Shane Casey: “I’m Not the Finished Article”


The Celtic Tiger is now firmly in the rear-view of the national psyche, and is increasingly remembered as a strange time in Irish history. For former painter/decorator Shane Casey, it was a point of frustration, but also a rich seam of material for comedy-drama play ‘Wet Paint’. Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down with the Young Offenders star to find out more.


From the local buzz that has sprung up around the international success of Leeside slapstick series ‘The Young Offenders’, the real-life stories behind its leading actors and actresses are among the most compelling, with a cast of homegrown talent breaking an all-too pervasive glass ceiling in Irish entertainment and further afield. Thanks to the international reach the original film and spinoff TV show has attained via RTÉ/BBC co-production, and distribution deals with streaming titan Netflix, ‘The Young Offenders’ has become a bona-fide success story in Irish media, and alongside Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’, a cultural talking point not seen in Irish comedy since the height of Father Ted’s success in the mid-nineties. For those out of loop, one of the show’s profound pop-cultural sensations is one of its’ anti-heroes, Billy Murphy, portrayed by Northsider Shane Casey.

Though the success of Young Offenders has placed Casey in a national spotlight, he’s been fervently working away on stories of his own for over a decade. Informed by his time as a painter-decorator at the very crest of the construction-boom wave, ‘Wet Paint’ was written entirely by Casey, who also stars in its upcoming Patrick Talbot production at the Opera House next month. Sitting down upstairs in the venue’s Blue Angel bar, Casey is open about the process of bringing the story of an image-conscious boss and his workers to life. “To be honest with you, I didn’t know that that was what I was going to write about. I started writing a monologues, and ‘I was on the Late Late Show once’ was the opening line. This monologue spilled out of me one afternoon up in Sunday’s Well, I was living (there). I found it was a funny anecdotal story about the man who meets the future James Bond on the Late Late Show, and told his wife that he knows him, when in fact he doesn’t know him. He’s caught out with a lie on national television. I found that humourous, and off the back of that, then, I had the character Tony, who I thought was like a neighbour of mine, and that evolved into the painting and decorating ‘boss’, that was under pressure, buying the new car every year, the new kitchen unit, and so on, all of this nonsense that was going on during the Celtic Tiger, and that evolved into, to be honest, a semi-autobiographical piece on being an apprentice painter-decorator as the world was going mad, in 2005.”

‘Wet Paint’ is a curio, in that it deals directly with the Celtic Tiger’s largesse and ‘notions’ by openly lampooning them, doing so not only as a personal nostalgia piece, but addressing the national episode, a time when the country, by and large, was arguably getting carried away with itself. Irresponsible investments, an over-emphasis on entrepreneurship, and a steady flow of cheap credit championed by banks and politicians alike created an atmosphere where anything seemed possible. For young people, however, soon to be the first victims of the precipitous bust of 2008 and the reviled austerity measures that followed, that fantasy was rarely the case, and Casey’s bile was aimed directly at the obstacles the boom-years mentality placed directly in his path. “It was just a frustration for me, at that point. I’d left the painting and decorating (a few years prior) and then when the 2005 (City of Culture) scenario rolled around I’d just finished college, I thought, ‘oh, this is going to be good for me, lots of plays and lots of theatre, vibrant things happening in my city’, and I just felt completely excluded from it. It was opera-singing up at the barracks, foreign plays coming in, which is all well and good, I love theatre, but I felt it was elitist, and that was the frustration that was coming through me in the play. I wanted to write a play that my Mam and Dad, and that my friends, who are builders, painters and decorators, and the theatre-going public could sit down and watch, and go ‘oh, he’s trying to say something, here’, y’know? I know that sounds kind of heightened, or convoluted, but it’s frustration, really, with… jambons, and silly, stupid carry-on.”

This time around, Casey and crew are working with former Everyman Palace director Patrick Talbot to get the Opera House production of ‘Wet Paint’ over the line, but Casey is quick to sing the praises of former directors that have worked with him on the play’s prior productions at the Granary Theatre, and the Everyman itself, drawing from the rich seam of theatrical talent that the city possesses in spades. “The play was directed by a woman called Evelyn Quinlan, who was one of the first Theatre students from UCC, she would have been involved with Julie Kelleher and people like that. She became a friend over the years, and I wanted a female input on the play originally, and she would have been a guiding light for the original production, and a director when we put it on in the Granary, and transferred it to the Everyman, then, a year later. Pat happened to be the guy that was running the theatre at that stage, and then when Pat came to me last year and said ‘would you take it out again?’, I was thinking it would be more relevant again, that there’s distance between now and 2005. I had another look, and thought, yeah, ‘maybe this does have something to say’, because now there is a nostalgia buzz, and I even talk about ‘Reeling in the Years’ in the play, Turners’ Cross and Cork City, all the stuff that was going on at the time. Pat has always been very encouraging to me in theatre, and encouraging me to write more, always.”

