course, there are those who don't find him funny. They accuse him of just listing things from his childhood, like old quotes from Record Breakers, or the names of rubbish fizzy drinks. His critics say he just 'remembers stuff', but I think they miss the point because what he does remember is stuff that the audience connects with - that's the skill. Each to their own: not everyone is going to connect with him or find him funny, but 1.2 million people is a pretty impressive figure so he must be doing something right.
I was there on the first night in Manchester in 2010 for the The Tour That Doesn't Tour, initially performed in residence at the Manchester Arena. I'd grabbed three tickets for myself and friends because I was scared he wouldn't take the show on the road. Such fears of course proved false, but not without foundation: Kay had said he wasn't sure if the public wanted more stand-up from him and spoken of his dislike of being away from home.
Sure enough, Peter Kay was on fire that night and the audience - buoyed by a surprise warm up performance from Rick Astley - loved every minute of it. I never really understood if he was being falsely modest or genuinely humble when he thought few would want to see him outside the North West, but of course they did. Those few nights at the arena soon expanded into a multi-venue tour of the UK and Ireland, seeing break records all over the place: 20 nights at Manchester Arena remains the longest individual run at that venue; the only British artist to ever play 20 consecutive nights in any arena, in fact; and he was the first ever stand-up to sell out 15 nights at The O2 in London; plus of course those 1.2 million total tickets sold. It was a phenomenal achievement. There's that word again: phenomenal.
He started as a compere at the Frog & Bucket comedy club in Manchester, where he would try out the odd gag and bits of material between the acts; if they didn't go down well it didn't matter, he'd just bring the next comic on and make a mental note of it. By his own admission - in his book Saturday Night Peter: Memoirs Of A Stand-Up Comedian - it took Kay a while to find his own voice and refine how he wanted to sound on stage. He knew he had great material, honed from years in little part time jobs observing people and life around him, from his friends and family to getting ready for a night out and finding your mum had used your best razor to shave her legs; he also wanted to do satire and comment on current affairs but says he never felt clever enough to pull it off.
In the early days of his stand-up career, Peter Kay's only references to modern popular culture were what was happening on the soaps. But Peter was clever in so many ways, especially because he was recording every one of his formative stand up gigs on a dictaphone as he went on stage. He built up a huge library of cassette tapes to listen back to, helping him refine his act: what went well, what didn't, which gags landed with an audience, how long they took to warm up, and every other variable imaginable. It was all there, along with crib sheets and set lists of the different topics and routines he was doing. This wasn't just comedy - this was the science of comedy.
And yet his material never, ever comes across as clinical or overly-thought out. Every story feels like it comes from the heart. Perhaps not spontaneously inspired, but every routine no less rooted in truth. Sometimes, however, this mix of refining skill and effortless performance proved to be a detriment: when Peter played his home town of Bolton after touring pubs and clubs elsewhere in the North West, his 'embellished' stories from his time at school or work were met with friends and family heckling the exact details, names and dates of the events he was talking about! Peter feared he would die on stage on one such notable occasion, but despite the barrage of facts and figures coming from the auditorium he received his first standing ovation from the crowd. Whist Peter says "exaggeration is the basis of all comedy" (and he's right), the love and warmth was there. Hearing someone talk about relatable, real life stuff was what was setting him apart on the circuit.
1996 saw Peter win the North West Comedian of the Year competition in a final compered by Dave Spikey, with whom he would later co-write sitcom series Phoenix Nights. The contest was Kay's first big success and gave him the taste for more. Next came the Channel 4-backed So You Think You're Funny? contest in 1997, and at the same time he was entering the BBC New Comedy Awards. The North West heat for this was at his old stamping ground of the Frog & Bucket and one of his rivals that night was Liverpool stand-up Neil Anthony - he would later change his surname to Fitzmaurice and co-write That Peter Kay Thing and Phoenix Nights. Neil was victorious on the night but Peter went through on a wild card - he was off to the Edinburgh Festival.
