Carlsberg Cat Laughs 2010

Steve Bennett reports from the Kilkenny festival

OK, brace yourself. It may be only five nights, but there's a hell of a lot of comedy at Cat Laughs. This might be a long report, but it's only a fraction of the number of shows on offer:

Show one: Jason Byrne, Moshe Kasher, Pajama Men and Des Bishop

Top-notch international acts, buckets of playfully mocking banter and a top TV star graphically miming acts of sexual depravity – what a fitting start to the Carlsberg Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny, always the comedians’ favourite playground.

Compere Jason Byrne has been here often enough to know how to press all the right buttons. Thursday is the locals’ night, before the long, booze-fuelled weekend properly kicks off, and he plays them perfectly, warning: ‘You know who’s on their way, don’t you? The Dublin knackers.’ Though ever Irish town comes in for a ribbing – even Kilkenny – as he wades into the willing audience, exploiting every regional stereotype for a quick-witted insult, and being loved all the more for it.

Moshe Kasher is one of the select few Americans visiting this weekend, and gave an instant masterclass in how to do jokes at the expense of your own appearance with a flair and originality absent from the usual ‘bastard child of….’ quips. This wiry Jew with a ‘gay Hitler’ berates us, tongue in cheek, for laughing not ‘at the jokes I wrote but the body I’ve been cursed with’. But it isn’t just his physique that’s built for comedy, but his sharp mind and his camp personality, too.

We’re all accustomed to hate-filled comments on the internet, so reading out the contributions to the flame war on his YouTube page is brought to life entirely because of his delivery. But the big laughs come when he reveals that, despite the evidence, he’s straight – and goes on to describe in some graphic detail his experiences in that field; but only after warning us that if anyone gets offended, he simply couldn’t care less. He’s also got a great closer up his sleeve.

The Pajama Men have already wowed the States, Britain and Australia – and now it’s Ireland’s turn. Performing character-based sketches on a bill of stand-up can be fraught with difficulties, but they managed expectations brilliantly, with a quiet, awkwardly stilted explanation of what they were about to do.

But the set-up is only the start; and with a script as funny as theirs and an unrivalled talent for performance, success is virtually guaranteed. This is a brutally fast-paced set, with each scene delivering exquisitely-observed comic creations and witty punchlines with the minimum of fuss.

Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen key talent is their ability to create instantly-recognisable characters in a heartbeat; flicking from realistic types such as Dweezl, the punk with the uncannily accurate English accent, to surreal creations such as the chess-playing bat in an instance. And everything, even the weird shit, is played with such conviction it all seems entirely plausible, even when they are communicating in animalistic grunts, or re-enacting a sex scene as if it was a flickering What The Butler Saw stereoscope.

Another nation is about to be conquered by the men in their nightgear.

After two American acts, an Irishman – albeit one with an American accent. Des Bishop asked it we wanted the ‘dirty stuff, or the serious stuff that I can make funny’. It’s probably both paths led the same way, for after a brief mention of his dying father, he concerned himself with the subject of what countless spam emails call ‘erectile dysfunction’ – thus managing to fuse the serious with the dirty, while throwing in some commentary about Ireland being an emotionally retarded nation along the way.

The routine – which forms a substantial part of his forthcoming show at the Edinburgh Fringe – got the raucous reaction it deserved from such a successful combination of high and low comedy.

Time got the better of him, though, and as Byrne was wrapping up the night, he returned to the mic for the story of his threesome that he’d promised, but forgotten to tell, roping in the ebullient compere to sign the routine for the deaf – clearly no more than an excuse for him to demonstrate his clear gift for improvised X-rated mime. The audience’s obvious delight was only heightened when Dara O Briain bundled on to the stage to complete the threesome, doing things you’ll never see on Mock The Weak.

Funny, spontaneous, and haphazard – it looks like the festival has started in style…

Show two: Willie White, Carl Barron, Idiots of Ants, Jason Byrne

This show marked an unfortunate first. In half a dozen years of coming to Kilkenny, I’ve never been to a show that wasn’t packed-to-the-rafters full. But this early Friday-night line-up attracted just a few dozen punters in a venue that could easily have accommodated five time more.