With the property bubble having long since burst, the fallout of the bailout and bank guarantee having taken a heavy toll on the Irish public over the course of the last decade-plus, and the prospect of a so-called economic recovery being touted by the Irish establishment, the temptation to ask Casey if any of the well to-do crowd have taken umbrage with the play and its mirroring of notions in certain parts of Irish society is frankly overwhelming for your writer. “I live close to inner-city Dublin, and I do workshops in schools. I know that kids are suffering because of the austerity cuts, like. We’re all suffering. The nurses are on strike. There’s kids who are homeless in Cork city. There is a bit of a recovery, but for who? That’s why I’m doing my workshops, ‘cause I know what it’s like to feel like sh*t about myself as a teenager, The Young Offenders has opened the door for me to do this, and put this play on again, and I’m proud and really excited to be working on it.”

In pursuing the opportunity given to him to revisit ‘Wet Paint’, Casey reached into his recent acting past to cast his two collaborators for the new production. Having moved to Dublin right before ‘The Young Offenders’ to pursue his craft in a busier atmosphere, the right people were literally falling in around him as he was revisiting the script. “The first time I met Tommy (Harris) was across the road (from the Opera House), when we were filming the prison scenes. I was beating this guy for an afternoon, and he turned out to be a friend, and now he’s in a play that I wrote, it’s amazing… I was in Dublin, went into a coffee shop that I had never been in before, and I took out the script. I hate taking out scripts in coffee shops, because I feel like a bit of a w*nker. The next thing, Tommy walks in the door, and I think ‘brilliant!’. Michael Sands is also a friend of mine, and he’s probably played more than anyone else at this stage. He’s been in dozens of pantos here, and in the Everyman, and I’m really excited to be doing it with him.”

Taking the play, a three-man piece with limited props, from the ‘round’ of the Granary and the smaller stage of the Everyman, to the generous proportions of the Opera House’s boards, would present anyone else with the question of how best to fill that space, and make the most of the historic venue’s facilities. For Casey, however, that negative space around his show’s characters presents an opportunity to maximise its visual impact and complement his story, allowing audiences to fill the spaces themselves. “That’s probably saying more for their isolation as characters, to be honest with you. We’re still on the outside, looking in on them. It was probably more ‘under the microscope’ as an actor, in the Granary and the Everyman because they were up our noses. There’s a moment in the show where, without giving too much away, where ‘the wall’ is very much broken. People didn’t realise we were acting within the scene, they thought the play was falling apart. We can make it maybe a little bit bigger. I’m glad that we did it in a small venue, and now we have it here, and we’re looking at taking it on tour later in the year, see how it does in other houses. We’re doing Skibbereen as well, I’m excited about that!”

When he isn’t working on his stagecraft, Casey has used his influence and the wide reach his acting has garnered him to advocate for awareness of mental health and stress among teenagers, following on from parental testimonies on ‘The Young Offenders’’ inherent inter-generational appeal. In his mind, opening up the conversation about the world around our young people, and the pressures that have always gone hand-in-hand with adolescence, is the first step. Casey draws from his own experiences prior to entering the performing arts, and has come away from his school workshops on the matter with some profound experiences and perspectives. “We’re opening up the floor to them, to have a conversation, suggesting things that they could do. It’s an experience-based workshop, based on the mistakes I’ve made in my life and the life I’ve led so far, what I need to do to be productive and happy within myself. That’s the most important thing. It’s very easy for kids to feel like sh*t about themselves, I know what it’s like to go home and sit on my phone for four hours, thinking everyone else’s life is perfect. I’m going in and being honest them, ‘cause I’m not the finished article at all. They think that when you’re an adult, everything’s over and you have everything made, they don’t realise you have problems and troubles. We need to sit down and talk about their problems and troubles as well. We had a lovely moment the other day, I asked a group, ‘how many people have somebody they can turn to if they really need help?’, and nobody put their hands up, and that was worrying. But we turned the tables on them and asked, ‘if somebody needs help, would yoy help them?’, and they all put their hands up. We’ve a lovely saying at the workshops, ‘don’t go the butcher for a haircut’. A lot of them get confused at the very start, but it’s about going to the right person for help at the right time.”

It must be an odd reverse-engineering of those experiences with mental health, then, to pour everything into portraying Billy Murphy, the Young Offenders’ eternal menace, rival and eventual anti-hero. Initially portrayed as protagonists Conor and Jock’s near-psychotic local bully, pursuing the pair over comeuppance received at the end of the original film, Murphy slowly becomes a sympathetic figure as the subsequent TV show progresses. He’s shown to be profoundly out of his depth when holding bus-goers hostage in the series’ infamous finale, and is ultimately shown as the product of parental neglect, mental ill-health and the wider social issues affecting inner-city areas and their infrastructure. With the responsibility that comes with such a large platform, Casey’s approach, similar to his other work, is to create a blank canvas for others to project their experiences onto. “Everything was there on the page from Peter (Foott, Young Offenders director). It’s well-documented at this stage that he lets us do a bit of improvisation, but Peter knows me for years, and what I can contribute as an actor. The character was there, and we knew there was more to him than the stereotypical guy that punches somebody. I very much wanted to have a struggle within the guy that if he does punch someone, that he goes ‘oh, tell your mam I was asking for her’, afterwards. I thought that was an interesting angle. Any time I ever saw a lad get into trouble, especially in relation to violence, he was kind-of beating himself up, more than anybody else, afterwards. I don’t think anyone goes out, punches someone and feels great about it. I think there is a sinister side to him as well, where he does take a little bit of enjoyment out of it, but there’s a pinch of salt to it.”

