Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Belly Laughs Festival

Belfast Paddy Mcdonnell on the therapy of live performance and confronting issues of intolerance in his new show

Taxi drivers are well known for their ability to talk – was driving a taxi good training for stand-up?

It was. People are hilarious. When they get in your taxi they feel they can let loose. They say some of the weirdest things. If you work in a shop, you get the same sort of thing, but in a taxi it's a journey. They can tell you anything, and then jump out. What I've noticed is that the older people in Belfast are some of the funniest, though they don't mean to be funny. You can't believe some of the things they say.

How did you get into comedy?

I was a joiner by trade but I was assaulted and went into a bit of depression. It was a hand injury and I could no longer do the joinery, so I had to go into taxiing. I still wasn't 100% happy. I'd always been happy-go-lucky, and my wife said, "What am I going to do to try and get him out of this?" So she decided to put me up for an open mic night in the Pavilion.

I didn't know anything about it until I arrived on the night. I got up and did seven minutes, and it was like drugs – I got hooked. Once I started doing it, the feeling that I got on stage was like therapy. I could go up there and talk and make people laugh, and that made me feel good about myself. I just got hooked on comedy and wanted more and more of it. It progressed from there.

Have any other Belfast taxi drivers been tempted to follow you into comedy?

Not that I know of. Generally, taxi drivers aren't that funny. I've worked with quite a few of them and they're normally very grumpy and big complainers. Taxi men are never, ever happy. Some of them would probably make great comedians in that type of comedy – people who get up and rant. But I haven't heard of anybody else taking the plunge.

What can we expect from your new show, Jesus, Mary & Joseph, which premieres at Big Laughs Comedy Festival in Belfast on September 27?

It's basically my interpretation of life in west Belfast and Belfast in general. A bit of Belfast craic, trying to make light of everyday situations, with a couple of surprises thrown in.

Why focus so much on Northern Irish humour?

Basically, because I grew up with it. At the start of my career, a lot of my set was based on being from west Belfast. As the gigs got further afield, though, I had to change my material. It had more to do with married life, having children, the job that I did and travelling. As my career has gone on and the places I've played have differed, it's changed.

This show is about the way, in the last year, that people in Belfast have changed regarding religion, sexual orientation and things like that. It bugs me that we went through so much in the Troubles, and then people start picking on people from ethnic minorities and people of different sexual orientations. Is it ever going to stop? Is it just the hatred that's in people? It annoys me. My show touches on those points.

Is Belfast a good place to be a comedian, as far as source material is concerned?

I think so. Some of it writes itself. Things that happen here, sometimes you're a wee bit embarrassed with what people do. But in the same sense, I think Belfast people in general have a great sense of humour and are able to laugh at themselves. There are a lot of people who are up for a bit of craic. I'm out to make people laugh, it's not about me being political. 

How well does your act translate in Loyalist areas?

I've never had anyone threaten me or complain. Quite a few of my fans are from the other side of the fence, so to speak. I've joked about it before. I don't know whether they either haven't had much interaction with a Catholic from west Belfast, or whether they look and go, "Is that the way all of them are?" and laugh.

I have a lot of fans in the other community, and it's great that I can relate to them and go in there and laugh with them. I've played east Belfast, Newtownabbey, lots of Loyalist places, and the people have been great. 

What was it like supporting the likes of Jason Manford and Ardal O'Hanlon at Féile an Phobail in your native quarter of the city?

In general, most of them are nice guys and down-to-earth. Some of them don't want to talk to you about anything, but Jason Manford, for example, is a family man like myself. When I went on stage, he watched me, which was a big thing – not all of the big acts will – and he asked me how the sound was, what way I felt, and my opinion, which I really appreciated.

Jason Manford isn't really somebody who I would have watched too much, but that night he turned his material solely for that crowd, and for an Englishman to come into the middle of west Belfast and get a standing ovation is a big, big thing.

He did material about supporting troops and performing in Afghanistan, and they didn't boo him off. It was a great thing to watch one of the top comedians in the UK ply his trade, and it gave me an idea of where I need to get to. You need to be able to adapt your material. There is another stage that I need to bring my act up to, to make me a household name. It gives you that push.

So is that the plan – to become a household name?

It would be great to become a household name and to be a massive star, but you don't know how long it's going to take. You could be doing a gig one night and somebody picks you out and books you somewhere, but at the end of the day I'm a Belfast comedian, I love playing to my audiences in Belfast. Yes, I'll travel around Ireland and I've started to play to audiences in the UK, but let's just wait and see where it takes me. I'll keep my feet on the ground.

Big Laughs Comedy Festival runs in venues across Belfast from September 24 to October 5. Paddy Mcdonnell performs Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the Crescent Arts Centre on September 27.