In early March, I went back up North for the first time this year. I just want to say now that I fucking LOVE gigging up the North. Where I’m from originally, Monaghan, is just right smack on the border with the north, and as such I can tackle both north and south from an outsiders perspective; people from the south think I’m a Nordie and the people in Northern Ireland consider me a Free-Stater. So I can play the northern card in Dublin and do the reverse when across the border, which flips my set a full 180. So anytime I head to Northern Ireland to gig, having to shake thing up and challenge myself can really help to stop things getting boring or stale.
Now this is all well and good but as anyone who has seen my set can tell you, I play the Border card hard and often. I’ve got a LOT of material about The Troubles (or depending on your political point of view, “The Struggle”). I’ve always noticed in the south that audiences consider material about Sectarianism and Paramilitary activity to be a lot edgier and controversial than people up North. People ask me if I tell my jokes about the The Troubles when in the North, an if so how are they received… Honestly, it’s never really been a problem. People in the North just don’t seem to give a fuck; go to The Empire in Belfast and hear comedians rip into Protestant and Catholic communities with equal severity and you’ll see a community united in (if nothing else) an ability to laugh at themselves. Trust me, the shit you hear Northern Comedians talk about makes my jokes about The Troubles seem like Airline Food gags, and northern audiences love it. Tell the same jokes in Dublin, and you’ll see an audience getting slightly uncomfortable in an oh-shit-should-he-be-saying-those-things way. Southern audiences laugh at those gags because it feels dangerous and edgy, Northern audiences just laugh at the humour of it all. So I never usually worry about telling gags about The Troubles regardless of whether I’m in the North or the South, and just do my set as planned. The only time in a LONG time that I cast doubt over what I should and shouldn’t say was during this gig in County Tyrone, which I had been booked for by a guy called Terry Keyes, in a pub in his hometown of Omagh.
The question now became, do when gigging in Omagh, should I tell my joke about the Omagh bombing.
All the way to the gig while arranging my set for the night, I debated with myself as to whether or not to use that joke, with part of my brain telling me to omit it, and the other half wondering why the fuck would I leave it out… a conversation replicated below.
So, there’s no way we’re telling the Omagh bomb joke, right?
No? Why the hell not? We tell it in every other town and it gets a good response.
That’s true, but this IS Omagh. There’s no way this joke is going to go over with this crowd.
How can you be so sure? You’ve proven to be a mighty poor judge in the past of what people will and will not laugh at. If gigging has proven nothing else, it’s that you cannot second-guess people. Things that you’ve been so sure were suitable gags have gotten rotten responses, while edgier or dirtier jokes that’ve come from my side of the brain have brought the house down. The jokes we did recently about concentration camps were met with a great response, even though you thought they were too harsh. On the flipside, that material you did about the singer Adele was damn near booed out of the building.
I’m not disputing that; Every crowd is unique, a separate entity that reacts in different ways to material. All I’m saying is that making jokes about a specific atrocity in the town that it actually took place in is going too close to the bone.
But who is saying that? You don’t know these people, you don’t know the community. All you know is what society has ground into you; that things which may cause conflict or offense should be hushed up and never talked about- a typically Irish point of view. For all you know, you could go into Omagh, tell your Omagh Bomb joke and it’ll go brilliantly. As a community, the people of Omagh could be sick and tired of people “not mentioning the war”. It could be a great release for them to hear comedians talk about it.
Well fuck me, aren’t the people of Omagh glad that we’re coming to town to do our half hour set, have a big group therapy session and save their fucking lives. Why don’t we do some more jokes about Tyrone-based trageies? Come on, we’ve still got an hour left to drive, I’m sure we can cobble together some knee-slappers about Cormac McAnallen or Michaela Harte. They’ll thank us for helping them to find the ability to laugh again. Idiot.
There are things that people will not allow you to joke about, particularly something as awful as what happened in this town. Things that are still fresh in the minds of the community.
