Ah, Cork; known to Corkonians as the Real Capital of Ireland and to everyone else as, well, Cork. Back when I started doing comedy, Cork was the first big journey I took to do a gig; I’d never driven so far in one go, to anything. The gig that I went down to do that night was the same gig that brought me down this time; The Craichouse. Although The Craichouse has changed management a few times since that first journey, and indeed has changed venue (this was the first time I’d played the new venue, and it is a LOVELY room), the Craichouse credo remained a comedy club offering the best of local talent but also allowing newer comedians a place to work, while bringing down eager acts from around the country. I have fond memories of the Craichouse of old, and indeed Cork in general, being that it was the one place you could go to gig when the Dublin work was in short supply; there was The Craichouse in the city, the Laughing Langers in Middleton, and even the chance of doing a spot in City Limits if there was one going… that’s before you counted up all the once-offs and pub gigs in the surrounding area. The Cork comedy scene became an alternative to the Dublin scene; familiar yet different, audiences that were just as challenging and fun but with that unique Cork twist.
As I said earlier, this was my first trip down to the new Craichouse, which was on hiatus for a while until the Cork comedians got together to find a new room and keep the club going. This I feel is very indicative of the Irish comedy scene; it is kept going from the ground up by the comedians themselves. There is no central governing body, there is no Comedy Council of Ireland; most clubs are run by the comics who gig there. Taking Dublin as the best example of a comedy community in Ireland, you’ll see a very distinct pattern emerge; there are the higher up clubs and the starter clubs, open mic nights and the like. The new up-and-coming comedians cut their teeth playing the smaller venues before graduating on to the more prestigious rooms. As this is happening, the smaller venues gain traction as being good clubs in their own right (although in my time in comedy there have only been a few that have managed to stay the distance and literally dozens that have fallen by the wayside), and start attracting bigger names. When you’ve done all the gigs on one scene, you go looking for gigs in another, where you start at the bottom and the cycle spins up all over again.
This was what happened with me personally in my first few years, when I was gigging regularly in Dublin up until the point that I had played all venues, and had to go to the back of the queue to wait to get booked again. The solution was simple; strike out to scenes in Cork, Galway and Belfast. There was a range of new clubs to play, but you had to start again from the beginning. This I can see happening now especially with the lads I gig with in Belfast; they have been gigging regularly in their own communities, headlining and MCing their own shows, and then they come to Dublin and start again on the Open Mic scene. Dublin has gigs for comics of all experience levels, and always another target to aim for; something true of all the local scenes. Going back to Cork, for newer acts you have the CoCo Comedy Club on Thursdays and the Craichouse on Saturdays, with the prospect of eventually getting some City Limits stagetime further down the road. In Belfast, you can aspire to make it onto the stage in The Empire, but there are venues if you’re just starting. But by sheer numbers, Dublin has the most attractive comedy scene in Ireland- on every single night of the week, you can do a gig in an open mic venue, or you can do a gig in a paid venue.
I had this discussion with one of my Belfast comrades about the Dublin comedy scene; he was extremly envious that in Dublin, you could gig every night of the week, and wanted to know how Belfast could copy this model for their own scene. I said what I said earlier in this blog; it’s by the comedians, for the comedians. Although I don’t claim to be any comedy historian, I’m fairly sure it would have started with Kevin Gildea, Ardal O’Hanlon and Barry Murphy in the Comedy Cellar and almost twenty years later, here we are. More and more acts came out of the brush looking for a place to perform, the next thing you have the International Comedy Club, then The Hapenny… All started by comedians. I said to my Belfast Friend, you too can have comedy every night of the week, if there are comedians willing to run gigs and put up with the slings and arrows and financial ruin associated with it. To have a fertile comedy scene, you need an audience. Dublin is a busy city, with plenty of tourists and people out looking for entertainment at night. Not every city has that. If you’re working in a city with a smaller comedy audience, then the more clubs you have, the more spread out that audience is going to be (unless you live in the city of our dreams, populated with ravenous comedy fans who will attend every gig on every day). If you wish to expand the comedy scene in your locality by putting on a new night, it will invariably take a portion of the audience away from someone elses gig. It could happen that your new venture (well-meaning and all as it may be) will cause friction with this other promoter, what with your business model being almost identical to his, operating on basically the same turf and in direct competition to him.
