The Cat's Whiskers

Steve Bennett reports from the Carlsberg Cat Laughs Festival

Tuesday June 2, 2.45pm

After most of the visitors have gone home, the last night of Carlsberg Cat Laughs is for the locals; with the comics wheeling out their finest ‘what I’ve noticed about Kilkenny’ material in honour of the Marble City.

It’s also the only night of the festival where it is, technically, feasible to see all the shows on the night – though you would need to have an almost sociopathic addiction to stand-up to want to spend nearly six hours watching it instead of enjoying the delicious early summer weather.

So I went to all the gigs…

But to save this entry being longer than Ulysses, here are Twitter-friendly, 140-characters-or-fewer summaries of all the sets on the farewell night, starting with the first gig at Langton’s:

DES BISHOP: US immigrant’s insights on Ireland – with top yarn about brush with nettles. Passionate soul-stirring rant at nation’s Moaning Minnies. Fab

NEIL DELAMARE: V. entertaining set, both sick and silly, esp juvenile gags about ‘langers’. Took a heroic stance for passengers in run-in with Ryanair boss

MAEVE HIGGINS: Spoke of being bad at being a girl, Australian fauna, hidden camera shows. Faraway, babbling delivery engaging, hilarious only sporadically

JOHN BISHOP: Everyman tales about being a dad and blokes’ footballing dreams. His best review ever? Kenny Dalgleish: ‘Great pass, Bishop’

ADAM HILLS: Thinks deaf people are racist, then explained why – winning audience over with effortless charm, as always

Then a 15-minute dash over to the Ormonde for the second gig of the night, where the onset of an end-of-festival euphoria made for an easy-going show…

PJ GALLAGHER: Over-stimulated on Red Bull, he raced through scatological filth, easy knob gags and familiar observations. Won with energy, not material

LEE MACK: Nicely relaxed set from ‘always cheeky, never blue’ Mack, playfully teasing audience like old mate. Struggle with mic = accidental slapstick

JASON BYRNE: Grossly intrusive audience participation yields lots of laughs, esp running jokes about man with bum bag and woman with ‘a face on her’

JIMEOIN: Did one gag. Said he couldn’t go on as he felt sick. Introduced next act and ran off stage to vomit profusely. Audience confused

Yes, in a tale that surely no one in his adopted Australian home will ever believe, it seems the Irish sun was too much for him, and Jimeoin had to bale out of the gig. Luckily David O’Doherty was ready to step into the breach, which he did without missing a beat.

DAVID O’DOHERTY: Described perfect prank and ragged on Chris Rock for thinking Dublin was in UK. Other petty moans made it into popular song, Beefs 2009

MAEVE HIGGINS: Last-minute sub for Jimeoin. Ace quips about the strange situation led into meandering but sweet routine, as above

Finally, then, to G’nite Cats, the rowdy late-night last hoorah that provided an unforgettable climax to the festival. But first a very long line-up of all the acts still left standing after five nights of lovely gigs, heavy drinking and brutal football, all doing about six minutes:

ANDREW MAXWELL: Starts compering with easy generic quips, but soon hits impressive stride. His takes on Brian Cowen and The Pope especially brill.

PJ GALLAGHER: New stuff about zombie-like drunks of Kilkenny much better than his normal routine, followed by grossly funny bit on morning-after puking

DOM IRRERA: Bada boom, bada bing from brilliantly grumpy Italian-American

DAVID O’DOHERTY: Did the whimsical prank stories again. One involves cinema popcorn, the other dog biscuits and a duped customs officer

JOHN BISHOP: Radiates relaxed calm from barstool. Expertly slapped down heckler. Well-told tale of family life. Moral: Always clear your Google history

MAEVE HIGGINS: Ah, you know … it’s about, like, about how to flirt, the local accents, and empty girly conversation – or whatever. Anyways…

ADAM HILLS: Very popular routine about Irish idioms before his main job: auctioning a football shirt signed by all the comics in aid of a local hospice

And this is where the gig went weird.