This coming summer will see the show’s second series enter filming around the city. While the details of the show’s next steps are of course under tight wraps, it’s evident that between the upcoming shoots and ‘Wet Paint’s continued run around Cork county, Casey has enough happening to keep him busy in the coming year. “It’s going to go again, that’s all I know. The kids and teenagers I meet are crying out for another series. The more we can get done, the better. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll get the one-percent of people coming up to me (saying so), but it’s like, ‘ye’re not the demographic’, like. Peter has assembled a brilliant team of people on cast and crew. Somebody put the headline that there’s a ‘love-in’ between all of us, and I’ll stand by that, I’m very fond of everyone I work with on that show.”

On a parting note, Casey makes time before he heads to a production meeting for an anecdote on the real strength of ‘The Young Offenders’ wide-ranging appeal. “A prominent person in this city, a television person, told me that they would sit down every Thursday night with their son and watch the show, and it would become a real bonding moment for them. It was really nice, as a family to do that. I thought that was really nice. The therapeutic quality the show has. Sitting down to watch one episode and being able to switch off, from their phones and the pressure they’re put under at school. I’m very happy to be involved in a show like that, and at the very least – kids are having a laugh.”

‘Wet Paint’ runs at Cork Opera House, at 8pm nightly from Wednesday March 20th to Saturday 23rd, with a special matinee show at 3pm on the Saturday. Tickets €21-27 are available from the venue’s box office, and corkoperahouse.com.

Tommy Tiernan: “There’s a Real Skill In It”

Ahead of his show at the Marquee this weekend, Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with comedy legend Tommy Tiernan about the process and new challenges.

It’s strange to look at Tommy Tiernan and see an elder statesman for Irish comedy. A product of the last golden age of the genre in the country, the Navan man’s routines, delivery and at-times unhinged stage demeanour made him one of the stars of stand-up as the nineties wended their way out to the new millennium. Constant touring, television appearances, radio and a string of best-selling DVDs placed Tiernan in the mainstream, but what’s kept him there has been his innate ability to tell stories, an inborn talent for communication, functioning as well before a crowd of thousands as in the country’s intimate venues.

It’s been a career marked by a steady supply of new challenges. Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’ came from out of nowhere earlier this year to become a ratings hit here in Ireland, and a cult sensation across the water. Set in the last years of the Troubles, the show sees a group of teenage girls overcome the challenges, heartbreak and hilarity of growing up amid border checks and social tension. In something of a full-circle moment, Tiernan found himself cast as a cranky but doting father. He gets into the challenges and upsides of the role.

“My big thing was, I knew it would be funny in the North, knew it would be funny in the South, but would it be funny in England? Did the English have any way of finding it funny, did they have any reference points? Mainland England can laugh at stuff from Newcastle, Liverpool, but I didn’t know would they laugh at something from Derry. The other thing for me was learning how to act (laughs). Learning how to be funny on the small-screen. You think of brilliant comic performers like Bill Murray, Will Ferrell… Leonard Rossiter, the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’, Basil Fawlty. This is all very old-school, but there’s a real skill in it. Just because you can be funny on-stage, doesn’t mean you can do that on telly. And with telly, sometimes you can be left without direction. Directors are concerned with the camera, and the performance is left up to you. But (director) Mike Lennox was always on hand, which was great”

‘Derry Girls’ comes along right as a few other new comedy challengers surface on telly on either side of the water. Much has been made over here of ‘The Young Offenders’, of course, while Alison Spittle’s midlands-based kidulthood treatise ‘Nowhere Fast’ placed the much-loved podcaster and comedienne on the prime-time telly map. It’s been an exciting year for sitcom in Ireland, and though they’ve achieved success, Tiernan is reluctant to use the ‘mainstream’ tag on any of them just yet. “Quality will always out. If it’s good people will come to it. Everybody liked ‘Derry Girls’, and I think for people who like indie, left-of-centre comedy, there’s plenty of it out there but I don’t know how much of it crosses over to the mainstream. Reeves and Mortimer had a sitcom on the BBC that only shot two series, but I swear it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but nobody watched it. There’s the problem of making something that is brilliant, but it doesn’t translate. I think ‘Derry Girls’ did. And you get stuff in the mainstream that indie, left-of-centre people will have no time for. I remember Ardal O’Hanlon did ‘My Hero’. Indie people mightn’t have liked that, but it had a huge audience in England. It’s an odd thing.”

Tiernan’s had his own turn in the television hotseat as of late also, with The Tommy Tiernan Show premiering last year on RTÉ One. An unscripted chat show, Tiernan is presented with a series of guests with whom to converse in usual talking-shop fashion. He’s just not told who any of them are in advance. “I got the idea in a hotel room in the North of England. I was on tour at the time, and the following morning, I ran it by my tour manager, I said ‘what do you think?’, she says, ‘yeah, that’s good’. So, I sat on it for ages. Then I brought it to a radio producer, an old friend of mine, and the first year of it went to radio. The idea is so simple. It’s one of those things. You’re not offering people something convoluted.”