The finals for both competitions were held at the Edinburgh Fringe and although he didn't win the top prize, a last-minute inspired idea to throw out his tried and trusted material and talk about his week at the festival won him the Channel 4 gong. By [y]1998[y] he was back in Scotland again and nominated for a Perrier award.
Peter's comedy has translated notoriously well to the DVD market. His first big stand-up breakthrough was the Peter Kay Live At The Top Of The Tower special (recorded 2000, aired on Channel 5 the following year, and released on DVD and VHS in 2004), followed by Live At The Bolton Albert Halls (released 2003). Another date on the same tour - the 89-date Mum Wants A Bungalow Tour - was filmed and released as Live At The Manchester Arena in 2005.
By this time the TV successes of That Peter Kay Thing (2000) and Phoenix Nights (2001 - 2002) meant that his comedy was quickly gaining fans, and the quotable routines, gags and catchphrases were being shared amongst his faithful followers. Certainly, appearances on chat shows like Parkinson and The Jonathan Ross Show, where he'd first been a warm up man but was now a guest, meant that his TV profile was on the up and the quotes were coming thick and fast. You have to be pretty canny to have something as everyday as 'garlic bread' become synonymous with you and your act.
But then Peter Kay is very canny. Not only had he been honing his craft as a stand-up comedian, writing comedy series and sitcoms and selling out theatres around the country, he had also set up his own production company, Goodnight Vienna, which made Phoenix Nights - a move that ensured his ability to direct all 6 episodes of the second series. His study of comedy, of what is and isn't funny, his desire for creative control and his vision for what the overall production would look like was immense.
With each new project he took on more and more, writing, casting, directing and acting. There is a clip on YouTube of out-takes from what I consider his finest work, the BBC One comedy Car Share, where in the middle of pretending to drive a car, act and repeatedly laugh his socks off (at Sian Gibson as Kayleigh and Reece Shearsmith as Stink Ray), he gives him a note on how to say "86 to 95 boom time" with a bigger emphasis on the word 'boom'. It's a wonderful insight into Kay the director and his minute attention to detail. He was across every aspect of the scene even though they were having the most riotous fun and could barely get the lines out.
And now he's 'back on nights' with the Better Late Than Never tour, set to span four years (2022 - 2025) and smash all previous records into even tinier pieces. That advert during I'm A Celeb caused a social media meltdown and was significant enough a cultural story to make mainstream news headlines. The day after it aired, on Zoe Ball's Radio 2 breakfast show, Kay said he couldn't believe the reaction and was overwhelmed: "I'm on the news! The main news! This is ridiculous." But that's the regard and affection in which the public hold him. They were absolutely thrilled that he was going back on the stage, especially after the fiercely anticipated 2018 Have Gags Will Travel tour had been cancelled just days after it was announced, reportedly due to a family matter - with no further details ever divulged, leaving many fans worrying.
So, as he celebrates his 50th birthday, with this new tour well under way and success as bountiful as ever, what makes him funny? What is it about him that appeals to such a wide range of people of all ages? For me it's the unique connection he forges with the audience: that spark of recognition when we think "yes, that happened to me" or "I do that too". It's the warmth he exudes for the people he talks about, the stories he tells, and how he makes each member of the audience feel intimately connected, even in the setting of an enormous multi-multi-thousand-seater arena; that we're all in on it together. Even sat hundreds of feet away, he makes audiences feel they could be in the back room of a pub for a relaxed, small comedy night of just 20-odd people. That is perhaps his real greatest skill.
While he was warm up man for the Parkinson, show Kay and Sir Michael would chat about comedy and some of their favourite classic performers, 'Comedy can't be taught or learnt', Parky would say. 'You have to be born with it in your soul.' And that's Peter Kay - he was just born funny.
So happy 50th birthday, Peter. Treat yourself to as large a helping of garlic bread as you wish. You deserve it.