32 Counties, 32 Gigs part 3; Antrim

Last week was fairly exciting for me; after ages trying, and with a lot of help from people who championed me, I managed to book a weekend in the Laughter Lounge in Dublin. This was the one I had been chasing for sometime, so imagine my surprise and delight when I was also offered weekends in Waterford and Belfast. All in all, seven gigs that’ll see me playing to more people than ever before, and earning more than I did for the whole of last year.

All in all, a good week for Stoke

But when the dust settled (and when I stopped punching the air like Bender in The Breakfast Club), the weight of the task ahead sank in. These are big venues, with people paying top dollar to get it. I’ll be gigging with some of the countries most experienced and polished performers. I’ll need to be on key on all nights, knocking it out of the park one after the other. If not, it could be a while before I see the inside of the venues again.

But I shook this gloomy thinking; I wouldn’t have booked the gigs if someone didn’t think I was able. And I’ve been holding audiences attention with reliable material all year. There’ll be no experimentation or ad-libbing or trying something new on the night; anything that hasn’t earned it’s place won’t make the squad. I’ve played big crowds before and they didn’t faze me, so as long as I stick to the script, I should be fine. Dublin? No problem. Waterford? No problem. Belfast? Eh…

See, despite living inches from the border, I’ve only ever done one gig up the north, ages ago. Might have been like my fourth gig or so. And none of that material worked; it was all about being from the south, and a southerners view of the wierd and wonderful world that was Northern Ireland. As such, the audience didn’t relate. It took me a while to figure out why, but in the end it became clear… they WERE from the north, and I was making observations and jokes about a southerners perception of the north. It was way off. They didn’t get it. i remember one routine, which would have went well around the border areas… I was joking about how before mobile phones, you’d have to ask a girl for her number after you met her in the pub, and try to remember it or scribble it onto a beermat or whatever. The joke was that when you’re dialling from the south, there’s a litany of shit you have to do; drop the 028 preface, replace it with 048, drop the first zero of that, use the international dialling code 0044… in the end, you couldn’t ring this girl because it was like trying to ring china. It didn’t fly because no-one up north had to do any of that shit- they could just ring people without hassle. It was proof that frankly, I don’t know jack about Northern Ireland. Hell, when writing this blog, I had to google Belfast to make sure it was in County Antrim.

So that sent me back to the drawing board with jokes for the north, which I never went back to. I struck gold on the comedy circuit in Dublin and stayed with it. A few years later, I’m booked to head back north, and what am I armed with now? I’ve got a universal set, filled with jokes and observations suited not only for Ireland, but also to the tastes of the Northern comedy market, haven’t I?

Have I fuck.

While I was busy touring the south getting known as “that Northern lad” (despite the fact that I’m as much from Northern Ireland as Eric Shantz), I’d gotten lazy. Why bother to book shit up north when I’m filling my boots in the south? As anyone who’s seen my set will tell you, it’s basically built around being from “up north”, and all the wild and crazy RA stories and sectarianism that goes with it. In truth, most of it is made up, or sensationalized, or built around the barest scraps of the truth… And most of it makes fun of the north, laughing at it rather than laughing with it. Take my set up north, unchanged, and I’d be pretty sure I’d get heckled out of the building at the very least.

"Hey, funnyman, quit telling ignorant, stereotypical jokes about the North!"

So began a search to see what I could salvage out of the set, what would travel and what wouldn’t. To do so, I booked a bunch of open mic gigs around the north, the first of which was Big Laughs at the Pavillion, a Woolshed-sized gig on the Ormeau road, on Monday night gone by. In the run up to it, I’d been e-mailing back and forth with a few northern comedians that I’d met before, getting a feel for the scene. I was trying to sniff out whether or not southern material would fly, what jokes wouldn’t go over well, what were still sore delicate subjects, and if I’m being honest, where was a safe place to park a Clare registered Toyota. Crucial to my investigation was Matthew Collins, a guy from Meath who has been on the Northern scene for ages, and who had seen my material first hand so could offer an insight into what would wash and what wouldn’t.

Matthew Collins, pictured here with two members of the PSNI

What pretty much everyone told me was this; stop being a bollox. Do jokes travel? Not always. Does funny travel? Without question. If you’re a funny comedian, people will laugh. If you assert yourself, be confident, and be good to an audience, they’ll like you. Will you need to crop and tailor your material? Absolutely. Jokes from Dublin with specific Dublin references will fly over their heads, so they’ll have to be adapted. The Luas? The DART? Skangers? Copperface Jacks? They won’t have a clue what you’re on about. Bad public transport, scumbag kids and shithole nightclubs? Anyone can relate to these. So there was a large part of my set that I wasn’t afraid of; my carsex routine and Rural nightclub sketches would go over, and that can run at over ten minutes by itself. The rest, I would just have to be careful; don’t try to be too clever, and try to create a bunch of Northern-specific observations that I don’t really understand. That’s what happened the last time I was in Belfast; I landed with the aforementioned  “so whats with these international dialling codes” bullshit and straight away they could see they were dealing with a moron whose sole knowledge of life in the north amounts to buying fireworks in Jonesborough market and crappy teenage novels I was forced to read in secondary school.

If Kevin and Sadie can work it out, why can't we all?

Coincidentally, the week before I went to Belfast, I MC’ed the Battle of the Axe, where the line-up was predominantly people trying stand-up for the first time. That’s what it had been like for me going to Belfast; it was like starting over again, unsure if any of my jokes would work, unsure of the reaction, and starting off in a room of comedians where I was completely unknown with everything to prove. But I settled myself; this isn’t my first gig, I said. Ok, the material might be hit and miss, but everything else is still the same. Delivery. performance. Not showing that I’m nervous. Stage presence. Once you get all that, an audience will be comfortable… then al you gotta do is tell a joke or two and you’re elected.

MC’ing the Axe, I watched first-timers going up making all the first-timer mistake we’ve all made; timing mistakes, poor crowd skills, getting drunk beforehand to “settle the nerves” ( I have NO clue why people do this), shouting too loud, being arrogant to the crowd… these were all things I’d done myself in my first year at stand-up, until one by one I ironed them out. Everyone does. I hit the stage in the Pavillion in Belfast like I’d hit the stage anywhere else. Taking it as if it were a night where I was mixing some new material in with some old classics, I rocked the shit out of it. The stuff that always went well, went well. Some stuff that I thought wouldn’t travel, didn’t travel (but was handled with the recovery line “hmm… does not travel” which the crowd loved), and the one that was troubling me the most, the Tayto sketch, went down a stormer (even if I did have to turn it 180 and slag off our Mr. Tayto instead of theirs… sorry buddy).

I love you guys equally.

I left the Pavillion just ITCHING to get back up north, to try more clubs, to try other material…This was just one gig, and I need to do more, to iron out the creases, to get a better response from a broader spectrum of the Belfast comdy-going community. But as long as I stick to the basics of comedy, keeping the performances sharp and being good to the audience, the material will slot into place.  I’m tackling the North with zeal and enthusiasm that I haven’t felt since I started to get regular bookings in Dublin.  All I need is gigs, gigs, gigs. I’ve a few months before the Laughter Lounge gig in Belfast, and it’s become something that instead of being worried about, something that I can’t wait for.

Belfast!

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