And what an unforgiving environment it was, too – a brutal concrete bunker with a couple of forlornly inappropriate mirrorballs to give the impression we are in Soviet-era Vladivostock’s only nightclub and acoustics so poor that every scraping chair or slamming toilet door echoed off every grey wall. Still, comedy has thrived under more unforgiving circumstances, so let’s see what happens…

Willie White’s compering was, unfortunately, as grim as the surroundings. He has a certain gift of the gab, but the material can be woeful. The by-the-numbers ‘where are you from?’/’That’s full of thieves/morons/inbreds’ is his fallback, while some of the gags are dubious indeed. The ancient line ‘I’ve got three kids – one of each,’ is followed by, ‘a boy, a girl and a hairdresser’ as everybody knows both that all hairdressers are gay; and poofters are simply hilarious. Throw in another routine that seeks laughs from a comedy Nigerian accent and you can chuckle like it’s 1976…

In the name of balance, some of his personal anecdotes of life in a tough quarter of Dublin are more amusing – and he’s got a damn fine singing voice – but too many of his routines are unlikeable for him to really impress.

Calm and collected Australian Carl Barron serves up a mixed offering, too; thought the highlights are delightful. With the assured poise of a man of great experience, he quietly shares his observations on the things we all do or say, even if they are quite ridiculous, illustrated by a careful physicality. He’s very much like Jimeoin in that respect, if not quite in the same league, but his recreation of creeping quietly around the house is a special delight.

That he can wring a lot of comedy out of the mundane is never better illustrated than his take on the old Confusions about the word ‘thong’ on both sides of the planet; which although an easy, old target forms the basis of an elegantly constructed tower of double entendre.

Sketch group Idiots Of Ants suffered most from the limitations of the room, with several crucial lines lost to the poor acoustics, meaning these ‘greatest hits’ didn’t quite get the reception they usually do. The audience were slow to pick up on the pantomime irony of the hen night scene, playfully poking at male-female stereotypes, or buy into the scene where fathers-to-be are indoctrinated in the way of the awful ‘dad joke’ – but we got there in the end.

The group’s writing is taut and careful, with scenes slowly revealing the strong ideas at their comic heart, and the quartet are engaging performers – flexible enough to overplay the knowing wink through the fourth wall if it brings the crowd on board, as was needed tonight.

But closing act Jason Byrne was the only act to truly grasp this difficult gig by the horns, making no bones about the inadequacies of the room, with a brutally funny comparison which could have been offensive had it not been accompanied with his usual childlike sense of fun. Likewise, when he stumbled across a German girl in the audience, he was plunged into his own ‘don’t mention the war’ moment – unable to stop himself goose-stepping across the stage or raising his hand in Nazi salute.

Other audience members were teased with an equal sense of fun, in a typically spontaneous set, with much of the joy generated from the knowledge that this is a unique, shared experience. The mixed-bill nature of Cat Laughs means you are almost certain to see the same comedian more than once – but at least with Byrne you won’t see the same jokes.

Show three: Ian Coppinger, Eric Lalor, Eleanor Tiernan, Colin Murphy

‘This is one of the biggest gigs of my career,’ Eric Lalor says, addressing not the O2, but a medium sized pub function room in the South East of Ireland.

It’s a bit disingenuous – having supported the likes of Des Bishop, who discovered him on his Joys In The Hood TV show – but an indication of his relative lack of experience compared to some of the big-hitters here. And it doesn’t hinder his shtick as being a everyday working-class guy from the wrong end of Dublin, either.

With a sedate delivery he takes us back to incidents from his youth – such as the misery of Christmas morning mass – and his present-day teasing of his own children. It’s a natural, conversational, honest approach that ebbs and flows, only rarely landing a killer blow, but gently enjoyable in its unfolding. Plus he shoehorns in a couple of movie references to show off his talent for impersonating Darth Vader or Russell Crowe in Gladiator, which might not be strikingly original but he pulls them off well.

