Having a Laugh
Ireland’s comediennes have the last laugh
‘To say that a woman can’t process humour is like saying that they have no sense of smell or facial recognition’
Idon't think there is anything that can surpass a good auld laugh. A good cry can be cathartic but it can also be draining and headacheinducing. A proper laugh, though, can leave you galvanised. You know those laughs where your whole body shakes, your eyes are streaming, you don't know whether you should hold your nose or your mouth or both, you forget who and where you are and then you have to slap your thigh to bring yourself back to reality? A good laugh can be similar to those few perfect moments when you awake from a slumber and reality hasn't dawned yet. There is hope with laughter. You can't be angry or sad when you're laughing. Laughter makes you feel like everything is going to be fine.
I believe that everybody has an innate sense of humour. It may not be obvious in some people; this sixth sense may be buried under various things like bitterness, heartache, resentment, accountancy studies and alcohol. Some people may not realise that they harbour a sense of humour until they are faced with death. The fact that you never found anything funny throughout your existence may actually be the funniest thing ever when you're slipping to the other side.
Now while I believe that everyone has a sense of humour, not everyone is funny; not everyone possesses the ability to make others laugh. That's a good thing, though. How exhausting would life be if everyone was hilarious? Women are funny. Men are funny. Now, thanks to YouTube, babies and dogs are funny. Society needs unfunny folk as much as it needs the funny ones and both of these types of humans depend on each other. We need the solemn folk to gauge what we need to be serious about and we need the witty to interrupt this seriousness.
The Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival is on in Kilkenny from next Thursday until June 3. The Cat, now in its 19th year, is back with more women than ever, and it shows the new direction that the festival is taking, a new direction but with some old ideas.
Women remain outnumbered in the comedy world. It's not because they are being turned away or not being given a chance, they just don't seem that attracted to the comedy world. I decided to talk to some of the women involved in this year's festival to discover why they became involved in the male-dominated world of funny.
Like all women, not just comediennes, Navan native Grainne Maguire hates the ‘are women funny?’ question that is bandied about. “Well, if I hated women I wouldn't find them funny either,” is her standard reply if the question unfortunately arises. “To say that a woman can't process humour is like saying that they have no sense of smell or facial recognition.” I agree wholeheartedly. The thing about the ‘are women funny?’ question is that it's usually directed at people who are obviously funny and making a living from comedy.
Based in London, Grainne recently won a writing bursary for BBC Radio 4 where she writes jokes for the prestigious show, The News Quiz. It was when she was listening to this same radio station seven years ago while she was working in Spain that she realised she had to give comedy a try. “In Spain I started going home early from parties just so I could listen to Radio 4 comedies on my flatmate’s computer. I was listening to stand-up comedy from the Edinburgh festival, feeling like I was eavesdropping on a magical kingdom.”
On one of those nights when she was feeling particularly homesick, she heard Tommy Tiernan interview her old drama teacher: “They were talking about how important and special comedy was. I knew that even if I failed horrifically I had to at least try.”
Grainne is a self-confessed political nerd and feels that the older she gets, the more political her jokes get. This is also reflected in the columns she writes f or The Independent, Total Politics and the Evening Standard. Growing up in Navan, she had a poster of Tony Blair in her locker in secondary school and she has since performed at last year’s Labour Party conference, going on stage after Harriet Harman and before Ed Milliband. That was one of her proudest moments, what she calls her “ultimate gig”, and on the night she was presented with a signed picture of Tony Blair himself.
“What I really love about comedy is that people aren't being sold things at a comedy gig,” Grainne says, “they're not being lied to.” She loves how a good comedy show can be life-affirming and can make you feel everything is going to be OK. She also loves when a weird or stupid thought gets a laugh and it no longer feels weird because someone else has related to it. This is so true. While we all want to be original in our thinking, there is nothing more terrifying than the fear of nobody relating to what you put out into the world, that fear of never connecting. Comedians do need a penny for their thoughts and they only get paid for them if people understand them.
Grainne hates when people react to a word in a joke and they don't listen to the joke or its context. I find this one of the most frustrating things about comedy. Once, a man approached me after a gig I did and told me that he found me funny but couldn't laugh at my jokes because his neighbours were sitting next to him and he didn't want them gossiping around the town. “Well, Mary, I'll tell you this — wasn't Marty next
‘What I really love about comedy is that people aren’t being sold things at a comedy gig. They’re not being lied to’
door laughing at a joke about paedophiles? Sure, he must be one himself ” seemed to be his assumption.
Excited about this year’s Cat Laughs, Grainne is looking for ward to seeing Tony Law again. She saw him at last year's Edinburgh festival and witnessed something magical. Grainne's hero, Dylan Moran, is also appearing at the festival. She once followed him around a Sainsbury's in the UK and then decided that it probably wasn't the best place for her to meet her hero. She is hoping the Cat Laughs will be a more appropriate setting.
The improv section is back at the festival this year and Cork woman Tara Flynn returns to perform with the International All-Star Improv. Her favourite Cat Laughs memory was back in 2000 when she was on crutches because of a leg injury. Audiences thought that the crutches were a prop she forgot to use during her set. She remembers the comic Phil Kay walking out on to a busy street in Kilkenny and stopping the traffic to let her cross the road.
That's what I love about the festival: you never know what comedy heroes you might see wandering about the place — queuing up for chips, shouting at an ATM or buying nostril-hair clippers in a pharmacy. One of my favourite sightings — one which genuinely moved me — was of Doug Stanhope in McDonald’s looking dejected and adorable while staring at his burger.
Tara was always a huge comedy fan; it was a natural progression as she got into improv through acting and then gave stand-up a shot. She is one of the best comedic actors in the country and last year she appeared in The Mario Rosenstock
Show and Irish Pictorial Weekly. I remember the first time I saw Tara; she was in the RTE Two sketch show Stew. As I was watching her on the TV, her talents were becoming more apparent — she could act, she was brilliantly funny and then she had this incredible singing voice. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I can't even do one of those things mediocrely.’ Displaying her singing voice at a party one night was how she ended up joining the Nualas, which she then left to focus on her acting career.
‘Comedy is a job for life if you want it’
— Aisling Bea
‘I used to be so anxious doing stand-up and I don't get that anxiety with the improv. I feel safe in a group’ — Michelle Read