First Published October 2022
THE ANARCHY OF COMEDY
More often than you might think, the sheer scope of someone’s success can almost lead us to take their talent and achievements a little bit for granted. Take DEIRDRE O’KANE, for example. Mention her name to a lot of people, and chances are they’ll know her immediately as one of Ireland’s top comedians. And they’d be quite right, of course. But as the Drogheda born star prepares to bring her latest tour to the Tullamore Court Hotel next month, it’s worth recalling some of the highlights of what – by anyone’s measure – has been an illustrious career in entertainment.
As well as being a six-time IFTA (Irish Film and Television Awards) nominee, Deirdre took home the prize for Best Lead Actress in 2015, a deserving reward for her role as Christina Noble in Stephen Bradley’s NOBLE, which was released in 2014. And it wasn’t just here at home that the movie earned praise, also collecting awards at the Boston Film Festival, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Newport Beach Festival, and at Nashville and Dallas Festivals too.
Deirdre has also graced the small screen as Debra Moone in Sky’s iconic comedy Moone Boy; she’s the voice of Gogglebox; she danced her way into our hearts by finishing runner-up on Dancing With The Stars in 2018; hosted The Deirdre O’ Kane Show on Sky Max; and is a co-founder of Comic Relief in Ireland. And all of that is just a quick overview of what Deirdre has done so far.
Ahead of her upcoming show in Tullamore next month, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Deirdre last week. And any day in the last week or so (some might say in the last six years or so!) was probably a good day to be chatting to a comedian given the state of what’s been going on across the Irish Sea. What did Deirdre make of it all, I wondered?
“That’s a hilarious question because I’ve been following very little of it [laughs]. I’ve just been so busy with work, I literally was clicking in yesterday just to see, ‘Oh, she’s gone!’ Liz Truss is gone.’ Do ya know what? My overriding feeling is thank f@&k it’s not us! I’m just really enjoying watching them making a hames of it for a change, and that it’s not actually us [laughs]. Actually, our lot just seem extraordinary in comparison to them. It’s total chaos what’s happening there.”
The main reason, of course, that Deirdre and I were talking, is because her DEMENTED tour rolls into Tullamore next month, stopping off at the Tullamore Court Hotel on November 11th. In an interview she gave recently, Deirdre spoke about how the joy of her time on stage makes up for the frustration she sometimes feels when she’s at her desk creating a show. And it was about her creative process that I wanted to ask her. Is she then, an ‘at-her-desk’ writer? Is that where inspiration and perspiration come together for her?
“It has done. My process seems to change with time. I don’t stick to one thing. But when I do sit down to write a new show, I do go to the desk, and I do try to put the hours in. The real struggle of it is that some days you have a really productive day, and another day, you get nothing. And unfortunately, you have to stay there and put up with that day. Do you know what I mean? It’s almost like you just have to put in the time. It’s very odd. It’s such a stupid profession [laughs].”
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Songwriters also talk a lot about the need to just ‘show up’, how you need to be there first before there’s even a chance of anything happening.
“I think that’s absolutely right. People think that you’re writing all the time, and taking notes all the time. I’m not that kind of comic. I don’t note down when funny things happen. I prefer to sit, or move, and let stuff come [to me]. So yeah, the road, when you’re performing, that’s the joyous part. The hardship is the blank page. When you have it, and when you’re polishing it in front of an audience, well that’s the good bit.”
When Deirdre is writing, is she someone who needs something happening in the background at the same time? Some music playing, or the radio on, perhaps? Or does she belong to the camp of writers who prefer – or need – silence?
“A bit of both. Sometimes I sit in silence, but I’ve taken to writing with music on as well, because it just gives me energy. Sometimes I might watch some comedy as well, for inspiration. Sit down and watch somebody for a while. I’ll use every tool in the box to get myself in that creative mode.”
Deirdre was heading to Kildare on the evening of the day we spoke, is coming to Tullamore next month, and has already released a run of dates that stretch all the way to the end of next February, with more dates still to be announced. So her Demented tour still has a long way to go, in more ways than one. With a tour like this, is it a time in her life when Deirdre has to carefully approach and structure her days in a specific way given that she’s on the go so much? Or has the touring life become as normal to her as a 9-5 might be to the rest of us?
“Kind of depends on the journey. I like to hit the road early depending on how far I have to travel. Timing and food are the big ones for me [laughs]. If I leave it too late, I can’t eat too close to the show. If I eat too early, then I get hungry and I can feel myself getting weak by the end of the hour-and-a-half that I’m on stage. So that’s it. I’m fairly easy-going in what I eat, but I like to keep it pretty simple. I’d have the auld fear of food-poisoning from a takeaway, so I try to avoid that! [Laughs]. I’ll tell you what, I’ve eaten a sh*tload of toasted cheese sandwiches on this tour!”