As bidding seemed to stall, David O’Doherty promised to flash his ‘nutsack’ to the first bidder over €300. Which turned out to be Des Bishop. And he, in turn, promised to show the entire room his single testicle (the other having fallen victim to cancer, as he’s previously discussed on stage) should the shirt raise €500. On that promise, the bidding leapt immediately to that amount, setting the scene for a memorable finale. But with the promise of Bishop’s testicle hanging in the air like a metaphorical glitterball, there was still the rest of the gig to get through.

MILTON JONES: Brilliant wordplay was the perfect antidote to the energetic shenanigans. He let the lone heckler embarrass himself, and the gig moved on

LEWIS BLACK: Did a brief bit of trademark fury at Kilkenny’s lack of ventilation, but mainly delivered a sincere ‘thank you’ for this favourite festival

LEE MACK: ‘I’m pissed,’ he said. But he’s a very friendly drunk, and his daft routine, including some old favourites, went down a treat.

Then Maxwell wrapped up, and handed commentary duties over to an unprepared Jason Byrne, who was more drunk than Mack, to inject some more stupidity into Des Bishop’s much-anticipated finale.

The finer details of what happens in Kilkenny, stay in Kilkenny. But it was a suitably uproarious, spontaneous climax to this magnificent five-day celebration of live comedy.

Monday June 1, 2.30pm

Day four, and one of the few shows specially created for the festival: Messin With You Tube, in which Barry Murphy and David O’Doherty share some of their favourite internet clips.

It’s the expected collection of slapstick pratfalls, magnificent mash-ups, professional bloopers and cats playing piano – the sort of clips compilations TV has been showing since broadcasting began. Our genial hosts have sourced the clips, not created them (although Murphy was responsible for the inspired tinkering with a University Challenge clip first seen on Time Trumpet) and sometimes the audience cheer before the footage rolls, as a still from a familiar scene fills the screen.

Employing the work of Chris Morris, Adam Buxton and Jay Leno (it seems entirely in the spirit of YouTube to lift the work of others…) combined with the hilarity of TV presenters coming a cropper, it can’t be anything but fun, and scroll down for some of the best clips from the night.

With crushing inevitability, the internet connection went down for ten minutes, and with no back-up plan O’Doherty busked it for a while – making the show a little too long as a result – but that has to be karma for laughing so heartily at the misfortunes of others.

I didn’t come to Ireland to watch YouTube clips I could see from home, though, and rightly enough there was another batch of top International Stand-Up to enjoy.

Gig one was ably compered by John Colleary (in an unfortunate fluke of scheduling the third time I’d seen him MC in as many days), who ploughed on valiantly despite having just returned from a trip from hospital, as he’d ripped the tendons in his leg during the afternoon’s footballing shenanigans.

Rhod Gilbert unleashed his usual petty rage against topics old and new: the million-candle torch an the duvet tog rating from his 2008 Edinburgh show, and the humble washing machine in what is likely to be a vein-bulging highlight of this year’s offering. A routine about the human ‘fight or flight’ reflex had a little more of the air of work in progress, but contained a good raft of funny lines nonetheless.

From the American Mid West, via the mean streets of New York, John Mullaney also impressed with his imaginative observational wit and his eloquent way of putting things. Some ingratiating, but not obsequious, quips about Kilkenny and his Irish roots set the tone nicely, before following it up with a virtuoso routine about Law & Order. I’ve never seen the cop show, but it doesn’t matter, I feel as if I have now. His longish bit about his limited basketball skills did lose some of the momentum, but his best work throws light on semi-obscure subjects you’d never noticed till he mentioned them.

Finally the ever-classy Jimeoin brought the show to a satisfying close, proving he has more funny in his left eyebrow than lesser comics have in their whole body, producing laughs from a tiny change in his facial expression.

Cat Laughs is not all about huge international acts, and there’s room in the schedule for Irish up-and-comers in the Comedy Cats showcase. Albeit a showcase held in the corrugated iron lean-to constructed at the back of John Cleere’s ridiculously narrow and always popular pub. Full reviews on the line-up – Dermot Whelan, John Lynn, Eleanor Tiernan and compere Gar Murran – to follow, but suffice to say Tiernan’s looking like one to watch, with some incisive material, vivaciously delivered.

