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The humour editor of HeadStuff interviews Karl MacDermott about his new book Juggling With Turnips which touches upon Karl’s own career as a stand-up comedian in Ireland in the 1990s.
Reading your recently published book, Juggling With Turnips, I was struck by the recurring character of the washed up stand-up comedian Quasimodo O’Shaughnessy. You did stand-up comedy in the 1990s. Is Quasimodo O’Shaughnessy the alter ego of Karl MacDermott?
Yes. I am now officially a stand-down comedian. I don’t do it anymore. Quasimodo’s disenchantment reflects my own journey. When I was starting off I wanted to be as successful as Woody Allen. Then after a few years, I realized I’d be happy to be as successful as Foster & Allen. So that sums up the trajectory of one’s dreams – from aspiring to be a world famous ground-breaking comedy genius with a slightly complicated and murky interaction with close family members to happily accepting the level attained by a completely mediocre, frankly embarrassing, always working, country n’ accordion Midlands musical duo.
Tell me about your early days. What was the comedy scene like back then?
In the very early days – I’m talking about the mid-1980s – when I started off there were no venues for stand-up comedy in Ireland. I had to create my own work. I used to be a warm up man for seanachaí’s. I would get my mother to drive me to cottages in rural Connemara where Paudeen Dan Ó’Súillabháin or some other legendary storyteller was doing his thing and beforehand I would go on and do a few minutes. Obviously that audience of fifteen octogenarian gaeilgeoirs would not have been my natural demographic. It did give me valuable experience as a budding comedian, however, in learning how to cope admirably with the sound of coughing and silence.
There’s an interesting story about heckling in Juggling With Turnips. It seems that, as a former comedian, it is something that has preyed on your mind over the years.
You could say that. I’m still traumatised by the whole heckling business. The thing with somebody heckling you is you can’t ignore it but you shouldn’t burst out crying either. Crying is not a good idea. I used to cry a lot when I was heckled, I don’t know, I’m just an extremely sensitive person. I’m sorry. I learned to compose myself more on stage as my career progressed but to be honest I was never great with hecklers heckling my act. As a comedian there is that three second time frame that needs to be adhered to when responding to a heckle, but sometimes sadly I fell outside that time frame. Sometimes it was minutes, once during a gig in Letterkenny, I think I clocked up an hour and twenty- five minutes, everyone had gone home, the bar staff were cleaning the glasses and I was still on stage pondering a witty comeback.
What sort of response did your act get from an audience generally in those days?
Not great. I don’t understand it. The material was good. This was one of my jokes. ‘I was in a punk band called Acne in college. We were good in spots.’ Nothing. Tumbleweed. Stone-faced punters. Like doing a gig on Easter Island. Except the statues all had to go to the jacks every twenty minutes. What do you think of that joke?
What do you mean ok-ish? That is a funny joke. Or another one. ‘Saint Paul was a great rugby player. People still talk about that conversion on the Road to Damascus.’ Never got a laugh. Not even a strained titter. Maybe they’d all stopped going to mass at that stage, and didn’t know who Saint Paul was. I don’t know.
Tell me about your agent Sisyphus O’Shea who also features frequently in the book.
Picking the correct agent is a very important step in the career of any up-and-coming stand-up comedian. Now, if I had to do it again I would never have gone with Sisyphus O’Shea of SOS Management. First thing he said to me was ‘You’re not funny ha-ha. You’re not funny peculiar. You’re more funny unfunny – but I’ll take you on because I hear there’s a lot of money to be made in this comedy lark.’ So artistically, he was never supportive. Just in it for the money. And there never was any money!
And on a sheer practical level he was useless. You see, Sisyphus had a phobia about using telephones, and for an agent that’s just disastrous, and the fax machine he used could hardly fit into his camper van/office/home. Also, he was clueless about the actual business. He once turned to me and said ‘I’ve got you this booking for this comedy festival in Canada.’ I looked at him expectantly and said ‘Just for Laughs’?’ He became defensive. ‘No. Fuck off. I take this job of promoting your career very seriously!’
He’d never heard of The Montreal Comedy festival ‘Just For Laughs’? Incroyable as they’d say in Quebec.
Exactly. That’s the kind of agent I ended up with.
