The opening panel discussion involved six panellists reflecting on their experience of the local comedy scene and how it can be improved. The chairperson, Graeme Watson, introduced the panel and reflected that the local comedy scene is currently in good health with lots of new performers and comedy clubs.
Peter Davidson, a performer and promoter from Derry, noted that there is life outside the Belfast comedy scene! Since 1994 he’s witnessed big developments. “2007 is like Year Zero for the current crop of comics – free from the shackles of troubles based humour. It’s an interesting time – a good time for comedy in Northern Ireland – a good time for all comedy”.
David Hull, one of Northern Ireland’s best known agents and a comedy promoter for decades, talked about his extensive experience of the industry. He noted that the cabaret scene was very busy in the 70s and 80s. “It was then much easier to fill a comedian’s diary. Young, inexperienced comics were paid whilst learning their craft, As a comic, you could be doing three social clubs on a Saturday night. It was a time nationally of comedians such as Frank Carson, Roy Walker, Jimmy Cricket, Gene Fitzpatrick. 40 years later – I’m still working with them all bar Frank Carson who sadly passed away five years ago. But everything changes and the rise of alternative comedy with performers in Northern Ireland like the Hole in the Wall Gang, challenged everything and was for its time was very edgy – some local performers even faced death threats.”
“A few years later, along came Patrick Kielty to do a talent show. He was fearless. There he was at a quarter to two in the morning, in front of a drunken audience and we said the poor guy had no chance – well he blew them away! We started working together and we’re still working today.”
Now, he feels, most young comedians have to make their own market. “The great problem for any artist is finding the platform to develop their own audience. The constant search for all performers is connection, be it through the warmth of their personality, the sharpness of their observations, the bite of their satire, the surreality of their thoughts or the strength of their writing, regardless connection is the holy grail that everyone is looking for. We are always looking to the future – it’s all about connections and experience. If performers are in it for fame and money, you’re missing the art – like Premier League football – only a few ever make it.”
Peter Davidson echoed this experience which he correlates to the explosion in social media. “In NI, it was a bit like punk rock – it had a DIY ethos.”
David thought that some young performers “go out there before they are ready”, they need to learn their stage craft, and playing short sets on mixed bills is a good way of learning and gaining confidence before doing solo shows.
Simon Magill, a performer, producer and venue manager has over 15 years’ experience of working with comedy and audiences in NI. In 1988, he came back to NI and worked in the Opera House, the old Arts Theatre and clubs in segregated areas. He noted “Club Sound then ruled the roost. Now it’s the SSE Arena, the Mac, the Empire, Students’ Unions, cinemas, bars, restaurants – all competing with TV – however people still value the live experience.”
He advised performers to develop good relationships with comedy agents and producers. “Agents talk to each other all the time – it’s a small world, so don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and introduce yourself. A gift to the promoter is someone with a large online presence but social media won’t sell a show on its own.” He thinks it is important for acts to diversify and pointed to the experience of Stephen Large who runs the successful blog – Dundonald Liberation Army – and who developed the play ‘Three’s a Shroud’ with Martin Lynch. He reflected on the success of the Hole in the Wall Gang and Paddy Kielty – “They were edgy, but people now are looking for sharper political analysis and observations on the human condition.”
Christine Osborne O’Toole from Belfast City Council stated: “Comedy, most definitely, has a uniqueness here – it’s an art form that takes a lot of risks – and is important for all venues across NI. There’s an audience here for that – our personality is seen from abroad as very funny and also a bit self-deprecating. Tourists find people here naturally engaging, and this expression of personality is very important. It’s not just about Titanic – comedy gives a unique perspective on what people here are like.”
She noted that ACNI’s funding comes from the Government’s block grant and the allocation to the arts in Northern Ireland from central government has been cut gradually in recent years. However, most councils in NI, such as Belfast City Council, which obtains its income from ratepayers, hasn’t reduced funding for culture and arts. Belfast City Council currently provides £1.75m per year to around 80 groups. 56 of these are core funded and the rest are project funded. However, festivals like Belfast Comedy Festival haven’t been able to secure core funding and rely on volunteers and small amounts of funding. She provided a background on the European Capital of Culture 2023 bid and noted this will be submitted at the end of October 2017. She highlighted the importance of the arts and culture to the quality of life enjoyed by people here. “To be a city that wants to be competitive, we need culture and the arts – comedy is part of that.”
Bec Hill, the leading performer and visitor to NI over many years, talked about her perception of the comedy scene here. “It’s interesting, I came here by accident, to a comic book convention in Derry and I was doing a show that year on superheroes. I was accidentally put down to do a workshop with children – that’s how I ended up coming here as a yearly thing – I slipped into that weird little alternative scene.” She emphasised the importance of diversification for performers and the role of comedy festivals. She feels Melbourne is similar in some ways to Belfast. “Melbourne now has the biggest comedy festival in the world and one day this could be the role Belfast Comedy Festival has in Europe. I genuinely feel that’s where it’s going.”
