Sunday 19 November 2017

An Irish irony epidemic

The comedy scene was notably slow to get off the ground in Ireland and stand-up was once equated with 'notions.' But, writes Donal Lynch, now everyone thinks they're a comedian

Now everybody thinks they are a comedian
Now everybody thinks they are a comedian

Thirty years ago this month, Spy magazine published an article entitled "The Irony Epidemic". Its thesis: "A generation's perpetual frown had become a perpetual smirk." They were referring to the mainstreaming of comedy, its slow movement out of the realm of geeks and into the hands of every young professional who fancied himself or herself as a bit of a wag.

In the intervening decades this process has left a curious legacy. These days, painfully unfunny film stars, like Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, act as though they were the second coming of Chris Rock, and even Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's jaw-droppingly disingenuous adviser, has tried her hand at stand-up (not nearly as funny as her press interviews). No sooner does a news story take place than it is filleted for every possible comedic angle, meme and GIF. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are awash with amateur funny men and women.

"Everyone's a comedian," was once a droll retort to a bad joke but now it's pretty much a statement of fact.

In Ireland, of course, this process has been under way for a while. We really fancy ourselves as funny. In a room of other nationalities, we are quietly confident that while other countries might be sexier or sportier we are certainly the witty ones. God help those dry Brits with their Paddy jokes, or literal Yanks or uptight Germans.

And in young people the force is even stronger. While in the 1980s, aspirant stars might have written a song or tried to act, today they are just as likely to seek out an open mic night.

Danny O'Brien, who runs one such night in Dublin, says that the waiting list to actually get onstage is months long.

Stand-up comedian Alexis Dubus writes doleful verse about "A wannabe comedian, called Guy, who's in IT Who requests advice on try out nights 'Cos how hard could it be? What, you don't know any jokes he says? Then offers some for free.

Of course for a very long time Irish people were under no illusions that they were funny. While music was embedded in every parish and pub, there was a whiff of a notion to standing up and trying to make people laugh.

From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, comics struggled to establish comedy nights in the upstairs of pubs, basements of hotels and theatres in Dublin.

The first so-called Festival of Humour took place in 1978 in Virgina, Co Cavan, and the tenor of the comedy on offer is given away by the fact that its patron was the local priest.

A new generation of comedians began to take on the staidness of the nascent comedy scene, particularly through the dramsocs in some of the universities.

In the 1970s UCD had the Spike Milligan Comedy Machine, known simply as The Machine, and a few years later Dermot Morgan (of Father Ted fame) performed on campus as Big Gom and The Imbecile.Irish comedy in the 1980s was broad. In some ways though you might say that someone like Brendan Grace, with his schoolboy impressions, was more of the missing link between the old and new Irelands - he started on a showband stage and only did a bit of comedy during a break in the music.

Many aspiring comedians got their start on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show, although producers noted that talent in the field was still thin on the ground. Brendan O'Carroll was interviewed by Gay in the late eighties and early nineties, and while some will look back at the Benny Hill-ish humour of skits like How's your Wibbly Wobbly Wonder, perhaps things have come full circle again. "There were the Les Dawsons, Dick Emerys," O'Carroll has said. "There was Morecambe and Wise. Then comedy became more snarky. It was more about the universities. For a long time, nothing filled that void."

The "snarky university" comedy really took hold with the establishment of the Laughter Lounge in Dublin in 1988 and the International Comedy Club a few years later. Those years also saw the emergence of a number of comedians who would go on to establish successful careers, including Tommy Tiernan, Ed Byrne, Deirdre O'Kane, Des Bishop and Dara O'Briain.

Irish television writers also earned a reputation for being able to spin comedy gold in these years - largely on the back of the phenomenon that was Father Ted. It was these successes, together with the Millennial have-a-go attitude which helped foment the comedy explosion that we see in Ireland today, with legions of wannabes trying to make it.

The national broadcaster is, of course, a crucial patron for upcoming comedians but, unlike American broadcasters, RTE has never given its prime interviewer slots to comedians and has a fairly patchy history of nurturing talent.

Young comedians still feel they have to move away to make a living. The clamour of would-be comics on YouTube can make it hard to stand out - or get paid. All of which means that, despite the irony epidemic, it's still not easy being an Irish comic.

And real wits, like real writers, are still a relatively rare breed.

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