Tuesday 16 October 2018

Just for laughs

Irish comedy series have been a hit and miss affair -- for every Father Ted, there has been many a flop, such as The Cassidys. But, writes Paul Whitington, this season's comic efforts suggest that homegrown comedy is starting to make its mark on the laughter map

Paul Whitington

Among RTE2's autumn schedules are a number of new Irish comedies to cheer us through these gloomy times.

In The Byrne Ultimatum, which starts this Monday at 9.55pm, Jason Byrne will present a rowdy and eccentric quiz show in which the celebrity contestants are bombarded to no apparent purpose with exceedingly silly questions. Baz Ashmawy will cast an irreverent eye over new-age nonsense in the lighthearted documentary strand Baz's Culture Clash (Monday, RTE2, 10.25pm). Maeve Higgins brings comedy to the kitchen in an eccentric show called Maeve Higgins' Fancy Vittles (Tuesday, RTE2, 10.30pm), in which she commentates while her sister cooks. And Dave Coffey and friends return to the airwaves with a new series called Sarah & Steve.

A kind of companion piece to the popular southside video diary Dan & Becs, Sarah & Steve (Monday, RTE2, 10.50pm) stars Emmet Kirwan and Charlene Gleeson as a young Tallaght couple who have difficulty reconciling their contrasting lives and friends. Sarah is a stay-at-home hairdresser, Steve a vaguely ambitious but unfocused college dropout, and in the first episode they negotiate obstacles including a local man who's won the Lotto, a fight in an outsize bouncy castle and all manner of 'Tallaght-tastic' incidents and expressions.

It's funny and nicely written, but with its debauched references and gleeful swearing, it made me think about how far Irish TV comedy has come in recent times, and from the early days of Irish television when it barely existed at all. In fact, since the start of the millennium there's been a positive explosion of homegrown TV comedy that might even be called a golden age -- though only by comparison with the paucity of funny shows on Irish television up to that point.

Right into the 70s, there was simply no tradition of comedy on RTE, and the schedules were padded with sitcoms imported from America and Britain. The closest we came to Irish TV comedy in the 60s was Hal Roach on The Late Late Show, though, in fairness, that show did expose us to international comic trends when the likes of Spike Milligan and Billy Connolly became regulars in the 70s.

In many ways, Irish television comedy began with Hall's Pictorial Weekly, which appeared in 1971 and ran until 1980. A satirical magazine show written and presented by affably cynical Down man Frank Hall, the show combined his monologues with sketches performed by a troupe of actors that included Frank Kelly and Eamon Morrissey. And, at a time when dissent was dimly viewed at Leinster House, the show was quite daring in its criticisms.

Local politics was hilariously lampooned in the 'Ballymagash County Council' sketches presided over by a semi-hysterical Frank Kelly, and RTE itself was laughed at with 'Ballymagash TV'. As the 70s progressed, the show began to poke fun at individual politicians, and no-one who lived through the dark days of the 70s will forget Eamon Morrissey's 'Minister for Hardship', a portrait of Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in tatty bowler hat and fingerless gloves.

Hall's Pictorial Weekly set the ball rolling, but elsewhere Irish comedy was in no great shape. In fact, for a country that prides itself on its sense of humour, until comparatively recently we produced puzzlingly few stand-up comics of note. The few Irish comedians who broke through in Britain in the 70s tended to pander to the old stereotype of the stupid Paddy, such as the Northern comics Frank Carson and Jimmy Cricket. However, there was one glorious exception to this rule.

In the 70s, David Tynan O'Mahoney became one of the most prominent and influential comedians on British television, working under the stage name of Dave Allen. With his relaxed style and trademark easy chair, cigarette and whiskey glass, he incorporated the Irish storytelling tradition into a show that mixed scathing sketches about the church with hilarious monologues and complex explanations as to how he'd lost one of his fingers. Allen's was one of the first southern Irish voices I remember hearing on British TV, and he paved the way for those to come.

Back in Ireland, a former continuity announcer and RTE insider became the unlikely champion of TV comedy in the early 80s. Launched in November 1979 on the national broadcaster's new second channel, Network 2, The Live Mike was compered by Mike Murphy and included comic sketches from Dermot Morgan (including, prophetically, 'Father Trendy') and candid-camera stunts performed by Murphy himself. Disguised in outlandish costumes, Murphy would buttonhole members of the public asking stupid questions and film the response. These interludes proved hugely popular, particularly the famous segment where Murphy fooled Gay Byrne by posing as a French tourist who kept interrupting a shoot in Trinity College.

The Live Mike ended abruptly in 1982 when Murphy announced on-air that the show would not be back, and following its disappearance Irish TV comedy entered something of a lull. But in the late 80s, a sign of the boom times to come appeared in the shape of the RTE2 magazine show Nighthawks. Presented by Shay Healy, the show mixed rowdy four-minute interviews (including that famous one with Sean Doherty) with routines and sketches from the likes of Kevin McAleer and Graham Norton. There was a kind of cobbled-together, making-it-up-as-we-go feel to the show that was liberating, and it showed what might be possible.

The End appeared in 1993 to further test the boundaries of a public appetite for chancy, late-night comedy. Sean Moncrieff presented, assisted at times by a puppet called Septic, and the comic stylings of Barry Murphy, who was already honing his Après Match characters. But the show's alleged following of "drunks and teenagers" was not enough to sustain it, and it was dropped in 1995. Political satire has always been dear to Irish hearts, and in the late 90s Bull Island lampooned the great and the good of the day, with Alan Shortt becoming the first of the professional Bertie impersonators.

But one thing that continued -- and continues -- to elude Irish programme-makers was a decent sitcom. Truly great sitcoms such as Frasier demand huge budgets and banks of writers to sustain them, and these resources have never really been available in Irish television.

That said, attempts to break into the category have been truly lamentable; for instance, the 90s working-class comedy Upwardly Mobile, or the virtually unwatchable 2001 debacle, The Cassidys. Killinaskully, though not to everyone's taste, has been far more successful, but the most famous Irish sitcom isn't really Irish at all.

Father Ted would probably never have been made had it not been for the vision of Channel 4. But though it was produced by an English company, its creative team was 100pc Irish, and it stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of Irish comedy that may never be equalled.

And perhaps it helped inspire the explosion in TV comedy that happened here in the early years of this decade. Though not an out-and-out comedy, Bachelors Walk (2001) contained some of the funniest scenes yet seen on Irish television. Colin Murphy's Blizzard of Odd series mixed all manner of strange clips and outtakes with Murphy's hilarious observations. He would later become a regular on The Panel, the very funny, topical panel show hosted by Dara ó Briain, which has bolstered many a stand-up's career.

RTE's World Cup and Euros broadcasts were enlivened by the ensemble stupidity of the Après Match boys; PJ Gallagher appeared with his very funny Naked Camera series; there was the inspired Soupy Norman; Ristead Cooper and Gerry Stembridge's The State of Us; and let's not forget Podge & Rodge, who will return to our screens this autumn with the worryingly titled new show, Stickit Inn.

There have been some high-profile failures in recent years too, but at least the commitment to new Irish comedy shows is finally there. And, let's face it, we need all the laughs we can get at the moment.

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