A young, professional comedian at the centre of a new-wave of confident and ambitious local comics has explained why the time is right for a local scene at its peak to take a bite from the market for big-name visiting comedians.
With more local TV and radio coverage than anything seen in years, a spike in the standard of local comedy nights, a move away from Troubles humour and wider range of ages, gender and styles than ever, comedian Shane Todd has said local comics have never had a better time to step out of the shadows, fill larger venues with solo shows and tempt comedy fans away from big-name acts.
While recognising that local comedy is “up against” touring shows by the likes of Kevin Bridges, Shane – who hosted Radio Ulster’s Live at the Sunflower host and appeared on the BBC NI show Late Licence – said local people are starting to see the value of comedians on their doorstep “who can hold their own with the big-name visitors”.
“I’m not hostile towards the big English comedians but it is unfortunate in a way that people go to see them in such huge numbers. I went to see Kevin Bridges myself and enjoyed it; funny is funny. But although there are people who would only go to see comedy of this type maybe once a year, they are coming round to what is at home and I hope more and more people do the same. It is the perfect time for them to do so.”
Shane, who has seen a group of his contemporaries aged in their 20s experience a heyday for local comedy, said local acts could now step out of the shadow of larger acts and aim for bigger venues.
“I did my own gig in the Mandela Hall in October and people thought I was mad. It felt like something someone my age shouldn’t be doing. But the other comedians could think about a show of their own as they can, without a doubt, do it. Acts here shouldn’t be afraid to do a solo show as instead of supporting bigger names as they can hold their own. Take, for example, Ciaran Barlett who has headlined but not performed on his own in a big venue, but he certainly could.
“After all, Belfast is seeing such a vibrant time. I was walking down the stairs in the Sunflower Bar a couple of weeks ago and came across a big group of people each playing the ukulele. Ten years ago even it might have made me do a double-take and think they were a bunch of hippies but things are so different now, I stood there and enjoyed the music. Tastes have changed and there is such variety out there.”
THE PAST IN THE PAST
There’s a moment during the BBC NI show Late Licence when comedian Shane reads out a Tweet asking: “When are you going to mention the Troubles?”.
The response from the crowd? Laughter. The Troubles hadn’t been mentioned and weren’t going to be mentioned by Shane any time soon, mainly because the group of comedians featured on the show have reached new heights of individuality, popularity and broadcast media support and have dropped much of what we used to expect from Northern Ireland comedy along the way.
It seems a far cry from the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture show on BBC NI, which used a large amount of Troubles material from a parade of comedians to showcase local talent.
Shane, who is 27-years-old, explained how local comedy has reached its current fine health and the journey taken by those in the local scene along the way.
“Just ten years ago you would have felt under pressure to talk mainly about about the Troubles and be more crude. If you take the example of Kevin McAleer, a favourite comedian of mine, he didn’t do this and had to spend more time in the South to find a bigger audience for his work.
“Then around five years ago the same thing happened as we see today: a group of us around the same age had been doing the same gigs and recording podcasts appeared on BBC NI show called LOL. But it was too much too soon for a lot of us. It was closer to student comedy and cruder. I remember asking myself at that time how I could shock people but I have more life experience now and don’t need to think in the same way”.
The “very welcome” appearance of the Late Licence show, along with the Live at the Sunflower on Radio Ulster, has given a new platform for Shane’s contemporaries and an ideal format to showcase their new-found voices and differing styles, from the edgier Ciaran Bartlett to the popular characters played by Colin Geddis and the musical comedy of Teresa Livingstone.
“The comedians shown are mostly in their 20s but have different styles. The fast-paced TV format is ideal for showing their individuality, and also because the acts have all matured they haven’t had to change their live material much, aside from removing some swearing, to make it work on TV.
Shane explained that, while the number of venues for local comedy in Belfast have reduced, what remains is a more focussed and higher-quality offering.
