Kevin McAleer

The comedian's comedian tries his hand at the 'bear pit' that is The Empire Laughs Back

The Empire Laughs Back comedy night at the Empire in Belfast is famously fast-paced. So the question has to be: why is Kevin McAleer playing here?

McAleer is the comedian’s comedian, the comedy nerd’s go-to-guy. If Stewart Lee has posters on his bedroom wall, they are surely of McAleer. But his is a slow-burning type of humour, surreal and not at all loutish.

Before he takes to the stage, therefore, there is an anxious feeling in the pit of my and presumably other audience members' stomachs, an anticipatory fight or flight response.

The possibility that I might be called upon to physically shield the doyen of dead-pan from a lobbed beer bottle seems like a very real possibility. I’ve been here before. It might look like a room full of courting couples and middle-aged men in coats, but in actuality it’s a bear pit.

Compere Colin Murphy opens proceedings in the jeans of a much younger man, and begins to work the room. He can barely believe his luck when he finds that there are four drunken male taxi drivers in the front row. That’s ten minutes right there!

He introduces the first supporting act, a likeable chap named Kevin O’Neill. O'Neill tells jokes about relationships. The taxi drivers, who now think they are the show, send a tsunami of abuse his way. He counters with derogatory conjecture about their mothers. They aren't best pleased.

Next up is character comedian Igor Bolshoikirov. His shtick is that he’s a migrant worker from Russia who now lives in Cookstown. As such he is obviously a murderer and a rapist. This goes down surprisingly well.

And then we have McAleer. This is a comedian most famous for a routine wherein he points at a photograph of baby owls with a stick. It is hilarious. It is also hard to explain why it is hilarious. This is 'you had to be there' comedy of the most unusual and original kind.

McAleer is as much a character comedian as Bolshoikirov, although his character doesn’t wear leggings or carry a toy gun. Instead he has a Tyone accent and riffs on Gogol’s protagonist Poprishchin from Diary of a Madman.

A typical scenario sees McAleer phoning his bank to enquire after his balance. On being asked for his mother’s maiden name, he imagines that the banker thinks that the greatest risk to his account’s security is his mother. This is despite the fact that she has been dead for 27 years, although it transpires that she had indeed robbed him on an earlier occasion. 'But she used her married name.'

This tenacious logical wrongheadedness is the essence of McAleer’s humour. He approaches an everyday situation from a completely different angle and extrapolates back from that position. It’s not every one’s cup of tea.

There are catcalls. There are heckles. My stomach tightens into a knot. There seems to be a moment when McAleer wavers, but he keeps his head down and continues with his act. One laugh at a time, the audience gets behind him. The taxi drivers, confused at no longer being a part of the act, leave halfway through.

The laughter gets louder as McAleer builds momentum. The compere and the other acts are there, guffawing heartily, as if to legitimise that comedian’s comedian tag. They don’t need to – McAleer’s absurdist rambling monomania has gathered enough pace.

McAleer leaves the stage to rapturous applause and Murphy springs back on to close proceedings. He points to the empty cluster of seats at the front of the stage. 'Wasn’t it so much better after they went?'

A little disingenuous that, as he and the support acts had spent the evening winding the now absent crowd members up. Yet their noisy confusion during the early part of McAleer's act could have scuppered the headliner's set. McAleer, however, proved that there is indeed a place for surrealist humour, if delivered correctly, in the least likely of venues.

Kevin McAleer plays the Black Box on January 4 as part of the Out to Lunch Festival.