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.

Edinburgh Jumps to the Beat

Top comics make a packet from the Fringe but for lesser lights it’s a real struggle. In this feature from last week’s Sunday Business Post I talked to artists in the black and the red after a month in Edinburgh.

Breaking Edinburgh Can Break the Bank
It is barely midday but already Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile is awash with people. A large crowd forms around a man with a bleached mohawk and tattered waistcoat juggling fire. Beneath their feet flyers for everything from one man Lord of the Rings to a stand-up show about Hitler’s moustache lie scattered like confetti on the cobbled stone. This is the fringe festival in full swing – and business has never been brisker.

Edinburgh’s fringe, already the world’s largest arts festival, has just announced a 20% increase on advance sales from 2007, previously considered the event’s most successful year. Some city centre venues have even reported sales up a staggering 38% on last August. And all this in the face of the biggest global recession in living memory.

Shane Langan 1Laughter is a popular escape from economic gloom, judging by the bright yellow ‘sold-out’ stickers emblazoned across promotional posters for established stand-ups such as Rhod Gilbert and David O’Doherty as well as young turks like Kevin Bridges.

Not all comics enjoy such success, however: the average fringe act loses around £6,000 at Edinburgh. Some, like Dubliner Shane Langan, take an even bigger hit in the pocket.

’This year the fringe is costing me something like £8,000, and that’s before living expenses,’ said the star of sketch group Diet of Worms, making his solo debut in Edinburgh this year. ‘That money is gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get some of it back through ticket sales but it’s best to just assume that it is all gone. Then anything you do get back is a bonus.’

Expenses and overheads for a standard month-long fringe run are vertiginous, especially for young comics without major backing. Renting a dank, dusty 80-seater room in an established fringe venue like the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance for an hour a day comes in at upwards on £4,000. Add public relations fees, promotional material and living expenses and costs quickly spiral out of control.

An expensive city by European standards the other eleven months of the year, Edinburgh in August is definitely no place for the thrifty. Many students and residents vacate their tenement flats for the month, preferring to rent them out to fringe performers, often at exuberant rates – as Langan has discovered.

‘I’m paying £1,500 to share a two-bedroom flat with another comic and my girlfriend for the month. Which is obviously way over the odds but you need to have your own space,’ he explained.

So how can a struggling young Irish comic afford to put on a fringe show in the first place? ‘I’ve learned to live on very little at home,’ Langan remarked, slowly sipping a glass of tap water in a city centre bar. ‘I scrimp and save throughout the year. I also set up a separate Edinburgh account and put any extra money and savings into that.’

Eleanor Tiernan, another up and coming Irish act at this year’s fringe, has similar experiences. ‘I wouldn’t have a lot of money but I put as much as I can aside during the year to fund Edinburgh,’ she said.

Eleanor-012 copyBoth Langan and Tiernan are full-time comics, the latter quitting a steady job as a civil service engineer to follow her cousin Tommy into stand-up five years ago. ‘To be honest the thoughts then of how I live now would have frightened the life out of me. Now I don’t know on a Friday how I’ll pay the rent on a Monday morning.’

With cash in short supply the temptation to avoid excess expenses, like professional public relations, is strong, but Tiernan counsels against cutting corners. ‘Last year was my first year on the fringe and I did it all myself to try and save money. I had a double act with an American comic but he didn’t show up. So in the end I had to do the whole show myself, and I was doing my own PR. All told I lost about £9,000 – this year I’m paying for someone to do the promotion for me.’

As well as booking venues and co-ordinating crucial festival press, a dedicated PR assists with another integral part of any profitable Edinburgh run: flyers. With so much choice punters often buy tickets for shows they know next to nothing about – so encticing, preferably laugh-out-loud funny, flyers are vital promotional tools. Well-established fringe turns would not be seen dead flyering, but for emerging acts it remains one of most effective ways to get noticed.

‘I’m out on the street literally everyday for two or three hours,’ said Colm O’Regan, a fresh stand-up talent from Dripsey, Co. Cork (‘Famous for having the world’s shortest St Patrick’s day parade.’).

‘I literally approach every stationary human being within walking distance of the box office and try and convince them to come see me. It’s not easy, having to go on about how great you are and why they must come to the show, but you have to do it.’

Unknown fringe acts fact myriad difficulties – from competing with major international names to not getting those all-important early reviews – but the thoughtful O’Regan, bicycle helmet in hand, reckons the biggest challenge is upstairs. ‘It is very easy to get here physically but in your mind it is a much, much bigger leap. You are never really ready, I guess, but in your mind you have to believe you are, that you are someone that people will pay to see,’ he remarked.

Many debutants are disappointed when a show is poorly attended or they lose more money than intended but O’Regan is refreshingly phlegmatic about the whole enterprise. ‘This is basically an investment in a small business. And like any small business in your first year you hope to break even or not to take too big a hosing and then to build on that the next year and the year after.

‘’It is a bit like doing a masters – the benefits aren’t up front and immediate, you just hope that they’ll accrue over time.’

Panel: Jason Byrne’s Tips from the Top

Jason Byrne is the undisputed king of the fringe. Irish audiences might recognise the affable ginger-haired southsider from Anonymous or The Jason Byrne Show but in Edinburgh he is a bona fide stand-up phenomeon. The most successful solo act in festival history – last year he sold in excess of 25,000 tickets and grossed well over £250,000 – he has some sage advice for new Irish comics trying to succeed in the cut-throat fringe world.

‘I’ve worked really hard here and the thing these guys need to understand is that it doesn’t happen overnight,’ explained Byrne, back for his thirteenth consecutive fringe. ‘Over the years I’ve climbed steadily from doing 100 seater venues to 150 to 180 to 360 and now I’m doing 800 seater venues,’ he said after another sold-out night in Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall.

Today’s newcomers might accept losing money at Edinburgh as a fact of life but Byrne has never seen it that way. ‘I’ve never paid to be here. I’ve always had a promoter to cover the costs. I remember getting £500 the first time I played and thinking ‘Oh boy, that’s something’. Though obviously things have moved on a bit since then.’

Along with compatriot Tommy Tiernan, Byrne made his fringe name as a finalist in the 1996 edition of ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ (he finished runner-up behind the Navan man). He returned the following year as one half of a stand-up double bill – again sharing a stage with Tiernan – waiting until 1998 to make his solo fringe debut.

Byrne believes emerging Irish talents would be wise to follow this gradual route to the top. ‘A lot of people come here and go straight into the one-hour show. They’re not ready, get ripped to shreds in the press and never really recover. Edinburgh is vicious.

‘Also, they are playing a festival with too many acts already,’ he cautioned. ‘The only way to stand out is to do the competitions. That way you’ll build up a following and a name over the years and you’ll be able to get a good agent as well.’

With their onus on quick wit and confident delivery, competitions are an excellent barometer of whether a comic is ready for the fringe: ‘If you’re not getting into the final of one of these things then you shouldn’t be doing the one hour show. It’s a simple as that. You wouldn’t give someone in their first year in college a column in a national newspaper, would you?’

Byrne also suggests that new comics consider looking beyond the fringe proper. With over 460 shows in 33 venues across Edinburgh, the so-called ‘free fringe’ is bigger than ever this year. Here acts pay nothing for the performance space: apart from living expenses, the only cost incurred is a £370 charge for inclusion in the official fringe.

A plastic collection bucket lets audiences reward the comics they find funny – and punish those they don’t. A handful of rusty coppers might be a harsh reality check but it is a lot less painful than a massive fringe debt.