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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Comedy: Why we Irish are only gas craic altogether

Irish comedy is flourishing worldwide and with sky making plans to source more tvwriters, we ask - why has it taken us so long to find our funny bone?

Tanya Sweeney

Published 29/05/2014 | 02:30

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Irish comedy characters

When asked about why Ireland has long enjoyed such a rich and varied comedy tradition, Sky Cat Laughs Festival founder Richard Cook offers the perfect posit: "In the mid-1800s Ireland had a population of some eight million and yet only a quarter of them could read or write. So they talked."

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Fast forward some two centuries later, and Irish comedy, both on and off-stage, appears in spectacularly rude health. Chris O'Dowd's Moone Boy was bestowed with an International Emmy, while Graham Linehan's collaboration with Diet Of Worms, The Walshes, has kicked up plenty of dust during its three-episode run on BBC 4. As for the behemoth that is Mrs Brown's Boys ... well, even without Brendan O'Carroll's bewilderingly popular matriarch in the mix, Irish TV comedy is having a moment.

Even RTE's comedy department, once a low-hanging target for malcontented naysayers, has been cut some slack thanks to offerings like Irish Pictorial Weekly, The Savage Eye and Republic Of Telly. The latter in particular has hit a sweet spot, capitalising upon the Irish public's love of nostalgia. Clips like 'Things you could say in the 80s' go viral before you can say 'homework after Glenroe'.

While Irish stand-up comedians have thrived on the world stages, our televisual offerings have been mixed at best.

"TV comedy is hit and miss everywhere to be honest," opines Cook. "Maybe it comes under the microscope with more severity in Ireland, simply because there aren't that many broadcast outlets for it. People tend to forget that a casual click on the remote is a very different level of commitment to paying twenty quid to go and see someone."

Sky Entertainment have announced plans to source and nurture new comedy writing from Ireland. Buoyed by Moone Boy's success, new head of comedy Lucy Lumsden has her eye firmly trained on Ireland for new projects. Baz Ashmawy's 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy – due to air later this summer – is the latest Irish production in the Sky stable.

"In a way we're looking to get out of London, and making sure that what we're delivering on-screen is representative of the world as our customers," explains Lumsden. "It's important that the characters have a strong sense of place. We struck gold with Chris (O'Dowd) – what I liked about Moone Boy is that it wasn't a cynical attempt to find a 'big Irish comedy'. When you do that, you're doing it for the wrong reasons."

Jane Russell, chief executive of the Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival adds: "The talent has always been there in Ireland, but financial circumstances mean that it has been difficult in the past for stations to take chances on comedy."

UTV have announced the launch of a new Irish TV channel in 2015. TV3, too, have struck a deal with Company Pictures (Skins, Shameless) to produce their own soap opera. Could a TV comedy be that far behind? And, if the sharpest material does indeed come out of a sense of defiance, Irish writers are perfectly placed to churn out comedy gold.

Some say that the best Irish comedy can be found on sites like YouTube and Vimeo (think Bonkers101, TropperStopper, Shifts or The Sonic Screw). Yet Eddie Doyle, who became head of RTE's comedy department last summer, has his eye firmly trained on the smaller screen for fresh blood.

"I'm finding new ways to reach out to breakthrough talent, and to enhance our slate of comedy shows on various platforms. A big priority is bringing a structure to our engagement with talent, which has been ad hoc up to now." Doyle's ambitions lie not only in cross-platform projects, but also reaching out to markets beyond Ireland.

It stands to reason that Doyle would come out in his new role with all guns blazing: of all of RTE's departments, comedy has long weathered a frosty reception from the public. Even the best efforts have had no shortage of Twitter detractors.

"Well, it is much easier to be funny slagging something off than it is when you're liking it so I'm not that surprised," notes Cook. "Trolls are more engaged than fans, who are presumably sitting down to enjoy the experience. We are also brilliant complainers and we actually think that complaining about things helps to change or fix them in some way. Father Ted got a terrible time when it kicked off before finding its crowd and I feel the same way about The Walshes, which was equally dismissed, but will build a strong following."

Speaking to him, it becomes clear that Doyle is relishing the challenge: "Comedy is the purest form of creativity," he says. "When you win, you win big ... but if people don't find it funny, there's no hiding place. And comedy really is about standing in the nip. It's terribly unforgiving. The problems arise when the wave of negativity stifles creativity."

Good comedy begins and ends with the writing. To better improve their chances at the proverbial roulette table, broadcasters are finally realising that the key to successful scripted comedy is long periods of incubation and script development.

"Irish broadcasters don't really have a culture of funding development and that's a big weakness," surmises Cook. "So, the production companies or broadcasters that nurture projects most fully will be the ones to benefit. Some terrible stuff gets put out there, but the better material will always find an audience now ... and you couldn't say that 10 years ago."

The Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival will take place in Kilkenny from May 29 – June 2. www.thecatlaughs.com

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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