Roisin Conaty... Stand up and be counted
When her dad died, comedian Roisin Conaty realised that life is short, and risking possible failure at her emerging career in comedy wasn't the worst thing that could possibly happen
'Stand-up is one of the art forms where you don't have to look nice, and I hope it stays that way," declares comedian Roisin Conaty, 36, over tea in the Westbury hotel. "I'm an overeater and my weight goes up and down - I have been aaalll the weights. I've gone up by two stone now, so I don't feel confident in my looks, but I'm smart enough not to concentrate on it because it's so trivial and we're lucky to be alive. Comedy is one of the few places in entertainment at present where it's good for women to be, as no one is telling you that you're too heavy or too old."
The sexy, spiky ladette is a popular type of woman in comedy these days, unlike, say, Jo Brand in the Nineties, who was known for her Doc Martens, short hair, heavy frame and self-deprecating delivery. Roisin says that while society has this generic idea of womanhood that is male-designed, she feels it's a really exciting time for women in comedy, with many different women coming through.
"I found Jo's comedy to be so important, as no one in the history of entertainment ever went on the stage as a woman not to be looked at," she says. "This woman went on stage and said, 'Listen to my words,' which drove people insane. It was such a revolutionary feminist act, and it was the bravest thing to do."
Roisin's dad was from Virginia in Cavan, and he worked for Aer Lingus. Her mum Margaret is from Dromcollogher in Limerick, and she was a nurse. They met in London and settled there, so Roisin and her younger sister Siobhan grew up in Camden in north London.They spent all of their summers and school holidays in Ireland, mainly in Cork and Kerry, and as their mum has eleven si sters (triplets among them) and one brother, there was always somewhere to stay. What Roisin loved as a child was the feeling of safety, compared with London, and she adored that they had the freedom to play out from morning to night.
"I always got an Irish accent when I came to Ireland but my sister never did," she says. "I'm a Londoner, and I feel I can't live anywhere but London, but I feel more connected to Ireland as a country. I 'get' Irish people and the humour here, which is more subtle."
As a child, Roisin was very imaginative and chatty in school, but sidestepped trouble by making the teachers laugh. "I was kind of nuts, but I was annoying, not bad," she says. "I was really good at English and art, but terrible at maths. We weren't very wealthy, but I had a real working-class guilt about wanting to perform. I felt disdain towards it because of the thought that performers were looking for attention. I did theatre studies for my A levels, but didn't think a career as a performer was something I could do."
The pretty Roisin was 24 when she embarked on a career in comedy, and before that she had a series of retail and office jobs. She always knew she was funny and wrote material in her spare time, but her friend Danielle gave her a push and put her name down for a stand-up gig at The King's Head in north London. She did five minutes and it went well, but she had no idea about how to forge ahead in the comedy industry, and putting on comedy shows was an expensive business. As she fretted and wavered, her mum, whom she adores, was very wise and philosophical.
"She would say, '"What's the worst that could happen?," Roisin recalls. "'They may not laugh at your jokes, that's all.' My mum isn't loud so I'm more like her sisters. We have a big group of women in our family, and they're all feminists and loud. I am always only seconds away from laughing."
Roisin regrets that her dad Brian never got to see her perform on stage. He was only 52 when he had a fatal heart attack, but his shock passing granted her a moment of clarity and perspective, as she was attempting to embark on comedy as a career, but was unsure of herself.
"I was a bit all over the place and didn't know what I wanted to do, but then it clicked that we will all die one day so why be scared to try things?" she says. "Comedy was fun for me, so I decided that if it worked, that was great, but if it didn't, it would be fine too. I didn't give a shit if the gigs went badly after that, because my dad, who was a lovely, good man, had died and that was what really mattered. If that hadn't happened, I don't know if I would had continued on this career path."
And has she come to terms with her dad's loss? Roisin says that she doesn't think you ever get over the grief of losing someone you love, but you absorb it into who you are and it becomes your reality - it's the new normal. "With any death or when the line is drawn in the sand, it's final and you don't get to go back, which brings up a lot of stuff," she says. "There's no way around it and it's ugly and painful, but life has to move on."
Having been voted 'best newcomer" at Edinburgh in 2010, Roisin's comedy career really took off after that. She is best-known as the star of Impractical Jokers (BBC3) and Man Down (Channel 4), with regular appearances on Have I Got News For You (BBC1), 8 Out of 10 Cats (Channel 4) and Would I Lie To You (BBC1). Her own show, Game Face, aired on Channel 4 in 2014, and was critically acclaimed. In it, the very funny Roisin played Marcella, who is trying to navigate her way through life with the help of her mater, a driving instructor and a life coach.
Fans are in for a treat when she performs at the Vodafone Comedy Festival at the Iveagh Gardens next weekend. "I think this festival has one of the best comedy bills I have seen in a while," she says. "There are huge American stars performing too so I can't wait, and I hope some of my family come to it."
With her professional life motoring along nicely, when asked about her personal ambitions, Roisin's thoughts turn to romance. Describing herself as "relentlessly single" she says that while she has lots of great friends, she would like to embark on a relationship, buy a house and have stability. "I would like to meet someone, because while I've had little relationships in the past, I've been single for the guts of ten years," she admits. "Men don't really chat me up though, so I don't know if I give out those signals. Comedian Tara Flynn said if your light is off, it won't happen, and I think my light is off. I think I expect romance to be handed to me, but I know I have to put the effort into it and go through all the awkward phases of dating. The worst thing would be to jump at something for the sake of it though, and not feel what you are supposed to and end up more lonesome."
If she doesn't meet anyone, Roisin doesn't want her life to be all about that though, particularly as the other side of her wants to travel and write a really good comedy film. That old question of whether women are funny gets asked of female comics the whole time, but does she get tired of it? "I do," she smiles, "because nobody should be allowed to ask it because that conversation has no legitimacy. The question itself gives it legitimacy, because you can't say 50 per cent of the population don't have a sense of humour. A lot of women come to my shows, and I firmly believe that the greatest laugh you have are with friends of the same sex. My biggest laughs in life come from my girlfriends, and there are times when I feel like I'm going to wet myself laughing."
While most people would die of fright at the thought of doing stand-up in front of a live audience, Roisin says that while she feels nervous before she steps on stage, she feels validated by the audience reactions. There is always pressure, she admits, because you are only as good as your last gig, but she finds it weird that people can't talk to strangers. "I suppose it's weird of me to seek intimacy in that environment," she admits, "but I almost find it easier talking to a crowd than one-on-one. The first time I acted was also pressurised, but you can't let it get to you. You just need to choose the right things and know what opportunities to take to shine a light on what you do best."
The Vodafone Comedy Festival takes place in the Iveagh Gardens from July 23 - 27. Aside from the international and UK talents, Irish comedians performing include Tommy Tiernan, David O'Doherty, Al Porter, Panti, Deirdre O'Kane, Maeve Higgins, PJ Gallagher, Jason Byrne and Neil Delamere.