My Cultural Life: Kevin McAleer

The Tyrone funnyman on losing his religion, the strangeness of the human brain and why reality TV theme tunes would be the soundtrack in his personal hell

Since getting his big break on RTE’s Nighthawks, comedian Kevin McAleer has been telling hilariously deadpan rustic yarns for over a quarter of a century. His sublime wit, slow County Tyrone drawl and forays into paranoiac delusion have left audiences the length and breadth of Ireland with sore diaphragms and possibly a renewed appreciation of the terrible truth - that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Kevin’s 2008 act Chalk & Cheese questioned the weird machinations of hotel room intruders fond of miniature soaps and making beds, the effrontery of the electricity board bugging his home (why else did they put wires everywhere?) and the infrequent arrival of ransom demands from Save the Children.

McAleer’s hyper-paranoid persona knows the world is watching him and duly wears his foil-lined crash helmet to stop spies picking up transmissions. All this absurdist comedy is delivered in the dilatory manner of a farmer telling a stalling tale while leaning on a gate, chewing a blade of grass. The Sunday Times credit the Omagh man with having put the 'pan in deadpan - others say he put the dead bit in; someone else said he put the 'nse' in nonsense.

What are your most vivid memories of childhood?

My mother going off in an ambulance when I was two, saying don't worry I'll be back in a few days. She came back in a black taxi with a white bundle containing my baby sister.  A big clock on the wall in primary school which crawled around slowly every day from 9am to 3pm. A feeling of intense boredom and impatience watching it move. Going to see JFK's funeral on TV at a neighbour's house in 1963, the first time I saw TV. We didn't have electricity until 1968. The funeral was very boring, but the adverts were amazing. Throwing a stone at a small bird in a hedge, and feeling very sad when I scored a direct hit and killed it.

You grew up in rural Omagh, in a Catholic household. How did this affect your development?

I'd like to think a lot of fear and boredom could have been avoided by not being exposed to the nonsense about hell and sin that was inflicted on us as children. I was 18 before I stopped believing in all the Catholic stuff, and it was a great weight off my mind. I remember being very disturbed by the notion of eternity as a child, even an eternity in heaven. I used to think that kids were naughty and that grown-ups were good, and that if you managed not to die until you were an adult, you'd be ok in the afterlife. What a twisted world-view to teach a child.

Which subjects were you top and bottom of the class in at school?

I was good at English and languages, and bad at maths and science.

When did it become clear to you that you were destined for a life in comedy?

I drifted into comedy in my mid-20s. I did an open-spot at a club in Dublin - I didn't have any material but I got a few laughs, and I was completely hooked after that. Then I moved to London and there were dozens of clubs there, and suddenly there was a chance of making a living doing something I enjoyed.

Your style has been likened to the madcap whimsy of Flann O'Brien and the absurdism of Samuel Beckett. What writers have influenced your comedy most?

I'm not aware of being influenced by any one person, but I'll take those comparisons any day. I remember reading Spike Milligan's novels in my early teens, and hearing Ivor Cutler reading his stuff on John Peel's radio shows. I like Nikolai Gogol a lot, and his short story 'Diary of a Madman' was the spark for my Chalk & Cheese persona, full of paranoia and delusions and comic nonsense.

Do you think comedy is an important way of critiquing the weird parts of human behaviour?

I think all parts of human behaviour are weird. We are a very strange species, and the human brain is a very strange instrument, thinking is a strange pastime, and language is like a very interesting toy.

Describe the feeling you get when an audience is helplessly hysterical because of your deadpan wit.

When I'm on stage I'm concentrating too hard on what's coming next to enjoy the laughs. I get a nice high after the show from a good audience - I wouldn't sleep for several hours afterwards, and I feel like I've run a race.

Has a gig ever flopped monumentally and, if so, how do you keep your cool?

I've had my share of duds. You just have to keep going, try not to speed up, which is very tempting, just to get it over with. And remind yourself of all the gigs that went well.

Which comedians do you most admire?

Stewart Lee is my favourite comedian; I could listen to his material many times and savour it, like you would enjoy your favourite songs or poems. His writing is just so good. I like Michael McIntyre. It seems a lot of comedians look down their nose at him, but not me. I couldn't listen to him over and over again mind you. I also like Paul Whitehouse in the Fast Show, Simon Munnery, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Larry Sanders Show.

Is it true that most comedians are secret depressives?

Not me anyway. I had a very low-key childhood, so life just gets better and better after that.

Who would you bring to an ideal dinner party, if you could invite anyone at all, alive or dead?

Lee Harvey Oswald.

Favourite book?

Underworld by Don deLillo.

Favourite film?

Pulp Fiction.

What kind of music do you enjoy and what kind do you think they play in hell?

Nirvana, Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Grainne Duffy. In hell they'd play all the big reality TV ballads on a loop. Luckily there is no afterlife.

What inspires your comedic genius?

A very loaded question - being alive, and allowing things to mull around in the back of your head for years until they re-emerge as something interesting.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To broaden its mind.

Kevin McAleer performs at the Mandela Hall QUBSU on February 3 at 9pm and the Burnavon, Cookstown on February 19.

Joanne Savage