British entertainer stroke comedian and performance potter. 1972-
“He is the greatest live stand-up I’ve ever seen. It's like a cry from the heart”
- Rob Newman
The stage name of Michael Pennington, the youngest son of a carpenter from Thatto Heath, St. Helens, Johnny has quickly risen from being an average overweight bloke with qualifications in pottery to Britain's hottest new comic sensation, hailed as a profound genius by just about every critic that has written about him and loved by, well, pretty much everyone else mainly because he's just so damned hard to dislike. So how did this humble carpenter's son achieve greatness so fast? Aah, therein lies a tale of biblical proportions...
Born to a devout Roman Catholic family, he lived his life within the realistic boundaries of normality until the age of eleven when he declared to his parents that he wanted to train for the priesthood at Upholland School, Skelmersdale, Lancashire. Shortly after, he found himself whisked away to boarding school, receiving a religion-intensive, priest-administered education.
"The way of life was Victorian. You were up at seven for a communal wash - freezing in the winter. Then there was mass, breakfast, lessons, lunch, more lessons, evening prayer, tea, and prep, which did my head in. You sat in a room in silence for three hours getting on with your studies, even if you didn't have any. I got really bored."
While spending his time becoming more and more home sick, puberty arrived and brought with it a plentiful supply of lustful thoughts leading to his eventual dropping out to return to standard state education at West Park School in St. Helens, finishing with four O Levels. Upon leaving school in 1986 he began work in a local Argos store while studying for his A Levels where a teacher got him hooked on the art of pottery. This led to an art foundation course and, in 1989, to Middlesex Polytechnic to study ceramics, graduating with third-class honours.
"The best pottery I ever did was my graduation work. I made abstract female forms. I'd worked my arse off, done something I really believed in and got the worst grade in the group."
With a debt of £1000, he worked in a St. Helens pub for six months before returning to his student home to spend the majority of his time on the dole and in a pit of despair, spending the daytime getting horrifically drunk on cheap wine and the nights releasing his anger through heckling at the local free comedy clubs. Promoting himself from drunken heckler to wannabe comic, he adopted his old nickname Johnny Vegas and started his career out being little more than a loud, drunk bloke with a microphone. In 1995, he entered Channel 4's So You Think You're Funny contest and got as far as the final before dying the worst on-stage death he could imagine, even going as far as to forget not only his material, but also his name.
Dejected, he returned to his home up north, convinced that he wasn't cut out for comedy and felt more at home with being an entertainer. It was when he started talking on stage about things that weren't intended to be funny that people started laughing - presenting himself on stage as the quintessential loser, wearing a tatty leather jacket, darts players' smock and beer-stained brown flares and a nice line in self-deprecating humour and on-stage clay manipulation. Rather than have another stab at the London circuit, he spent two years working the northern clubs, honing his act before taking it to the Edinburgh Festival and walking away with the Festival Critics Award, as well as being the only newcomer in the festival's history to be nominated for that comedy Holy Grail, the Perrier Award.
Since then, Johnny has unwittingly embarked on a steady upward path, despite never going on stage without drinking "half to three-quarters a bottle of red wine and some vodka". Television interest naturally follows the top acts of any Edinburgh Festival and he's in the process of coming up with a show for the BBC, as well as appearing alongside Paul Whitehouse in the comedy-drama Happiness in early 2001. Not a bad score for a fat loser.
"People understand that even if I am on the attack, it's because of my own shortcomings. At the end of the day, what makes it all work is that I am a much sadder person than you."
Johnny appeared on BBC2's Room 101 and attempted to cast the following five items, whittled down from an initial shortlist of eighteen, into a state of national ignorance:
- Holiday reps and entertainers of the Butlins ilk.
- Courtroom Drawings. (refused)
- Internet Chat Rooms.
- Jackets for wine bottles. (refused)
- Novelty boxer shorts.