Queen's Comedy Club Returns

Colin Murphy on two decades of compèring 'the best gig anywhere' and a star-studded 2015 lineup

Backstage at the Mandela Hall at Queen's University, Colin Murphy is pondering the 21-years that he has been compèring the Queen's Comedy Club. 'It's longer than they've been alive,' he says of the '90% student' audience, with some consternation in his voice, before explaining exactly why, over the last five years in particular, it has been 'the best gig anywhere'.

'They're a bit more savvy now,' Murphy says of the Queen's University comedy crowd, who pour into the large-scale venue in healthy numbers year on year. 'They're prepared to go with anything. They're not as mainstream here, they allow me to try stuff out. They allow me to fail.'

As well as that, it's a challenge. 'They're students,' remarks Murphy, 'and every year there's a whole bunch of new people. They don't necessarily know who the hell you are or how long you've been here or anything. You have to win over a new set of people every year.'

That is what keeps Murphy coming back. Never one to rest on his laurels, he recalls the most difficult night of the year – Freshers' Week – with a devlish glint in his eye. 'It's the only gig where you don't know what is going to happen. I really, genuinely don't know whether they're going to be nice or rowdy or what.'

At this stage of his career, however, Murphy can handle it. During Freshers' Week 2014, for example, he strided confidently on stage with a gleefully bellowed 'Hello virgins!', and immediately set about a masterclass in compèring.

There was well-worn material about freshers and culchies new to the big city, of course – 'There's another double decker bus,' Murphy joked. 'It's like a bus riding a bus! Is that where minibuses come from?' – and expert treatment of hecklers and those poor naïve souls who choose to sit in the front row of a comedy gig.

Not that he enjoys sparring too much. 'There's never a good heckle,' Murphy sighs. 'It's not enjoyable. You get a laugh out of putting somebody down but all you're trying to do is control the room and shut them up.'

Murphy has learned a lot since 'falling into' comedy. In 1993, when Queen's Comedy Club started, he was an aspiring actor with some experience of improvised theatre but none at all of comedy – he had only ever attended half a dozen comedy gigs in his life. Then he got the call that would change things, when the then events officer of Queen's Student's Union got in touch to ask him to compère the first night of a new comedy club.

'I agreed to it but I didn't realise how horrendous it was going to be,' Murphy recalls. 'Some of it died, some of it went alright. I got through it. I juggled raw liver at one point, and then forgot about it and it went off under the lights! There were a couple of gags that I kept doing for years.'

It went well enough that Murphy immediately got offers to compère at the Empire Music Hall and elsewhere, and he was set on a comedy career that would take him to all corners of these islands and into television, where he has made regular appearances on RTE's The Panel and BBC NI's The Blame Game.

Donal McGilloway, who has been running Queen's Comedy Club for the last ten years, explains what makes Murphy so integral to it's continued success: 'When he started out he was getting booed off the stage – it was a proper baptism of fire – but when I was at university, he was the draw. It didn't matter who was playing, Colin Murphy was the headline act as far as anyone was concerned.

'I always get asked the question, "When is Colin going to headline the club?", but that's not the way it works. He's the reason most people pay in. No matter what happens or who else is on the bill, Colin's the steady guy who will make you laugh whatever. He's one of the best comics in Ireland and I don't think he gets the credit he's due.'

First and foremost a comedy fan, McGilloway got to know Murphy through building his website, and after dabbling in organising shows himself, ended up running Queen's Comedy Club while holding down a full-time job in IT. 'It's a hobby,' McGilloway adds. 'We book what makes us laugh, and we do take chances on people, too. We're not out there to get big names.'

That said, McGilloway notes that arena-filling comedians like Peter Kay and Sean Lock have played the club over the years. During his tenure, the club has been able to host the best that the UK and Ireland has to offer, before they go 'off our scale', as he puts it.

'Kevin Bridges is the real deal. He's an old man in a young man's body and I don't think I've ever seen anyone funnier. He's just so natural. Jon Richardson has played three times, I think. He's identical to his persona on stage and so is Kevin. They're real. Sarah Millican is lovely. They've all put a lot of time into the club and been willing to come. They're not taking headline fees. It's a club and we pay club rates.'

The new 2015 schedule is currently underway, with some treats coming up as early as February. 'We're really happy with this term's lineup,' McGilloway beams. 'For starters we've managed to book one of our heroes, Tommy Tiernan, after many years of trying. He truly is one of the comedy greats and to see him in such an intimate setting is going to make for a very special night.

'That kicks off the lineup on February 4, followed on February 11 by Canadian comic Katherine Ryan. We've been big fans of hers for a while, so we're delighted to have her at the club. Then it's Irish comic Chris Kent on February 18. Chris has played the club a good few times now, mostly supporting, but every time he plays he just gets better and better and always storms. He's one of the Irish acts to look out for.'

And for fans of Father Ted, one of television's classic comedies written by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan and starring the late Dermot Morgan, the term's run ends with with headliner Michael Redmond.

'Michael's one of the best one liner comics around,' McGilloway explains, 'but probably best known for his role as Fr Stone, the priest that gets struck by lightning in Father Ted. I think I read somewhere that the role was actually written for him.'

In keeping with the club's ethos of providing a platform to emerging talent, however, the forthcoming run of gigs will also feature up and coming comedians. 'Throughout the run we also have those acts doing support, like Alan Irwin, Christian Talbot, Conor Keys and Aidan Strangeman,' says McGilloway, all of whom are bound to give their long-serving compère a run for his money.

Visit the Queen's Comedy Club website for more information.