“I’ve never liked stand-up comedy,” Phil Ellis tells Northern Soul. “I’ve got no interest in it”.

To be fair, this might come as something of a surprise because Ellis is one of the most acclaimed stand-ups working on the circuit today. “I do love being a stand-up,” he clarifies. “I just don’t watch stand-up. Does that makes sense?”

In fact, Ellis’s career has always taken a slightly eccentric route. As a teenager growing up in Preston, his interest in comedy was sparked by the release of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s Bottom 2 live show on VHS in 1995. “My mum worked at Asda and could get 10 per cent off all the stuff. On a Friday occasionally, like, once a month, she would go ‘alright, you can have a treat, what do you want?’. And I said, ‘I want that Bottom 2 Live’. So she got it for me – they weren’t bothered about the 18 certificate – and I just thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.”

Before long, he’d seen all of Bottom and The Young Ones, in the process becoming a totally devoted Rik Mayall fan. “He was so funny and he had all that energy inside of him. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone like him since. It still upsets me that he’s gone. It’s weird, isn’t, about somebody you don’t know? But he meant so much to me, comedy-wise. He’s the whole reason I’m doing it, really.”

Ellis went on to develop a deep love for TV comedy – Vic & Bob, The League of Gentlemen, Red Dwarf – and having completed a Media Production degree at Staffordshire Uni (“I got a third – factually it’s impossible, but I did it”), he found himself working in an airbag factory while harbouring dreams of breaking into scripted comedy. “I wanted to write comedy but I couldn’t figure out how to get it made. Looking at Rik Mayall and everyone, I thought ‘oh, they did stand up, The League of Gentlemen did Edinburgh – right, okay, so that’s the way to get into it’.”

So it was that Ellis began honing his skills as a stand-up around the trusty landmarks of Manchester’s live comedy circuit week – XS Malarkey of a Tuesday, Comedy Balloon of a Wednesday. “I was quite prop-y and gag-y, because I liked Vic Reeves really, but that wasn’t me. It took me years to find out what I was meant to do. I still don’t quite know what I’m meant to be doing. But then you don’t want to, do you? When you start analysing it, it stops being funny, because then you get a formula. Just don’t look into it too much. If you get a laugh, then it’s working. Basically, I just did stand-up to get into scripted work, and it just hasn’t quite worked out.”

That all depends on how you measure success, though. Ellis has taken a string of acclaimed live shows to the Edinburgh Fringe festival that have built his reputation. 2014’s Funz and Gamez, technically a game show, had an afterlife as a series of BBC iPlayer shorts and, from 2018, he had his own Radio 4 sitcom, Phil Ellis is Trying, which ran for three series and featured the likes of Johnny Vegas, Lolly Adefope and Amy Gledhill.

On some levels, though, the radio show proved to be a pretty frustrating experience. “As soon as I’d reached the point where I got to make it, everything changed, It used to be, you’d do a radio show series, it did well and then it went to TV. They don’t do that any more, much to my disapproval.”

Phil Ellis. Copyright Phil Ellis.

A comedian by any other name…

It stands out that, in the radio sitcom, as in his live shows, he’s always playing ‘Phil Ellis’. Did he ever consider creating a character with another name to mark out the difference?

“Yeah, someone said that was my main mistake. I should have had a different name, because people don’t separate the two. But to be honest, it’s not far removed. When I talk about stuff, it’s all true. I just do it so big because I want laughs, and people almost think that you’re making it up or you’re being trivial. I’ve got a new bit about the night my auntie was murdered, but I make it really funny, and people think I’m being trivial. And I go ‘well, what do you want me to do, just come up and tell you a really sad story about my auntie being murdered?’. But no, it’s not much of a character, really. It’s pretty much how I feel.”