As a journalist asking about Irish comedy on telly, you almost hate to ask anyone about ‘Father Ted’. As many careers as the show made in the mid-to-late nineties, it’s also cast a shadow of its own across Irish comedy over the years, as the yardstick to which all attempted comedic incursions on the mainstream are compared. Tiernan’s moment on the show came as it was wrapping up its final season, with final episode ‘Going to America’ proving to be a poignant passing of the torch. Portraying emotionally hard-pressed young priest Fr. Kevin, his interactions with Dermot Morgan’s tragicomic Fr. Ted etched themselves into the Irish lexicon. Tiernan gets into the nitty-gritty of working on the hallowed set. “It was bizarre to find myself in the sitting room of the house on Craggy Island. It’d be like finding yourself in the Rover’s Return, or the bar in Cheers. A very odd experience. The scene on the bus, where I find myself getting very sad listening to Radiohead, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews were on either side of the camera. And I say, ‘this is too much, it’s way over the top’. They say ‘no, this is great’. You have to give me some sort of guide as to when to increase the sadness, so they’re there alongside, going ‘more, more, more… more’. It was very practical. It wasn’t some sort of one-take wonder. ‘Sadder… even sadder’.”

Fast-forward to 2018, and Tiernan is touring new show ‘Under the Influence’, currently honing it in smaller venues around the country before going to big arenas and taking the new material international. Over the past decade or so, Tiernan’s show has dealt with getting older, social changes, his family changing and the maladies of middle age. How has his creative process changed, as his perspective has? “I write a weekly article now, and that’s been great for getting me to sit down and boil things down. The new show, now, I’ve had to sit down and write it, as opposed to coming at something with half the idea. So it’s just wrestling with those two things. The old approach of doing most of it onstage, and the rigorous building of a show word-by-word”.

In recent years, the tried-and-true stand-up model of touring, panels and a Christmas DVD that sustained many comedians for a long time, has given way to the likes of Netflix specials, as well as podcasts like Alison Spittle and Blindboy’s. Tiernan is of course no stranger to diversifying his output for different media, including stints with RTÉ Radio and a weekly column in a certain national broadsheet, so asking his opinion on what next for the model reveals an interesting insight to how Tiernan views the whole enterprise. “It all boils down to an audience and a performer. That was the way music was until they introduced vinyl, and it became possible for musicians to earn money without leaving the house. The album sells, they get the money, they tour. But the original contract was, the performer and the audience. And in stand-up, that’s the contract. Everything else… some people are attracted to podcasts, some people are attracted to sitcoms. The only thing you can justifiably demand as a stand-up, is an audience. That’s it. You’re not entitled to the rest of it. Microphone. Crowd. Room. Material. That’s it.”

Tiernan heads back to the Marquee this weekend, as part of the docklands’ annual summer offering, after a brace of small shows at West Cork music venues. He’s candid about the process of scaling up material to account for the difference between Connolly’s and the Marquee. “I didn’t know how to play them until last year, those big rooms. You end up over-extending, and forcing it. I decided that what I wanted was to have fun, and then figured out how to have fun with 4,000 people. A fantastic experience. I’m in Connolly’s of Leap (tonight) and DeBarra’s of Clonakilty (tomorrow), so going from 150 people then to 4,000 on Saturday. How do I have fun, how to give people a good night out? I wouldn’t like to play either venue all the time. The room totally affects the performance, but it’s staying in control of the fun element that makes it enjoyable.”

It’s a busy time for a reluctant statesman for Irish comedy, with the next stage in the ‘Derry Girls’ success story just over the horizon, and the unending tour continuing apace. “I’m working on the new show until October, ‘til we record the new series of ‘Derry Girls’. Then hopefully the new show will be good enough to take to the bigger rooms. We’ll keep going… keep talking (laughs).”

Al Foran: “I Had the Opportunity to Show Off”

Comedian and impersonator Al Foran has gone from aping movie-star accents in his living room to social media success and involvement in McGregormania. As his new stage show heads for the Opera House, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with Foran about his rise and the effects of socials on stand-up in 2018.

Social media has changed comedy utterly in the past decade or so, with the methods of delivery and writing for sketches and observations changing to fit multiple platforms with distinct audiences. While the Rubberbandits’ wanton acts of Dadaism were a natural fit for YouTube and early watercooler-talk virality, and Alison Spittle has found her footing via a joyous series of podcasts for Irish network Headstuff, the Irish tradition of impersonations seemed lost, or at least committed to old media. Enter Dubliner Al Foran. With a following of over 310,000 Facebook users, regular appearances on RTÉ’s Funny Friday, and his status as a staple for visual contributions to Joe.ie as well as the banter-industrial complex of ‘lad’ pages on social media, Foran seems ideally positioned to ruffle feathers. With over a hundred separate voices in his repertoire of comedic impressions, his storytelling relies on sitcom premises such as crossovers and farce to add new context to the appearances of regular targets like Conor McGregor, Roy Keane and Éamon Dunphy.

For all this pop-cultural literacy and social media savvy, though, the foundations of Foran’s career were laid early on in life, in a household where the markers of a growing and globalising pop and sporting culture were a constant amid the bustle. Sat in the Opera House’s quayside Elbow Room, he recounts his earliest comedic ventures. “Every impersonator will tell you this, they would mimic their family, the aunties and uncles at the family weddings. The parties, the 40ths, the 30ths, the 21sts. That’s what I did, as a young kid. At my parents’ wedding in 2002, at the top table, I got up and did maybe a 15-minute set impersonating my uncles, my mam, my dad, my older brother. It started with that. I had a knack for it. As for famous people, I was maybe in my teens, but I watched a lot of movies, a lot of television, and I would pick up on the voices. I watched a lot of football, and I started impersonating Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, and all those characters.”