Compere Ian Coppinger takes up the Star Wars theme with an entirely gratuitous Wookie impression before introducing the next comic on this all-Ireland bill, Eleanor Tiernan.

This quirky comic has grown in confidence over the last year or so, relaxing her previously forced rhythms into something a little more conversational. Her very angle, though, is that she’s still a relative rookie learning the art of stand-up – introducing herself with the deadpanned line: ‘I am an comedian’ with so little conviction that it’s funny in itself.

Throughout the set she refers to what other comedians do – such as develop a catchphrase – and tries to learn from it. Her chosen slogan is: ‘Here, do you think this is funny, right?’ The technique is difficult to pull off – sometimes it feels too comically incestuous, while also undermining her own abilities – yet it is certainly distinctive, and when it works does add an appealing extra level to the persona.

She’s also quite easily distracted, diverting into comedy cul-de-sacs about the layout of the room or the Cat Laughs laminated passes. But when left to her prepared routines she can demonstrate an ingenious wit. Her take on the ‘sponsor a child’ charity schemes or the tyranny of the ‘to do’ list is inspired, and gems of inventive lines pop up throughout her idiosyncratic set.

To close, the accomplished Colin Murphy took a moment to settle – extending a bit of banter Coppinger had done in reaction to women going to the toilet on masse too much, although as he moved on to other urinary habits, the laughs of recognition grew.

Managing to find something funny in Israel’s attack on the flotilla, and being gifted the audience member whose job was in ‘robot milking’, further established his credentials, ready to head below the belt for his closing routine. The graphic descriptions of his own inadequacies might have terrified the poor teenager at the front, but the combination of his frankness and the risqué subject matter proved a hit for the rest of us.

Show four: Ian Coppinger, Justin Moorhouse, Kevin Bridges, PJ Gallagher

After 16 years of Cat Laughs, Kilkenny crowds tend to be a comedy-savvy bunch up for a good laugh. But a Friday late show is a Friday late show wherever you are, and compere Ian Coppinger was presented with something of a challenge from the better-lubricated elements of the front rows.

But his years of experience are not for nothing (he’s only missed one of these festivals, for instance) and deftly pulled off the necessary crowd control work without alienating the attention-seekers.

Opening act Justin Moorhouse is always going to be associated with the stereotype of the chubby, cheery Northern comic, for that’s exactly what his personality is. And he sometimes doesn’t seem to be exactly challenging it with one chunk of material that could be summarised as ‘my co-worker’s so fat that…’

But that’s as far as it goes, for even that routine is fiercely biting, the harsh edges hidden behind the jovial bonhomie. Moorhouse is often a sharper operator than his appears, so even when he’s talking about mainstream, easily relatable subjects such as not really liking his kids, or describing a fraught trip to Disneyland Paris, the writing displays enjoyable flourishes you might not immediately expect.

Next up was man of the moment Kevin Bridges, fresh from his appearances at the SECC, Friday Night With Jonathan Ross – and the medical centre where he had been treated for a severe bout of foot poisoning that almost put the kibosh on his festival appearances.

But he recovered in time, for which the Kilkenny audience should be very grateful, given that he treated them to such an impressive set. The 23-year-old, who looks, acts and has the comic instincts well beyond his years, is a master of the natural, conversational style. He feels like a man down the pub, moaning about Dublin’s public transport, recalling out-of-hand house parties in the poor part of Glasgow where he grew up, or his Dad surreptitiously watching late-night porn in the early days of satellite TV.

This is less about brilliant lines, than it is about spending time with someone entertainingly shooting the breeze, The importance of his brusque Clydebank tones shouldn’t be underestimated, either. He can make a phrase as simple as ‘Easter holiday’ drip with both menace and impending disappointment – neither of which you get from this effortlessly funny comedian.

Delivery, of course, plays a key part in Andy Parsons’s topical set, with that nasal whine and purposeful meter imposing rigid timings on every line. The quality of his gags is variable, possibly a consequence of being so freshly minted, but even the more modest quips get a laugh.

Yet he’s also got some real corkers in his set – with the best line yet about the BP oil spill, a brilliantly silly scenario inspired by the volcanic ash crisis and even a few takes on Irish politics to play to this audience.