This is the downside of having such a fertile comedy scene as the one in Dublin; there are so many comedians that the existing clubs simply can’t book them all. As such, a new comedy club opens up every month (no bullshit; literally every month). Some last three or four months, other stay the distance and become part of the regular scene, through the sheer hard work and determination of the guys running them. Since I started comedy nearly four years ago, only two weekly clubs have been opened in that time that are still operating today; Laugh Out Loud in Anseo and The Comedy Crunch in Sheebeen Chic (with Comedy HaHa in The Mercantile showing good legs too). Other clubs come and go within weeks, having achieved nothing except maybe pissing off guys who are running gigs a hundred yards up the road on the same night. Acts can sometimes get caught in the crossfire, with the old play-his-club-and-you-can’t-play-mine hand being dealt out. The more people on the comedy scene, the more toes get stepped on. Factions and cliques can emerge when too many clubs swarm a scene. There’s only so much business to go around, and the guys that got here first don’t seem to take too kindly to those that just copied their success… a bit like how that milkshake bar on Dame Street must be livid at all the imitators that have sprung up since they opened.
Me, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of “How Many Clubs does a Comedy Scene Need”… it’s not long since all I could get booked for were the type of here today, gone tomorrow clubs that put on nine lads doing seven minutes apiece, and I have fond memories of those times and greatly appreciate the opportunities they gave me to perform when no-one else did; on the other hand I appreciate how frustrating it is to run an established comedy club and have someone set up stall two doors up and siphon off your customers, treating them to a less polished product and possibly souring the comedy-going audience altogether by giving comedy nights in general a bad name. Dublin gets by due to it’s sheer size, but in cities with smaller pools to fish from, is it good business to flood the market with more and more clubs? It’s bound to piss SOMEONE off, but then the counter-argument by new acts would be to say fuck it; we’re not getting booked in the bigger clubs so if we don’t start our own, what the fuck else are we supposed to do? Wait around for months between gigs? To my Belfast friend I said this; the Belfast scene can have as many clubs as the Dublin scene, if you guys really want it. If you’re prepared to get out there, set up venues, working in competition to each other. You can have comedy every night of the week, but don’t expect everyone to be friends at the end of it.
Cork seems to be working well though, with just the right mix. They’re not diluting the market with far too many clubs, and seem to be sticking together as a comedy community and helping each other out. On the night I was in Cork, there was a great camaraderie among the comedians, most of whom weren’t performing, they had called in to see the show and support the night (which was greatly appreciated as the crowd was scarce on the night). I feel the return of The Craichouse will be great for the Cork Comedy scene, helping the newer comedians get some stagetime and giving them confidence and motivation to get travelling to Dublin and further. God knows somebody must be doing something right down South, given that County Cork has exported more of the countries comedy talent per head of capita then any other county (if you like, count up all the comedians from Cork… It’ll take longer than you might think). Through time, more acts will travel from Cork to test themselves in other waters, just as at the same time acts from around the country will travel to Cork to perform. Dublin acts will head to Galway for gigs, Belfast acts will try their hand in Derry, Derry acts migrate to Dublin… Gigging in different scenes in different cities is great for your set, as you’ll be playing to a different spectrum of people all the time; a Cork Audience and a Belfast audience are two very different things. And after you play the cities, you start going from town to town, again starting at the open mic level and working up. There are ample oppurtunities. People often complain about how the Comedy Scene in Ireland pales in comparison to the UK, but remember that it really isn’t that long since Mr Trellis took the stage in The International bar. We’ll get there. And when we do, we’ll all fuck off to the UK and hit the Open Mic circuit and start again.