You moved to the Isle of Man in the early part of the century when your career didn’t pan out here. Why?
Irish comedians have it tough. If an American comedian doesn’t make it in America, he can always come to England because the English are infatuated with all things American. And the English comedian, if he doesn’t make it in England, he can always come over here to Ireland, because we are very impressed with English comedians. Because they are from London and they ‘must be good.’ But if an Irish comedian doesn’t make it in Ireland, where does he go? Well, they go to The Isle of Man. You would be amazed by the amount of failed Irish comedians running comedy clubs in Douglas.
At the end of day Karl why do think you didn’t make it?
Maybe it was my performance ability. My ill-advised branching out into impressions. People still talk about my Christopher Walken impression as the worst attempt at an impersonation ever done by a professional comedian in the English-speaking world. Allegedly there is a South Korean comedian who did an even worse impersonation of Christopher Walken about fifteen years ago.
Yes. Choi Woo-jin. All his stuff has gone viral on YouTube – it is literally so bad! His Clint Eastwood is more… Vivienne Westwood. Although, strangely his Nicholas Cage works quite well.
Anyway, another reason for not making it was people thought the black eye-patch was off-putting. For about three years in the late 1990s I wore a black eye-patch on stage – just to be different, you know, the comedian with the eye-patch, one of Sisyphus’s ideas, trouble is it affected my sight line and I fell off a stage once in Clonakilty, broke my collar-bone.
As a form of post-career group therapy you set up The Comedy Casualty Club. Tell me about that?
I set up the Comedy Casualty Club a few years back after I returned from The Isle of Man. A few of us failed comedians – both the Has-been’s and The Permanent Never Was’s (I’m more of a PNW myself) meet up once a week in a pub in Kilmainham and have a fun evening swopping tales of career failures, disappointments and setbacks.
Who turns up?
Cormac Creedon turns up – he was Ireland’s only home-based anti-Irish comedian back in the 1980s. Spent a lot of time in hospital in that period after being regularly assaulted after gigs but he’s grand now apart from those ongoing mobility issues. Dinny Bruce. Dinny Bruce always pops in. Dinny Bruce. Ireland’s answer to Lenny Bruce as they’d call him.
I think I caught Dinny’s act once in Tullamore. How can I put it kindly? Brutal.
Yeh. Dinny didn’t understand the contract a comedian makes with his audience once he steps on stage. He used to dress up as a farmer in big wellingtons and do these very long monologues in a west Kerry accent about the ‘pigs’ being always after him but most audiences couldn’t make out what the hell he was on about. The juxtaposition of that whole beat culture Greenwich Village world of the 1960s and the day-to-day drudgery of life in Sneem didn’t really work. Presto Mulligan turns up sometimes. Presto did a comedy magic act back in the 1980s. He was a poor man’s Tommy Cooper. A very poor man’s Tommy Cooper. What am I saying – a pauper’s Tommy Cooper.
Taking stock, in the pantheon of Irish comedy, post the setting up of The Comedy Cellar at The International Bar in 1988, where do you think you stand?
Well, I wouldn’t be a ‘Godfather of Irish Comedy’ more like ‘a fourth cousin once removed’ of Irish comedy. At the end of the day, I see myself as the Gummo Marx of Irish comedy.
Juggling With Turnips has just been published. Presumably it is available in all good bookshops.
And vegetable shops.
Finally, Karl, what are you working on at the moment?
Well, I’m trying my hand at screenwriting. I’m working on a screenplay called Senior Rita for the Dublin-based independent film company, Sludge Lagoon Pictures. It is about a senior citizen called Rita who falls in love with her tango dancing instructor Raul from Extremadura. And the tagline is ‘Will Senior Rita become his senorita?’ I’m very enthusiastic about this. It’s a bit like Shirley Valentine except it’s not set in Greece but in Drimnagh. We’re hoping to get Helen Mirren and Antonio Banderas but if that doesn’t work out, Sisyphus, he’s back on board working with me, we’ve patched things up, he says he may be able to get the scripts to Fionnuala Flanagan and Liam Cunningham if he can get that second-hand photocopying machine to work in the camper van.
Featured Image Source: Karl MacDermott