On the Money

This feature on Irish comics and the recession appeared in Fest magazine ahead of this year’s Fringe.

“Why have estate agents stopped looking out the window in the morning?” begins a gag that has been doing the rounds in Dublin for the last 18 months or so. “Otherwise they’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

In Ireland, a wry, gallows humour about the nation’s financial misfortunes permeates. Across the country people exchange increasingly bizarre real-life tales: the estate where one woman lives surrounded by hundreds of empty houses; the train station in a derelict field near Dublin Airport, built to service a massive development that never happened; the former property magnate who now cleans windows on O’Connell Street.

It’s often said that comedy does well in a recession – and the big ‘R’ is firmly in the sights of a host of Irish comics at this year’s Fringe. “I call this my bailout tour. Last year, I was in Greece, this year I was in Portugal. I pity wherever I go next year,” says Keith Farnan, whose fourth Edinburgh outing Money, Money, Money is billed as an exploration of “Ireland’s brief love affair with vast amounts of money and fiscal meltdown.”

Mementos of this failed romance with global capitalism lie dotted around the country’s capital: ubiquitous for sale signs, unfinished apartment blocks, grandiose pieces of public art. Dublin, of course, is not all Rome after the fall. There are still plenty of salubrious city centre hotels, the kind of places where you find piped jazz music, chintz sofas, ladies who lunch… and, er, amiable Irish comics who bear a passing resemblance to Zach Galifianakis.

“I didn’t realise this place was so fancy,” Keith Farnan admits when we meet, on his suggestion, in Dublin’s upmarket Westin Hotel. In front of him, on a glass-topped table, sit a pair of sunglasses, a plate of biscuits and the business section of The Irish Times. Since he started writing Money, Money, Money back in January, the financial pages have become required reading – and have led the hirsute funnyman to some sobering conclusions. “This is the worst recession we’ve ever had. We’ve been poor in the past, but we’ve never been stressed and poor before. It’s not a good combination.”

Farnan himself is no stranger to straitened circumstances. Back in 2006, at the zenith of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger frenzy, the Cork native swapped a comfortable life as a lawyer for the vagaries of full-time standup. “I went from a secure, well-paid job to literally nothing. While my friends were buying second homes, I was investing in loaves of bread and buying shares in ham and cheese. Making a new company – the sandwich.”

With three successful Fringe shows and a star turn on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow behind him, Farnan is now well-established on the circuit, but he found writing about Ireland’s economic travails an unexpected challenge. “Last year’s show [Sex Traffic] was about prostitution and rape. After that I thought Money, Money, Money would be easy – but it’s been anything but. It’s been a struggle at times,” he remarks ruefully.

Farnan describes the crash—which began with the global credit crunch in September 2008—as “Ireland’s 9/11”. That might sound a tad melodramatic but the effect on the national psyche of 1,000 people emigrating every week, unemployment at 14 per cent and a whopping $85 billion in bad debts has been catastrophic.

Ireland’s writers, poets and playwrights have struggled to make sense of the desolate, post-collapse landscape. Indeed the task of reflecting the nation back to itself, warts and all, has largely been ceded to comedians, at least temporarily.

“Comedy is the most immediate medium. What’s in the news will often influence your act,” suggests Farnan. “You can also gauge where something sits with people. If you stand up and make a gag that’s too close to the bone, that hits too hard, you’ll get boos. A novelist can’t get that kind of immediate feedback.”

Another Irish comedian with the financial meltdown firmly in his sights, Abie Philbin Bowman, agrees: “In comedy you know if something is shit or self-indulgent pretty much immediately. If you become preachy or start lecturing, people switch off, they stop laughing.”

Philbin Bowman, a garrulous, fresh-faced Dubliner on the “geeky, philosophical end of comedy”, caused a minor sensation at his first Fringe, in 2006, with his sell-out show Jesus: The Guantanamo Years. He returns to Edinburgh this year with Pope Benedict: Bond Villain, an extended riff on why the Protestant countries of northern Europe are bailing out their Catholic neighbours – with Ireland as Exhibit A.

Sitting in the verdant grounds of his alma mater Trinity College—once a seat of Protestant power in Ireland—Philbin Bowman sketches out the rationale behind his latest offering: “In Protestant countries, you get into heaven by reading the Bible, following your conscience and asking questions. In Catholic countries, you get into heaven by feeling guilty, following orders, and repeating the magic words. Once, powerful people bullied us in the name of ‘God’. Today, they bully us in the name of ‘The Economy’.”

Credit default swaps, sub-prime mortgages, asset-backed securities: hardly the argot of comedy gold. Is it difficult to get a laugh out of a financial crash? “Absolutely. It’s horrible – it’s much easier to do jokes about sex,” laughs Philbin Bowman.

“Essentially what happened [in Ireland] is a really boring story. This is a bunch of bald, white, middle-aged bankers making terrible financial decisions. They didn’t even shag their secretaries! So it’s not a natural subject for comedy. But it’s something we urgently need to talk—and joke—about.”

Philbin Bowman has strong words too for the IMF, which led last autumn’s bailout of Ireland’s toxic banking system. “The whole Dominique Strauss-Kahn thing tells you so much about the culture of the IMF,” he says, referring to the allegations that its former director sexually assaulted a chambermaid in his $3,000-a-night hotel suite.

“If you think about it, he could have stayed in a Holiday Inn, paid for a really expensive call-girl and still saved money. This is the guy who was lecturing us on ‘austerity’, ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘painful economic choices’.”

The Irish public aren’t the only ones facing up to “austerity” and “painful economic choices” in the wake of the downturn. Like many on the country’s comedy circuit, Colm O’Regan has found it increasingly difficult to sell shows to cash-strapped punters. “Now if people are going to spend money on comedy it’s on the big names that they absolutely trust like Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop,” says O’Regan, whose second Fringe effort, Dislike: A Facebook Guide to Crisis, has received critical acclaim since debuting in Ireland earlier this year.

Speaking from his Dublin home, now worth half of what he paid for it a few years ago, O’Regan complains that the “arse has fallen out” of the corporate market, once a serious money-spinner for Irish comics. But the recession isn’t all doom and gloom. After years of demanding safe, cheap thrills, audiences are becoming increasingly open to topical, edgy gags.

“For years all most people wanted to hear were jokes about, ‘isn’t it funny how the light switches off in the fridge when you close the door’,” recalls Colm O’Regan. “Now there’s a lot more interest in topical comedy, not just being ranty for the sake of it but proper, measured political satire. That’s making a big comeback.”

Fringe-goers are perfectly placed to profit from Ireland’s boom in recession humour. With so many quality comics in the market, don’t be surprised if there’s a run on sharply observed jokes about macroeconomics, the IMF and idle Irish estate agents, in Edinburgh this August.

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