Ellis’s 2023 live offering, the self-reviewing Phil Ellis’s Excellent Comedy Show, proved to be a major hit. Nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award as Best Show, it saw Ellis, backed by an on-stage band, delivering his barmy observations punctuated by sudden bursts of karaoke classics, resplendent in an eye-poppingly tight catsuit (“That was genuinely rank when I saw the photos. It seemed a lot funnier in my head. I actually had the best view in the room, because I couldn’t see it.“). He’s just finished taking it on a national tour, and he’ll be presenting a work-in-progress version of his brand new show as part of the inaugural Lovely Weekend comedy festival at Manchester’s Fairfield Social Club on June 8.

“I loved that last show,” he says. “I’ve just done it for three nights at the Soho Theatre and they made me realise how much I loved it. They were such great audiences. I jumped off stage doing it and I was so excited. I nearly killed myself at a couple of gigs doing that, because I got too into it.”

The new show will be called Come On and Take the Rest of Me. “I’ve been doing it for ten years, and not to sound arrogant, but I’ve consistently had five star years. Getting a nomination last year was amazing, but TV producers still don’t put me on anything. My agent said ‘you need to go back’ and I went ‘but what more do you want me to do? Why am I trying to impress these people who don’t care?’ Apparently they don’t like the best of me, so it’s like ‘what more do you want? What can I possibly do to convince you to take a chance on me?’.”

This time, he promises there will be no catsuit. “I always like to have a bit of an outfit of sorts, though. Because I sweat so much, I’m always trying to work it into the shows that I’ve got just hot pants on or something. But I think I’m going to try and wear a suit this year, because I want it to look like I’m trying. I’ve always played the loser character, but people take it so literally, even people in the industry.”

A Lovely Weekend

Even stand-up-averse Ellis will concede that there are other acts well worth seeing among the Lovely Weekend line-up.

Phil Ellis. Copyright Phil Ellis.

“Harriet Dyer’s just hilarious. She’s so original, and that’s just who she is. There’s not a character in place there. She’s just a really quirky, really lovable, odd, refreshing person. I love Chris Cantrill, he’s really funny – Chris kindly asked me to do [his recent Radio 4 series] Icklewick FM and we just made each other laugh in the room. That was just a joy, really. And obviously [Cantrill’s Icklewick FM co-star] Amy Gledhill is one of the funniest people. I love Amy. Hanging out with her is just great, she makes me laugh every time I see her. I’ve probably had some of the biggest laughs I’ve ever had just hanging out with Amy.”

Ellis has been working up his new material the way he’s grown accustomed to – by trying it out around Manchester’s thriving live comedy scene. “There are so many amazing open mic nights in Manchester now. The new generation of acts is fantastic. These guys aren’t lazy, they want to do stuff. I think the scene is great, it’s miles better than it ever has been. Everyone who’s putting these nights on, yeah – good job they’re there. It’s helped me out. I spend most of the week now just doing open mics, which I love, and everyone’s so nice on the scene. It’s really useful. I just go and do five minute bits, and that’s how I did last year’s show. That’s why I broke it up with songs. There was no real theme to the show, it was just bits, really, so I’m trying to do the same thing this year, structurally.”

Ellis claims that Come On and Take the Rest of Me will be “just stand-up”, before describing elements that sound not at all like stand-up (but we’ll save any surprises).

“All the bits that I’ve got, weirdly, they’re all working, but I think it’s because I’m so excited to do new stuff after doing that last show, so I think that’s feeding into it as well. By the time of A Lovely Weekend, it’ll be almost ready…”

By Andy Murray

All images: copyright Phil Ellis


Phil Ellis will be performing his work-in-progress show at Manchester’s new comedy festival A Lovely Weekend on June 8, 2024. For more information, follow this link: https://www.seetickets.com/event/phil-ellis-wip/fairfield-social-club/3008697

A Lovely Weekend 2024 takes place at Fairfield Social Club from  7 – 9 June 2024. Full details here: https://www.seetickets.com/tour/a-lovely-weekend-2024