The night ended by literally drinking the festival club bar dry of sponsor Carlsberg’s fine product, to the joyous sounds of the house band and their comedian frontmen. Sun, comedy, beer and music. It’s a tough old festival…

Now for those YouTube clips:

Sunday May 31, 4pm:

For many comedians, it’s the only performance that counts this festival: the one on the football field. As is traditional, Ireland took on the Rest Of The World in the annual grudge match – with the visitors triumphing 3-1. Milton Jones put the Rest Of The World 2-0 up at half time with two goals in quick succession, while Lee Mack made in 3-0 a few minutes after the interval.

Ireland became increasingly desperate, having 13 players on the field for much of the second half, but the visitors’ goal, so ably guarded by Adam Hills, seemed impenetrable. It was only the random refereeing decision to give an indirect free kick in the Rest Of The World’s goal-line, in compensation for a controversial disallowed goal earlier in the match, that allowed Eric Lalor to claim a consolation for the boys in green.

With Phill Jupitus, Steve Frost and Karl Spain providing sarcastic commentary from the safety – and cool – of the touchline, this was a clash to put yesterday’s cup finals to shame.

Sunday May 31, 1pm:

The Cat Laughs festival is about quantity as well as quality, and with some judicious planning, you can see a lot of comics in one night. So deep breath: this is the line-up from just three of the 27 shows on last night…

First to the Kings Suite at the KK Ormonde where – as less than 24 hours earlier – capable host John Colleary started off by introducing visiting American Shane Mauss.

Mauss (pronounced Moss) produced an almost entirely different set from he had the previous night, and to better effect. The set was still up and down, which he had to concede from the stage, but newly introduced gags about his vegan friend and soiling yourself kicked up a storm

Next up, Dave Gorman, with one of his first high-profile gigs since making a tentative return to straightforward stand-up after years of adventure-based shows. But he has kept a lot of the storytelling technique of his recent work, and his yarns are meticulously set up, unfolding slowly but skilfully as the wider picture emerges. The cliché-free tale of his drunken trip to Las Vegas is an especially charming piece of anecdotage. There are also some shorter, more playful bits, the best of which subvert the convetions of audience participation, which makes for a routine that’s varied in style and pace.

Tommy Tiernan opened with some pointed comments about how notebook-carrying journalists shouldn’t be divulging the secrets of what goes on in this ‘amphitheatre of lunacy’ with the outside world. Little surprise since he landed in trouble last year when word of his jokes about Madelaine McCann made it into the Press – as if he was the only comedian doing such material. But taking the hint, I’ll make no report on the rest of his set; but needless to say it was hilarious.

On then, to gig two at a nightclub beneath the Kilford Arms – an unprepossessing pub from the outside, but a bar that’s actually so big it encloses the three-storey ruins of a 16th Century church.

This gig turns out to be as strange as the venue. There’s so much bustle in the bar that MC Rhod Gilbert comes on to such a tiny smattering of applause that he’s forced to declare it ‘the most disappointing welcome I’ve ever had’. He ploughs on valiantly, however, and eventually gets the crowd to settle for PJ Gallagher, whose appearances on hidden camera show Naked Camera ensure a degree of recognition. His noisy, energetic delivery of mainstream, if sometimes obvious, material goes down well.

But then the problems start. As a rule, Cat Laughs gigs run for 90 interval-free minutes: which is usually fine, but sometimes means an exodus for fags, booze and toilets when the compere reappears. It’s exasperated here, because the bar at the back of the room feels isolated from the rest of the gig, so loud conversations Break Out among people who no longer feel any connection to the show. Their babble almost drowns out Gilbert for those who can remain seated for an hour an half.

It proves a constant battle for attention, and at best ends in a no-score draw. The same can be said of Russell Kane’s set: although the cocky Essex lad battled hard, few of the punchlines hit home.

