Andrew Maxwell: Au Contraire

Ahead of taking his new show to the Opera House on the 13th of October, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with comedian Andrew Maxwell on his beginnings, the psychology of comedy, The Panel and the stories behind the cult show’s guests…

Andrew Maxwell’s new show tours this autumn, a brand-new show entitled Yo Contraire. The Dublin comedian and MTV voiceover artist is in his typical good form, as he negotiates a mad dash of phone calls and radio appearances of a Monday morning. “Thank you for being there to help me flog this show”, he chuckles as the conversation opens up ahead of his appearance at the Opera House on the 13th of October. It’s been nearly twenty-five years now, since he first ventured onto the stage in Dublin for a comedy night ran at Dublin outpost The International by fellow stand-up breakout Ardal O’Hanlon. Maxwell explores how the game has changed in his time, and how he feels about it now. “When stand-up in Ireland started, y’know, with Ardal and Mr. Trellis, at Vicar Street and before that, the International, it was a hobby! None of the lads who started that scene thought it would become ‘a job’, let alone turn into national tours and comedy festivals like the Galway Comedy Festival or the Cork Comedy Festival, or the Cat Laughs in Kilkenny. None of us thought this would be a job, or an industry, or anything. Y’know? They were just doing it because they were mildly touched! Just really wanted an outlet for the weirdness, y’know?”

Outlets for oddball tendencies aside, Maxwell went hither and over between Ireland and overseas, doing stand-up and various UK television appearance for a few years thereafter. Comedy is a craft like any other, requiring fine-tuning and experience to better oneself, and time spent gigging around the world early on sharpened his wits for differing houses, and what stories to tell in a routine. “Absolutely, it’s vital. Y’know, when I first started working in the States, I thought ‘well, y’know, I’m Irish, I’m in New York, they’ll know things. The cultural and economic capital of America, they’ll get it’. They knew nothing, dude! They knew nothing about Ireland, or Irish things. U2? Never heard of ’em. Y’know, the cops are all Irish? No. They knew nothing about leprechauns! So, whether you’re in the States, or Canada, or across Europe, or wherever, you’re talking about the craft side of it, it’s excellent to step out of where you’re from, ’cause only then, you realise – half your punchlines are references, that everyone in the room can take for granted. So it’s really good for taking all of that… ammunition, as it were. Find jokes that are about you, that are instantaneously relatable. Don’t talk about Dublin, don’t talk about being Irish, talk about you.”

Stand-up and nightlife are invariably tied in, and as an aside, Maxwell dispenses a little more wisdom regards different audiences in different markets, and in doing so provides some insight into his gift for reading and adapting audiences, as well as his study of comedic psychology. “American comedy clubs have a two-drink minimum, dude. On the way in, you pay in, plus you must drink two alcoholic drinks, or they will throw you out. So the audience is more likely to be caffeinated than drunk. So, they’re more alert. A drunk audience is happy with two punchlines in 30 seconds, a caffeinated audience needs three. You can see that if you ever watch any American stand-ups. The density of material in a Louis CK routine, or a Bill Burr routine is more than a British or Irish comedian would need to do. It’s interesting to watch and to work to an American coffee crowd, rather than an Irish booze crowd”.

Irish comedy fans know Maxwell best from his time on RTE discussion show the Panel, the flagship of Network Two’s Monday comedy offering throughout the early 2000s. Occurring right at the crest of the Irish stand-up wave and lasting toward the end of the boom, The Panel played host to a wide and varied procession of regulars and guests. Maxwell recalls the period fondly. “The reason why The Panel worked, was because we didn’t feel like we were doing a TV show. Most of the time, a TV show is pretty stilted, there’s a lot of recording breaks, ‘sorry, can we do that again?’, whereas The Panel worked because the producer, Seamus Cassidy, just let us roll. A lot of panel-format TV shows can be a bit stilted because they literally are. ‘Let’s do that again, let’s repeat this’. Effectively trying to edit it in real time, yeah? Whereas Seamus had the patience to go ‘look, I’m gonna let ye go at it for two hours, except for commercial breaks. Nothing would be said twice, we’d just run and run and run, and then he’d take on the Herculean task of getting up at eight the next morning and editing it into a show. And delivering it by lunchtime. He was willing to dig out all those golden interactions and improvisations between all of us.”

But improvisation and starpower aside, Maxwell insists that the show’s success was down to the camaraderie between the cast. “The Panel, unlike pretty much any other panel-format show I’ve done, in the UK, Canada, Australia and such, just wasn’t like being on telly, it was just me and a bunch of friends I would have been having fun with anyway in the pub, and someone else had the entire burden of turning it into a TV show. We were really good mates, we’d go out together on the town afterward, the nonsense would just continue.”

Many of Maxwell’s exchanges with guests and regulars are still fondly recalled by the show’s loyal viewership, and form some of the highlights of the show’s run, remaining in circulation as uploaded by Cassidy and other fans of the show to YouTube and in other formats. He comments on the parade of humanity that went past him in those seats. “By the time we’d been improvising and ripping the crap out of each other for forty-five minutes, by the time the guests came out you’d be spent (laughs). Sometimes some of the guests were blind drunk… we had some weird guests. Some of them may have tried to talk down to us… Shane Ross, he was really obnoxious and self-righteous, he had no sense of humour. He felt he was above the whole thing, clearly someone had put him up to doing it. He looked terrible for it. Eamon Gilmore came on, the height of Gilmoremania. I kinda nailed him over weed-smoking, but he was still a good sport. Patrick Bergin, he was pretty good. We asked him what was the secret of showbiz, and he looked us dead in the eye and said ‘don’t turn down anything, never read a script’. That’s really honest. The only one I really didn’t like was Max Clifford. I just knew he was a wrong’un. This guy instantly came out and bragged about how he could blackmail you into doing anything he wanted. He was the biggest Svengali in tabloid media, he could make or break ya, he was bragging he could bury a story and drag up all the dirt on you. He was proud of that. Even at the time I thought he was a bad, bad guy. He was proud that he could coerce people through shame to do his bidding. So when it turned out that he was convicted for being an actual sex offender, I was not surprised in any way. He was only one where I was like, ‘I’d never want to be in a room with you again’”.

Before we can get to his work with MTV’s Ex on the Beach, which he briefly summarises as “a mucky delight that lifts people out of their Tuesday slump”, or his work on the current stand-up scene, including his comedy festival in the Austrian Alps, Altitude, happening this December, he’s whisked away by his PR person for some more radio shots. But he parts on a Cork story later in the day via email to end the interview on a lighter note. “Last time I was in Cork, myself and my mate Dave went out to Blarney and pretended to nick coins out of the Wishing Steam by the castle,to the amusement of the locals, and abject horror of the American tourists… no wishes were stolen.”

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