It was Naked Camera’s PJ Gallagher the crowd had come to see, though – even though his stand-up has previously consisted of the most hack material, delivered in a breathlessly exciteable way.

Things didn’t auger well when he started this set with a gag about being recognised from the TV by a homeless man that Graham Norton did when he first started to become famous, all those years ago. He repeatedly mentioned that he was trying to write new stuff, though it seems he doesn’t really need to try all that hard as even the most mundane material – such as his description of running late – is s met with very vocal approval from the crowd. They equally adore his mocking impression of a lad with a speech impediment, though more sensitive listeners might think it cruel to mock the afflicted in such a way.

But then the other half of the set show what he’s really capable of; comparing recent air travel troubles to Lost is a nice gag, while two strong anecdotes about attending a Travellers’ wedding anniversary, and taking part in a charity boxing match demonstrated a deft talent for engaging, self-deprecating storytelling. Let’s home that new material he’s so desperately trying to create takes him further along this route.

Show five: The Pursuit Of Happiness

Well, when you’ve got a load of comedians all in one place, you might as well use them. The Pursuit Of Happiness was a scavenger hunt around Kilkenny, with a series of ridiculously easy clues leading to locations where comedians would be waiting. Get all their names – and even, to be frank, if you don’t – to discover the location of the gig at the end of the trail.

Gimmick it may be, but it certainly lent an air of camaraderie to the subsequent show. Although as co-host Andrew Stanley observed, the quest could have been renamed ‘give comedians’ egos a kicking’ – as many of the comics willing to stand around for 45 minutes to be identified weren’t exactly household names, so spent the duration explaining who they were…

The show itself was a festival version of the Mish Mash Club, a loose, knockabout show Stanley co-hosts with Fred Cooke that has an unhealthy fascination with biscuits. Unhealthy in that free samples of the sugar-heavy treat were handed out at the end.

Games and polls were held to decide which type of biscuit we would get; allowing for plenty of rambunctious, silly banter with the audience. The compere’s friend of ‘where are you from?’ being given a new twist if the answer can influence the snack choice.

Stanley and Cooke prove playful hosts with easy banter seamlessly merged with prepared material, while Cooke, the face of Spar supermarket ads, got to show off his musical prowess, notably his party trick of playing any popular song the audience suggested on two melodicas – plastic ‘blow-organs’. In the hugely entertaining climax, he would play further requested hits on guitar, but with the lyrics rewritten to reflect the biscuit obsession.

Such musical parodies are rightfully scorned as cheap comedy, but these were wittily done, while the spontaneity adds a thrill you don’t get with prepared material.

The Mish Mash Club also features a number of guests – and while it doesn’t work quite as well when trying to be a more conventional comedy night, there were some treats in store.

Best of these was Damian Clark – one of the clues on the treasure hunt. A lively and engaging performer, this Dublin-based Australian regaled us with an entertaining anecdote from that very afternoon, before his piece de resistance: an hilariously daft routine involving a surprise prop we won’t reveal here. Suffice to say it was unforgettable stuff.

Neil Hickey’s dry wit didn’t quite fit with the disorderly nature of the gig, but he had a few lovely lines in the mix; while the unknown comic performing stand-up as a horse might have worked, but adding an extra layer that he was a terrible comedian, bombing on every line, was a step too far, and turned out to bomb for real too.

But as a whole the Mish Mash Club is as much as a sweet, guilty pleasure as the bickies handed out at the end.

Show six: Ian Coppinger, Marc Maron, Greg Davies, Neil Delamere

Marc Maron is one of the select few American acts flown into this year’s festival, but he seems to be having a rough time of it, telling us of the ‘detached, cold, angry stares’ he’s been getting at other gigs.

If true, that’s tough, because he’s an accomplished comedian, although the raw, honest and personal nature of his routine means that laughs are sometimes going to be sacrificed for depth of material.

From what he says, he’s been something of a screw-up; twice married with past drink and drug problems – an addictive personality that once seemed exciting and glamorous, but now sees him sadly chasing highs in a litre tub of Haagen Dazs. He describes himself as ‘a little gnarly’ and certainly a strong stench of bitterness and self-hatred comes off this routine.

