Comedian Micky Bartlett is Looking for Love
Will the Lurgan comic's latest show, GOWIMA, win over the ladies? As chat up lines go...
The Northern Irish are a nation of hecklers. Whether a comedy gig is going well, or descending into performance poetry Hell, there will always be one, two, three audience members who won't resist having a pop.
For Micky Bartlett, star of BBC Northern Ireland's The Blame Game and Monumental comedy panel series, smart arses are par for the course – but the last place he expected to be heckled was at Belfast's Odyssey Arena.
'In an arena?' he yelps, still shocked. 'I was supporting Patrick Kielty. I only found out I'd got the gig two days beforehand, so I was unprepared. 5,000 people. It didn't go too badly, after my arse had stopped twitching. But then the hecklers started. One, two, three. You expect it in the Empire, but the Odyssey!'
A comedian's arsenal is, of course, his salvation. The thickest of ice can usually be broken, the hardest, most partisan of crowds won over, with a well-placed one-liner, a self-deprecating anecdote or a trusty joke about the sexes. Any comedian worth his or her salt, however, should never leave the house without a tried and tested heckler response.
Understandably, Bartlett politely refuses to reveal his A game retort. But he will admit to this: 'Sometimes I'm quite immature when it comes to responding to hecklers. Usually, I go straight for their ma.'
It wouldn't work elsewhere – not in England, Scotland or Wales. But in Northern Ireland, it's foolproof. You can take the audience out of primary school... 'It was funny then, and it's funny now,' Bartlett observes. It's base humour, and we love it.
Bartlett came to comedy whilst studing drama and theatre at the University of Ulster's Magee campus in Derry~Londonderry, initially with the idea of acting. When a fellow student opened a comedy club during first year, it enticed the Lurgan-born extrovert on stage, and Bartlett was hooked.
Performing in the Empire Comedy Club, and at a weekly open mic session in Belfast's Pavillion bar and restaurant thereafter, Bartlett was able to find his voice before dedicated comedy crowds. But it was during regular excursions into the dark heart of Ulster that he came to terms with the harsher side of stand-up.
'I did a lot of gigs outside Belfast and Derry in the early days, and I consider myself lucky to have done that. They were the worst gigs I've ever done in my life. I had bottles thrown at me regularly, but it hardened me. The best lesson I learned during that period was never to go on after a karaoke competition. People don't want to hear jokes in those situations, they want to listen to Patsy Cline's 'Crazy'.'
Having put up with the hecklers, the missiles, the taunts and the jeers, does he now consider his decision to pursue comedy as a career to have been the correct one? 'Well, five years later I still live with my parents, I don't drive a car, I don't have a girlfriend and I don't have any money. So yeah, it was worth it. I'm living the dream.'
Bartlett's big break came with The Blame Game, the weekly topical panel show broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC One Northern Ireland, which is hosted by Tim McGarry and features Colin Murphy, Jake O'Kane and Neil Delamere as regular panelists. Bartlett was originally employed as the warm up act – his homely, observational comedy perfectly suited to loosening up the Blackstaff House audience.
'I did ten or 15 minutes here and there,' Bartlett recalls. 'Then, before they started filming one of the episodes for radio last Christmas, one of the panelists wasn't well, so they asked me to fill in, and I've been asked back three or four times since.
'It's a scary thing, because you find yourself working with your heroes, having a pint with Jimeoin after – I'm a major Jimeoin fan. It took a while to sink in. It was similar with Monumental. I actually shot the pilot in October 2011 with Adam Hills, Joe Linehan and a couple of other guys. Now, hopefully, we're looking at a second series. It got a fantastic response from the public, which none of us were really prepared for.'
Both shows are, for the most part, unscripted – 'We know that someone is going to raise a topic, but the rest is just us riffing off one another' – which ensured that Bartlett's powers of improvisation were further honed during filming. Yet it wasn't working with established professionals that most daunted the young comic.
'The biggest thing was having to sit down,' Bartlett explains. 'I'm very twitchy when I'm performing stand-up, full of nervous energy. But when you're sitting still – and the audience can see your feet, as well – it's difficult to remain cool and calm. But we all got on very well, so it felt like a real team effort. It was a very supportive environment.'
Regarding Bartlett's forthcoming solo tour, entitled GOWIMA, this time around he is not so much concerned with hecklers as he is with finding love – ostensibly, at least. The show's title is derived from another peculiarly Northern Irish idiosyncrasy – absolutely terrible chat up lines.
'It's from a line we used back in the day,' says the 26-year-old. 'You'd walk up to a beautiful lady – well, depending on how drunk you were, there are different degrees of beautiful – and just scream the word 'gowima' in her face. It very rarely worked – you normally had to buy her a couple of chips first.'
Bartlet kicks off the tour with a preview in Mason's Comedy Club in Derry~Londonderry on Thursday, May 16, before travelling to the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and elsewhere. Now a celebrity in the loosest of senses, he is intrigued to discover how his audiences will shape up.
'It's going to be interesting to see who comes to the show, after Monumental and my other TV work. Will it be an older crowd who love the TV shows, or younger people who maybe watched the online work I did with Colin Geddis?' Either way, the hecklers will be out in force – and, if he's lucky, some beautiful ladies too.