'It was a tad Fyre Fest-y, albeit with acts' - Kilkenny Cat Laughs founder remembers first festival 25 years ago
It's the 25th anniversary of the Kilkenny Cat Laughs comedy festival this year and the silver jubilee line-up does not disappoint, boasting the best of Irish and international acts from Tommy Tiernan and Alison Spittle to Nish Kumar and Angela Barnes.
Over the course of 25 years the event has evolved into a three day comedy marathon, taking place this year across the June bank holiday weekend from May 30 to June 3, but it still takes place in a "bunch of sweaty rooms in Kilkenny," according to founder Richard Cook.
Cook says he does not remember much about the very first Cat Laughs which was spawned from a local theatre company called Bickerstaffe.
"I was mostly in a trance state with a CD of Moby’s Everything is Wrong thumping loudly on repeat in the John Street office," he says.
"I remember smoking a lot, having arguments about whether to put ‘Ireland’ or the ‘Republic of Ireland’ on the contracts; the actor Frankie McCafferty paying for tickets with a credit card, which in 1995 struck me as the poshest thing imaginable and finding the brilliant Jeremy Hardy asleep in a hedge outside the Newpark Hotel.
"I remember Emo Philips sporting a bizarre 3-D monkey on a t-shirt which he wore religiously; Sean Hughes being the brightest Irish star by a mile and Jo Brand shocking her audience at the Watergate Theatre.
"And I remember being taken aback by the numbers on Parliament street swilling beer and blocking traffic on Friday night; I distractedly handed Woody Harrelson – over to support his mate George Wendt – a 14-page fax at the bar in The Kilford Arms (faxes were everything), oblivious to who he was; but mostly I remember comics at the back of gigs watching other comics and I remember that we sold very few tickets.
"It was a tad FyreFest-y, albeit with acts."
The 1996 follow-up festival was "used to pay off the first one," he adds. He also recalls that year as the year when Murphy's came on board as title sponsors in a city which was a 'Guinness-product-only' city given the Smithwick's brewery was nearby.
"I remember sitting down with Eamon Langton in his bar. He looked at me straight in the eye as a mischievous smile crept over his face and leaning in conspiratorially, he chuckled: 'there’ll be trouble ahead'," recalls Cook.
That year was also the year that the legendary Bill Murray performed with his two brothers.
"Word had got around that there was a comedy festival somewhere in Ireland which was fun to play and where there were no awards, reviews or TV recording (arguably the best set of decisions that we made from the outset)," he says.
"At this time, the only comedy festivals that seemed to matter were Montreal with short seven-minute TV-friendly sets, the Edinburgh Fringe with 50-60 minute sets and Melbourne with a similar format. At Cat Laughs, we basically asked three headline acts to share the 80 odd minutes between them with a host to link. It’s a format which really worked and still works today. There were some hour long shows of course (Johnny Vegas, Will Durst, Jo Brand, John Shuttleworth), but they were the exception rather than the rule."
This year's festival boasts a host of incredible Irish acts including the aforementioned Tiernan and Spitly, Dylan Moran, Dara O’Briain, David O’Doherty, Jason Byrne, Joanne McNally and Ed Byrne as well as Neil Delamere, Barry Murphy, Karl Spain, Andrew Maxwell, Eleanor Tiernan, Colm O’Regan, Chris Kent, Colin Murphy, Kevin McGahern, Fred Cooke, Julie Jay, Gearoid Farrelly and many more.
However, back in 1995 and 1996, Cook recalls that no Irish comedian, apart from Sean Hughes, could close a set in Kilkenny.
"Punters in those early years paid to see UK and American acts. Scroll on five years later and you’d lose half of your crowd if the Irish comedian was done before the show finished," he says.
"So, while the Cat Laughs may not have produced any Irish comedians, it undoubtedly provided the platform for Irish stand-ups to realise that they were as good as their American and British counterparts: the festival gave them huge confidence. To see comedians like Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan and Ardal O’Hanlon et al rip up the Edinburgh festival in the late 90s was incredibly exciting and I believe the festival had its part to play in that."
The tents as venues in 1997 were "a big mistake", he says, while 1998 to 2006 is "blurry" as Eddie Bannon took over from 2006-2009 followed by Rebecca Austin from 2010-2012, Naoise Nunn from 2013-2016 and now Matt Smyth and Dan Colley.
As well as the Irish talent this year, there will also be The Mash Reports’ Nish Kumar, Live At the Apollo’s Angela Barnes, Rose Mattafeo, Rich Hall, Phill Jupitus, QI’s Alan Davies, Mock The Week’s Zoe Lyons, and Lucy Porter, Jena Friedman, Fred MacAuley, Jo Caulfield, Lou Sanders, Rosie Jones, Sam Campbell, Jamali Maddix and Larry Dean.
STRAY also returns this year with Barry Award Nominees The Bear Pack and London's Solo Theatre's eclectic mix of acts. Dreamgun Film Reads will present their skewed, unrehearsed take on cinematic classics - in this case it's Spielberg's classic Jaws.
Karl Spain's Hilarious Walking Tour, The Adam Hills Chat Show, Improve Allstars and Tony Cantwell and Mawaan Rizwan will also perform.
"While there is no doubt that comedy festivals all over the world are utterly unrecognisable today from their original incarnation, that’s not the case with Cat Laughs," says Richard.
"This presents its own set of challenges of course, but there’s a real merit to remaining obstinate, steadfast, singular; to continue placing stand-up comedy at the heart of a festival, which takes place in a bunch of sweaty rooms in Kilkenny."
For more details and tickets (on sale now) check out www.thecatlaughs.com