Fast-forward a few years, and suddenly the media of television and film were robbed of their ubiquity and command over household entertainment – social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were accessible across everything from phones to videogame machines, and freed of the constraints of network broadcasting and its standards & practices, Foran set about getting to work on refining his craft and reaching people. “Eight years ago, I started putting up my videos on YouTube. I did my first gig when I was eighteen, in my local community centre, and I started sending videos from there, to 98FM, TodayFM, 2FM: they’d get nowhere, obviously. While social media did have a presence, there weren’t many ‘content creators’, so, for a few years, I did film production in college, and in 2014 I set my Facebook page and it was there that I had my opportunity to show off my repertoire of impressions. See, there was Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan for a long time, and they were on the two biggest stations on the country. So it was hard to get my own work out there. People will say, ‘oh, it’s a talent’, but you have to work at it and improve it”.

For the democratising effect that social media has had in allowing talent to reach a wider audience, the relative security for high-performing stand-ups is all but gone for a new generation in Ireland – the club shows mightn’t always lead to the tours, which, in turn, effectively no longer lead to chart-topping DVDs, panel shows, and the attendant trappings, advances and royalties. Foran assesses a changed working environment. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s given guys that are so talented – Enya Martin, Rory Stories – they’re doing all these relatable sketches and putting them out to thousands of people. It’s changing everywhere, the US, the UK, but it’s a lot more prevalent in Ireland. Social media comedians are getting a lot more traction. The guys in the UK have millions of followers, but they’re all still online, no-one’s made the move to stand-up yet. And looking at it overall, there’s maybe one show and the soccer that people are watching on television, the rest are streaming on Netflix, and (the likes of) Facebook are going to introduce streaming services.”

Foran’s international star turn came last year, amid the hype and hustle of the eventual boxing match between former WBA champion Floyd Mayweather and Irish UFC icon Conor McGregor. Turning up at a spoken word show of Mayweather’s in London, initially as a support act, Foran’s ‘McGregor’ later surfaced during the Q&A at the end of the show, issuing a ‘challenge’ for the later-confirmed and subsequently much-ballyhooed contest. It sent Foran stratospheric in the days after, with footage from the event making its way around the world. “I was invited over to perform, to warm up with a few little impressions, and he got told that there was a lad that impersonated Conor at the event. He didn’t see me at all, when I performed. But he said to the organiser, ‘let that guy come on stage to me at the end of the Q&A, let him ask questions.’ Lo and behold, I got asked all this, and it was just, (gasps audibly) Jesus Christ. The only interaction we had was on-stage. I’m critical of the video – I didn’t like my Trump impression, but the Mike Tyson, he was very happy with. I got a little fist-bump off him for that!”

Foran’s new show, ‘Impersonate This!’ sees him arm himself with the full arsenal of celebrity impersonations at his disposal for a full stage show. In addition to his Irish pop-culture references, the voices of international political figures, movie stars and sporting heroes are plucked from their lives of luxury and slammed together in unusual or unfortunate situations, and Foran is ready to make it happen. “When people see me on social media, they see, at the click of a finger, impression after impression after impression. We’re gonna make that longer, with more sketches and a lot of VT. We’re going to make use of the video wall (we have), as it’s effective and as a one-man show, I do need a bit of help from the screen. I’ll be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”

The Opera House might present its own challenges for solo artists, but so too does it represent something of an arrival Leeside for Foran – and a homecoming for his family on the night of March 30th. “Sentiment. My grandparents on my mam’s side are from Cork, and my grandmother was a soprano, and performed at the Opera House. Many years ago, she sang here. It’s a big thing for my family, especially that side. So that will be a nice touch. And I love Corkonians. They’re just straight in their views and their opinions, no bullsh*t. I love it. I look forward to it.”

Alison Spittle: “It’s Weird, Trying to Make a Career as a Comedian”

She’s arguably Irish comedy’s brightest light, with the first series of ‘Nowhere Fast’ doing well on RTÉ, and a weekly podcast beloved by her cult following. Alison Spittle sits down with Mike McGrath-Bryan for a chat about telly, podcasting, and sharing with others.

Life for a stand-up comedian is vastly different from that of the genre’s cultural highpoint during the onslaught of the Celtic Tiger, with a number of different hats to be worn and headspaces to occupy, to stay active and engaged. As we chat over the phone, Alison Spittle is relaxed, on a bus from Dublin to Belfast ahead of a gig there, before bisecting the country for a gig in DeBarra’s the following night. The tour, for new show ‘Worrier Princess’, follows the debut of her RTÉ Two show ‘Nowhere Fast’, whose first series wrapped up on Christmas Eve. Spittle is happy with how it’s been received, and how her ideas have been brought to life. “It’s been lovely. On Twitter, people have been excited about a comedy set in the Midlands. I never really had an ‘identity’ before this, I just wrote about stuff I observed, but there’s a kinship there, with my village that I come from. Everyone’s so nice there, my mam still texts me with what someone said in the local shop, etc. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positivity I’ve received, and it’s given me a lot more confidence to go and do other stuff. I’m proud. Not many people get to make a TV series.”

