BEING a stand-up comedian must be one of the most terrifying jobs in the performing sector, with the fear of ‘dying’ on stage or inciting a mass audience walk out.
Deirdre O’Kane, who is bringing her latest show Demented! to the Everyman on April 15, says: “I think most people would agree it’s not something that many people choose, that’s for sure.
“I made the transition from acting. It was accidental. I had no intention of being a comic. I put that down to the fact I had never seen a woman do stand-up. There’s this idea that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But when I started doing comedy, I was blown away.”
The 55-year-old Drogheda-born funnywoman first saw stand-up at the Kilkenny Cat Laughs in 1995 when her husband, Stephen Bradley, who was making a documentary about the festival, invited her to attend it and make herself “useful.” Deirdre had been complaining about the lack of acting jobs.
“We weren’t married at the time but we were together. I was a runner at the festival with the great gift of having been given a laminate which meant I could go to all the shows.
"I watched four shows daily over the weekend and my jaw just hit the floor. (Out of 45 acts, three were women.) I was like ‘what is this art form?’
“At that stage, I had been acting for years, both in theatre and on telly. I think the energy of stand-up is very appealing. In theatre, there’s a lot of etiquette, a lot of formality. With comedy, it’s raw. If the audience doesn’t like you, they can get up and leave.
“It’s as close to Shakespeare’s time as you can get, seeing a show in the Globe. There’s something about the anarchy of comedy that really appeals to me. I thought I would love it.
“I was always attracted to new writing. I started writing on the way home from Kilkenny and I went back and played the festival the following year.”
Deirdre says that being a stand-up comedian is hard for the first two years.
“You’re cutting your teeth and there’s no short-cut to that. You just have to feel the fear and get on with it. You learn skills and techniques for jokes that don’t work.
“Once I did the Edinburgh Festival, that was when the nerves subsided. You’re on stage for 30 nights in a row there. It knocks you into shape.”
Ten months into touring her latest show, Demented!, Deirdre says she is “a little bit demented. I was certainly demented during Covid because I had no live work. But I was lucky to get some TV work ( Deirdre O’Kane Talks Funny on RTÉ and The Deirdre O’Kane Show on Sky Comedy).
“I like to mix up what I do. I was never happy just being an actress or just being a comic. I need to be creative in different ways for my own head.”
At school, Deirdre was determined to become an actress having done some drama as a pupil.
“There wasn’t a route into it at the time. Now there’s a choice of at least half a dozen acting schools. I remember telling the career guidance teacher that I wanted to be an actress. She was just laughing at me and said ‘Would you not do a bit of nursing, Deirdre?’”
When the Gaeity School of Acting advertised its first nine-month evening course, Deirdre successfully applied for it.
“I was going to be an actress, come hell or high water. I dropped out of college (where she was studying marketing) when I got a small part.”
What followed were roles in Juno And The Paycock at the Abbey and Present Laughter by Noel Coward at the Gate.
“My first proper job was in At the Black Pig’s Dyke with Druid in Galway. We toured the world with it for two years. I thought it was a lovely life. I just happened to land on a hit.”
For her comedy shows, Deirdre references her own life.
“You can only mine what you have. Obviously, there’s exaggeration. It’s heightened. It can take you down different roads of your imagination.”
In Demented! Deirdre mines comedy from the menopause and has no problem entertaining men, as well as women, with this formerly taboo subject matter.
“Men live with us. Menopause is part of their lives too. But can you believe that it wasn’t until 2022 before we could take the stigma out of it?”
(This was thanks to Joe Duffy’s radio show last year where women queued up to talk about the menopause).
“But I still think some women don’t feel empowered to talk about it just yet. I have to say I had no huge desire to talk about it for the same reason that most women don’t want to announce it to the world. But once I made peace with the menopause, I went for it and committed to it. It’s actually very liberating to talk about it and in particular, to make it funny.”
Deirdre’s director husband, Stephen, is now doing well and is “clear and in flying form” having had cancer some years ago. Being freelancers, there was no sick pay, which is why Deirdre had to keep working while Stephen underwent treatment.
“Comedy was actually a great gift to me at that time. I was able to switch off for an hour and a half which I really needed.
“It was incredibly difficult at times. I could be driving the car and the tears would be coming down my face. But I still managed to get it together and entertain people. It’s a job.
“Everybody does their job, sometimes in difficult circumstances. My job just happens to be making people laugh. But really, it allows me to switch off from myself and get into a zone. That is absolutely fine.”
Deirdre was directed by her husband in the 2014 film Noble. on the life of charity worker and children’s rights campaigner, Christina Noble. Playing the lead role, Deirdre had no problem working for her husband.
“The upside is that we have our own shorthand and we generally agree about most things.”
The couple have a TV show going into production, for Amazon. Deirdre is not allowed to say any more about it at this stage.
She says there is no avoiding talking shop in their Dun Laoighaire home.
“We talk shop around the clock,” she adds.
It has clearly rubbed off on Deirdre and Stephen’s eldest child, Holly, 18. (They also have a 14 year old son, Daniel.)
“Holly is off to drama school, so I have failed,” says Deirdre.
A career on stage and in films has nothing to recommend it, she says.
“Are you joking me? There’s no certainty, no jobs. But if you do get work, it’s wonderful. I’m blue in the face telling Holly that she’ll have to have two other jobs. She’s already a barista. She’ll have to do one or two other things. If you do get work, you’re lucky to work six months of the year.
“Acting involves sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring. I don’t do well when I’m not working. So I had to create my own work. It’s hugely competitive and there’s a huge amount of luck involved.”
For tickets to Demented!, see https://everymancork.com