See, now you’re working off the notion of “too soon”. “Too soon” is bullshit. By that reasoning, there would come a time when it’s acceptable to joke about things, and until that time, you don’t mention it. You and I both know that “too soon” is nonsense. Remember that time we gigged in Sheebeen Chic? Michael Jackson had just died? We were playing around, shaking the chandeliers and pretending we were having a séance with Jacko. The crowd were loving it!
And then we asked “Are you there Michael? Is Farrah Fawcett with you?”, and the place fell SILENT. Gig OVER. And one guy up front just shook his head and said, “Too soon, man. Too soon”. Too soon?! Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died on the same fucking day! Fuck “Too Soon”. It’s been thirteen years since the bombing in Omagh.
Bullshit. I never said “Too Soon”, I said that it was still fresh in their minds. It’s fresh in everyones minds. It’s one of the greatest atrocities of our lifetimes, right here on our doorsteps. It doesn’t matter that the unborn babies killed on that day would have been in secondary school by now. To the people of this community it’s still an open wound. Word association; Omagh, bomb. It’s synonymous with tragedy and pain, with reckless hate and senseless slaughter. Elsewhere in the country, our Omagh Bomb joke goes well because people weren’t there. It was something they saw on TV, they were moved by it, they moved on. They didn’t have to cope with it. They didn’t have to clean the streets and rebuild. Why don’t we vaporize some of your close friends and family and see how long it takes for you to have a sense of humour about it?
Ok Mother Theresa, if you’re so fucking righteous right now, let me ask you this; why do we even have a joke about the Omagh Bomb?
What do you mean?
I mean, why did we write that joke in the first place? And drive around telling it, town after town? If it’s such a sore spot, why focus on it? There were any amount of atrocities in the North, pal. Why make a joke about this one?
I’ll tell you why; BECAUSE it was such a sore topic. No-one would react to jokes about the bombs in Warrenpoint or Canary Wharf. But you say Omagh; boy, you have their attention now.
The mention of the bombing of Omagh was put as the punchline of a joke SPECIFICALLY to get a reaction from the crowd, so that THEN we could riff on that reaction. We couldn’t riff on NO reaction, so we needed something that would hit them and leave them reeling, so that the following jokes would work.My question is this; why do that? Why not just talk about something else?
OK, in this case you’re right. In writing a routine, we’ll drop in a few things that are a bit edgier. Sometimes for the laughter, and sometimes for the reaction. It’s “Shock and Awe” tactics; to give the audience something they weren’t expecting. The worst reaction that I can imagine for any of our jokes would be “Ah, I knew he was going to say that!”. I never want to be that predictable. So in order to surprise and entertain an audience, it can be necessary to include some things that they didn’t expect. And nine times out of ten, that means a reference to something awful, or shocking. I’m not sure why other people do it, but that’s my reasoning. If an audience starts guessing ahead, they feel they can predict what you’re going to say. If you drop something in that comes in way out of no-where, it splashes water in their face, wakes them up. Grabs their attention. They listen closer, waiting to see what you say next. It’s a good way to keep them from chatting or heckling, to keep them focused on the performance.
Sounds to me like if you have to employ these tactics, it shows a lack of faith in the rest of your material.
Well, that’s maybe true as well, but it’s a good way to keep them laughing. And it’s what I’ve always liked in comedy. Looking back, the comedians I loved as a child were always the ones that were funny first, dirty second. The ones that told great jokes, but laced them ever so slightly with a bit of edge. It felt that you were getting away with something bold; it was something that your mother didn’t like you to watch and it added to the giddy pleasure of watching it. Other comedians that I’ve seen that subscribe solely to the darker material… well, it’s not for me. It’s like a horror movie where a cat jumps out of the cupboard every five minutes to BOO! SCARE YA!… After a while, it gets old.
I mean, we’ve tried going down that road a few times, on nights in clubs where you were allowed and encouraged to use darker material. It was never a good time; it always felt forced, like we were trying too hard. It didn’t come natural, and the audience could feel it. And when they were EXPECTING it, there was no tension built in the room, nothing along the “whats he going to say next” vibe that we love. They weren’t waiting to see what we were going to say next; they just assumed that it was going to be something “shocking”. On regular nights, however, people laugh along and enjoy it, and nobody gets offended because they’re having a good time.