But such a sour viewpoint yields comedy that’s incisive as it is prickly; intelligent, confessional and sometimes very funny. But leaving you in very little doubt you’d never want to be in his shoes.

For the second time in as many days, compere Ian Coppinger had to defang some potentially troublesome audience members – a lads’ night out who had to signal any flicker of approval or even recognition with a boisterous ‘wa-hay!’ to the point of disruptive tedium. But once again the diminutive Mr C maintained order, even if it was an uphill struggle at times.

His 5ft 5in height is the subject of a sterling routine about going out with a tall girl – but even bigger laughs were to be had from introducing the second act: the 6ft 8in Greg Davies. Whoever said visual comedy is dying never revelled in the simply pleasures of such a little-and-large sight.

The We Are Klang star – though more recognised for his supporting role in the Inbetweeners these days – describes how he dismisses the usual comments about his height with a withering impatience, dispensing with the topic before embarking upon a magnificent 20-minute routine.

In a set that covers his lack of sexual prowess, approaches by tiny Thai prostitutes, and his sister’s oral sex technique, you might expect this to be utterly filthy. But it’s gloriously done, with ornately silly imagery, evocative characterisation (his aging father, for example is hilariously depicted a demented buffoon) and a perfect, playful performance full of unbelieving outrage.

Excuse the obvious wordplay, but Davies is a towering talent.

Storytelling headliner Neil Delamere also included the theme of bedroom inadequacies into his set, from the embarrassment of taking dirty to the slapstick tale of the night he lost his virginity. He’s a personable performer and his (no doubt embellished) yarns from his life always hold a crowd.

But there are jokes in there, too. Delamere’s not a comic who can let any pun go unsaid, whether it be sublime or cheesy, shrugging the weaker ones off with an unsaid ‘What? It’s only a silly joke’ that ensures we still like him for it. There’s no real angle to anything he does, and the strongest element of his persona is that he is just an ordinary Everyman – but that means his expertly-told stories have a credibility that strengthens every laugh, which more often than not come at his own expense.

Show seven: Barry Murphy, Danny Bhoy, Tim Key, Dara O Briain

As the only comedian to have played all 15 previous Cat Laughs, Barry Murphy has little to prove. For stats lovers, Ian Coppinger, Dom Irrera and Rich Hall have missed just one, while Jason Byrne and Fred MacAulay have missed two.

With established credentials such as that, it comes as no surprise that Murphy takes a very relaxed, low-key approach to his compering. No big, over-excited introductions – though he did get the audience to hum a gentle Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style World Cup anthem – just an understated confidence.

Danny Bhoy kept the energy on a low simmer, too. Delivering with slick poise, but physical enough to keep the microphone in its stand for his set, so he could talk with his hands – and not just in the bit where he discusses how the Italians, erm, talk with their hands.

Some of his observations are on the mundane side, especially when it comes to such staples as how we react when last orders are called; though he proves adept at the tagline jokes, extending straightforward routines with a small postscript gag that provides a welcome twist.

When his routines have a story beyond the merely descriptive – such as him spotting a naked man in a hotel room across the courtyard from his – the confident, well-paced delivery stands him in especially good stead, as drops the punchlines with masterful timing.

Quirky poet Tim Key was something of a high-risk booking for a festival that traditionally likes to keep its stand-up straight. His over-analytical asides, aloof-yet-awkward persona and obtuse stanzas may have won him last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award, but it didn’t sit too well in Kilkenny’s three-acts-and-a-compere, club-style line-up.

As a result he was greeted with at best mid-level titters, but mostly a respectful, patient near-silence. The audience seemed to appreciate what he was trying to achieve, but they also knew he just wasn’t hitting any of funnybones. That’s the thing with gambles, they don’t always pay off.

You’re taking no chances with Dara O Briain, though. That’s not to mean he doesn’t tackle intelligent, occasionally difficult subjects – but he’s a man who’s guaranteed to be able to make anything funny.

