Big Laughs Belfast

Derry comic Adam Laughlin comperes a line-up of raw talent in the Black Box

Comedy in Northern Ireland is a funny thing. That’s not a lame attempt at a joke, but a medium-wry rumination of our wit. We’re notorious for a blackened, if not charred sense of humour, and we tend to see the amusing side of the most despairing circumstances.

However, there has never been a bona fide comedy scene here like there has been in music, for example. There are honorable exceptions (like the Empire Laughs Back, which fostered the likes of Paddy Kielty), but it’s only recently that there appears to be a surge of the funny in places and spaces hitherto unheard of – the Pavilion, the Safehouse, the Black Box, even a shisha lounge have become testing grounds for brash, brave young comics.

This burgeoning scene has not gone unnoticed by the ‘mainstream’, with the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and its sibling, the Out to Lunch Arts Festival, increasingly nurturing Northern Irish talent in support slots. There is also talk of BBC NI prowling the venues and prairies for hilarity fairies, although those who have watched (or rather borne witness to) LOL or Sketchy might find that prospect just a little too blackly comic to stomach.

So it is with no little expectation that I attend a comedy night hosted by a big driving force behind the new scene, Big Laughs Belfast: a loose collective of like-minded young(ish) people who love and perform stand-up. Compere for the evening, Adam Laughlin (pictured above) brings a big scarf, a bigger beard and a dollop of Derry charm to proceedings. His rambling, off-kilter musings link a list of disparate hopefuls. With the Black Box café offering as much mulled wine as you can drink, it’s a warm and friendly affair.

Before the headliner Trevor Browne, it’s gratifying to see three very different acts on display. First out of the traps is Morgan Hearst – balding, 36, out of work and moved back in with his parents. Hearst has some genuinely funny material about the indignities attendant when life kicks you while you’re down. His joke about his mum being in the paramilitary wing (or 'the bingo wing') of the Presbyterian Woman’s Association is very funny indeed.

Good though a lot of Hearst's set is, however, some gags don’t quite connect and you get the impression that he is experimenting with delivery and style. It’s telling that some of his funniest stuff gets lost in translation – something that, presumably, won’t have escaped his attention.

Remarkably young Marcus Keely is up next, chatting amiably about puke-glued keyboards and the joys of Sainsbury’s basic food products. Conversely, his material doesn’t have the bite or craft of Hearst’s, but he is so affable that you are drawn in nevertheless. Even a corny joke about Brian Blessed’s presence is enjoyed with a convivial groan around the room and while evenings like this may lack the bear-pit menace of a London comedy club, there is something to be said for the encouraging, good-natured camaraderie that pervades instead.

Thankfully the next act, wheelchair user and aspirant comic Johnny McCarthy, does his own heckling and uses big, metaphorical but extremely bright observations to highlight his disability – it’s not so much the elephant in the room as the elephant on stage with a mic.

McCarthy points out some depressing statistics about the number of people who would stop for a woman being attacked compared to those who would ‘vault moving traffic’ to assist him when he falls over, because ‘God forbid a cripple should take a tumble’. It’s funny stuff, as McCarthy lets us in on the joke from the off and allows temporary respite from our own stultifying repression to laugh with him.

Completing the evening is singer-songwriter, poet and sociologist Trevor Browne. Browne sashays on stage with a guitar, a velvet jacket and a raised eyebrow. That he’s short and ginger is of course part of the charm. He’s a troubadour d’amour, a chronicler of love.

He pauses for effect between songs and lines, turning to the audience knowingly before hitting the punch-line. The big joke is that he assumes we have the same high opinion of him as he does of himself, that we’re here for the music and not for the laughs. It’s a reassuringly familiar but successful comedy construct. Songs like ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Except With You’ are dumb, misogynistic and raise the biggest laughs of the evening.

The rest of this evening’s acts are great because, although rough around the edges, there’s enough talent to suggest that with more of these evenings hosted in small spaces, we could have something approaching a thriving, sustainable and righteously notorious stand-up scene before William Caulfeld gets to draw a pension. The back-street comedy revolution is on, and the details are no longer sketchy.