The show focuses on the emergent pop-culture trope of the ‘boomerang generation’ of undergrads, returning home to live with family after the current job and rent situations proved too much. Were there any misgivings that ‘Nowhere Fast’ might come a tad close to home for people our own age, considering the current circumstances and apparent tone-deafness from on high in recent weeks re: deposits, etc? “I feel there’s a massive lack of empathy in the media for people of our generation. It’s like, ‘we all partied’, even though I was fourteen when you partied, so I wasn’t really involved in the party! If we bring that up then, we’re seen as moaners, or whingers. It’s just ridiculous, to shut up and take it and live in austerity. But we make stuff. I made a TV show. But I didn’t think I was being very zeitgeist-y when I was writing, I just wrote about moving back home with the parents, because that’s what I did! D’you know what it feels like? Ireland was like a great house party, and we managed to get a taxi at four o’clock in the morning, and the hosts just wanted us to leave. ‘Would ye not go to Australia?’ Sometimes I don’t feel welcome. But the people who chose to stay are very hardy, and are trying to make a life for themselves.”

Spittle’s new live show, ‘Worrier Princess’, is a show about just that: worrying. Examining the likes of anxiety, fear, and alienation must surely have presented a challenge to get across in a relatable, never mind, funny fashion, but in the tradition of observational humour, Spittle pokes gentle fun of personal and societal experience. “I worry, like I was worrying about whether comedy is a ‘proper job’, and writing a stand-up show about that seems like a natural thing to do. I was worried about having a TV show, because when you’re doing stand-up for €15 a night for five years, you think, ‘oh, I’ll get the TV show, and the tour, and it’ll be grand’. And then you get that and you realise you’re not grand, because it brings a whole set of new worries. It’s weird, trying to make a career as a comedian. You’ll get in a taxi and you’ll mention to the driver that you’re a comedian, and they’ll turn around and say, ‘y’know who I don’t like?’. People are very negative about comedy, you don’t get that with music, you don’t say ‘I hate them’. Comedy is very different, but when you’re doing it and people start coming to see you, it’s the best feeling in the world, that your job is to make each of these people happy.”

Spittle is best known to the Irish internet sphere for her podcast with Dublin on-demand audio network Headstuff. A lot of the show’s success is down to Spittle, free of broadcast restraints, getting to engage in the scutting that a raw, off-the-cuff interview format allows for. And it is off-the-cuff: Spittle takes a point of pride in going out on stage with an empty sheet of notes. “Y’know what? When I’m doing the podcast, I just love having the chats with people. I feel that being researched or prepared would make it less chatty, but I also don’t know if that’s just me giving myself an excuse for laziness. I do sweet F.A. about prep. I’ll get someone like Tommy Tiernan on as well, I had him, and they’ll turn around and interview me! When you get off the notes, it’s more interesting… sometimes I’m not good at interviewing, too, sometimes I’ll be tired or angry at myself. Like, if I don’t do it in front of an audience, I mean, it’s enjoyable, but it’s far better in front of an audience, because I try to be better. You can actually feel the energy off a crowd (when you’re chatting with) Colm O’Gorman or someone, and being reverential on stage, but also funny.”

Spittle’s fantastic journey stops at Quarter Block Party on February 3rd, where the ‘Worrier Princess’ stops into the Spailpín Fánach on South Main Street, and furthers a rapport with the city built over years of gigging. “I’ve seen their website, really well-designed and put together. Really interested to see how it goes down. Normally at a festival, you’re up on stage early in front of people that are nursing themselves back to health, having a lie down and a good laugh. But I’m doing my own show (with people there specifically for it), so I’m super-excited. I just can’t get over how packed Cork is, how full of great independent restaurants and independent shops, it’s a beautiful city. Every time I go to Cork, I always find a place I think ‘I have to come back here next time’. Incredible.”

Hardy Bucks: Riding Again

Ahead of their return to screens in 2018, Co. Mayo’s finest are hitting the road with a new show, including a session out in Connolly’s of Leap. Mike McGrath-Bryan somehow emerges unscathed from a conversation with Eddie Durkan and Buzz McDonnell.

The air of television and film superstardom is rarefied stuff to be breathing. The whirls of handlers, the fawning of press professionals, the gaping maw of the general public; a lesser man could easily buy into the hype machine’s latest whirrings and emerge having made a loss, a hollow, purposeless parody of himself. But neither Eddie Durkan or Buzz McDonnell, proud Mayo men and certified Hardy Bucks, is a lesser man on this day. Having survived years of endless summers of drinking, smoking and being embroiled in petty misdemeanours, the Castletown, Co. Mayo natives that came to define the documentary genre for recession-era Ireland are due back on our screens soon, with confirmation on this coming directly from McDonnell: “There’ll be a new series coming out in January, please God and all the saints. Four episodes of high-grade pipe talk.”

