O'Comic Gala

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Make no mistake. Hosting a televised Just For Laughs gala is a big deal. You need a comic with a reputation big enough to atrract enough fans to fill Montreal’s 2,300-seater Theatre St Denis, and ask them to pay up to £85 for the privilege.

You need comedy icons of the stature of John Cleese, Jason Alexander, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen… Ed Byrne. Yes, the scrawny Irish stand-up last night joined the major league, even if he was, by his own cheerful admission, the least famous host the gig has ever had.

If he was fazed by such an auspicious occasion, he didn’t let it show as he introduced this first ever gala dedicated to Irish comics, starting with a phoney lecture on the Irish in Canada from behind a lectern emblazoned with a cartoon shamrock. Producers here, you quickly learn, aren’t into subtlety when it comes to projecting a national identity, and it’s not long before Canadian mounties in emerald-green uniforms are marching across the stage.

These scripted segments are always as cheesy as a Kraft dinner, to use a local simile. But Byrne – reading an Autocue of jokes he was happy to confess he didn’t always understand himself – managed to stave off the worst excesses.

It’s not just the audience in this vast warehouse of a venue that the comics need fret about. Also watching are a global TV audience and the American comedy world’s biggest movers and shakers.

The concern had clearly been playing on Andrew Maxwell’s mind, given the almost visible relief as he nailed the laughs. ‘This is a piece of piss,’ he chuckled to himself as he started enjoying the experience. And he ended by telling the audience: ‘You’re lovely – I don’t know what all the fuss was about.’

His cheery demeanour had won them over, that and his ‘mucky’ anecdote about finding a lump on his balls. At the start, the outcome might have seemed less certain, especially when the perfectly innocent inquiry: ‘Any Muslims in tonight?’ causes a collective buttock-clenching that’s almost audible. The audience weren’t yet to know how keen Maxwell is to welcome all into his comedy church.

Jarlath Regan was by far the newest comic in the line-up – just two short years ago he was in the Chortle Student Comedy Awards, and now here he is on the international stage. Again, this mild-mannered smoothy showed no nerves, although his inexperience did mean one good gag was almost lost when he crashed into the applause break that the feed line ‘I’m going to have a kid’ inevitably elicits from a North American audience. His slow style didn’t quite engage, and his jokes could be tighter, but he acquitted himself respectably in what must have been the biggest gig of his career by far.

Owen O’Neill may be vastly more experienced, but his laid-back style also risked letting the audience get away from him. He won them over instantly with some silly visual humour involving his unruly mop of ginger hair, then waffled slightly with his routine about CNN’s coverage of the Middle East crisis that might have been pipingly topical, but wasn’t yet sharply formed. A brutally efficient, and brilliantly funny seven-word gag gets the set back on track, before wobbling again with a comparison of IRA with Al Qaeda that was perhaps a little too close to a gag Maxwell had told. O’Neill is capable of great, literary, pearls of comic wisdom – a couple of which came out tonight - but the tight sets Montreal demands don’t serve his unhurried philosophising too well.

Neil Delamare is a comic hitting his form, based on the impressive routine here tonight. Previously a nice-guy everyman, he’s found an appealing spikiness to his act, with flashes of passion piercing the middle-class respectability. His material, too, comes from genuinely unexpected directions, with a fertile mind making surprising, and very funny, connections to keep you on your toes.

Ian Coppinger grabbed the crowd from the get-go, with a brilliant sight gag exploiting his diminutive statute. It leads to a bombardment of self-deprecating short-arse gags, followed up by some sharp material on the Irish drinking stereotype. The jokes come thick and fast at the start, but gradually Coppinger eases off the accelerator until he can start on a richly funny anecdote about flying from a tiny rural Irish airport. His whole set is a masterclass in comic pacing, and the way this tale slowly builds up a vivid – and increasingly hilarious – picture layer by subtle layer is mightily impressive. Now THIS is how you do airline material…

The first half ends with Ed Byrne subjecting himself to a bizarre sketch in which phoney friends and family join him on stage to expose the artificiality of the sitcom universe. But it’s slow, repetitive and unsubtle, and we cringe on his behalf.

Left to do what he’s good at, though, and he storms it. Byrne opens the second half with a straightforward stand-up routine. It’s all very domestic, about nagging women, talking dirty and coping with a snoring girlfriend – which doesn’t sound much written down. But Byrne is skilled at infusing these everyday observations with effective jokes and an appealing attitude of comic exasperation that demolishes all resistance.

Colin Murphy tells some tales of early saints and Adolph Hitler, who happens to share his birthday. It’s quite interesting, which lets him off the hook a bit when it comes to needing great gags, and the set is entertaining rather than outstanding. Also the relaxed, conversational style seems too restrained for the big room. Though he’s clearly a more-than competent stand-up, it’s hard to get particularly excited by his appearance.

Deirdre O’Kane, back doing stand-up after becoming a mum, hasn’t lost any of her performing vim, with a delivery that’s animated and engaging. She can spin a yarn, too, so even a simple shopping trip becomes a great drama. Yet for all these winning attributes, she doesn’t really have all that much to say, nor many great lines to support her. It’s more like having a chat with a vivacious friend than hearing an expert comic – you come away feeling happier, but couldn’t really identify anything specifically funny.

David O’Doherty’s trademarked Vlemw (very low-energy musical whimsy) might have seemed like the wildcard choice of the night. But this scruffy troubadour has the most endearing brand of offbeat surrealism, which works well in almost any environment. As every last watt of the theatre’s powerful, state-of-the-art sound system amplified his tinny keyboard, DOD’s quirky songs, mastery of the metaphor and unfailingly modest person did what he promised from the start: ‘To rock your world in quite a gentle way.’

Tommy Tiernan does nothing in a gentle way. His barnstorming set in this very room in 2004 was this single most powerful comedy performance I’ve ever witnessed, so no wonder the man Byrne introduced as ‘comedy’s answer to U2’ has been invited back for antoher year.

Tiernan amplifies everything, with sinewy delivery that’s a brilliant balance of power and control. Everything becomes ten times funnier in his skilful hands. He takes an idea and builds upon it, using an impressively wide range of comedy tricks. Every tiny section of his routine has its own payoff, gradually increasing the comic momentum until it sweeps up before it.

Tonight he talks of his mad friend Brendan, how ‘women feel, but men think’ and of his first experiences of sex education. But no list of topics can do justice to a brilliant execution that proves once more that he’s in a league of his own – and undoubtedly the reason why Just For Laughs dedicated this gala to the ‘O’Comics’ in the first place. >

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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