Speak to any long-in-the-tooth comedian, and he’ll tell you that THE place to gig years ago was Navan. In fact, County Meath has given the world some of Irelands most lauded comedians, from Tommy Tiernan to Dylan Moran, to latter-day standard bearers such as Fred Cooke and Tommy Nicholson. I’ve never gigged in Navan town (except for an aborted attempt last year, that I’ll let Kieran Lawless fill you in on), so there was no better place to kick off the 32 county challenge. My first Navan gig took place in Johnstown, just outside the town. Bringing comedy to small towns usually works out pretty well; there’s fuck all else to do, most people all go to the same pub week in, week out, so a comedy night can go down a storm. Most small town gigs I’ve done so far are run by local comedians; in this case a guy called Harry McGarry. Given a small budget by the pub to run the night, Harry put together the following line-up;
A nice collection of up-and-comers, with me to finish out the show. With gigs like this, I never like to say “headline”… I’m not headlining, I’m just going on last. A headliner is a known name, a draw; someone who sells tickets. With a small budget gig like this one, it can be hard to get a big name interested. This is where guys like me step in; we’re at it just a wee bit longer, we’re happy of any payment, and someone thought enough of us to think us capable of finishing a show strongly. At no time, however, would I think finishing a small town gig is means that I’m an actual headline-quality act; after all, rule #3 says Don’t believe the hype.
Whether I consider this a headline job or not, they want me to finish the show for them. It’s always nice to be considered capable, but in the run-up to a gig like this, I always get a bit nervous. When finishing a show, there’s a pressure to finish it well. If you’re on in the first half and you have a bad gig, someone on later in the night will probably cover it for you. But when you finish up a show, you’ll be the one people remember as they drive home. If you were good, then they had a good night. If you died on your hole, then they think that the whole night was a let-down. So I always feel a sense of responsibility when I’m finishing shows for people, and as such an extra bit of pressure. Especially on a night such as this, where it’s the first night of comedy in this particular pub. If I stink the place up, then Harry will have a hard time convincing the manager to let him run another night.
Luckily, I’ve always done pretty well in small-town audiences. Maybe it’s because I’m small-town born and bred myself, and share many of their sensibilities. There are comedy styles that will and won’t fly with a lot of small-town audiences. I’ve found they like simple material; jokes about sex (but not overly smutty), jokes about drinking and revelry (but not so much so about drugs) and above all else, some good old casual racism. That may seem like I’m painting rural Ireland to be full of hicks and rednecks, which is not my intention; no crowd will (or should) tolerate blatant bigotry. I’ve just found over the years that lines that get frowned upon in Dublin, go over easier in the country. Say for example, I have a joke about the toilet attendant in my local nightclub, who happens to be a black guy. Even the mention of this in Dublin gets a few stern looks and the occasional “that’s racist” heckle. In the country? Not a problem. They just seem to accept it for what it is; a good natured crowd pleasing effort that happens to involve a black guy.
So I went to the gig expecting something akin to a gig I played for Ben Buckley in his hometown earlier in the year; a raucous but fun night in a jam-packed local pub with plenty of people out for the laugh. What I got, instead, was anything but. Some pubs seem to think that comedy is like karaoke; all you need is to stick a mic in the corner and away you go. The comedians can get up and tell their funnies, and everyone can listen over the PA system. Why, we don’t even have to turn off Match of the Day on the big tellys at the back! My heart sank. Many of the comedians reading this will have played the Kinsealy Inn in Swords; this was its rowdier younger brother. In fact, Johnstown Co. Meath has such a population of Dubliners living on the commuter belt, that it might as well have been Kinsealy. I’ve played Kinsealy, and done well (in fact I’m itching to get back now that I have the measure of the crowd, to either rock the shit out of it or die with my boots on). But at least in Kinsealy, they can hear you at the back. At least in kinsealy, they turn the Disco lights off so that the stage doesn’t look like the comedian is engaged in a Pokemon battle. After all his hard work to try to get a decent comedy night up and running, Harry was crestfallen.
The killing thing about all this was the fact that the mic and PA was desperate; static and hiss and feedback marred set-ups and ruined punchlines. There wasn’t even a mic-stand. In times like this, I would encourage people to just jettison the mic; throw the fucker away and let rip. Most venues are small enough for your voice to carry, and even if it’s a big roadhouse like last night, those in the back might just quiet down or move up front to listen. Getting rid of a mic is great to help with your performance, because you’re free to move more naturally and gesticulate more energetically without worrying about knocking shit over or tripping on wires; any time I can, I always do gigs without the mic.
But even that wasn’t going to wash with this gig; there was too much noise from too small a crowd. So you were stuck with a mic that was only audible if you stood in EXACTLY the right spot. I have to admit, there was a time that I was thinking fuck this; I’ve been paid upfront, so what the fuck do I care. I’ll get up and phone in ten minutes and get the hell out of this camp and get some fucking chips. It’s times like this when you gotta remember Rules 2 and 3; you’re only here on the strength of past performances, and if you think you’re a big enough draw to do whatever the hell you want when you get to gigs, it won’t be long before they start to dry up. I was paid to do a job, so it’s time to sack up and do it. I got up and swung for the fences, and whatever rocking there was to be done, I did. I don’t know what I was worried about; compared to some of the audiences I’ve played for, these guys were grand. What I couldn’t see from the back was that there was a corona of attentive people around the front of the stage, and as long as you played to them, it was fine. If you tried to engage the back row, the people who actually were there to listen felt alienated and ignored. So don’t waste half your gig trying to shush the back row; play to the people that are listening and you’re sorted. In the end, you couldn’t get me of stage; I did 25 minutes and could have kept going.
Gigs like this are a wake up call; you gotta know that not every gig is going to be Tuesday night in the International. Not every gig will be all you hope it to be. I knew getting onstage that no mater how good I did, it didn’t matter. there would probably never be comedy in the pub again. But should that influence your performance? Are you gonna spit out the dummy because the Lilys in the dressing room aren’t white enough, or are you gonna lead by example and get out there ? You’ll get far more respect for making a bad situation good then for sulking and going home, griping that everything wasn’t up to your exacting standards.