Stand-Up and Be Counted

Andrew Johnston talks to comedy club promoters about the new wave of Northern Irish comics

Although Northern Ireland is known for its deliciously dark sense of humour, the country’s contribution to comedy has been patchy. Patrick Kielty, Jimeoin and the Hole in the Wall Gang, amongst others, have put Ulster mirth-making on the map, but where is our answer to arena-straddling colossi like Michael McIntyre or Frankie Boyle?

The answer could be lurking in Belfast’s Pavilion Bar or the Black Box. Local comedy collective Big Laughs Belfast have been hosting an amateurs night at 'the Big House' since 2008, and their dedication is starting to pay off, with open mic stalwarts such as Colin Geddis, Adam Laughlin, Shane Todd and Ruaidhrí Ward graduating to television and the major comedy clubs.

Big Laughs' main man Graeme Watson (pictured above) says that when he and MC George Quinn launched the Pavilion gigs they were faced with two basic challenges, ‘finding actually talented stand-up comedians, and an audience willing to tolerate a lot of bad stand-up comedians for that to happen’.

Watson, a stand-up himself, explains that producing consistently enjoyable open mic comedy is now the collective’s main priority, ‘without making it too much like throwing Christians to the lions in Ancient Rome’. As well as the Pavilion, Big Laughs promote regular shows at the Black Box and a monthly comedy quiz at the Menagerie Bar.

Big Laughs at the Big House showcases the good, the bad and the downright ugly of homegrown humour. Watson reckons he can spot the difference between the performers with the necessary raw instinct and ability and those people who shouldn’t be there, lamenting what he describes as the ‘hacky rape and paedo material’ of many first-timers.

‘It’s brilliant if it’s genuinely funny,’ he sighs. ‘But it gets pretty tedious after a while, and the person can appear rather pathetic or creepy. When it gets to that stage, I almost yearn for some Michael McIntyre-style whimsy. And I hate Michael McIntyre.’

Many of the more established amateurs have already carved a unique niche for themselves on the local scene. There’s Morgan Hearst, with his manic routines about ageing (Hearst took up comedy at 36, and says he ‘will always look back’), ex-AU scribe Shane Horan, a specialist in deadpan musings, and the west Belfast taxi driver Paddy McDonnell, who delivers raucous gags in an old-school style.

Watson is justly proud of the pool of talent, though he isn’t waiting for the next Peter Kay. ‘Some people might want to be the Shakira of stand-up,’ the comedy supremo says, 'but I’m more interested in whatever the stand-up equivalent is of NoMeansNo.’

Northern Ireland’s comedy old guard has welcomed the influx of fresh faces. Donal McGilloway of Queen’s Comedy Club, one of Belfast’s longest running stand-up platforms, says, ‘It’s great to see so many people wanting to get into comedy. It’s something that happened in the south about five or six years ago, and we got a great crop of comics out of it.

'There seems to be a great energy around the open mic scene, and a lot of confidence. It’s not always merited, and you find some of them come undone when they perform with us or in the Empire, but there are a few really good comics coming through the ranks.’

Active since 1992, Queen’s Comedy Club has hosted the likes of Bill Bailey, Sean Lock, Ed Byrne, Kevin Bridges and Sarah Millican. Upcoming shows include Michael Redmond, alias Father Ted’s Father Stone, and the multi-award-winning Dan Antopolski.

It’s a far cry from the club’s roots in ‘a small room, playing to a very small audience’. ‘It started as a student night, but we’ve seen a much wider age range turning up lately,’ says McGilloway. ‘Now we sell out the 550-seater Mandela Hall on a regular basis.’

Outside Belfast, comedy clubs are springing up everywhere from Ballymena to Warrenpoint. In Derry, promoter Eavan King continues to preside over the hugely successful Gagging Order showcase at Mason’s Bar. Meanwhile, the mavericks behind the PanicDots.com website and podcast have taken over Portrush’s Playhouse Theatre under the Big Comedy banner (no relation to Watson and Co).

The club debuted this year with a Father Ted special, featuring stars from the sitcom, as well as a couple of local faces. ‘What I have tried to create is a stage that is like the next step up from open mic,’ says Panic Dots’ Richard W Crothers. ‘Open mic is a bit like the gym of comedy – you go there and work out, and when you’re ready you hit a bigger stage.’

Following a second Father Ted night on April 7 2011, headlined by Joe 'Father Damo' Rooney, Crothers hopes the club will develop into a monthly event. ‘We have had stacks of interest from newcomers,’ he says. ‘There have been kids as young as 13 asking us for gigs. It’s great seeing people take an interest in what’s going on.’

Factor in the growing number of female comics in what can often be a male-dominated world – search YouTube for Gemma Hutton, Lauren Kerr, Anne-Marie Mullan or Catherine Bowman – and it’s clear the comedy scene in Northern Ireland has a lot to laugh about.