“There are fewer clubs but those we do have are being run by actual comedians as opposed to being run by a bar owner who would book the acts and put on the show. When I started out you only really had Queens, The Empire and the Pavillion but that number grew when Live at the Apollo became popular on TV. Now we are back to having Queens, The Empire and crucially Laverys, where there are some big nights and where I would try out new material. There is a feeling in Laverys of a collective at work.”
Shane praised the good work of comedy clubs like Dalys in Omagh, Masons in Derry/ Londonderry, the Braid in Ballymena and Blakes’ in Enniskillen. He made special of Yardbird in Belfast, where an open-mic scene is bringing forward new talent into the city.
“Their open-mic nights are closer to the American format of new comedians followed by a headline act. There is a definite scene there. When I last visited they were all new people I hadn’t met before.”
He thought it was unlikely, though, that the likes of mainland GB brands Jongleurs and Glee would see Belfast as fertile ground for a new venue as the city still sits in too stark a contrast to “the likes of Edinburgh where you essentially have a city full of comedy connoisseurs”.
The local scene has, however, seen a broadening of the age groups of comedians performing. While the group of comedians Shane is part of are mostly in their 20s, the age range taking to the stage “seems to be wider than ever”.
“Stand-ups here do seem to be getting younger and there are loads more female comedians like Teresa Livingstone and Mary Flanagan. At an open-mic night some of the acts look about ten years younger than me whereas when I started out everyone seemed to be in their 30s. Now you have young and old, a wide age range”.
Shane pointed out that while some comedians, such as Dublin’s Al Porter, instantly “knew their schtick” whereas it had taken him years to find his natural style.
Shane was concerned that, with the exception of Yardbird on a Sunday, it was difficult to find live, local comedy in Belfast during the weekend.
“It always makes me picture tourists arriving in Belfast looking for the famous craic and finding nothing.”
He said – with the exception of the Blame Game (“people like Neil Delamere are brilliant at that format”) – there are perhaps six or seven comedians in Northern Ireland who are professional comics, five of these being from Shane’s groups of contemporaries.
Of that circle, however, it is mainly Shane and Micky Bartlett who play shows in GB beyond Edinburgh, Shane’s preference being to wait and travel across when opportunities for solo shows are available as opposed to going across regularly for comedy showcase nights.
According to Shane, diversifying into the likes of theatre is something to be approached with caution.
“It might happen in Dublin and London but the door isn’t really being opened to other things like theatre. No one is asking. I would certainly consider it, though, and I know most would but it has to be the right thing and not done for the sake of it.
“I tell people that I work as a comedian for a living and if I’m doing too many things it looks like I’d do anything.”
Being someone who, obviously, watches a lot of live comedy, Shane explained an interesting aside about how he declares his profession if asked by a comedian on-stage.
“I usually tell them I’m self-employed. In fact, if anyone in an audience ever says the same to me during a show it does make me wonder if they are also a comedian.”
FUNDING AND TV SUPPORT
Shane explained that it has recently become clear just how much he could lose out if local festivals are put at risk due to funding, although he added that the new financial climate surrounding culture events had brought about a new spirit of co-operation between those involved in the arts.
“There’s a sense of a community between creative people. I can go onto a local Facebook group called the Media Therapy Group to say I’m looking for an editor and find one in an hour.”
He concluded that the the exposure of local comedians on BBC Northern Ireland could be boosted by further shows developing the acts.
“The TV and radio shows are great to showcase what is out there but I would love to see BBC NI continuing to experiment and giving people space to develop. For example, Colin Geddis plays characters who could be developed into a much longer low-budget sketch or show. Yes, I would love to see this happen with some of my sketches too but if it was to happen, through BBC NI, for any of us then I’d be delighted as It would give continuity to Late Licence and Live at the Sunflower.
“The scene can develop from here. The city is ready and local comedy is ready. We can hold our own, which means we can grow our own big-venue filling solo shows.
“There has never been a better time.”
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net