Early in this set he delivered an uncharacteristically vicious, and somewhat delayed, smackdown to a punter who was playing awkward when Key attempted banter. The spontaneous outburst was funny in its disproportionality, with O Briain employing his own intellectual ambitions to berate the poor sap for his lack of the same.

He’s a former student debating champ, and that’s still the essence of his humour – taking a point of view with which he disagrees (or even a simple observation) and distilling down to an hilariously ridiculous extreme. Once he’s done that to the National Childbirth Trust’s hippily unscientific ante-natal advice, for instance, you’ll never believe a word they say again.

Fast-talking at the best of times, O Briain attempted to cram the highlights of his current two-hour touring show into a 20-minute set, which only added to the density of gags – yet still left the audience wanting more.

Show eight: Damian Clark, Gearoid Farrelly, Arj Barker, PJ Gallager

And the prize for the worst audience members in all of Carlsberg Cat Laughs goes to the four-man stag party ejected from this Sunday-night gig. Damian Clark, the thoroughly entertaining compere of this potential car-crash, reckoned it was a festival first to have anyone thrown out, though I suspect that might have been hyperbole.

The only problem was that it took the bouncers some time to come down from the hotel upstairs to deal with the disruptive, drunken, incomprehensibly shouty neanderthals – so festival debutant Gearoid Farrelly had to cope with them during his set. And although a slight, camp slip of a man, this relative newcomer took their unwelcome grunts in his stride, keeping them as much in their place as was humanly possible.

Aside from twat control, Farrelly proved himself to be a nifty wit, with tales of his bitchy Nana, growing up gay and of rabbit slaughter. His material can be deliciously cruel – he certainly seems to have inherited some traits from his grandmother – yet delivered with such cheeky glee that he more than gets away with it. He’s a real blast of energy, and guiltily enjoyable with it.

Classy Arj Barker brought the house down with his inspired opener about the lads who had just been ejected before he came on stage, before settling into his solidly witty, although only rarely roof-raising, routine.

His shtick is a bewildered incredulity at some aspects life. The persona is of a benign, naive and possible pot-afflicted fool – yet even he sees how ridiculous the world is. From homophobia to pirates, he calmly sets out the situation as he sees it, occasionally offering an unworkable solution to the issue.

He’s cool and collected, never really in much of rush to hit the next punchline, which does affect the laugh rate, although liberally throws in quirky half-jokes, such as comic mispronounciations of a common word, as little placeholders until we get to the main gag. When those jokes come, they tend to be inventive and ‘idiot savant’ smart – and certainly in keeping with his confident, but distinctively semi-detached, charcater.

The show was brought to a close by the buzzy-but-flawed PJ Gallagher, who we’ve reviewed earlier this festival.

Show nine: G'Nite Cats

So to the final gig of the festival; a knockabout Late N Live-style line-up featuring all the comics still standing after five nights of excess – even if in some cases (Maxwell, A) it was a close-run thing.

Fred Cooke and Karl Spain shared the compering duties, the latter the old hand purportedly showing his protégé the tricks of the audience banter trade. Though both were taught a thing or two when Jason Byrne made it a trio of MCs later in the night to recreate the 1985 World Snooker Championship final. Don’t ask.

It’s a long show, especially after a heavy weekend of comedy, so let’s keep the reviewing brisk.

David O’Doherty turned his Yamaha into a Yamaha-ha with a typically playful couple of numbers; the versatile Pajama Men proved you don’t need to dress up to be the toast of the festival with another burst of brilliantly fast-paced sketches; Eric Lalor asserted that ‘kids say the funniest things’ – but showed that he can always top them; the Eighties snooker nail-biter was recreated; Colin Murphy coined the unlikely new catchphrase ‘Eat it, you monkey cunt’; then Andrew Maxwell underlined the two key facts about himself – he’s king of the rabble-rousers, and doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut; either when being quizzed by the cops or when the red light is flashing furiously as his set, which started at 1am, was overrunning madly.

And so to bed, after a very long weekend of more top-notch comedy than anyone could dream of. If only there had been time for dreams.

Published: 4 Jun 2010

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