Bob Mills pioneered alternative comedy in the late 1980s - taking the stand-up scene by storm - before becoming a television presenter and acclaimed writer. He speaks to SIBA MATTI about his 30-year-long career,working with Michael Barrymore and what the future has in store
ACCORDING to Bob Mills, the secret of success on the comedy circuit is simply to speak your mind and be frank about your personal experiences and outlook on life. So it is no surprise to learn that the alternative stand-up star has produced a soon-to-be-released pilot sitcom, Foam, inspired by one of his very first jobs, as a car valeter.
"I was without doubt one of the best car valeters in London," Bob jokes. "A four-wheel drive would come in and, within four hours, it looked like it was leaving the showroom again - good as new, guaranteed!
"But seriously, sales pitch over, the show is hopefully the first in a comedy sitcom series that has one simple goal - to make people laugh! There is so much more to life than being serious."
The art of making people laugh is a skill that Bob, 52, has fine-tuned over the years - although he freely admits that he stumbled into comedy.
"I was never the class clown at school and my first job was in the merchant navy," he explains, "although I only lasted eight days."
Too ashamed to go back to his family with his tail between his legs, he stayed in London and eventually got a place on a comedy workshop at Jacksons Lane Centre in Highgate.
"At the time you paid £3 for a course and it was almost like a fast-track on to the circuit," remembers Bob. "I spent three years there and met some really interesting people, including Paul Merton, Tony Allen and Nick Revell, before my first gig at the Comedy Store."
Notorious for its hard-to-please crowds, Bob was thrown in at the deep end - with the choice to literally sink or swim.
"I did a really good opening set and thought to myself, 'this is easy', but after I performed at the late show, I left crying and feeling like I wanted to kill myself.
"It can be incredibly nerve-wracking and no one likes being heckled. Like anyone else, comedians are afraid of rejection and being slated - but you have to pick yourself up and carry on, if you want to survive in this game."
And survive he did, with his unique brand of laddish (and controversial) humour soon wowing audiences across the country.
Bob, who admires the work of fellow comedians Jack Dee, Frank Skinner and Lee Evans, says: "There was a time 25 years ago when all comedians told jokes and they all had to have a victim - whether it was the Irish, the wife, the mother-in-law or ethnic minorities. But after a while, people realised it was wrong and actually not that funny.
"This paved the way for a new wave of comedians who were more interested in honesty and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. And I would never joke about my wife - although she thinks I'm an idiot!"
Bob's unusual brand of humour attracted the attention of numerous television producers, and he became a household name as the cheeky presenter of Win Lose or Draw, replacing Danny Baker and pulling in more than two million viewers, from students to pensioners.
Spurred on by the success of the show, he was later shortlisted to take over You've Been Framed but lost out to Lisa Riley - or, as Bob once put it, the fat girl from Emmerdale. Almost overnight, he jacked in the presenting to become a writer.
"I wasn't very happy about it, but now I look back and think 'thank God'," Bob muses. "I did TV presenting until Iwas in my forties, and with up-and-coming new presenters like Dermot O'Leary and Vernon Kay taking centre stage, the time was right to move on."
Again, drawing on personal experience, the jovial comedian wrote a script entitled Bob Martin - Michael Barrymore's acting debut - which exposed the darker side of presenting game shows.
"I often get asked about Barrymore after his very public meltdown and I wish I had some horror stories," says Bob. "But whatever problems he had, he was very professional and never let anything affect his job.
"Having said that, if you ever spent any time with him, it was very obvious that he was a tormented soul with a lot of demons, whether it was about drinking or his sexuality. He is possibly one of the unhappiest men I have ever met - utterly miserable beneath the façade and he had a severe inferiority complex. I'm not sure if I would work with him again - he needs a break from the showbiz scene, and maybe therapy after the Celebrity Big Brother stint, which was a disaster."
These days, Bob is focusing on dramedy - a cross between drama and comedy - with writing credits on Foam as well as the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and Channel 4's Shameless and Northern Lights, which tells the tale of a man who is obsessed with himself - and that's where the similarities between Bob and his work end.
"Life is too short to take yourself that seriously," laughs Bob. "I'm 52 and obviously career longevity is important to me.
"I have been nominated for a BAFTA and worked with some amazing people but for me, my biggest achievement is standing on a stage and making 300 people laugh their heads off. There is no better thrill for me than that."
* Bob Mills steps out at the Comedy Bunker on Wednesday, March 18. The show starts at 8.45pm (doors open at 8.15pm). For more information and to book tickets, see www.comedybunker.co.uk .