So it’s testament to Alonzo Bodden’s presence that he brought the room’s focus back on to the stage as instantly and effortlessly as he did. From the New York borough of Queens, this is the former Last Comic Standing winner’s first time in Ireland – and he naturally enough engaged in a few quips about being almost the only black man in town.

On the face of it, the slickly professional Bodden sticks to the mainstream, discussing the pitfalls of relationships, the disappointments of getting older, or the incredible number of bars in Kilkenny city. But he does it with brilliant skill, picking obtuse routes through the subject matter and delivering his comic pronouncements with a good-natured, and devastatingly effective, confidence.

Physically imposing and cool as liquid nitrogen, he initially appears mean and threatening, but he subtly undermines the image with a subtle self-deprecation that makes him all the more engaging – and funny. He worked the room like an expert, and earned every bit of the rapturous applause that erupted at the end of his set.

Over, finally, to the late-night Dark Show, in the suitably subterranean Zoo Bar, a gitty, low-ceilinged cellar where all manner of horrors can unfold.

Host Andrew Maxwell has form when it comes to this sort of show, conspiring with the audience to build up the compelling atmosphere that we are part of a secretive clique of night people, gathering covertly in the shadows of polite society. And he was certainly on form tonight, setting the scene for an hour or so of on-the-edge comedy.

In that spirit, Reginald D Hunter’s routine focussed largely on rape gags. But rape gags given a gravitas and a context by his commanding persona and thoughtful set-ups respectively. His closing battle-of-the-sexes gag was still powerfully funny – and oh-so wrong – on the second time of hearing this weekend.

And if you want dark, Andrew Lawrence has a heart blacker than most. His acidly nihilistic set, focussing the abject misery of human existence through his own pitiful state and deliveed with that demonically tormented voice, raised the laughs just as surely as it lowered the standards of morals and decency.

At the end of his set, spurred on by a returning Maxwell, Lawrence drove the gig into a nadir of depravity that it’s hard to explain without it sounding like it was a horrible, horrible experience. But it was hilarious, and the spontaneity behind it meant the audience all felt part of a unique underground moment that could never be repeated – or possibly even spoken about again. And that is surely the sign of the perfect, seedy gig in the midnight hour.

But when the comedy stops, Kilkenny parties on. Music pounds out of so many bars you would think there was a festival of cover bands here, not just comedy. But none can match the passion and enthusiasm of the band that plays the festival club from 1.30am, with its rotating roster of frontmen drawn from the pool of comedians on the festival programme. You simply haven’t been to Cat Laughs until you’ve Jumped Around to Des Bishop, rapping in Irish…

Saturday May 30, 5.30pm:

It almost seems a shame to go indoors on such a glorious day as this, but up into one of the towers of Kilkenny we ascend, for a screening of A Film With Me In It, starring Dylan Moran, among others. And rather good it is, too. For our slightly more in-depth review, click here.

Saturday May 30, 12.45pm:

News comes through that Greg Giraldo’s cancelled. Which is a shame, as he’s one of America’s sharpest comics by all accounts – and by the clips you can see on YouTube.

But his place on the bill at Kyteler’s – a medieval inn whose original owner was burnt at the stake for witchcraft – is more than ably filled by Reginald D Hunter. The Georgia-raised, London-based stand-up has appeared to be coasting on his considerable charisma for the last couple of years, but his set here indicates a return to form. His take on Josef Fritzl was effective, if not entirely unique, but the battle of the sexes material is an undeniable triumph, with Hunter skilfully blindsiding the audience with the devastatingly effective punchline. Welcome back, Reg.

Adam Hills was noticeably torn between bantering and material, and perhaps spent a tad too long joshing with the stubborn woman in the front row. But his set cannot fail to storm so long as it contains his fantastic new routine about the Paralympics, and tonight was no exception. The material skips jauntily along the tightrope between shocking bad taste and inspirational spirit-raising – an unlikely combination, but one that’s made to work thanks to Hills’s jovial, nice-guy approach.

