Johnny Vegas’ unique brand of comedy has been shouted to a shocked but nevertheless entertained UK television audience for over a decade, since breaking into the mainstream in the late 1990s. He has been the subject of both criticism and high praise during his illustrious career, and the UK viewing public have watched him grow so much as both man and comedian (whilst, paradoxically, watching his waistline shrink), that he has burrowed for himself a loving place in the hearts of UK comedy lovers.
Born Michael Joseph Pennington, on September 11th 1971, in the working-class northern English town of St. Helens, he was the youngest of four, with two older brothers and an older sister. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, and practised and followed the faith up to the point of enrolling and attending, aged 11, St Joseph’s College in Upholland, a Roman Catholic boarding school, with a view to training for the priesthood. He came home after 4 terms, however, after suffering from severe homesickness.
His next educational venture of note saw him enrolling at Middlesex University to read Art and Ceramic Design. He graduated with a lowly third-class degree – the lowest possible pass, and became disheartened with a career in pottery soon after. Despite this, he still enjoys pottery, and in the early days of his stand up career, would often include a potter’s wheel as part of his stand up act. He was renowned, especially in his earlier days, for appearing on stage drunk, a culture that was no doubt exaggerated by his move, after university, back to St. Helens to become a live-in barman. While in St. Helens, he would often compère comedy nights at the Citadel Arts Centre.
During the mid-nineties he spent time in both Glasgow and London with the declared intention of becoming a stand-up comic. It was while in London that he met his ‘comedy godfather’, Malcolm Hardee, who repeatedly booked him into the ‘Up the Creek’ stand-up venue in Greenwich.
His break came in 1997 when he won the Festival Critics’ award at the Edinburgh Festival, also becoming the first newcomer to receive an nomination for a Perrier Award. He also won Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year.
He had a couple of brief shows commissioned on the back of this success, The Johnny Vegas Gameshow and The Johnny Vegas Show, but both failed to receive a second series. They were a sign, however, that Johnny Vegas was here to stay.
Vegas’ huge break into stardom in the UK really came in 2001 with his appearance in a series of adverts promoting ITV Digital, in which he starred alongside a stuffed monkey, simply called ‘monkey’. It was this series of adverts that really made him a household name in Britain, a status which he still enjoys today. In fact, in January 2007, tea company PG Tips reunited him with the monkey character for another series of adverts which are enjoying as much popularity now as they did at the turn of the century.
In 2001, Vegas made the step from stand-up comedian to actor, giving an award-winning performance as Charlie in Happiness. This would mark a change in Johnny’s horizons, and it would be as an actor that Johnny would appear for the most part of the coming decade He would go on to appear in various films including Sex Lives of the Potato Men and The Libertine, and in 2005 was given the main role in BBC comedy Ideal, playing a small-time drug dealer. In the same year, he appeared in his first straight roles, appearing in BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and later as Bottom in a modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He later appeared in ITV hit show Benidorm, and remained for 3 seasons.
In August 2002, having presented on mainstream morning show The Big Breakfast, officially cementing himself into the public eye in so doing, he married his girlfriend Kitty Donnelly, famously selling the exclusive pictures to Viz magazine for £1. They had a child, his son, Michael Laurence Pennance, a year later in 2003 and they separated in 2004, briefly reuniting in 2005.
Nowadays, a newly svelte Johnny, having been encouraged by his doctor to lose weight to help ease his gout, can be seen doing the rounds on various UK shows, panel and otherwise, as well as continuing to appear as Moz in Ideal. He has appeared on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word, Top Gear (being the first and only celebrity to go around the Top Gear track without a license), various appearances on QI, TV heaven, Telly Hell, and has appeared on a whole host of chat shows throughout the years. With his newer, more mellow (less drunk!) personality, the future certainly looks bright for Johnny Vegas.