Sunday 24 September 2017

The Cat that got the cream: Comedy success is laughing

Even before they finally found fame, top comedians from Ireland and further afield were attracted to the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny. Joe O'Shea looks back as it celebrates a hilarious 20 years

Dara O Briain and Pauline McLynn
Dara O Briain and Pauline McLynn
Ardal O'Hanlon and Sean Hughes
Comedians including Tommy Tiernan outside Cleere's pub
George Wendt

Joe O'Shea

It was the making of a generation of home-grown comedy stars, introduced Irish audiences to big-time stand-up and spawned countless late-night, you-just-had-to-be-there stories.

Kilkenny's Cat Laughs Comedy Festival turns 20 this coming weekend, and, while nobody calls comedy the new Rock 'n' Roll anymore, those who were there at the start in 1995 will tell you it was Irish comedy's Year Zero, its Punk Explosion.

The moment is captured in photographs that now hang on the walls of Cleere's Bar in the city, snaps of impossibly young-looking Irish comedians who would go on to TV fame and arena tours.

Before Cat Laughs, the Irish comedy industry was, as one Irish comic puts it: "Three guys and 30 punters upstairs in the International Bar."

In its early years, the festival gave a big stage – often for the first time – to the likes of Ardal O'Hanlon, Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran, Dara Ó Briain, Des Bishop and just about every other Irish stand-up of note.

Barry Murphy and the Après Match team also did their first ever live stage show there.

"For Irish comedians, it was a massive step up," says O'Hanlon, one of the Class of '95. "Some of us had been in London or Edinburgh, so we had taken baby steps out into the big wide world," he adds. "But suddenly you are on the same bill as these really big names coming over from the US. These guys were heroes to us.

"You wanted to impress these guys as much as the crowd. And I think we discovered that there wasn't actually a lot of daylight between us.

"By the second or third year, I think Cat Laughs really had put Irish comedy onto the world stage."

Other Irish comics were inspired to enter the business. Deirdre O'Kane was a curious onlooker at the first Cat Laughs in '95. The next year, she was back as a performer. "Kilkenny was my road to Damascus moment," she says.

The first year line-up included Irish talent such as O'Hanlon, Dylan Moran, Sean Hughes and Barry Murphy. From the US, there were legends like Emo Philips and Jeff Garlin. The UK sent a very young Phil Kay along with Alan Davies and Jo Brand.

The following year, all of the big Irish names were back along with new faces like Eddie Izzard and one Hollywood A-lister Bill Murray, who came with his two brothers (also comedians). The Murray clan descended on Kilkenny, golf clubs in hand.

George Wendt is best known as Norm from Cheers, but he is also a mainstay of Chicago's legendary Second City comedy troupe. He was there for the festival at the same time as Murray.

Wendt said Bill Murray and his brothers were not just in Kilkenny for laughs. An invitation to play the championship golf course at Mount Juliet may have been the deciding factor.

"With Bill and his brothers, the golf would have definitely been a big selling point. Myself, I spent more time in Cleere's bar," says Wendt.

"We didn't really know what to expect in Ireland. I remember the first year we went, doing our sketch show in the Watergate Theatre, and then we'd go across the road to John Cleere's pub to do some improv, I just remember it being great fun.

"We didn't really know a hell of a lot about Kilkenny, but everyone was thrilled to get a chance to go to this new festival in a small city in the middle of Ireland."

One adventure from '95 in particular stands out for Wendt. The Cat Laughs organisers arranged for a bus for the Americans who wanted to do a whistle stop tour of Ireland. Many beers were loaded on board and the bus full of A-list comedians set off on a winding road-trip.

"I don't remember a hell of a lot about that other than it was a lot of fun," says Wendt.

"Kilkenny was always a lot more relaxed than, say, Edinburgh. You didn't have people fighting to promote their shows, to chase TV contracts."

The first Cat Laughs festival was organised by theatre producer Richard Cook, who had been thinking about an international festival for the city.

"I thought of stand-up comedy as a way you can communicate ideas, one person with a microphone. So I asked a friend of mine, Clare Watson, to go the Montreal international comedy festival and I went to the Edinburgh Fringe," he says.

"You could tell there was a huge potential for this in Kilkenny."

Richard and Clare (who ended up managing the Cat Laughs through the early years) set out to bring in the best international talent.

"The first festival lost me a lot of money, but I knew it was going to work," he says.

"I really liked the idea that we could drill into the simplicity of the thing, and then work to make it as big as we could."

Cook says one of the keys to the early success was paying the comedians more than they could get at most other festivals and "really looking after them as artists".

"They loved that. They loved the fact that it wasn't a big industry thing, it wasn't about competing for TV contracts. It was about the comedy."

Many of them will be back for a special 20th Birthday Party, on Thursday night at The Hub Theatre.

The line-up will include Dara Ó Briain, Tommy Tiernan, Ardal O'Hanlon, Après Match, and Des Bishop.

Now very much a part of the industry as well as the festival circuit, Cat Laughs gets the chance to look back to more innocent times as it celebrates its 20th edition.

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