Going ga-ga for radio ha-ha
Radio has too long been a laugh-free zone. Comedy Showhouse aims to change all that
'Radio," says comedian and writer Fiona Looney, "is a medium for messers." This be true - so why isn't there more comedy on the wireless?
As the Indo's radio reviewer, I'm blue in the face bewailing this incomprehensible situation. Comedy is relatively cheap to produce, it's a mainly vocal/audio art-form, and everyone likes a good laugh, right?
Yet Irish radio hasn't done a whole lot of comedy. As Looney says, "RTÉ has operated on the basis that they 'need' one half-hour of comedy a week - but there's no reason they can't have many more, of different strands and styles."
That, however, is about to change. Comedy Showhouse, which begins this Sunday at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin's Temple Bar, is an innovative new event which hopes to kick-start that change. Ireland has a plethora of comedy festivals, but this is unique: it's intimately linked with radio.
Until February 7, top comics will perform a suite of shows - and be recorded for broadcast on Radio 1, from April to September. It's the brainchild of Irish comedy pioneer Billy McGrath's Sideline Productions - Liffey Laughs and Rubberbandits are among their credits - funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and working closely with Ann-Marie Power, Music & Entertainment editor at Radio 1 and head of Independent Radio Production.
She explains how the gigantic success of Callan's Kicks has paved the way for more comedy on radio. "It made us realise that audiences like this and made us braver in commissioning comedy. So we're building up our store of knowledge about radio comedy: knowing what will work and what won't, cultivating writers, partnering with the right producers."
Sideline had already been producing the panel show Don't Quote Me (hosted by Sean Hughes) for RTÉ since 2013. Last year, McGrath proposed that he and Power approach the BAI with, she says, "a big, ambitious pitch, based on Don't Quote Me's format and adding new ones."
The result was a BAI grant of €85,000 - their largest ever for radio - and, subsequently, Comedy Showhouse. One of those participating, Colm O'Regan (of Irish Mammies fame), describes the festival as a sort of "Big Bang", and it certainly doesn't lack for size.
Over 40 comedians and guests, doing 20 shows, ultimately creating 18 half-hours of original radio comedy. A mixture of panel, sketch and stand-up, not to mention some serious smarts: O'Regan's guests will include Terry O'Hagan from UCD School of Archaeology and Margaret E Ward of ClearInk, to "give historical and modern perspective on language and communication… and give my nonsense some credibility!"
The cast reads like a Who's Who of Irish comics: Hughes, O'Regan, Looney, Andrew Maxwell, Deirdre O'Kane, Karl Spain, Al Porter, Fred Cooke, The Nualas and many more.
Power credits McGrath's "fantastic relationships with the talent. They trust him and they see what we in RTÉ want to do." (Looney jokes, "I presume Billy thinks we know something terrible about him which we'll reveal if we get dropped. We don't, but whatever works…")
There'll also be workshops for aspiring comedians, in the downstairs Cube theatre, Q&A sessions with industry pros, even on-the-spot training for Ballyfermot College broadcasting students… The aim, as O'Regan puts it, to "build an infrastructure of radio comedy". Power says, "Hopefully this will help seed new talent, on- and off-air, allow it to develop, make mistake, and build it up brick by brick."
The first fruits of all this labour will be heard on Radio 1 in a few months. Crucially, the material is being aired as part of a regular comedy slot.
"It's about creating a habit among listeners," says O'Regan, "for radio comedy. We know when Liveline is on, or Drivetime - why shouldn't we automatically know when comedy is on?"
Tickets for Comedy Showhouse (www.project.ie) are cheap at €10, but extremely restricted. And one imagines there'll be a big demand, given the talent on offer and what O'Regan describes as "the buzz around the city-centre".
Looney, who'll be doing three episodes of Don't Quote Me, says, "Usually when radio is recorded with an audience, it's done in a studio, which can make for stilted reactions.
But recording shows in a festival atmosphere means people are out for the night and should be more up for a bit of craic and nonsense.
"Ours is a panel show with a structure that we'll no doubt keep forgetting. Just enough of a quiz for people to play along in the audience and at home, but room for us to have fun - and tear each other's egos apart."
Particularly interesting for comedy buffs will be seeing how, exactly, performers tailor their material, knowing it will be broadcast on radio.
O'Regan says, "The main thing, of course, is to remove any dependence on the visual. I can't be pointing at something or gurning, or else listeners at home are left out.
"Also I have to be conscious that someone might switch on, though hopefully not off, halfway through. So it's more episodic and 'section-y' than a regular show."
He points to the many great TV comedies which debuted on radio - Irish Pictorial Weekly here and Mitchell & Webb in the UK, to name just two - and how the medium helps forge lasting relationships between artists, producers and broadcasters.
Looney adds, "It's a cliché that radio is theatre of the mind, but it's true.
"On Callan's Kicks we managed to suggest, for an entire series, that Leo Varadkar was keeping Enda in a dungeon under Leinster House, and it seemed utterly plausible.
"That just wouldn't have worked as well on television. I love radio's flexibility and scope for comedy."