Did you hear the one about the comedy cellar?
Ireland's first dedicated comedians' club is celebrating 25 years
It started 25 years ago with a gently surreal joke. The Comedy Cellar, Ireland's first dedicated comedy club, opened in 1988 in the first-floor space at Dublin's International Bar. You went upstairs to enter the 'cellar'. Boom, boom indeed.
"What better way to begin your night than to climb the stairs to a cellar," laughs stand-up Kevin Gildea, who, along with Barry Murphy, Ardal O'Hanlon and Dermot Carmody, founded the club and, thus, brought modern stand-up to a city that, in the late '80s, was still a grey and dreary place in many ways.
In the two and a half decades since, the Comedy Cellar has become one of stand-ups most beloved clubs. Dylan Moran played his first show there; Eddie Izzard and Jimmy Carr have trod its boards, as has every Irish comedian of note, from Tommy Tiernan to Des Bishop to David O'Doherty. It is no exaggeration to describe it as an institution.
The great flourishing of Irish comedy from the '90s onwards – a wave of success that included Father Ted, rave notices at Edinburgh and so forth – can be traced to the Comedy Cellar.
"We didn't think about it in terms of [changing Irish comedy]. We thought what we were doing was good and fresh," says Gildea, a quietly spoken type with a tendency to wax humble about the Cellar's legacy.
"We weren't thinking 'oh, we are doing something nobody else is doing'. That was a by-product."
Gildea and the other co-founders had met at Dublin City University (then known as NIHE Dublin), drawn together by their love for edgy, modern comedy. They knew they were funny and that they had careers ahead of them – but where to hone and showcase their talents?
Initially, they had dabbled in the stuffy world of third-level debating, where their whimsical, stream of consciousness material was met with shock (sometimes horror) by the bow-tie attired old boys of Trinity, UCC etc. Then, sitting around a pub table one night, they had a brainwave. Dublin needed a comedy club. They certainly needed one.
Why not set up their own?
"I wouldn't say it was an [immediate] success," says Gildea. "In the beginning we were all broke. This was Dublin in the '80s. We would put it on every three weeks. I was on the dole at the time."
Comedy audiences can be harsh to newcomers. Traditionally, however, the Comedy Cellar crowd has been generous towards those learning their craft. There is none of the boisterousness-verging-on-boorishness that you get in clubs in other cities. In the early years, especially, there was a sense that both performer and punter were coming from the same place.
"The audience hadn't seen that kind of stuff before," remembers Gildea. "It was an intimate, symbiotic relationship. It was unique. The Cellar is a very supportive environment – in the sense that you can take some risks."
The arrival of Irish comedy as an international force in the 90s undoubtedly had a lot to do with the Cellar, he says. "While you can't take credit for everything, the Cellar played a part in the explosion. It was a place where people could actually come and do it, as opposed to talking or thinking about doing it."
Two gigs stand out in particular. The first was Dylan Moran's debut. Just shy of 21, the Navan native had gone to several Comedy Cellar evenings and concluded he could do as well as the people on stage. In the summer of 1992, he popped his stand-up cherry. In front of a full, boisterous room he was clearly nervous. But you could tell, says Gildea, that he was a special talent.
"Dylan did his first gig and was almost fully formed," says Gildea.
"He wasn't as polished as he is now, obviously. Nonetheless, he was the complete package."
He also has fond recollections of the time Eddie Izzard, still an unknown cross-dresser from Reading, came over. "Ardal, Barry and myself had been doing a show in Edinburgh. Eddie was running the venue. He liked the show and said oh, I'll book you some gigs in London.
"He wanted us to send him a video of the routine. We never got around to it. He was coming to a wedding in Wicklow and brought some equipment and videoed us. Then he did his gig – it was one of the most amazing nights in the cellar."
None of the founders is involved in the day-to-day running of the club, which continues to operate out of the International Bar, in Wicklow Street. Gildea sees the Cellar as a sort of torch, to be passed from comedy generation to generation.
"I think six different people have run it over the years. I see it as a custodianship rather than as a company. It does comedy every night of the week now.
"But it is no longer the middle of comedy in Dublin. There is comedy all over the city, which is just fantastic."
Tommy Tiernan, Jason Byrne, David O'Doherty, Neil Delamere, Barry Murphy and PJ Gallagher will perform at 25 Years of the Comedy Cellar, Vicar Street Dublin, tonight.
The Cellar crew: what they did next
Having performed for the first time at the Cellar, Moran became one of Ireland's most successful stand-ups. He has translated his skills successfully to the screen too, first with his BBC sitcom Black Books, then in movies such as Run, Fat Boy, Run, and a Film With Me In It.
The wild-man of Irish stand-up (and a classmate of Moran's in Navan), Tiernan has performed on The Letterman Show and appeared in Father Ted.
Largely unknown when he appeared at the Comedy Cellar in 1991, Izzard is nowadays a comedy super-star.
A co-founder of the Cellar, O'Hanlon achieved a place in the comedy annals as Father Dougal in Father Ted. He has lately veered into straight drama.