Write it down? The old Hal Roach line has given way to YouTube and many other ways for Irish comics in America to be funny and reach their audience. Mike Farragher talks to the new breed of Irish comedians.
A fond memory of an Irish American childhood: sitting in a circle around a turntable or a cassette player and listening in the community as the hilarious Hal Roach encouraged us to “write it down.”
His live set from Dublin’s Jurys Hotel, along with cassettes from Brendan Grace, were smuggled en masse from Ireland and transmitted to families during the holiday season. That slice of humor from home was brought out at a time when my Irish parents were most lonesome for the motherland.
Irish comedy is thriving today from coast to coast, but the way these funny people reach their audiences nowadays has evolved far beyond the cassette tape.
Los Angeles-based Dublin native Francis Cronin is getting a strong west coast buzz as he embarks on “Rough Set,” which finds the comedian traversing over 500 miles by foot to perform standup and storytelling gigs as he heads to San Francisco for the holidays. Armed with nothing but a small backpack, a waterproof sleeping bag, and a cell phone, this funny man will draw heavily from his survival skills learned as an ex-Irish Army officer.
“The more serious the situation, the more tense the moment, the more explosive the laughter when you pierce the tension,” Cronin says when asked about how his army background formed his comedy.
For Co. Kildare native Katie Boyle, she gears up for war in a different battleground: the bars of the Big Apple! A stage at a comedy club is sometimes a luxury, as she often performs perched on a barstool to an audience of punters in places like The Rochard (1504 Lexington Avenue) who didn’t necessarily walk into the bar to laugh that night.
“Audiences going to comedy clubs plan their night around laughing whereas I have to convert a bar that didn’t come in to laugh,” Boyle explains. “It’s a different way to do comedy than in Ireland.”
Boyle didn’t have a calling to be a comedian until she saw a female standup annihilate the crowd a few years ago.
“I went to a show here in Brooklyn and she was so funny, I thought I wanted to do that,” she recalls. “You would see Tommy Tiernan at home and wouldn’t see many female comedians. I’ve been doing standup every night since. It’s something I was meant to do.”
When asked who her biggest comedy influences are, Boyle credits her adopted city as the primary one.
“I feel like because I started in Manhattan, my comedy stylings are formed here because you need very quick jokes and must work hard to keep people’s attention,” she says. “Everything is different here than the rest of the world. In Ireland, you can tell a story without a laugh for a few minutes and Irish audiences would stay with you there. The Irish comedians couldn’t get over how short my jokes are when I did standup back home.”
Boyle pairs pictures and witty bon mots on Instagram to make people aware of her upcoming gigs. For others, they weave a tapestry of online comedy sketches, podcasts, and scriptwriting to get noticed.
“You’re trying to a bit of everything, doing 100 things at once. Doing open mic nights is a start and it’s a good way to get your craft sharp, but you have to be doing podcasts and sketches to get noticed,” says Co. Longford native Sean Finnerty, who is playing Philadelphia’s Parx Casino on December 12 and is also based in New York.
“The entertainment sphere has really fractured. Everyone who has a cell phone can have a podcast,” explains Cronin. “So many comedians have podcasts nowadays. The more people you have in your group talking positive about one another.
“Getting a hook into the market and then trading that with your friends who are also getting attention. I call it ‘attention trading.’ You don’t always have to have the best content nowadays; it’s all about trading attention. Helping friends, as archaic as it seems, is the best way to rise to the top. It’s just being a good, industrious human being paying it forward.”
“Everyone has a number of hustles going on out here,” jokes Cork native Mark Hayes. In addition to making audiences roar in comedy clubs along the West Coast, Hayes hosts a weekly “Luck of the Irish Night” at the venerable Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, peddles scripts, and produces comedy sketches on YouTube.
He is also the author of the Randumb series, a collection of autobiographical funny stories about an Irish guy trying to fit into the laid-back SoCal culture.
“Standup is my first love and primary focus,” he asserts. Sharing a bill with fellow comic Chris Deleo has him playing to audiences that number in the thousands every night and boosted Hayes’ profile exponentially.
Hal Roach’s comedy was taped in front of a live Irish audience, where everyone had a similar culture and upbringing. Comedy is all about finding that common ground, so an Irish comedian facing an American audience might have to change their approach and forage a little deeper to get the laugh.
“I started in Orlando six years ago and had to start speaking slower and tweak my dialogue, so they could understand me,” recalls Finnerty. “Irish audiences tend to be more fun; there’s less hostility going in. Ireland is just is a simpler place with less issues at the forefront. They are committed to going for a laugh versus an American audience, who might be on edge a bit. They’ve got their arms crossed and you have to win them over. New York audiences have tourists mixed in, so that helps balance things out!”
“I’ve gotta watch the references from back home, even at the Luck of the Irish nights, or I’ll lose the audience,” jokes Hayes. “You have to think about where you need to substitute ‘yer man’ with ‘that dude over there’ in your set list so you don’t lose anyone!”
For Dubliner Ronan Collins, who produces an Irish comedy showcase as part of the annual Kansas City Irish Festival, Irish Americans have led the way to create the Irish standup scene that is currently blossoming across the Atlantic.
“Not too long ago, there were these cabaret-style evenings with music mostly and an odd comedian thrown in the middle,” Collins explains. “There weren’t these comedy clubs with standup acts playing all night. Ireland was late to the game to making a comedy club scene.
“The feedback from the Irish comedians are really open and warm,” Collins continues. “We’ve been doing these comedy festivals within the KC Irish Festival for many years. It’s gone from me begging people to come from Ireland to play our festival to comedians lining up asking us to play. Irish comedians are really looking to connect with their Irish American brethren, which is great!”
Collins sees a difference in the timing and delivery that is unique to an Irish comedian. “They are more storytelling-based versus one-liners, which goes down well with Irish Americans and the rest of the Americans as well,” he says.
No matter what era a comedian worked in, all Irish funny people have a shared authenticity that is refreshing to an audience.
“Truth has a gravity so strong that when you speak it, it pulls people in,” Cronin reasons. “The talent is a prerequisite. It’s perseverance and heart that draws people to you and if you continue to do that.”
Even Hal Roach, God rest his soul, is finding new ways to make people laugh from the grave. Those taped routines that made you laugh can now be found on Spotify!
(Mike Farragher’s humorous essays can be found in his This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks series. For more information, visit www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com.)