Mischief-making Lee Mack completed the triumvirate (MCed by a workmanlike Paddy Courtney), and his smartarse, blokish idiot savant shtick proved as successful as ever, thanks to the ever-present knockabout stupidity and quickfire gags in the old school style, with proper set-ups and punchlines. This modern-day jester certainly looked at home in the medieval hall.

Oh, and according to the venue’s website, the 13th Century charges of witchcraft against Dame Alice le Kyteler were ‘trumped up’. What a miscarriage: they didn’t even burn a real witch…

A quick skip up the road to a more modern setting for the second show of the night: The Ormonde Hotel, where another of the hotly-tipped Americans was on the bill: Shane Mauss.

This youngish Bostonian with a strangulated voice an wastrel’s attitude was named best stand-up at HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival a couple of years back, but he seemed to be misfiring tonight, and never properly connected with the erratic audience. There are some nicely crafted lines here – the line about his girlfriend’s pessimistic view of sex is a scorcher – but overall, the ride was a bumpy one.

Still, entertaining compere John Colleary kept the evening on track, with enjoyable observational routines – notably an unflattering comparison between the unbridled optimism of Barack Obama and the less inspiring Irish taoiseach Brian Cowen, enlivened by a cheerily animated delivery and some silly mimickry.

I’d heard Jon Richardson was nervous about making his Cat Laughs debut; but he needn’t have been, as he easily stormed it. The grumpily judgemental persona is so natural and well-defined that it’s easy for any audience to identify with – plus he gives voice to the sort of trumped-up irritation we all feel. For many comics, starting a routine about being on the London Underground at a comedy festival in Ireland might be ill-advised – and you can feel the audience tense at another metropolitan comic failing to make any allowances for their environs. But once Richardson explained, ‘I hate being in London and I hate being underground,’ the crowd was instantly on his side, and they never once left it. Ironically, he should have nothing to complain about after that great gig.

If Richardson pleased the crowd, they went wild for Des Bishop. And that’s before he’d said a word. Although an American, he’s one of Ireland’s comedy heroes, and with some justification. His routine here about Irish repression packed a punch, and he playfully discussed his emotionally dysfunctional relationship with his adopted nation, which is just as screwed up as he is. That affair led him to learn to speak Irish, and now he’s a poster boy for the campaign to keep it alive – delivering much of the last three or four minutes in the language. I have no idea what he said, but it seemed to be very funny.

And so, as the clocks strike midnight, to bed.

Hell, no. It’s a Friday night in the Festival Club, where those working for Cat Laughs get to mingle with the comics, with Dave Gorman, Adam Hills, John Bishop, Andrew Maxwell, Milton Jones and Rhod Gilbert among those in attendance tonight. But none felt the urge to dance to the lively, but often obscure, tracks selected by the DJ, one Phill Jupitus.

And so, as the clocks strike 3am, to bed…

Friday May 29, 3.30pm:

Kilkenny is pretty much made of pubs. For a town of just 30,000 or so people, it drinks well above its weight.

These bars are increasingly being pressed into service as comedy venues, forming a loose fringe festival for up-and-coming acts a long way from festival headliner status. Walking back from last night’s gig, the distinctive sound of stand-up drew me into one such gig.

In complete contrast to the understated professionalism of the main festival, you probably couldn’t come up with a worse room for comedy. The stand-ups performed in complete darkness in an elevated corner of the room with no one even thinking of turning off the big TV behind them. It was much easier to watch the Red Dwarf rerun on Dave than the acts on stage.

Lanigan’s is clearly a party pub, too, and most of the people drifting in and out from the main road had no interest in the comedy. They happily chatted among themselves, or mistook the situation for a conversation, and lobbed in interruptions that were as pointless as they were incessant.

The American act on stage as I came in was hollering an unedifying catalogue of bad-taste gags. Whether that was his act or whether he was just throwing in all he could to try to exert some control over the room, it was impossible to tell. But I hope it wasn’t the former.

