In Your Face Comedy

Colin Murphy tells a joke as it is

There are very few good comedians in Northern Ireland. Fair enough, your dad may tell a decent tale after a few sherries, and your best mate Steve does some cracking ‘funny voices’. But in terms of superior, bona fide stand-ups, this little country of ours has nothing to shout about. Colin Murphy, however, is one exception.

A hugely popular figure on the UK comedy circuit, Downpatrick born Murphy is without question the foremost Northern Irish stand-up working today. Is there a reason why so few of his fellow countrymen are ready and able to step up to the bat? Is there something in the water? Perhaps we live in an environment that does not yet provoke and propel comedic excellence? I put this chin-stroking question to Colin.

‘There aren’t that many comedians from the north, that's all.’

Oh, ok, fair enough Colin…

Direct, often uncompromising, his opinions echo many aspects of his comedy. Fair comment?

‘I can never describe what I do or what type of comedian I am. I do what I do and try not to think about it. If you like it you like it, if you don't you don’t. I really don’t care. Just make up your mind before you buy a ticket, I don’t want to be looking at a couple of hundred people that don’t like me.’

If you hadn’t guessed, Murphy, a regular comedy club MC at Queen’s Student Union and Belfast’s Empire Bar, has a succinct, terse manner. A welcome break from the usual self-promoting blather one expects from those ‘in the business’. It’s a style that certainly stands as a warning to any naïve young hack (who me?), ready with a hackneyed question.

So Colin, when did you realise you wanted to be a comedian?

‘I never really knew that being a comedian was an option. As a kid I would watch The Comedians on ITV but it never actually occurred to me that those guys played in clubs. It was only when the Empire started that I realised anyone can get up and give it a go, so I did. Even if the Empire hadn't have started I would have made it onto the stage somehow, but I've no idea why.’

One aspect of Murphy’s comedy in particular is instantly refreshing – his lack of insular, political Irishness. His words find resonance with people of all backgrounds and creeds. While his – often caustic – social satire is a hoot, so too are his acute and sharply delivered observations, detailing the sublime and ridiculous minutiae of modern life. It is the impeccable way he balances both these comic sensibilities that have led critics to label Murphy as a young Billy Connolly.

Naturally, it’s a comparison that doesn’t sit well with him.

‘Critics and journalists are always attaching labels to people. Jack Dee on speed or Eric Morecambe on acid etc. The Billy Connolly thing is a bit annoying because I worry that people are going to expect Billy Connolly. I tell stories, swear and go off on tangents a lot, but I’m not the only comedian to do that, certainly not the only Irish comedian.’

Perhaps the one Northern Irish comic with a more recognisable face than Murphy’s is Dundrum man, Patrick Kielty. While Murphy is without question the superior stand-up – one who doesn’t shape most of his jokes around that old comedy well of the Troubles, or peddle Kielty’s tired and frankly ridiculous assertions that Belfast is a city with a threat of violence to rival Baghdad – it is Kielty who has made the leap to mainstream British television.

Would Murphy ever consider going down the chat show route/selling out?

‘Patrick does what Patrick does. That’s a path he's chosen and I can't say I would never do it, but it's not the way I would like to go. But then again talk to me in a couple of years time. After all, this is just a job and bills have to be paid. Anyone can dream of being the next David Brent but let’s face facts.’

Not happy with being just a critically acclaimed comic, Murphy has also extended his hand into the world of television, making a mark as both performer and writer. His CV includes programmes such as The Stand-up Show, Comic Asides, Something for the Weekend and People Like Us. He has just finished runs on two RTE productions – the offbeat, multimedia review show The Blizzard of Odd and The Panel, a sharp and hugely entertaining live and unscripted study of the weeks news and events.

‘The Panel is fantastic to work on,’ enthuses Murphy. ‘It is the easiest show I’ve ever done. Sometimes after the show I think, they can't put that out, that’s just people talking crap to their mates, because basically that's what it is.’

Is he concerned at the fact that he seems to be getting more opportunities on primetime TV in the Republic as opposed to up north. His answer is typically unequivocal: ‘I’ll take my opportunities no matter where they come from, be it north, south, east or west.’

TV work will take a back seat over the next few months as Colin embarks on a series of dates that sees him play in front of audiences in both Ireland and Britain – including a gig at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on March 4. What can the fans expect?

‘To be honest I haven’t worked out what I’m going to do. Hopefully it’ll come together in the next few days. There’ll be the new stuff that I’ve tried out at various venues around the country and a fair amount of improvising but there’s no grand plan, no theme – although one could emerge, you never know.’

One suspects Murphy is a man who doesn’t look too distantly towards the future, preferring instead to concentrate on the moment. While a move into the literary world may be unlikely – ‘I’ve been trying for a couple of years now but to be honest I don’t like reading novels let alone writing them. I don’t have the patience’ – it’s clear he’ll continue to pursue some interesting avenues.

‘I’m writing a four part series for the BBC to go out in the autumn. A sort of series of lectures on various topics and illustrated using the BBC archive.’

As someone who despairs at the state of much of what passes for entertainment in Northern Ireland, it’s pleasing to see someone of real talent and genuine crossover appeal doing so nicely for himself.

But, a-hem, what about the kids, Colin? The talented, creative youth of Northern Ireland, struggling to get a shot? Are the media doing enough give these people ample opportunity?

‘Why should opportunities be given to young people?’ he replies. ‘What do they know about anything only being young? You can’t be a young comedian full stop. Comedians only get good after they’ve actually lived a bit. Sort of like blues singers.’

Told you he was direct.

By Noel Slevin