Tomorrow, we are launching SatireDay with 15 terrific events all poking fun at life and the uncertain times we face in this mad, mad world. Belfast is noted for its sardonic wit so this theme fits much of our programme including the shows tomorrow featuring the Rubberbandits, Michelle & Arlene, Bill Hicks: Relentless, our Kate Bush dance parody and Alternative Bedtime Stories - to name but a few! Don't forget our conference in the Mac will also explore the local comedy scene including humour and conflict. So join us in having a laugh and satirising the powers that shape our world. Book tickets at belfastcomedyfestival.com

Belfast Comedy Festival shared their event.

January 01, 1970

And the winner is Sarah! She Got Very Quizzical tonite in the wonderful American Bar. Great game show & lovely audience. Thanks to Rory, Matt & the team with hat tip to Paul & Jamie for tech help!

Lively crowd Getting Quizzical with Les Ismore in the American Bar. Game show mayhem!

Belfast Comedy Festival shared their event.

January 01, 1970

Last shout out for this hilarious game show taking place tonight in the lovely American Bar with Les Ismore. Expect fun, facts, laughter and tears with great prizes thrown into the comic mix! Tickets still available at only £5. Doors 9:00pm: Show 9.30pm

January 01, 1970

comedy industry conference 2017

Northern Ireland Comedy Industry Conference 2017

Report of a conference held by Belfast Comedy Festival on 7 October 2017 in the Mac, Belfast

Sponsored by Equity UK, Belfast City Council, Arts Council NI & ASM


As part of Belfast Comedy Festival, a special conference examining the comedy industry in Northern Ireland was organised with key partners on 7 October 2017 in Belfast.

The aims of this event were to review the current state of the comedy industry in Northern Ireland and consider ways to support performers, writers, event organisers and other practitioners.

During the conference, we shared practical advice and skills and heard from some of the most successful local industry figures. We also had an opportunity to debate what is needed to support performers and further develop the local comedy scene. Thirty six people were in attendance with participation from a wide range of practitioners, including performers, venue managers, funders, promoters and festival organisers (Appendix 1). We are grateful for the support of our sponsors and to everyone who took part. Thanks are due to Julie Williams-Nash for her help with the production of this report. A number of the presentations delivered at the event are available by contacting us at info@belfastcomedyfestival.com

at the end of the event

Participants had an opportunity to network, develop new knowledge and skills in order to develop their performances and careers in the comedy industry.

Proposals and ideas for improving support to performers and the comedy industry were generated, hopefully resulting in long term benefits for the arts, tourism and entertainment sectors in Northern Ireland.


10.00 Introductions & welcome – Peter O’Neill, Festival Director, Belfast Comedy Festival

10.15 Supporting comedy in Northern Ireland – perspectives from leading figures in the arts and comedy worlds, chaired by Graeme Watson with panellists including: 10.15 Supporting comedy in Northern Ireland – perspectives from leading figures in the arts and comedy worlds, chaired by Graeme Watson with panellists including: Peter Davidson, performer and promoter; Bec Hill, performer; David Hull, promoter; Simon Magill, Creative Director, The Mac; Christine Osborne O’Toole, Tourism Culture and Arts Development Officer, Belfast City Council.

11.30 Break

11.45 Presentations:

1. How to Stand Out in Stand Up – Bec Hill
2. How to look after your mental health – Victoria Armstrong
3. The role of comedy in conflict situations – Tim Miles

1.00 Lunch

1.45 Talking to your audience – Strive

3.00 Presentations:

1. The future of Belfast Comedy Festival – Peter O’Neill

2. EdFringe: Making it work for you – Paul Currie

4.15 Plenary and what’s next

5.00 Close



Peter O’Neill, Belfast Comedy Festival Director, welcomed everyone to the event and highlighted the important role that the event’s main sponsor, Equity UK, plays in supporting comedians, particularly through its comedian’s network. He estimated that the comedy industry contributes over £300 million a year to the UK economy with major benefits for the drinks and restaurant trades. He stated “Belfast has a strong tradition in humour and the local comedy industry has grown with the rise of new clubs and a diverse range of performers and genres.”

He added: “We believe there is a strong case to help develop the local comedy scene in Northern Ireland in the same way that the music industry has received support from Invest NI and Tourism Ireland, as comedy could be a major creative and economic driver with tourism, health, cultural, good relations, and other benefits”. He pointed to the importance of the recent Arts Council NI statement on comedy as a recognised art form which states “Comedy is also an important gateway to the arts in general as well as a popular arts form in its own right with a wide appeal to non-traditional arts audiences.” (ACNI). He also noted the help available through the Belfast Festivals Forum, supported by Belfast City Council, and the role festivals can play in supporting and programming local comedy arts performers and events.

supporting comedy in northern ireland

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.


Six presentations were delivered:

How to Stand Out in Stand Up – Bec Hill: This workshop focussed on finding your niche and exploring avenues including Twitter, YouTube, and specialist events. The worksheets, posted on our website, are best suited for comedians with some experience, who are still looking for their voice, but will be of use to anyone of any level in any artistic field.

How to look after your mental health – Victoria Armstrong: This entertaining talk looked at why the flow of creativity is essential for the mental health of comedy performers and involved a number of Laughter Yoga exercises and tips for maintaining well-being.

The role of comedy in conflict situations – Tim Miles: Tim Miles, Senior lecturer in Drama at Liverpool John Moore’s University, discussed how comedy, although it can be divisive, can also bring people together as laughter can promote community cohesion.

Talking to your audience – Fiona Bell, Client Relationships Manager, and Colette Fahy, Communications Executive, Strive (formerly Audiences NI): In this session, useful tips and strategies for effectively building audiences and marketing comedy events were shared. Two presentations and a useful resources list are available at belfastcomedyfestival.com

EdFringe: How to Make it Work – Paul Currie: Paul shared his experience of successfully performing (and not losing money!) at the world’s biggest festival. Tips included making direct connections with potential audience members, the importance of well-designed flyers and posters, and selecting good venues and time slots for shows.

The Future of Belfast Comedy Festival – Peter O’Neill: Peter reported on the history of the festival over the past 7 years but noted that it faces an uncertain future due to a chronic lack of funding and staff.


Participants felt the conference was a useful event and should be repeated, if possible. The wide range of interests represented on the panel was positively commented on and the presentations were warmly received. The diverse background of the attendees was noted, highlighting the multitude of interests involved in the local comedy scene. Thanks were expressed to the sponsors of the event and to Belfast Comedy Festival for organising the event and concern was expressed about its potential demise. It was suggested that another agency or group of comedy arts practitioners should convene further discussions on how to promote the NI comedy industry and link up with similar networks in Ireland and Britain.