Colin Murphy: 'We've a great knack of running ourselves down – it stops you getting a big head'
With Queen's Comedy Club closing after 25 years, its enduring MC talks about how the game has changed, and why Derry crowds are more merciful than Belfast's – despite hearing the greatest heckle of his life there
A quarter of a century ago, Downpatrick-born Colin Murphy first graced the stage of the Mandela Hall in Belfast.
In those 25 years, he became the compere of Queen’s Comedy Club, has appeared on television shows north and south of the border and is now in the crux of his new ‘Bald Ambition’ tour across Ireland.
Reflecting not so much on remedies for Murphy’s slightly more exposed scalp but more on what may have caused it since the early days of his career, the show’s name takes inspiration from the original Queen of Pop.
'It’s a play on Madonna’s 'Blonde Ambition' tour which finished just as I started stand-up in 1992/93,' says Murphy, before remembering one other minor influence – 'Oh, and I've no hair.'
After quickly lamenting on his lack of locks, the stalwart comic reflects much more on the changing landscape around his profession and the shifts he has seen since having a head full of hair.
'Stand-up has changed loads in that time. People know what they’re going to see. People are willing to go outdoors and take a punt. When I started it was a nightmare trying to get an audience. They’d never been to a gig before and I’d only been to my first gig a year before.
'It was very new, and the alternative comedy I did is now the mainstream. It’s taken a long time but there’s loads of new comics that have came through in maybe the last eight years. There was a huge gap there but now there’s a real scene starting to happen which is good.
'I never really went near the political stuff back then,' he adds. 'Paddy Kielty did that so I did the kind of slightly stranger stuff. It was, or maybe I, was a lot more aggressive. It didn’t go down that well with audiences. I was the angry young man and all that kind of clichéd stuff but I started to settle down and found my own voice. I was really influenced by Bill Hicks, Denis Leary and Mark Thomas but after a while I found my voice and thought "Oh yes, this is me."'
The last Queen’s Comedy Club night, for the foreseeable future, takes place this Wednesday (March 7) and Murphy says he will miss what has been a staple part of and the root of his comedic career.
'That’s where I started and it’s still where I write everything and come up with notions and try it out with that audience. It’s gone up and down over the years. In the beginning it was difficult getting an audience and then it really took off when comedy became a big thing, then it took another dip but then took off again.
'Although, comedy has become a disposable thing where it’s not a special thing anymore,' he concedes. 'It used to be something you didn’t get a lot of, so you went an experienced the ‘live’ setting. But now it’s on different TV channels and you can sit and watch whoever you want. But there’s still a loyal core.'
Murphy hopes that Queen's Comedy Club will find life in a new venue sometime soon to continue offering an alternative night out for the mainly student clientele.
'The more venues there are the better. If there are good acts, there’s no reason why they can’t survive, and another venue should open. It’s really up to the students to decide whether they want to come and see a show or go to a generic nightclub and dance to generic music.'
'It’s awful even thinking about it,' he says with a groan and a slight chuckle.
Murphy is perhaps most well-known for his regular slot on The Blame Game on Friday nights on BBC Northern Ireland and he says the popularity has just rocketed since it first aired in 2005.
'The show has just got bigger and bigger and bigger. We haven’t changed anything. The last series’ viewing figures were the biggest we’ve ever had. I think people are now a lot more political and it’s moved on from the whole Protestant and Catholic thing and now we have Brexit and Trump.
'People are interested in the stupid, little stories. We try and get a story in from Derry or Enniskillen and try to include everyone. If you watch the ‘big telly’ we’re not mentioned except for Brexit. People say the show is very parochial, but of course it is, it’s made for here! It’s not made for anyone else. We’ve a great knack of running ourselves down and being okay with it which is good in a way, it’s stops you getting a big head. But everywhere is parochial. Even boroughs of London are parochial. I know people who just stay in their boroughs. It’s no different.'
In light of the 13 months of political chaos at Stormont, it seems only logical to ask Murphy who would be The Blame Game’s answer to Arlene or Michelle.
'[Tim] McGarry,' he answers. He’s the only sensible one out of all of us. He’s the only level-headed one, and he’s got a law degree.'
After taking 'Bald Ambition' to Belfast, Strabane and Omagh to name only a few towns included on the four-month jaunt, Murphy travels to the North West in a pre-St. Patrick’s Day leg of the tour and says he can’t wait to be back.
'Derry’s got that sort of ‘bigger city up the road’ kind of thing to it. Basically, a ‘we’re going to do this our own way’ attitude. Very self-contained.
'There’s a whole arts scene up in Derry that nobody else knows about and they somehow make it survive and make it work. The people are very much like that.
'The audiences are lively and don’t put up with nonsense but there’s no malice in them,' Murphy adds. 'It’s not like they’re angry or aggressive. Belfast audiences, especially when the Empire started, used to be like that.
'They’d be really aggressive,' he laughs.
'There’s a weird thing with a Derry audience that if it’s going wrong, there’s a sense that they’re saying don’t worry, we’ll take over, we’ll finish it for you, it’s fine.
'But when it goes well, it’s just the best audience.'
He bore witness to this on a specific night in the city many years ago.
'The best heckle I ever saw was at the Delacroix in Derry. This fella and his mate were sitting at the front table and nobody was laughing. He went and bought three pints at the bar. One for him, one for his mate, and pushed one towards the act on stage and said, "come on, sit down, stop embarrassing yourself". Just quietly enough too.'
Going by Murphy’s track record, you might even laugh so hard your hair will fall out.