There’s a fantastic podcast called How To Fail, hosted by English author Elizabeth Day, the gist of which is that her guest each episode talks about three failures from their life that have really shaped them, and from which they’ve learned important lessons about themselves. Is there one such failure in Deirdre’s own life that comes to mind in that kind of context?
“Such a great question. Hmm. I’ll tell you what…this requires a bit of thought now! [Laughs]. A failure that I’ve learned from…well you learn from all your failures, don’t you. Well when I started out as an actor – God love me – I was absolutely clueless. Because I had no training. When you have some training, you learn a bit of discipline and you understand that it takes a considerable amount of work to get ahead. I really didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything about this business. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I didn’t know anything about it being competitive. I was just flying by the seat of my pants. Now, I got there eventually…but it was slow! [Laughs]. It was a hard graft, and I learned the hard way. I learned by not getting jobs, by not succeeding quickly, and then having to go, ‘Jesus Christ, why am I getting nowhere here?!’ And realising, oh, well maybe you weren’t prepared enough. So that was a hard lesson. And I like to think now, at this point, I’m always usually pretty prepared for stuff.”
Did that make Deirdre more resilient in the end? After all, the entertainment industry, no matter what part of it you’re in, can be brutally tough sometimes…
“Brutally tough! Brutally. And the rejection is, it’s raw, and it’s deep, and it hurts. A huge percentage of people give up on this business, they leave it in their droves. Because there just isn’t enough work, there just isn’t. Less than 1% of people who train go on to become actors, and it’s not that they’re not good actors. It’s that there just isn’t enough work. So yeah, it does give you a resilience, because in my case, I wasn’t going to leave the business, no matter what. It was a passion, and there was no way I was going to give up and do something else. But, I did become a comic [laughs], which was never in my sights! [Laughs]. I started out to be an actor, and I was an actor for ten years before I became a comic. But when I discovered this – comedy – I fell in love with it. And to be honest with ya, initially also – and this is another failure on my part – I didn’t view stand-up as a career that I wanted. I viewed it as a ‘filler’, for when I wasn’t working as an actor, for a long time. And that wasn’t good enough. So I coasted for quite a while. Really, it was only when I came back…you see I stopped doing stand-up for eight years… but when I came back for the second bite of the cherry, which was about five years ago, this is really the first time that I’ve applied myself, and I’ve gone, yeah, this is what I want. I actually want to be a good comic. So talk about a late developer! [Laughs]. And talk about learning slowly! [Laughs].”
I love the fact that Deirdre’s comedy career almost started by accident when she actually saw stand-up ‘live’ for the first time at the Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny years ago, when she was just at the event accompanying her husband who was working there at the time. And as Deirdre has said herself many times before, that was it, she was “hooked”. But at that stage, as she had just alluded to earlier, Deirdre had already been an actor for some time, so she would have known that feeling of being on stage, of being in front of an audience. So what was so special about comedy, about stand-up, that it hooked her straight away like it did?
“It was the anarchy of it! The absolute anarchy of it. If you’ve spent ten years being an actor, everything is very considered, there’s a lot of etiquette involved, there’s an awful lot of preparation. There’s certainly no ad-libbing, or off-the-cuff madness, or engaging with the audience. It doesn’t have that life and death quality. It can do, it can be extraordinary, but I think you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t have the moment of madness where the comic can just go, ‘Ah well…whatever… I’ll just talk to you instead!’ Ya know what I mean? I was just taken aback when I saw stand-up, I loved it immediately. The freedom of it! It was just so liberating to me. So liberating that somebody could just stand up on the stage and say whatever the hell they wanted to [laughs].”
And did it live up to Deirdre’s expectations when she finally got up on that stage as a comic in her own right?
“Ah yeah. But you see, at that point you’re just going, ‘Oh I love this!’, you’re not considering the fear, or the absolute horror of standing on the stage by yourself and being judged for every word that comes out of your mouth! [Laughs]. Because you’re taking full responsibility. There’s no playwright to blame, there’s no director to blame, there’s no cast to blame. It’s just you! And if you die on your arse, YOU die! Big time [laughs]. And if you succeed, you take the glory. But it’s very extreme. And in a way, maybe that’s what I like about it too. It’s so extreme. And everytime we start a new show, you’re back to being a rookie again. You’re only as good as your next joke. That never goes away. Even though you become very accomplished, and you know how not to die on stage because you’ve got too much experience, but your material can still fail. And still does. But there’s only one way of finding out, and that’s by getting up in front of an audience with it. It’s probably the only job where you can discover if something works or not by actually doing it in front of an audience [laughs]. It’s so elusive. Essentially, you’re your own best judge. I can usually tell when something is gonna fly. And then occasionally something surprises me, and I go, ‘Christ, they didn’t like that, and I love it! What’s wrong?!’ [Laughs].”