‘I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell my girlfriend. I snuck out at night’ – former Republic of Telly host Kevin McGahern on starting out in stand-up
The Cavan comedian talks comedy, his forays into acting (next up he’s in Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy), the fate of The Hardy Bucks, and why he wouldn't return to Republic of Telly
For most mere mortals the notion of standing on a stage and attempting to elicit a laugh from a crowd of complete strangers is the stuff of nightmares, akin to those panicked Leaving Cert dreams where your hand falls off, or you turn up naked.
Kevin McGahern felt the fear of failure but went for it anyway and what began as a stab at Battle of the Acts has led to a career spanning stand-up, presenting (Republic of Telly), and acting.
Last year he starred in his friend Padraig Conaty’s warmly-received debut feature, No Party for Billy Burns and he’ll soon appear in Amy Huberman’s new RTE series Finding Joy as ‘a sexy cardiologist who gets the shift’.
His comedic leanings began in college, when a friend, who was already doing stand-up, suggested he give it a go.
“I guess it was like the 80s where everyone bought a guitar and formed a shit punk band in their garage,” he tells Independent.ie. “It was the same for us with comedy.”
He signed up for Battle of the Axe, an open-mic night at The Ha’Penny Bridge Inn in Dublin, where the comedian who gets the biggest cheer on the night earns a Lucky Duck Award. Kevin bagged a few Lucky Ducks.
However, he didn’t tell anyone he knew what he was doing.
“I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t tell my girlfriend. I snuck out at night. She had no idea what the f*** I was at. She was quite trusting. I’d come home sweaty and delighted and she was like, ‘I hope you’re doing comedy’,” he says.
“So I didn’t tell anyone. I figured if I fail nobody will know. It’s quite easy to fail. Some people talk about how nervous they are to start, but failing in front of a tonne of strangers is nothing, failing in front of your friends is embarrassing.
“ Just don’t invite your friends. I used to do gigs with people who invited 30 of their friends and I was like, ‘What are you doing, you insane person?’ Start small. I won Battle of the Acts a few times and then nervously started looking for more gigs.”
At his first gig he says he was “basically doing a poor man’s Dylan Moran” mixed with a bit of Steve Martin, his two comedy idols. Irish comedian and broadcaster Colm O’Regan happened to be there that night, and offered him some encouragement.
“I was being a shit Dylan Moran and at the end I had this song I’d written. I couldn’t play any instruments so I recorded my voice making guitar noises on tape. I looked like a fucking lunatic,” he says.
“Colm took me aside after and was like, ‘The stuff at the start, not so good, the song, brilliant’. He really encouraged me.”
In the spirit of giving something back to comedians starting out (or maybe just because he was asked), Kevin is promoting Vodafone Ireland’s new competition for Ireland’s Funniest Fecker. Up and coming comedians are invited to share their best original sketches or jokes to Twitter or Facebook using #CentreStage and six of the best will go head to head in a public vote to win the title of Ireland’s Funniest Fecker. The winner will be announced at the Vodafone Comedy Festival and they’ll get the VIP treatment at the Iveagh Gardens that weekend and also win an iPhone X.
“Then you can call all of the people who said you were bad and laugh down the phone at them. ‘Look at me now dad!’” he quips.
“There are a lot [of comedians] starting on Facebook, which we didn’t have when I started. They can build a huge fanbase just by uploading sketches to YouTube and Facebook and that can lead to huge gigs and I think they either rise to the challenge or sort of crumble.
“Something like this competition is just a great starting off point. They’re not going to be asked to fill out a full hour in Vicar St or anything!”
For those starting out, he recommends recording gigs.
“You have a memory of how something goes and then you listen back and you go, ‘Oh my God there’s an entire minute where nobody’s laughing at all, I better change that’. It’s why Hollywood celebs make sex tapes – they’re trying to improve their game.”
