RISING STAR: Johnny McCarthy

The ‘sit-down stand-up comedian’ from Lisburn talks disability, offensive comedy and wanting to be heckled

How did you get into stand-up?

I grew up watching Billy Connolly, Robin Williams and Lee Evans, and I was arrogant enough to think, ‘I could do that.’ So, I wrote my first set, did the gig and it went so well I had to keep going.

What has been the most nervous you have been before a gig?

Your first gig is always the most nerve-racking gig. I remember a friend of mine coming up to me after saying, ‘I’ve never seen you look so grey!’ Apart from that I think the most nervous I have been was before my first gig at the Empire Comedy Club, because that was the place I really wanted to do well in. I think I get nervous before all my gigs, but once – if – I get that first laugh, I settle down into the gig and start to enjoy it.

How does it feel to be the only disabled comic on the Northern Ireland circuit?

I am? I’m certainly not the only one claiming DLA! I suppose I do enjoy bringing something a bit different to the comedy scene, but to be honest I don’t really think about it that much. My disability has virtually no impact on my life, and if I do need some help I have a bunch of great people around me who are always – sometimes – willing to give me a hand.

Have you found yourself being treated differently by promoters or fellow comics?

It is very easy to be labelled as the guy who just does 'cripple' jokes, and I suppose I haven’t really helped that by focusing my material on my disability. However, I feel that 99 per cent of people are smart enough to judge me on my actual talent and not on my disability.

Do you feel audiences greet you with more goodwill than they might for an able-bodied comic?

I never get heckled, which is really frustrating because I have written a book-load of comebacks that I really want to try out. It is quite funny how when I come on stage I have the complete attention of the room. Everyone is wondering when and how I’m going to mention my disability. In some ways it’s very useful, but it brings its difficulties when you want to move away from the topic of disability.

Do you plan to put in more varied material as the length of your set expands?

The truth of the matter is that so many funny things happen to me because of my disability. However, now that I’ve got a full, long set of jokes about disability I can turn to other subjects to rant about which really annoy me.

Are you aware of other disabled comics in the UK or Ireland?

I know of a few in America, and there is a guy from Sweden called Jesper Odelberg, who has cerebral palsy, who is doing some really great stuff. As for people closer to home, I have yet to hear of one. It would be cool to find some, though. We could get together and have a disabled comedy troupe. That’d give the PC brigade a nice shock.

Do you feel that disabled performers should be represented more on television and in movies?

If they are talented, then of course. However, if a casting director is looking for token disabled people to put on TV just to jump on the PC bandwagon, then that is obviously not a good idea. In saying that, if any casting directors are looking for a token disabled person then my number is…

How do you feel about 'offensive' comedy? Do you think acts like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle should be allowed free rein with their material?

Offensive comedy is fantastic, when it is done well. I enjoy it because it shows the audience that they aren’t quite as moral as they like to think they are, and often surprises them because of what they laugh at. It shows a wonderfully natural and unconscious element to laughter and what we find funny, and I think Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle are two of the best. However, there is also the offensive comedy which comes from the comedian’s own prejudice and racism, and that is not nice for anyone.

Who are your favourite Northern Ireland acts?

When you are doing a comedy gig you get immediate feedback. If you’re not funny you’re going to know about it pretty quickly, so there isn’t a comedian regularly working on the circuit that is not talented. I enjoy listening to each and every one of them.

I suppose I have a special fondness for those comedians that started around the same time as me like Ruairi Woods, Paddy McDonnell, Cormac O’Donnell, Darren Matthews. I also have to mention the talents of Adam Laughlin, Morgan Hearst, Micky Bartlett and finally George Quinn, who is one of the greatest entertainers I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.

What are your favourite Northern Ireland venues to play?

For some reason Omagh loves me. I always go down a storm there. Of course, everyone in the Northern Ireland comedy circuit aspires to play the Empire, which is genuinely one of the greatest venues and continually proves why it has been running so successfully for so long.

What is the scene like in Lisburn, your home city?

Lisburn is lucky enough to have a couple of great comedians and two great clubs. This is all down to the hard work and dedication of the people running these clubs to try and give people a reason not to get out of Lisburn as quickly as humanly possible – and I’m on wheels, I can break the land speed record leaving that place.

What will you do to the next person who makes a 'stand-up' pun to you?

I can’t complain – it was my first ever joke! I’ll just remind them of how annoying the unnecessary complication of saying I’m a 'sit-down stand-up comedian' is every time someone asks me what I do.

What in your experience is the greatest misconception about the life of a stand-up comedian?

We are not gods of superior intellect, just exceptional humans and the next evolutionary stage.