Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor and Barry Cryer

How old are you now, Barry? “Seventy-five. Plus VAT.” And still smoking? “Oh yes. My grandfather always smoked fifty a day. Lived till he was thirty-eight.”

We’re sitting outside Barry’s favourite pub round the corner from Broadcasting House and my task is to interview him for New Humanist. There’s a good reason for us to meet. Along with his old mate Ronnie Golden, Barry will be one of the star turns during this December’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows at the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre, in aid of the Rationalist Association. But I can’t help feeling that taxing him with questions about God and the afterlife is about as appropriate as grilling the Archbishop of Canterbury on the price of cheese.

It’s not that he’s short on wisdom or insight. No one could have refashioned themselves so successfully for over 50 years in the cutthroat world of comedy without a good chunk of such qualities. But as his several thousand friends would confirm, Barry spends much of his time backing away from anyone who tries to thrust any sort of significance upon his life and career. He may have met and worked and got on with almost every comedian worth their salt over the last five decades – who else can name-drop Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson, Richard Pryor, Peter Cook, Jackie Mason, Victor Borge, Spike Milligan, Marty Feldman and Eric Morecambe – but he still absolutely refuses to place himself alongside anyone in that company.

“I’ll tell you what it is, Laurie,” he says. “Marcus Brigstoke, who is a friend of mine, started a sentence by saying, ‘Baz, as a comedian, you’d know…’ And I interrupted him. I said ‘I’m not a comedian.’ And he says ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘I’m an entertainer. I tell jokes and sing songs.’ I’ve spent my working life with comedians. And comedians are different. They’ve got timing and personality. But they’ve also got something you can’t quite pin down. You can’t quite finally analyse why they’re great. And I think that’s wonderful. Ask yourself about Tommy Cooper. Yes, he looked funny. He was a big bumbling man. And he had a funny voice. And he told awful gags as a shared joke with the audience. They knew he knew and he knew they knew. But add that all up and in the end you’re still left with a question you just can’t answer. Why was Tommy Cooper that funny? Nobody really knows.”

I should at this point have been pushing on to God and the after-life. But I was still wondering how I could segue to such topics without giving him an opening for another gag. All his friends know that the only way to talk to Barry is to rattle on for a little about what you’ve been doing and where you’ve been until he can seize on a word or phrase as a cue for a joke or an anecdote. It is, as others have said, like having a human jukebox on hand. You simply give him a verbal nudge and out pours a stream of jokes. Announce in a pub that you’re off to the Gents, and Barry will tell you to watch the stairs. “Stannah have got a new stair lift, you know. It gets you up the stairs before you’ve forgotten why you went.” And, ah yes, that reminds him of the comedian Bill Cosby, who had his own theory of short-term memory loss. “Think how often you forget what you went up the stairs for,” he used to say. “What happens then is that your memory leaves your head and slips down to your arse, because you come downstairs, sit down and immediately spring up, exclaiming, ‘I’ve remembered’.”

Doesn’t he ever get just a little tired of being required to be the funny man in the crowd? Doesn’t he sometimes want to stop?

“My wife’s a very acute observer and she notices things like that. She says, ‘Calm down for a minute. Either give a serious answer or shut up.’ She doesn’t like the way I sidestep everything with a joke. Particularly when she’s heard it before. But we’ve got a rule now in our family and in the pub. Instead of anyone saying, ‘You’ve told that one before’, they say, ‘Banana.’ Everyone knows it now. I even heard a complete stranger in my local saying it to his mate the other day. ‘Banana.’ Heard it before.”

I did finally get round to asking Barry about his belief in God and the afterlife but as he honestly described his gentle agnosticism I could hear the word “banana” in my own ears. Did I really want to tramp this well-trodden interview path with someone who was so obviously itching to be fun?

“Should be some cracking nights at the Bloomsbury,” I said with happy resignation. “Quite a celebration.”

That reminded him of an Arthur Askey gag. It seems there was this woman standing in the Coronation crowd and a man next to her said “You look magnificent.” And she said, “Oh, thank you. It’s twins.” And the man said, “What a pity they can’t see all this.” And she said, “Well, I’ve taken my knickers off so they can hear the band.”

I do know one thing for certain. You’ll definitely, quite definitely, be able to hear Barry and Ronnie when they perform their celebrated and hilarious musical duet “Peace and Quiet” at the Nine Lessons shows.

Barry Cryer performed with Ronnie Golden at the 2009 Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows. You can see the Hammersmith Apollo show on BBC4 on 23 January 2010 at 9pm.