Before all that, though, the lads are due to grace the country’s gig venues with their presence in a new live show, the ominously-titled ‘The Hardy Bucks Steal Christmas’, over the course of the holiday season. The cameras might be back on the lads after a break, but for Eddie, an early Irish pioneer of what’s now called the gig economy, the grind is constant. “We’ll be doing a bit of workin’ alright. Workin’ on the pints and turkey sandwiches. Maybe watching the back of the eyelids. And they call me Eddie “Never Workin'” Durkan. The absolute cheek of them.” Perhaps in light of the title of the show, Buzz is quick to reassure your writer (upon inquiry) that Christmas, will, in fact, remain resolutely in place, and that the show’s name is an attempt to wrest the seasons away from the interests of capitalism, rather than a confession to the actual theft of Christmas and its iconography. “Christmas can never go bye-bye. It’s inside all of us. And not in a sexual way, but in a very innocent ‘let’s be kind to each other’ way. The only thing we’d steal is the odd pint, or if we found money on the street, and nobody wanted it. Salmon once had planned to rob a post office, but he slept in.”

It seems to be the core group of rural Mayo’s finest doing the rounds this time around, but the lads aren’t ruling out returns from the extended citizenry of Castletown and surrounding areas. Says Eddie: “You wouldn’t know who’s coming in and out of the Hardy Bucks these days. It’s like Lillie’s Bordello sometimes, with all the hard men and superstars trying to get a slice of the power pie”. While inquiries as to certain characters are dismissed quickly by besieged and visibly tired public-relations staffers, and the boys visibly shuffle in their seats, the question of whatever happened to Castletown’s resident moonchild, Ladybird, is deemed acceptable. “Ladybird is over in Ibiza on a Manumission tour, so we don’t hear anything from her these days”, says Eddie, after a long draw on a hastily-constructed rollie. “Buzz was meant to meet her a few months back, but he got cold feet and chickened out. She sent Buzz a picture of them shifting last Xmas, which Buzz keeps in the attic for emergencies.”

A major part of the lads’ new live show, according to promoter Cormac Daly, is the topic of getting older: hitting your mid-thirties and making sense of the world, and all of its changes at a very weird time for society in general. Whether we’re going to see a wiser or more savvy Hardy Bucks in action out in Leap, however, is in question, according to Eddie. “Unfortunately, you’ll see physically older Hardy Bucks. I doubt our brains have caught up with the our deteriorating good looks. That’s why hitting the punch bag is essential.” On this important point, Buzz begs to differ. “Well, we’ve all matured over the years, mostly thanks to listening to Joe Rogan. He’s been like a father to us and helped our development so much”.

With the newfound maturity and clarity that age and a position of influence has granted the boys, it’s natural to wonder if they’ve had the inclination to look back on the last few years, the effect that fame and the series has had on their own lives. Eddie looks back on their whirlwind success, from YouTube to RTÉ to storming the silver screen in 2012, as just reward for a lifetime’s hard work. “Being famous in Ireland is like trying to stuff twelve lads into a Volkswagen Passat. It’s first come, first served. We never got any handy numbers from RTÉ like Tubridy and all those other people, sitting around on contract, absorbing tax-payer money for knocking about in a corridor all day. I’d be happy doing that!” Meanwhile, life for the citizenry of Castletown, the small Mayo village where the lads ply various trades for cash in claw, has changed since it was first showcased to the world almost a decade ago, according to Buzz. “We got a few new shops. We had an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant that closed down inside a week ’cause we ate everything around us, there was a massage parlour that did so well she apparently made a million quid in one year and retired. We also got a vape shop called Planet of the Vapes that’s doing really well, it’s being run by a man from the Lebanon who’s mad for pints.”

As mentioned earlier, the lads are heading to Connolly’s of Leap on the 23rd of December, as part of touring for the new show. While one readily assumes that the consumption of copious amounts of tinned beverages presents no issues to any of the crew, the gig will be the lads’ first sojourn under the McNicholl family’s famous hammers. Buzz remains undaunted. “We’ve all done time down in Cork. Love the place. Never been to this venue, but the first time you do anything is always the best. So in saying that, we’re confident that this will be the best gig anyone has ever seen.” Time wears on, and with PR people conspicuously ushering the next in a queue of arts journalists through the door, Eddie is compelled to throw in a quick few words for fans in Cork before we wrap up hurriedly. “We love ye to bits. And thank you for all your continued support over the years. Haven’t been to Leap before. I never heard of the place to be honest. But any time spent in Cork is quality time, and we’re looking forward to raising the roof & reuniting wth you afterwards. ‘Hon the lushers! Echo! Echo!”

Rubberbandits: Horse Sense

After selling out one show and announcing a second for St. Luke’s, the Rubberbandits top off a banner year with a trip to Cork. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with Blindboy Boatclub ahead of their Leeside engagements.

It has to have been an exhausting year for Limerick comedy/performance-art duo The Rubberbandits. The duo of Blindboy Boatclub and Mr. Chrome, along with collaborators, have been at it for years, but their groundswell of support and grassroots influence has grown massively. Progressing from prank-calls and early tunes to post-austerity commentary, the Rubberbandits have made their thickly-accented voices heard, most notably the anti-materialism of 2012’s Horse Outside, and last year’s Dad’s Best Friend, a chilling examination of male mental health issues in modern Ireland.