“Nobody gets offended”… Man, who gives a fuck if people get offended? They’re grown-ups, at a fucking comedy club. If they don’t like what they’re hearing they can walk the fuck out.
I don’t want anyone to walk out of a club because of something I’ve said; fuck that. I would consider it an absolute failure on my behalf if I had done something onstage that had caused someone to say, “You know what? Fuck this, I’m going home”.
But I remember you saying the exact opposite, when talking about a David McSavage gig.
Right, I remember that; I’d heard of a gig with McSavage where people walked out, wrote letters of complaint etc. To me, that’s a different kettle of fish, because if you went to a McSavage gig, then you should have expected a McSavage gig. If you’re in that audience, you’re more than likely to be familiar with his work and his style. What would you expect at a McSavage gig? For him to be wheeling out Knock-Knock jokes? Same with Frankie Boyle, Doug Stanhope, Tommy Tiernan, whoever you might like to mention… If you’re in that audience, you’ve committed to that genre. It’s unlikely that you’ve wandered in blindly off the street. To suddenly decide halfway through that this offends you, or worse, to suddenly decide halfway through that you were ok with the majority of their material but suddenly they’ve hit a nerve with you personally and it’s unacceptable… No, I don’t buy it.
By that argument, it seems that only high-profile comedians can say what they want.
No, it means that at this stage in their career, they’ve “found” their audience. An audience that have subscribed to them, to their style of comedy. People see Frankie Boyle on tv playing to big rooms of rapturous fans and think; everyone must love Frankie Boyle. Wrong; that’s a room full of his FANS. Put him in a room of people that hate his style, and he’s unlikely to win them round. On a night that has Gerry McBride on the bill, there won’t be anyone in the audience familiar with him. The audience are only there because they saw a sign outside that said comedy, and came in not knowing who was on or what it was like. They’ve subscribed to the comedy, not the comedian. Should we get more famous and people are drawn to the edgier, darker aspects of our material, we can build on that.
Until then, we’ll keep wheeling out some good old watered-down Generic comedy, eh?
No, I would argue against that. The jokes we tell onstage aren’t vanilla. We’ve got jokes about everything ranging from Underage sex to the fucking Lockerbie bombing. But no-one would ever say, “He’s a dirty comedian”, or “His material is Dark”.
It’s the way ye tell’em, right?
Fuck you. Jokes in our set are arranged so that the edgier stuff flows with the funnier stuff. If you get the balance right, you can say whatever the fuck you want. People don’t mind dirt, it’s filth they can’t abide. Going back to the horror movie analogy, it’s the movies that are suggestive that have the most impact. Movies with wall-to-wall blood n’ guts are less effective. It’s all to do with balance; sure, people are coming to the nights we play based solely on the promise of “Comedy” and nothing else, but I’m sure that they expect to hear a proportion of darker material. You can lose just as many people by doing “safe” material as you can by doing the harder stuff. If anything, I’d be leaning towards edging towards the grittier aspect of it as time progresses, instead of parking in the middle of the road.
But can’t you see that what you propose is part of the problem? If there is an audience for darker comedy in this country, then they aren’t being well served. If every comedian thinks like you, they’ll all be doing their safest material, waiting for the day when they can say what they really want; a day that will probably never come. Meanwhile, the audience that WOULD like to hear some edgier material is staying away from comedy clubs, because they aren’t getting what they want.
