Sunday 18 February 2018

Tee-hee in the park: Vodafone Comedy Festival

The Iveagh Gardens are still referred to as the capital's "secret garden", as most Dubliners are said to have never stepped inside its leafy confines. However, in the past five years, this gem of hidden Dublin and former pleasure ground of "Copper-faced Jack" has hosted the country's most original and innovative comedy festival.

Traditionally, comedy festivals are held in conventional theatres and venues, but the Vodafone Comedy Festival is an exception; a multi-stage event that has become a hit with international comedians and audiences alike.

"It's the most tasteful festival on the circuit," says Tommy Tiernan. "It's in a great location, artfully decked out and always boasts a mighty line-up. It's a flower in the car park and a clown house at the bank."

Kevin Gildea agrees. "It's up there with the very best," says the founder member of Ireland's original alt-comedy troupe Mr Trellis, alongside Barry Murphy and Ardal O'Hanlon. "There's so much happening in such a small space. It's like Lady Gaga's brain -- but in a field. I love it."

The Cat Laughs in Kilkenny has been ruling the comedy festival roost since 1994, so it's great to see the capital finally getting an annual slice of some comic festive action.

"There's a very friendly and loose vibe I get at Dublin comedy shows, which very much lends itself to the sphere of improvised comedy," says Phill Jupitus, who performs this year as part of Whose Line is it Anyway? "The crowd embrace the daftness, which just spurs you on to more absurd stuff.

"Also, I love the fact that an Irish crowd still retains the ability to be shocked by ideas. It's like a sprint version of the marathon that is the Edinburgh Fringe."

However, unlike Edinburgh, there aren't any prizes to distract comedians from the primary goal of simply being funny. "Nobody is trying to win a Perrier Prize," points out Jarlath Regan.

"All the comedians are just trying to give the audience the best laugh they can, whether it's a three-legged race with Reggie Watts and PJ Gallagher, or not."

The very same PJ Gallagher filmed a DVD in Iveagh. "It was such great fun," Gallagher enthuses. "I remember seeing Jason Byrne crowd-surf while wearing the clothes of pretty much everyone in his audience on a Sunday afternoon in a marquee.

"Again, that's just something you just won't see anywhere else. We also seem to have an endless supply of chocolate and crisps given to us. Seeing as I don't drink, that's hard to beat."

PJ might not drink, but other comics certainly make up for it. "Last year, comedy legend and elder statesman Steve Frost walked into the comedians' green room and saw the Guinness pump against the wall with a pile of glasses next to it," recalls Jupitus.

"He was briefly confused, before starting to cry. All weekend, he would nudge us, pointing at the still flowing Guinness pump with a look of amazement. By the Sunday, I think he started to become almost resentful that, despite his best efforts, it wasn't empty."

Frost isn't the only one to have enjoyed the hospitality. "To be honest, we don't have a huge amount of memories of last year's festival," confesses Shane O'Brien from Dead Cat Bounce.

"We [Demian Fox, Mick Cullinan and James Walmsley] were finished both our shows by 4pm and walked straight into a hospitality tent with an unmanned beer tap, so it gets a bit hazy around six.

"Although we did have an impromptu jam with Des Bishop and Dermot Whelan in one of our gigs, performing the most shambolic version of Heyday [by the late Mic Christopher] of all time.

"Our guitarist had never heard the song before and the rest of us had only really heard the 40 seconds in the Guinness ad. Des was still writing lyrics as he walked on stage and we all forgot to tell Dermot what we were doing.

"It was a complete mess, but by the end of the song we'd somehow got away with it and there were about 400 people singing along in the audience."

Put lots of funny men and women together with an up-for-it crowd and anything can happen. Maeve Higgins is another fan of Dublin's premier comedy event. "Usually comedians are treated like the dancing monkeys that we are," says Higgins.

"The customary norm is having pints of tap water handed to us sullenly by disappointed promoters as we sit on a child's chair behind a tatty curtain on a stage made out of pallets.

"At this festival, though, we wander around waterfalls and sculptures, and perform in beautiful marquees, and there are usually free crisps. That's what I call dignified."

Tiernan is looking forward to the deadpan mastermind that is Kevin McAleer. "He's like hash from the 1970s -- simple, strong and dislocating," Tiernan says.

Jupitus adds: "To this day, Kevin McAleer remains one of the most singularly original comedy minds I have ever worked with."

And that's only the tip of the iceberg over four days of quality, world-class comedy.

The Vodafone Comedy Festival runs from Thursday, July 21, to Sunday, July 24. For full details and tickets, visit

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