Thursday 15 November 2018

How comedy saved Joanne McNally’s life

From competitive eating disorders to leftfield romances, Joanne McNally has never been shy of mining her life for humour

'If I'd been limping along semi-functionally, I might have just kept going. In a way I am lucky that my situation was so bad I needed treatment.' Photo: Tony Gavin
'If I'd been limping along semi-functionally, I might have just kept going. In a way I am lucky that my situation was so bad I needed treatment.' Photo: Tony Gavin
Joanne McNally on The Tommy Tiernan Show
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Her comedy may be edgy but there is something deeply reassuring about Joanne McNally. In an era in which many of the country’s young creatives are being swallowed whole by the PR industry, Joanne has moved the other way — ditching the steadiness of copywriting and re-inventing herself as a stand-up comic. It’s the type of career change that takes guts — especially at a moment when every other Irish person fancies themselves as possessing a comedic gift — but in hindsight, it doesn’t look all that foolhardy a move. Over the last few years, Joanne has established herself as one of the country’s best stand-ups, wowing audiences here and abroad with her sets and building her TV career via Republic of Telly, in which she starred.

She is blunt, witty, unapologetically plummy and relentlessly self-deprecating.

She’s careful to point out, however, that she really owes her career to self-preservation rather than ambition. It was only when she took a break from her work in PR and sought help for her eating disorders that she was really drawn to being professionally funny. And the move, she says, was actually a key part of her recovery.

“It was self-preservation really,” she says. “I was unhappy with everything in my life. Work was part of that. I don’t know if I would have recovered as well if I hadn’t had comedy to keep me feeling good. So it saved me in a way.”

Joanne McNally on The Tommy Tiernan Show
Joanne McNally on The Tommy Tiernan Show

If comedy offered a lifeline then it was her youth, and the issues it brought, which provided a seemingly bottomless well of anecdote-rich material. She grew up in Dalkey in a middle-class background and learned as a child that she and her brother had been adopted. As a little girl she was always told that her adoptive parents loved her but equally she harboured the fantasy of a “soul connection” with her birth parents if and when she found them.

That wasn’t how it played out, however. “You have this idea from television or whatever, that it’s going to be so dramatic. Me and my biological mother didn’t fall out but we just reached the point where we couldn’t be in touch any more.”

She has a better relationship with her biological father and plans to meet him for the first time later this year. “My biological father and me are fine, I’ll hopefully go out to Australia to meet him after I’ve done Edinburgh. He seems really sound. I got lucky. I didn’t have contact with their kids. I think I expected there’d be this immediate overwhelming connection and that’s not what happens.”

Adoption was not Joanne’s only youthful preoccupation. Throughout much of her 20s she suffered from two eating disorders — anorexia and bulimia. “I had to have both because I’m competitive,” she jokes. “An eating disorder is a bastard of an illness. I was in and out of psychiatrist’s and psychologist’s offices. For a long time they wanted to talk about my adoption or my dad dying (her adoptive father died a number of years ago). If I’d been limping along semi-functionally, I might have just kept going.

“In a way I’m lucky that mine was so bad I needed treatment. I was possessed by it.”

At their worst the conditions convinced her that all her self-worth was linked to how she looked. “You get to the point where you think that the only thing you have to offer is how you look,” she recalls. “I think a lot of people think like that. It was bigger than being attractive — it had to do with work as well. I thought nothing would go right unless I was skinny. With bulimia you’re stuffing stuff into yourself and it may be to do with not expressing yourself. In treatment you get sick of talking about yourself; I’d veer between thinking maybe yeah it was because I burned my mouth with a pop tart when I was a child, and then I’d think maybe it’s just a diet that got out of control.”

Comedian Joanne McNally
Comedian Joanne McNally

She hid the disorder from everyone close to her and eventually the conditions began to dovetail with other destructive behaviours. “It got progressively worse to the point I was bulimic anorexia. I felt like having any food at all in me was like having maggots in me but then I would eat a lot quickly because the fuller you are, the bigger the purge, and the high comes from the purge. I was addicted to the emptiness. I’d get sick in the back of a bar. I was shoplifting for a while.”

She has recovered well now but tells me that there is never a moment of complacency. “You have it for life so it’s just a question of knowing yourself and minding yourself, I think.” Writing and making herself laugh was therapeutic, she says — she nicknamed her eating disorder Louis Walsh —  but it was her friend, fellow comedian PJ Gallagher, who first coaxed McNally into doing stand-up.

Gallagher joined her in the cast of Una McKevitt’s smash hit Singlehood — he was stand-in for a few gigs at the Olympia Theatre — and through him a friendship was born between the two women. Joanne’s contribution to the show harnessed some of the funnier mishaps from her dating life.

“I had just been dumped by a bald lad. I like guys with something

small wrong with them. I had just turned the bald guy down but then almost immediately I hit 30 and I thought, ‘F*** it, I’ll take what I can get here,’ and then I became mad about it. I was like ‘don’t you know I’m the one settling for you’. All bad relationships are good for a show later.”

Nobody would wish the return of ‘Louis’ on her, but in a selfish way you might hope she has a few more disastrous dates. She now has three full stand-up tours behind her and will go to the Edinburgh Festival later this year. There are also several TV projects in the pipeline and she’ll perform in June at the Cat Laughs Festival in Kilkenny. It’s a myth that comedy is a sexist business, she tells me, but the explosion of it as an art form has meant that everyone — especially men — think they can have a go.

“If I’m chatting to a man I’ll say I’m a stand-up and he’ll say ‘oh I’ve been meaning to do that myself’. I don’t think they understand, it’s not a whim, it’s a fairly hard life. You wait all month, then you get two minutes, then you die in your hole. Then you wait another month to do it all again.”

But at least it’s been good for her mental health — and her material?

She smiles. “I told a friend I was going to give up counselling and she just pissed herself laughing. It wasn’t even a joke but I’ll take any laugh where I can get it.”

Joanne McNally is performing at The Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny from June 1–5. Tickets are on sale now from

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