Chalk and Cheese

Noel Slevin enters the surreal world of comic Kevin McAleer

We all know one. That peculiar, solemn faced but dryly hilarious ‘character’ who works at our local library or corner shop. We’d probably be ever so slightly petrified of these individuals – if it wasn’t for the fact that everything out of their mouths was surreal, comic gold.

Kevin McAleer could be one of these people. He’s got that glazed, unassuming look of a geography teacher, yet also sports a sparkle in the eye that hints at a slightly skewed story to be told and an offbeat oneliner ready to be thrown. He COULD be one of those people. If he wasn’t already one of Northern Ireland’s most rated comedians.

Omagh born McAleer has been a prevalent force in Irish comedy since the 1980s. However, as is so often the case, a career in comedy wasn’t exactly planned.

‘I never really wanted to be a comedian. It was just something I drifted into by default. It was the early 80s, I was living in Dublin and a comedy club opened called The Comedy Store. I just got up from the audience and did an open spot.

‘There was a large gong by the side of the stage, and when the audience had had enough they shouted “gong” and the compere came back on and put you out of your misery. But I lasted long enough to get a taste for it, and came back the next week with about ten minutes of material which I had slaved over all week. Never looked back.’

Anyone who has witnessed McAleer’s surreal, hallucinogenic musings will want to know what inspires his comedy.

‘That's a very elusive question,' he muses. 'If I knew I'd be a lot richer than I am. It just seems to come out of the back of my head when it’s ready, like a dream. And like a dream, I have no control over it really. It isn't a deliberate thing, which makes it hard to do. I'm very pleased when I latch onto a good basic idea, then I can get my teeth into developing and expanding it.’

So are audiences witnessing a character when they go to see Kevin McAleer live? Or is it essentially himself – albeit in an exaggerated form?

‘My latest stage persona is a completely deluded individual – full of paranoia, hallucinations and language disorders. So I hope that's not me. On the other hand, I am not an actor, and I am completely hopeless when asked to act a part. So I suppose the stage persona is like myself with an altered mentality, if that makes any sense.’

McAleer honed his craft on the London comedy circuit, a move that surely helped him steer clear of the dangers of being an indigenous attraction – a local comic for local people….

‘My original act was a comedy slide show,’ he says. ‘It was universal nonsense which everybody – or nobody – could understand. Later I got into doing more local political stuff about the north, but my new stuff is back to the universal nonsense, which can work anywhere in the world. I'm glad to have got the northern politics out of my system, it now bores me senseless to the point where I avoid the news.’

McAleer went on to make his mark on the domestic television audience, with his fantastical, yet believable, role as a slowtalking, oddball storyteller on RTE’s satirical sketch series Nighthawks.

‘That was a great break for me, the thing that brought a huge live audience to my shows. All my pieces were pre-recorded just to camera with no audience; then they were just slotted into the programme. There was quite a gap between the pieces going out, and the audience reaction reaching me. It was a great thrill to learn that they had struck a chord, and there were “sold out” signs at all my shows. Very exciting times.’

While the deadpan mirthmaker continued with a slew of television shows throughout the 90s, he is perhaps best remembered for his segments alongside friend and artist John Byrne, on The Empire Strikes Back (1994).

Playing two pub philosopher friends – one a Catholic, one a Protestant – McAleer and Byrne sat side-by-side offering their own views on what it is to be an inhabitant of a strange, insular country.

Admitting to bigotry in the past, they would go on to espouse the joys of the mutual common ground being explored by both cultures, all the while rubbishing each other’s cultural identity and reinventing the history of Ireland to support their own religious and social creed.

‘We were commissioned by the BBC to write pieces for the programme,’ recalls McAleer. ‘So we just sat down in a blank room and played around with different ideas. That was a very liberating piece to work on, because we just had to drag into the light all the worst kinds of bigotry and sectarianism lurking in the northern psyche, and pile them all into one three-minute piece.

'Director Gerry Stembridge cleverly did it with just one simple camera shot, no edits at all, so you get the effect of one long piece of relentless drivel. Politically just as relevant today as it was then, unfortunately.’

In recent years, McAleer has concentrated on his stand-up, and on March 19 brings his ‘Chalk and Cheese’ tour to Derry’s Playhouse Theatre, as part of the city’s J20 Big Tickle Comedy Festival.

‘The Playhouse is a lovely, creative space. When I go to see a show there I always think I'd love to play this place, so I'm really looking forward to it. The fact that it’s the comedy festival just adds an extra buzz to the whole city.’

And what about the routine itself?

‘It was partly inspired by reading Nikolai Gogol's short story, Diary of a Madman. It's the story of an ordinary office clerk who goes slowly off the rails – very funny, but very tragic too in the end. Then I did some background reading around the subject such as RD Laing's The Divided Self and a few very interesting books on language disorders in schizophrenia.

‘So the persona lives in a world of his own, full of paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and broken down language. There's a lot of mileage in the idea, because I can apply his warped logic to any situation he finds himself in – a restaurant, airport, hotel room, waiting at the traffic lights. The language disorder stuff gives me plenty of room for wordplay and bad puns which I really enjoy.’

The tour has monopolised Kevin’s time over the past few years, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing him on the small screen in the near future.

‘I'm really enjoying the “Chalk & Cheese” stuff, it just won't stop writing itself at the moment, and I want to spread the word about the show around the world. However, I am also turning my attention back to TV even as I speak, but it's all too early days and hush-hush to go into the details. Also I'm toying with the idea of a book version of “Chalk & Cheese” maybe, mainly because the writing is just spreading all over the place, much more than I can use in my stage show.’

So, do yourself a favour and make a date with this original, sometimes baffling, but always hysterical performer. Or you could just go hangout with that weird fella that works in the library. Your call.

By Noel Slevin

Kevin McAleer appears at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry on Saturday March 19 at 8.00pm. Further details from www.thebigtickle.com.