After him, the bulky, bearded Steve Elliot came up with a few inventive lines – often about killing his girlfriend – mixed up with a lot of dross. Again, it’s impossible to know how good he really was in circumstances like this. Character-building is the best you could say about a hopeless room such as this.

Friday May 29, 1.30pm:

Some of the American contingent who come to Kilkenny are given a low-key, pre-festival warm-up gig on Wednesday night to adjust their references and timing to the Irish crowd, but on the first real gig of the festival last night, you could still see the acts finding their feet.

Normally manic host Jason Byrne keeps things relatively relaxed – well, for him – as he brings on some of the brightest transatlantic stars. Dom Irrera needs no limbering up, nor no introduction, as he’s played this festival 14 times before. So entwined in the DNA of the festival is he that he opens with some quips about Eamon Langton, the hotelier whose classy joint is hosting this gig. He’s the Mr Burns of the town, Irrera jokes, with such ambitious expansion plans that Kilkenny will one day be a suburb of Langton’s.

The crowd are not yet fired up – after all, there is a big weekend ahead – but Irrera shrugs it off: ‘You know what I hate? Bit laughs. I like it like this…’ But ultimately, his rat-a-tat Italian-American delivery wins them over – but not as much as the patois of the young black comics of Def Comedy Jam that he so effectively adopts for one great routine.

Cynical Kathleen Madigan starts slowly, too, with the Kilkenny audience not quite biting on her Presidential election jibes, and missing the references on some other material. ‘You guys have NBA over here, right?’ Silence. Ditto when she leaves a beat after telling us she’s been performing for the troops, to allow for the applause American audiences would instinctively give. Not this side of the Atlantic, missy. Although the audience do clap a later routine in which her drunk-driving brother gets away with it. That’s what counts as heroism over here…

But she thinks on her feet and quickly adapts to the foreign situation. Her relentless attack on bewildered, aging CNN host Larry Kings scored high for inventiveness, the character portrait of her drunken mum was wonderfully evocative, while her ideas for selecting an Olympics team entirely by lottery are inspired.

Professional grouch Lewis Black reacts differently to the gap in understanding. While Madigan nimbly adjusted as she went, Black stubbornly digs his heels in with a defiant ‘Fuck you.’ It almost becomes a war of attrition as he berates the audience for the lack of that Pavlovian applause when he states that his parents have been married for 63 years.

But that’s nothing compared to the misfire when he hits us with what he thinks is a killer line. ‘I’ve become so mainstream, I followed Vince Gill on stage!’ Who? The lack of recognition flaws him.

Lewis spluttered at his fiercest, however, and did manage to win the room’s affection with strong routines aimed at the misery of being 60 and the nonsensical homilies spouted by Dr Phil – though lost it again after the payoff to a depressing lament about the state of the world again failed, leaving everyone a little down. A one-all draw between comedian and crowd, I think.

Oh, and Vince Gill? He’s a country and western singer.

Thursday, May 28, 6pm:

You get a warm welcome in Kilkenny, much needed after the long trip from London to the heart of south-east Ireland – via a flight also ferrying such comic luminaries as Rich Hall and Jason Byrne towards the esteemed Cat Laughs festival.

The event’s genial director, Eddie Bannon, is waiting as the cab pulls up at the Ormonde hotel, probably more by accident than an official greeting party, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And once checked in, there’s a goodie bag waiting, including vouchers for free Carlsberg (thank you, festival sponsors) and a disposal waterproof cagoule. Since the sun is currently beating down on this picturesque ancient city, hopefully this won’t be getting much use over the next five days.

It would be a fabulous day to go sightseeing, but no one’s here for that. Instead, around 50 of the world’s top comics for a long weekend of some of the finest comedy gigs in the world. Americans such as Lewis Black, Bill Burr, Greg Giraldo and Kathleen Madigan have flown in to join the best of British and Irish-based comedians: Tommy Tiernan, Lee Mack, Dave Gorman, Fred McAuley and Ross Noble to name but five.

Chortle will be reporting from the festival over the next few days, so keep checking this page for the latest updates. But for now you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got some drinks vouchers to use…

Published: 28 May 2009

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