Peter O’Neill was asked what are the biggest obstacles to growing the NI comedy scene? He felt these included: the lack of core funding and cutbacks in government support to arts organisations and festivals; working with local businesses and venues who don’t fully value the contribution comedy acts can make to their profits, including the lack of sponsorship in this small region with its relative lack of large companies; Brexit and its potential impact on local consumer spending and sources of EU funding for the creative industries; the lack of development and mentoring support to comedians and comedy arts groups; the financial pressures faced by performers with relatively low ticket prices and fees reflected by the number of performers exiting the scene in recent years; and the lack of media interest in comedy arts and the few print reviewers now able to highlight new acts.
Peter Davidson however felt that the media is starting to pay a bit more attention to NI comedy, particularly from the BBC. He noted here was an alternative comedy ‘unit’ in NI for a few years but it was seen as “too niche. LOL, Sketchy – great opportunities but they came along a bit too soon – so now, with a bit of time, it’s starting to get more of a voice.”
In the plenary discussion, Tim Miles talked about the different types of comedy found in NI and elsewhere, particularly the dark humour found in places that have experienced civil conflict, famine, industrial revolution etc – “the humour that is close to the knuckle – fear brings out ‘sick jokes’ that come after an atrocity.” There was also mention of the tradition in NI of a more surreal humour – like Kevin McAleer’s – however for younger comedy performers the product is wider. David Hull thought the Northern cities in Britain also have a dark humour, found in Liverpool and Glasgow, for example.
Peter Davidson thought there are problems with exporting our acts and the distinctiveness of Northern Irish humour compared to ‘Irish’ comedy. “In Edinburgh, if they sell it as a Northern Irish comedy show – people say what’s that? If they label it ‘Irish comedy’ then that’s different.” David Hull noted that when Question Time comes from Northern Ireland, BBC audience figures drop by 200,000 – “people seem to switch off when Northern Ireland features.”
Simon Magill reported that a locally produced TV pilot with Jimmy Nesbitt called Sailorstown was trashed by the critics as – “full of clichés of what NI was, how our accent sounds to the English ear” – however a number of local playwrights working It was suggested Belfast maybe has too many festivals with over 90 per annum at the moment. However, it was felt that the comedy festival has a clear remit and audience and we need a diverse range of festival with niche audiences for offerings such as the new Belfast Cocktail Festival.
Simon Magill noted that a lot of festivals want a comic element – e.g. the Science festival, but Peter Davidson felt that in Derry there’s really only the jazz festival and the Halloween celebration, “Everything in between is tumbleweed, we need more regular events”.
David Hull said a comedy club can be a hard way to make money, though it was noted the Manchester comedy scene has a good record of clubs running during weekends. The absence of a regular weekend comedy club in Belfast was bemoaned.
Graeme Watson finished the session by asking panellists to detail their advice for people starting out in comedy.
David Hull was reluctant to proffer any tablets of wisdom – “There aren’t any. Just like the famous quote about the film industry – nobody knows anything.” However, he advised that writers and performers need to be relentless about editing their material. “Write, re-write and rewrite again until it is the best it can be. This business is not an easy option, there are much easier ways to make a living, you have to want to do it more than anything.”
Peter Davidson ventured that, from the promotions point of view, it was important to “create rooms that are nice and safe spaces. It’s not enough to put up a microphone and a poster.” He would love to see more women comedians coming through and more opportunities created to showcase female talent.
Bec Hill noted, however “If there’s not a place that’s booking you, then you’ve got to put it on yourself – then pass the room on to someone else or you will get viewed as a promoter rather than a performer and lose the opportunity to develop your own act”. She added ‘Make sure you are putting on an event that you would pay to attend.”
For David, its important as a promoter to be hard headed when booking acts: “If they’ve only got 3 good minutes, don’t give them ten – it’s bad for their confidence.” Bec also thought it is important for clubs to rotate the MCs to allow for performers to develop this skill and allow them to regularly perform their full sets outside this role.
Christine, from Belfast City Council’s perspective, stressed the importance of respecting and supporting the comedy sector. She reiterated the support available from BCC and, although it has a more strategic role, she encouraged performers and other stakeholders to talk to the council about skills development and other support needs.
Simon advised on the importance for performers to “learn the craft – figure out what makes you unique”. He suggested comedians should take notes immediately after shows of what has worked with audiences and regularly refresh their material. “Watch the Blame Game – they are always scribbling notes of what gets a good reaction”. Also, he emphasised again the need for diversification – “There’s a huge corporate world out there that pays handsomely for comedy acts. Spot the opportunity and milk it for what it’s worth.”
Bec felt that her career has grown very organically – she couldn’t have planned what happened. “You’ve got to keep working hard – I keep putting it out there. Hopefully your break will eventually come.”
Peter felt there is a need for an online comedy portal in NI – “something central for comedy, visible and simple, listing gigs and resources” He had been liaising with Culture NI on setting this up, before it lost its funding to develop a general listings service.