Kevin will not be judging the talent for Ireland’s Funniest Fecker – it’s down to a public vote – and he’s thankful for that, “Comedy is very subjective. My taste probably wouldn’t tally with the country’s taste. I’m glad I don’t have that responsibility. I might be the one to put on the crown and sash. I don’t know if there’s a sash. I hope there is – a sash and a sceptre. “
What he is hoping for, however, is a bit of diversity.
“Comedy is, when I started doing it especially, 90 per cent lads with slight beer bellies, you know? Irish lads with beer bellies. I’d like to see more diversity, more women, more ex pats who are living here.” He takes a moment to digress, “I’ve started calling foreigners ex pats. When Irish people go to Australia we call ourselves ex pats. If a Nigerian lad comes here how come we can’t call him an ex pat?” before continuing, “There is more diversity in the clubs now. It’s happening, slowly. I think there is. There’s a hunger there for more women, more female comedians and it’s good that the clubs are starting to recognise that now. But they still face a slightly harder slog than the lads though I think.”
In terms of his own material, his latest show, ‘The Boxty Monologues’ (which he says he’s renaming ‘One Comedy Please’ because his friends said the original title is ‘stupid’), sees him mining his personal life for material for a change.
“When I say personal it’s not like about my feelings or anything, just sort of embarrassing stories that I kind of forgot almost,” he explains.
“You go through your twenties trying to hide all the embarrassing stuff about your teenage years and then you hit your thirties and start examining them and realising they’re the stuff that makes you.
“I’ve been doing a lot of mining from childhood stories, secondary school stories, really cringeworthy, embarrassing stuff I tried to ignore but is resurfacing. It’s like therapy really. Basically, I think therapy is expensive. This I get paid to do.”
He got married last year but his lovely wife Siobhan will not feature in his stand-up. He won’t be taking the Michael McIntyre route of referencing his wife’s farting in bed.
“I’ve never talked about Siobhan on stage,” he says. “I kind of always prefer the comedians who keep a bit of a mystery about their personal lives. They could live under a bridge for all you know. So I’ve always kind of left out that stuff. Plus I don’t think she’d like me talking about her farting in bed.”
Most people are familiar with McGahern via his stint presenting RTE’s hugely populare Republic of Telly, which was cancelled last year after eight seasons. McGahern presented the last three and it seems he was content enough with that.
“I enjoyed doing it at the time but I wouldn’t mind doing something else different,” he says.
“It was great craic and great craic working on something live where you’re writing sometimes an hour before going on air. So that was exciting, the live aspect was exciting.
“But I wouldn’t mind something different, different challenges. I think it would be more fun to make fun of politics rather than other television programmes. It does get a bit tedious slagging off telly when there are monsters in the world.”
His first foray into telly was as Sim Card on the hugely popular RTE series The Hardy Bucks. There have been three seasons of the show, although there was a three year gap between the second and third, something which makes maintaining a fanbase difficult.
“RTE are like a bad boyfriend – they don’t want to break up with you because they think they might want to have sex with you a couple more times. But they don’t want to commit to the relationship either, so they have this sort of one leg out the door kinda thing going on,” he says.
“They commission a new series every three and a half years. It’s like they’re trying to make Boyhood, showing the slow decay of five men over a period of 20 years. When The Hardy Bucks first came out it was very popular with college kids and people in their late teens. Those people are like 25 or 26 now, almost going into their 30s.”
While he enjoys both stand-up and acting, he appreciates the permanency of TV and film acting.
“I kind of like doing both and they’re both different outlets you know. I recently did a stint in Amy Huberman’s sitcom Finding Joy. I loved doing it. It was exciting, good craic. And it’s a permanent thing. The thing about stand up is you do a great gig and two weeks later nobody remembers it. If you work on a TV sitcom it’s there forever.”
His love of the sitcom has seen him pen one about the country and western scene in Ireland, which he says is ‘looking good’, but still in development.
“There’s nothing concrete yet so if there are any TV executives reading this, we’re good to go,” he says. “I wish we were doing this 15 years ago when there was stupid money floating about, cocaine in the canteen, whatever you want!”
For more information on Vodafone’s Ireland’s Funniest Fecker competition check out centrestage.vodafone.ie/funniest-fecker