“You three are a right pair if I ever saw one”

What tickles your funny bone? Do your sides split? Ciaran Sunderland looks at why so many Irish comedians succeed abroad and how different cultures appreciate and understand comedy

Illustration: Sarah Larragy

Human existence, comedy and tragedy are ancient companions. In the immortal words of an Irish mother: “You three are a right pair if I ever saw one.” The three are intertwined and inextricable, a rich seam that underlies Irish culture. Sad songs and sharp wit, that’s the Irish. Or so it is said.

But what is it that makes Ireland as a country, and the Irish as a people so funny? There is no other nation that succeeds better in ridiculing itself. For years Ireland has excelled in poking fun, from folk tales to our politics, which is an ever correcting scale of comedy and tragedy. Oscar Wilde summed this up rather nicely: “That’s the Irish all over – they treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.”

Gift of the Gab

“At home and abroad Irish comedians have excelled with a mixture of wry, dry and usually sarcastic humour.”

Comedic ability is not just limited to celebrated writers and can be sourced to the average Irish citizen, home or abroad. The iconic interview with the Dublin taxi man on ABC Australian News during the Marriage Referendum lives long in the memory: “Well I’m in favour for same sex marriage, ‘cause I’ve been having the same sex with the wife for the last thirty years.”

At home and abroad Irish comedians have excelled with a mixture of wry, dry and usually sarcastic humour choosing everything from their parental relationships, educational experience, love life, male-female dynamics, Irish diaspora, politics (including Northern Ireland) and of course the Catholic Church.

This was never more realised than by the immortal Channel 4 drama Father Ted, ironically produced by a British independent producer for a British TV station. The sitcom set on Craggy Island will long live on in the Irish psyche like John B Kelly’s plays like “Moll”, “Big Maggie” and “The Field”. Brendan O’Carroll’s greatest character, Agnes Brown, is enjoying a revival that continues to grow with the popularity of “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and debuted his new chat show with none other than Pamela Anderson last week. Trinity graduate Aisling Bea is another successful Irish comedian and regular panellist on comedy shows like “8 out of 10 Cats” and “Would I Lie to You?” and has appeared on “Live At The Apollo” and “Russell Howard’s Good News” and recently received widespread attention for her appearance on Richard Ayoade’s “Travel Man”. Dara O’Briain’s success with “Have I Got News For You” speaks for itself.

However, in the US, arguably the only Irish comedian that has managed “to break America” and has enjoyed any real success is Roscommon’s Chris O’Dowd. Famous in Britain for “IT Crowd” and “Bridesmaids” in the US, O’Dowd now writes “Moone Boy” and won a Tony in 2014 for the Broadway Revival “Of Mice and Men”.

An American’s Perspective

“Even more satisfactory for the shows fans was President Trump’s obvious displeasure with the show.”

America then seems to pose a stumbling block for Irish comedy. British comedians like Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Carr are popular and Gervais will soon bring his worldwide stand up Tour Humanity there later this year. Eliza Turnock, a 2nd year Human Resource student at the University of Minnesota spoke to Trinity News about the American comedy scene and what Americans find funny. In America, comedy has always pushed the barriers, now more than ever, and in 2017 Turnock believes America is searching for the barriers again.

“The boundaries are weird right now, like the culture is so weird, where everyone is getting offended by everything.”

Turnock thinks Late Night Comedy Talk shows are setting the trends with Stephen Colbert and John Oliver’s monologues the pick of the week’s viewing. Of course, one show is enjoying a renaissance like no other.

“I feel like SNL is the big influence,” Turnock says. Saturday Night Live or SNL, is a live comedy sketch show featuring a weekly guest host and a regular cast of comedians and writers. Since the election of President Trump (still weird), the sketch show has received record views as they relentlessly satirise, criticise, vilify and “troll” the new administration policies and its members. Melissa McCarthy’s infamous portrayal of Press Secretary Sean Spicer or “Spicy” will probably go down in Hollywood history. Even more satisfactory for the shows fans was President Trump’s obvious displeasure with the show. Political comedy is in vogue and their head of state providing much of the material: “He’s just like a walking joke [and] comedians are doing a hilarious job of that and it’s hilarious because he gets so offended at that.” As John Oliver said, President Trump dominates the news cycle “like a fart dominates a car” or, in this case, the comedy scene too.

American comedy is a broad church. State stereotypes, Canada and sex are usually targets and subjects for American comedy but a recent development that has now obviously permeated globally is meme culture. “Meme Culture is totally taking over comedy right now,” Turnock says, “like Americans take memes and just go with them.” Turnock points to the most recent development with the Student athlete memes, a dialogue usually focusing on self-centred and overly enthusiastic student athletes in American colleges. Turnock does believe at the same time despite the global influence of American comedy that in the US it is harder for other culture’s comedy to register. She says that despite the success of British comedians, “I don’t think Americans can relate to Brit comedy” and that due to American media “the coverage we get is pretty tunnelled” and therefore is harder for other comedy to register.

Closer to Home

“Insult comedy is always popular and Ireland is well known for its unique insults […] but it is the Spanish may have got the better of Ireland in the insult stakes.”

On mainland Europe, American comedy is also very popular, especially the Comedy Channel’s comedy roasts. With the difference in language ability though, European comedy does not always get picked up in Ireland, Britain or the United States. With the exception of President Trump as a recent video from the Netherlands made by the late-night host Luback went viral in the US. The video parodies much of Trump’s America First rhetoric and describes why the Netherlands is so great and what Trump should know about it. Satire is quite popular as is absurdity of Jochem Mjyer and other stand-up comedians.

Maaike van der Heijde spoke to Trinity News about Dutch comedy and their sense of humour. Van der Heijde says that most Dutch people enjoy sarcastic comedy and that Lubak’s viral video “is super sarcastic, it’s super funny” and the Dutch like to use colloquial language that very rarely translates well into English. For example, the saying “You fall in the door of the house” seems slightly nonsensical but in Dutch translates to a blunt and direct attitude, usually used comedically to describe a person with little subtlety. Contrasts between city and rural living are quite common and usually country side dwellers bear the brunt of dungarees and farmyard comedy. Geert Wilders, the most recent populist upstart and another subject of a Lubak video that Van der Heijde recommends.

Insult comedy is always popular and Ireland is well known for its unique insults, from the Rubberbandits’ turn of phrase “shitehawk” (although long popular in Munster) and “gobshite”, referring to a person well known for spreading verbal diarrhoea, but it is the Spanish may have got the better of Ireland in the insult stakes. A simple fool is a “sophagaitas” meaning “bagpiper” while a hypocrite, “meapilas” means “baptismal font p*sser”. Bullsh*t though is the most impressive, “pollas en vinagare” translates to “d*cks in vinegar”. Indeed.

Still, Irish wit remains well-polished. With sharp tongues and sharper minds, growing up in Ireland is the perfect source of material for future and present comics. Take for example one of our favourite national past times, hurling, described by the English as “murder hockey” and the scouse comedian John Bishop as a game not even Al Qaeda would play. Here? The players must be persuaded to wear helmets. It’s a funny old place really, and comedians are still trying to figure out exactly why.