Tuesday 16 January 2018

A funny thing has happened to Irish comedy...

Over 20,000 stand-up fans will flock to Dublin's Iveagh Gardens next week. But just a generation ago, top Irish comics were more likely to ply their trade in grotty lounge bars

Al Porter
Al Porter
Blazed a trail: Sean Hughes

Damian Corless

Kicking off this Thursday, Vodafone's Dublin Comedy Festival will lure some 20,000 paying punters to the Iveagh Gardens over its four-day run. The 80-strong bill of stand-ups features top Americans including Bill Burr and Sasheer Zamata, but, as usual, most of the biggest draws will be homegrown talents such as David O'Doherty, Deirdre O'Kane, Neil Delamere, the Après Match team and hottest new kid on the block, Al Porter.

Twenty-five years ago, the notion of a comedy event on this scale would have been unthinkable, but next week's carnival follows the annual gathering in Kilkenny for the Cat Laughs Festival, plus a brace of Tedfests in Clare and Inis Mór, with the Vodafone Galway Comedy Festival still to come in October. Meanwhile, the US comedian Amy Schumer, virtually unknown three years ago, is expected to sell-out Dublin's 9,500-capacity 3Arena next month as part of a world tour that takes in Madison Square Garden.

Somewhere, somehow, stand-up has made a most remarkable transition from being as terminally unhip as a pipe and cardigan, to fulfilling the prophecy that "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll".

In fact, that line was never meant as prophecy. It was uttered in frustration by Englishman Dave Cohen as he set up his mike for a 1988 London gig before an audience of six men and a dog. He was drawing consolation from the fact that he was about to perform on a stage where many of his punk heroes had strutted their stuff a decade earlier. As it happened, the six men included a hack from the City Limits listings magazine, who opened his review with Cohen's throwaway line that comedy was the new rock 'n' roll. Weeks later, Cohen saw his quote go viral when Janet Street Porter used it on television. They say that timing is everything in comedy, and the analogy was perfectly timed for the transformation bubbling under the surface just then.

Those old enough to remember stand-up in the 1970s and 1980s will recall it as a grim affair dominated by flaky men of a certain age with pot bellies tucked under their cummerbunds and more often than not a fag dangling from their lower lip. Les Dawson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Frank Carson et al were showcased on ITV's The Comedians and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, where it was rare for two minutes to elapse without someone uttering the words "My mother-in law-is so fat/ugly ..." There were some exceptions, such as the reliably sharp Billy Connolly and the BBC's favourite church-baiting Irishman Dave Allen, but they were rare.

In Ireland, it often seemed that stand-up comedy was confined to just one place and a single individual. For 26 years, Hal Roach, 'The King of Blarney', delivered a pretty much unchanging routine of genteel gags at Jury's Irish Cabaret in the Ballsbridge Hotel. A typical joke: "Flannagan is stopped by a policeman while zig-zagging all over the road in his car. 'You're drunk,' says the policeman. 'Thank God,' says Flannagan, 'I thought the steering had gone'." The show was every bit as good as it sounds, and American coach-parties lapped it up.

The rest of Ireland's stand-ups, such as Sil Fox and young-gun Brendan 'Bottler' Grace, who could make a living from it could be counted on the fingers of a couple of hands. A year younger than Grace, Dermot Morgan scratched a precarious existence skitting as the pre-Ted Father Trendy.

Comedy began to look and act more like the mewling upstart offspring of rock 'n' roll in the early 1980s, with 1982 the year of two game-changers, the BBC's anarchic sitcom The Young Ones and Channel 4's The Comic Strip Presents. Both shows drew on a new wave of smart young talent who'd cut their teeth as stand-ups at the London Comedy Store opened by Alexei Sayle in 1979, including Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Such was the reputation of the venue from early on that big US stars like Robin Williams would gig there for the prestige points. At the same time, the precocious American youngster Bill Hicks was putting sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll at the core of his act, inspiring a host of inferior imitators.

Before long, the tremors from this youthquake were hitting Ireland, with promoter Billy McGrath (Magra) at the heart of nearly everything happening here. Booking venues such as Dublin's Sportsman's Inn, The Project Arts Centre and even the Mansion House, McGrath nurtured Ireland's early 'alternative' stand-ups, including Dermot Morgan, Michael Redmond, Owen Roe, Kevin McAleer and the one who'd hit it big in the early 1990s as Ireland's first bona-fide rock 'n' roll comedian, Sean Hughes.

In 1990 Hughes won the Edinburgh Comedy Award, blazing a trail for fellow Irish laureates Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan and David O'Doherty and quickly landing his own surreal sitcom on Channel 4, Sean's Show. In the early 1990s, rock 'n' roll was going through an existential crisis. The original stars of the 1960s and 1970s were too old, too rich and too pampered to serve as the authentic voice of youth, besides which ecstasy-fuelled dance music was making lyrics redundant. The painfully authentic whinge of Nirvana was an acquired taste, while upcomers like Oasis, Blur and Suede seemed content to pillage the back-catalogues of oldies like The Beatles, The Small Faces and Bowie.

Stand-up, in contrast, provided the platform to express yourself to your contemporaries in whatever way you chose, and without the backbreaking bother of humping heavy amplifiers in and out of a van. Indeed, many who would make it in comedy jumped the bandwagon after first trying to hack it as pop stars. December 10, 1993, has gone down as a red-letter day in the long, strange trip made by stand-up from grotty lounge to stadium. That day Rob Newman and David Baddiel filled Wembley Arena with 12,000 adoring fans, in the face of critics who correctly panned their act as desperately unfunny and self-indulgent. In the years since, acts like Peter Kay, Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard have made that feat, incredible as it seemed at the time, look distinctly modest.

How has this happened and can it last? No one really knows, but we might have a clue in how stadium rock itself appeared back in the 1970s. Stadium rock was the brainchild, not of the bands, but of the promoters and venue owners. Huge sports stadia were sitting idle six or more days a week before someone came up with the brilliant money-spinning idea of filling them with rock fans. The stadiums came first. The ear-splitting stacks of speakers, the vast fleets of trucks and the dazzling light shows followed.

This lesson, a variation on "build it and they will come", has been well learned by the makers of a product that quite remarkably has fulfilled its unlikely mission to become the new rock 'n' roll.

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