Friday 24 January 2020

From Brendan Grace to Blindboy - a year in comedy 2019

Blindboy Boatclub has mastered the art of using podcasts as a platform to gain fans
Blindboy Boatclub has mastered the art of using podcasts as a platform to gain fans
Alison Spittle is another comedian boarding the podcast train, hosting the Alison Spittle Show to a live audience
It was a sad year for Irish comedy as we lost one of the country's greats, Brendan Grace in July

When Tommy Tiernan featured in a November panel on 'The Late Late Show' to mark the passing of Gay Byrne, it was significant for a couple of reasons. Tiernan's presence reminded us the incendiary Navan comedian turned talk-show host is, like fellow rabble-rouser Blindboy, now a member of the national discussion. More tellingly, however, Tiernan is one of a few big-name Irish comics whose appearance on the Friday-night institution was part of their journey to greatness. In this number, we include the incorrigible Brendan Grace, who bowed out in July after decades of splitting sides. It's nice to imagine him sporting a welcoming grin and a hearty backslap when Gaybo himself joined him up above.

The days of stand-ups infiltrating the temple of Montrose Indiana Jones-like in search of a precious breakthrough are all but over, and good riddance some would say. Acts such as the brilliant sketch trio Foil, Arms and Hog (who made huge inroads in the US this year), Enya Martin, and 2019's breakthrough story Bernard Casey have shown that comedy has seen a fundamental shift in its business model in the last couple of years. Slick and efficient web clips on YouTube or Facebook are now how both comics and spoken-word artists reach their audiences. "Is nothing sacred?" I hear you grumble. Well, talk to anyone in these least forgiving of performance formats and they'll tell you it's a godsend because the bottom line (no pun intended) is that it gets bums on seats at live shows and comedy nights, and that's where it's at. Go viral, and the footprint multiplies exponentially. A handy business card in what is a notoriously shaky vocation.

2019 also seemed to be the year that stand-ups were expected to spread their brand into the medium of podcasting, with many going down the celebrity interview format. Doireann Garrihy launched The Laughs of Your Life early in the year, The Two Johnnies continue to draw a big listenership, as does Jarleth Regan's An Irishman Abroad, The Alison Spittle Show and The Guilty Feminist. RTÉ might be flipping over cushions in search of loose change but they still know a good thing when they see one - namely Colm O'Regan Wants A Word, an excellent ongoing series written and presented by the Cork genius.

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Alison Spittle is another comedian boarding the podcast train, hosting the Alison Spittle Show to a live audience

The undisputed lord of Pod is surely Blindboy, who is now approaching the status of cultural institution thanks to a bemusing stream of consciousness flow toggling suddenly with sideways wisdom. A second short-story collection was also released (the typically bonkers Boulevard Wren and Other Stories, Gill Books) and the plastic-covered juggernaut looks set to advance overseas in 2020.

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Put simply, if you are a comedian or wit, you're now expected to spend part of your week leaning into a microphone and fighting to get your brand some airtime. And judging by the footfall at comedy festivals, headline shows and variety nights such as the excellent Comedy Crunch, willing ribs are certainly there to be tickled. This even went for Dustin the Turkey, who attempted a phoenix-like ascent from puppetry purgatory back to the live arena with The Comeback Vehicle tour. Penned by superstar novelist and humourist Eoin Colfer, reports have been positive.

Spoken word was also in fine fettle, with Stephen James Smith managing to survive somewhere between local poet and hard-touring performance artist. The medium's great international star, Canadian Shane Koyczan came to the Pepper Canister Church for a summer headliner (promoted by fellow wordsmith and Dublin legend Colm Keegan).

But it was when the year was but days old that many of us were introduced to the country's newest and brightest spoken-word talent on - yes, that's right - The Late Late Show. There we witnessed 18-year-old Natalya O'Flaherty take to the studio floor with a piece called Brass Tax and proceed to spellbind the nation while weaving hard lyrical truths about the challenges her generation faces. Gaybo would be proud.

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