Well, audiences that want darker material can seek it out. There are plenty of clubs that cater to that audience, the problem is that there is a lack of quality control. It’s not a lack of an audience that ruins darker material, it’s that so much of it is FUCKING AWFUL. Organisers of darker or alternative nights need to watch their acts, that is to say, you can say whatever you want, but just don’t be a child about it. This isn’t a forum for you to say all the rude words your parents wouldn’t let you. You have to have more than just a stream of garbage about pedophilia and Periods. Nobody at a night that is Advertised as Dark will walk out due to being offended, but they will walk out after the third open-mic gets up and does ANOTHER seven minutes about Child Porn. And then of course, it’s these same comedians that will cry “CONSPIRACY!!” when they fail to get ahead. “Why are we not welcomed into the more mainstream clubs?!”, they lament. There is no conspiracy trying to keep you down because your amazing material will blow the freakin minds of all these squares. People who run clubs know what their audiences want and book acts accordingly. Simple. Do these audiences like your style? Parts of it, yeah. Are there comedians that can do your style, only better? Sure. Do they get booked for the mainstream clubs? YES THEY DO.
So where does that leave us with this Omagh Bomb Joke? The way I see it, we’ve three options; We cut it, which means we censor ourselves. And if we do that, then by right we should take a look at the crowd and see what else we have to cut. Old people in the crowd? Snip those ageist jokes. Women? Gotta cut out that sexist material. Better not do any jokes about drinking in case there’s an alcoholic or two, don’t want to offend them! if we don’t do this, it makes us hypocrites; ok with offending THESE people here, but not ok with offending these guys over here.
Second, we change the joke. Try and make it work with some other reference. But if we do this, then we’re compromising any small, miniscule shred of artistic integrity we could ever lay claim to. Plus again, the fact that we would DO the joke in another town, but not here, means that we’re ok with laughing about these people behind their backs, but won’t say it to their faces. Which kinda makes you a bit of a cunt.
Last option is grow some fucking balls and do it. Best case scenario, they laugh. Worst case scenario, they don’t.
See, that’s what bothers me. We’re headlining; we’re last on. if we fuck up and die, no-one will pick it up after us. We have to go out and give 100% and make sure that people go home happy. That they go and tell their friends yeah, I had a good night last night; let’s go again next month. I don’t want them to go and say yeah, we had an alright night but the last guy on was shit.
Ah, there it is. You finally admitted it. You don’t want to do anything that might cause the audience to dislike you.
Because GOD FORBID we go one night without being beloved! Forget art, forget integrity; the most important thing is that people say Gerry McBride; he’s good. Nothing else is acceptable! Let’s not take any chances with our reputation, lets not try to be political or relevant or do something worthwhile; that wouldn’t feed our ego, no. That wouldn’t get you a handshake after the gig. That wouldn’t chip away at the mountain of self-esteem issues we have, oh no.
Ok, for starters, it was never my intention to be overly political or controversial. That was never my motivation for starting comedy. It WAS my intention to entertain, yes. I like it when audiences have a good time. It’s more important to me to ensure they get their monies worth; that they didn’t feel like going to a comedy club was a waste of time. I’ve said it many times; in times that are as tough as they are right now, anyone in the entertainment business has an obligation to the public to entertain them to the best of their abilities. That is why I’ve decided NOT to do the Omagh Bomb joke tonight (well, that and the fact that this lengthy discussion has led me to believe that it’s kinda a shit joke to begin with). Fuck offending people, I’m not willing to take the risk that it will UPSET people, as it is highly likely to do so. This is not about me being precious about my material and saying “Well, fuck the audience; these jokes are brilliant and they can fuck off if they disagree”. I have a responsibility to the paying audience; First, Do no Harm. This is not censorship. Censorship is watering down every bottle of Whiskey in case a child should drink it. This is more like serving Whiskey to a Whiskey loving audience, but just picking a fly out of one of the glasses. And sure, I could go out and tell some other joke that will offend them as much if not more than the Bomb joke. That’s the risk we take. I could make a joke about crashing a car and upset everyone because there was a fatal car crash recently that I knew nothing about; people give you the benefit of the doubt in those instances. Making jokes about something that you KNEW was likely to hurt and offend, but told it anyways because you were too self-indulgent to omit one of your precious jokes? That’s NOT what we signed up to do.
Fuck man, we won’t do the joke, fine. Jesus, have a fucking seizure why don’t you. So what jokes can we replace it with?
I dunno… check the setlist there.
“The song most likely to be played at the funeral of a teenage suicide”? We’ve got fucking issues, my friend.