The Rubberbandits’ Guide has just finished up after a four-episode run on RTÉ, that followed last year’s Rubberbandits’ Guide to 1916. A series of explainers, the show takes on overarching social and philosophical issues, from the nature of reality itself, to addressing Ireland’s changing attitudes to sex. It does so while taking in the spectrum of the Bandits’ self-created universe; the boys take slightly off-kilter advice from puppet odd couple Beckett and Joyce, and are witness to the ongoing self-inflicted suffering of the Trout of No Craic. But rather than an exercise in injokes, the Bandits cast their net out wide in balancing comedy and comment. The Irish pub/nightclub is recast as Attenborough-esque point of observation; reality stars sit befuddled as the pair test their perceptions of reality; and the early internet is characterised as a pond, replete with various dodgy activity in the reeds and pirated Metallica C.D.s floating at the surface.

The duo have dealt with RTÉ before in different capacities, but the question is, how different was it to get a show as far-reaching as Rubberbandits’ Guide to RTÉ, getting stuff green-lit, etc.? “We had complete creative control with the show. That’s the only conditions we’d work under. We know exactly what we want to do and how to do it, we rarely need outside help. At this stage, we’ve proven ourselves internationally enough for RTÉ to fuck off and leave us to our own devices. That’s what we did.”

An underrated aspect of the Guides has been the soundtrack – metal veterans Deftones, Nigerian synth-funk maestro William Onyeabor and vaporwave figurehead Macintosh Plus feature prominently, among others. Who managed to sneak those past RTÉ’s music department? “We had full creative control. RTÉ is great for music, in fairness, they have a blanket licence on everything except The Beatles. I’m a huge music fan, obviously. I love how a piece of music can change the tone of a scene on TV. We also knew that there were no plans for a DVD release, which would have meant losing the music in favour of library tracks, so we went mad with tunes. Picked some savage stuff for it. Samuel Beckett shooting James Joyce in the head while he’s listening to Deftones is what the TV license fee was made for.”

Another major piece of the Bandits’ year was providing ITV’s comedy contest show Almost Impossible Gameshow with play-by-play commentary and colour analysis. Blindboy addresses the subject of any concerns from producers unaccustomed to the duo, as to their voices, senses of humour, etc., while breaching how MTV been to deal with, for the American adaptation. “The UK version was great craic, we got to be very subversive with our humour for that. The American one that’s showing on MTV at the moment is a pile of shit, I won’t even watch it. We just did it to earn a few quid. The type of thing we were going for just doesn’t work with Yanks.”

But more so than any professional aspect of the duo’s body of work, the defining aspect of the year for the Bandits has to have been their increased visibility in Irish media, pertaining to mental health and the crisis we have at present. It’s a topic that official Ireland stayed silent on for a very long time before public discourse finally necessitated that discussion. Blindboy talks about how that has changed, and the Bandits’ role in that discussion, looking back on the last 12 months in particular. “We view ourselves as socially engaged artists. We view art, not just as a way to affect social change. The mental health crisis in Ireland is something that affects ourselves and all of our friends. So fuck that, if no one else was going to talk about it, then we would. None of the stuff that I say about mental health is novel or original, I’m just regurgitating what I’ve read from psychology books. We should be asking why our politicians aren’t informed on this stuff, rather than focusing on why I am.”

The other question pertaining to the topic is the now-hackneyed assertion that “the man with the bag on his face makes more sense than the man in the suit”. Boatclub and Chrome have utilised the lines between comedy and commentary expertly, but what further role does Blindboy see for artistic practice in Ireland as a tool of discourse and change, given the relative lack of support from officialdom, and where does he see the discussion going? “I think, with the internet, artists don’t need any support to get their stuff out there. To earn a living they might need support, but to create change, all you need is a message and the Internet.”

Boatclub and Chrome have been practicing artists from a very young age, and they’ve changed medium with the times, turning juvenile scutting into a fully-fledged, ‘dole-queue Dada’ artistic school of thought. But where next for Gas Cuntism? “We haven’t a clue, that’s half the craic. We’re both fairly handy visual artists. I can paint, and Mr. Chrome can sculpt. I’d say we might give that a lash. But there’s still loads to be done with music, theatre and writing.”

After selling out their first date on the 22nd of this month, the boys are playing St. Luke’s for a newly-announced second show on the 21st. After the big year it’s been, what can we expect from the live show this time around? “Two apes from Limerick wearing plastic bags on their heads, singing a load of songs about greyhounds, and a shower of eejits from Cork in the audience loving it.” And as an arguable career year comes to a close behind them, Blindboy is to the point about what further to expect from the Rubberbandits in 2017. “I’m writing a book and we’ll have a lash at a musical.”

Your writer and Blindboy have spoken before about Cork, before their Everyman performance of musical Continental Fistfight, and his feelings on the city. Blindboy further considers his relationship with the real capital, through the prism of his own home city. “Cork is class, it has the feeling of Limerick about it. But ye’ve a better buzz and ye have yere shit together. It’s like watching an older brother get a mortgage, while we’re still smoking rollies and combing our pubes.”

As our interview time draws to a close, one question remains to be asked, and that’s the plight of the Bandits’ close associate (and Salmon of Knowledge relative) the Trout of No Craic. Seemingly mired in his own ever-worsening misery, he reached his nadir during the Guides series, engaging in sexist & transphobic outbursts, and letting his various urges destroy his relationships. Blindboy, with a heaving sigh, simply proffers: “He’s trapped in the prison of his own negativity. The key to his escape is compassion, but he’s too busy sucking boobs for that.”

The Rubberbandits play St. Luke’s on the 21st of December, with CCCahoots in support. Tickets €25 from uticket.ie.

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.”