Tuesday 21 November 2017

Life lessons with Maeve Higgins: 'I'm dating, which you cannot do in Ireland. You might meet your cousin on Tinder'

Comedian Maeve Higgins performs at Kilkenny's Cat Laughs from June 2-6.
Comedian Maeve Higgins performs at Kilkenny's Cat Laughs from June 2-6.
Screen star: Maeve Higgins on StarTalk with Bill Nye.

Maggie Armstrong

Maeve Higgins (35) is a writer and comedian from Cobh, Co Cork who first made her name on RTÉ's Naked Camera series. Her latest book, Off You Go, follows her journey from Dublin to London to New York City, where she now lives. She is busy working on her third book, performing in Brooklyn and co-hosting science show StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel.

I love moving around, and I try and follow where my curiosity is bringing me. I think it's such an incredible privilege. A lot of people would like to do that but they can't. I'm very lucky that I'm a white Westerner.

I live in East Harlem now. It's really fun and everybody speaks Spanish. I think every city has a personality. New York is curious and open and ambitious and inclusive.

London wasn't the right place for me. As an Irish person, it's too close to home, so you don't make it your new home. It was quite an isolated, lonely place for me.

I love the idea of a geographical cure. That if you're not happy with the person you are, you can pick up and move somewhere else. It's such a tempting idea! Leaving London really helped me build a better life.

I'm only identifying my feelings about Ireland now. It takes me a really long time to figure out what I feel about something, and why that is. That's starting to happen with me and Ireland now. Sexism is a global problem, but in Ireland, in my line of work, it directly impacted how far I could go in my career.

At home, women's voices are not valued anywhere near as closely as men's. Eventually many of us go silent. I was lucky to be able to leave and find a place where the male story is not always the default one.

I'm really interested in comedy as a form of self-expression. I've just been to Erbil in Iraq, where I led a workshop for local Iraqi satirists, cartoonists, stand-ups, sketch artists, and after that I travelled around the Middle East. I'm trying to process what just happened and what it means.

Mark Twain said that humour is an equaliser. The further the pendulum swings over sadness, the further it has to swing back over mirth. We talked about this in Iraq. They've experienced so much terror and tragedy in the last 10 years alone. They told me comedy has a place there, that it's valuable in all that darkness.

Often you find that if someone is going through something really hard, jokes and laughing can be a tool to link to other people and not be so alone. If you're feeling shaken up mentally, and you can share that, then you'll feel better. I think Irish people are brilliant at doing that.

I grew up in a huge family. We had a very idyllic childhood. I read a lot, and I loved being funny. So I was kind of the same.

The first year of stand-up was nerve-racking. I sort of can't remember it. Even the day after, I'd be like: "I wonder what I said?" Because it was very frightening. But it quickly became the best way I could find to express myself. It became a compulsion, more than something scary.

When I'm able to write, that's when I feel really happy. There are all the torments around it - torments sound so self-important, but that is the only way I can describe it. But when finally I'm able to, and I'm sitting down and the words are coming - then it's relief.

Comedy is dominated by white guys. It's really lame. I noticed it in Iraq, America, Australia. Fewer women do comedy, fewer women are booked for things. There are fewer people of colour, fewer people with disabilities.

If comedy is a form of self-expression, then it should be more open to more people. Who knows what affect these sexist systems have on your career, your brain, your work? Sometimes I'm like: "Well, I still manage to have a career in comedy, but if I was a guy, imagine what my career would be like, and how much money I'd have!" I'm sure it would be very different. It's a big, complex area and I don't really blame women for not pursuing comedy.

The thing that I can do personally is to mentor other women. There's a whole range of things that are helpful to know. From which comedians are pervy, all the way up to which production companies are taking pitches. Any way that I can assist a comedy sister I will try. And when I'm in a position - which I'm getting into now - of hiring other women comedians, producers, writers, then I'm going to hire women.

I'm dating, which you cannot do in Ireland. You might meet your cousin on Tinder. And you never know where you stand at home. Here, it's so straightforward. People are like: "Do you want to go on a date? Yes? No?" In Ireland, you're like: "Is this a work thing? What does this mean?" It's not until you've bought a house together that you're like: "Yes, OK, we're dating. That must be my boyfriend."

The Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival is one of the first festivals I ever did. I love doing stand-up in Ireland because there's no context needed, it's just like talking to my friends from home.

Maeve Higgins will be performing at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs from June 2-6. See thecatlaughs.com for tickets

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