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Karl MacDermott—stand-up comedy and the sound of silence

Karl MacDermott writes about a hapless middle-aged Galwegian preparing for his first stand-up comedy gig in his new book 58% Cabbage. 

Here he reflects on his own initial foray into stand-up comedy back in 1984. 

“Why don’t you become a warm-up man for a seanchaí?” 

It was Galway. 1984. I was a stand-up comedy obsessed youngster just out of school. I wanted to get up on stage. 

To make ‘em laugh. 

Or faintly titter at least. 

But where could I perform? Ireland in 1984 had no comedy clubs. That’s when my mother came up with her ingenious suggestion.

To be honest, it wasn’t her first suggestion. Initially, she was not impressed with my career plan. 

At all. At all.

“Sure, why would you want to get up there and make a right eejit of yourself?” 

She even got father on the case.

“Will you cop on to yourself, Karl. You’ve your mother and myself driven daft with all this comedy malarky. Now, tell me this and tell me no more. Why would you want to get up there and make a right eejit of yourself?” 

My response was always the same.

“A comedian is a fragile flower. Without the oxygen of laughter he withers and dies.” 

Father had a retort. 

“Without any flippin’ material he withers and dies. On his arse!” 

He had a point. I must stop talking. Start doing. Write some material. Find a venue. 

Cue mother’s suggestion. 

I was impressed she knew what a warm-up man was. 

But a support act for one of those hoary, old, pipe-smoking, chin-scratching Irish-speaking storytellers? 

I needed convincing.  

“There are loads of them still about in this part of the country. Virgie knows the daughter of Pateen Dan Fadó Fadó Ó’Ceallaigh. He’s very popular. Loads of people turn up to see him when he tells his stories. Sure, look it, it’s a start. If it goes well you could develop your own circuit.” 

Circuit? I was even more impressed. Philomena MacDermott had done her research. That’s what mothers do. Once they finally accept the reality of a situation (however potentially embarrassing and publicly humiliating for the family) they do some research and come up with a plan.  

Excerpt from 58% Cabbage, read by the author Karl MacDermott

I mulled over the plan’s merits. Yes. I would be in front of an audience. But would a packed roomful of middle-aged to ancient gaelgeoirs, sitting around some fireplace in some cottage, in the back of beyonds of Connemara really and truly be my ideal crowd? See, back in the 1980s I was obsessed with that latter day Pol Pot of Comedy, Woody Allen. I wanted to be a Jewish New Yorker.  And whatever material I had, reflected a nebbish woe-is-me schlemiel Jewish New Yorker sensibility.  Which at the end of the day was no good, because, and it took me years to realise, I wasn’t Jewish New Yorker, I’d never be Jewish New Yorker. I was uh…….Irish Galwegian? 

Mother awaited a response.

“Well? Will I get Virgie to set something up? Pateen Dan Fadó Fadó is doing some storytelling in Carna next Thursday night. You could go on and do five minutes before him.”  

Blasted pro-active organised once-she-sets-her-mind-to-do-something-she does- it mother!


Remember that bit I wrote earlier? ‘Whatever material I had reflected a nebbish woe-is-me schlemiel Jewish New Yorker sensibility…’. Not technically true. I had no material. Whatever material I had was from my treasured Woody Allen – The Nightclub Years LP. And since there was no way I’d get round to writing any new material by the following Thursday, what with all the day-to-day distractions of a family of five living in a modestly sized semi-detached home amidst the rain-filled seaside splendour of Salthill, I’d just have to steal from Woody.     

Woody had a very famous stand-up monologue which started with the line ‘I shot a moose once. I was hunting upstate New York.’ I decided to adapt it slightly for my prospective local audience. ‘I shot a moose once. I was hunting downtown Loughrea.’ The rest of the monologue I left as was. Why mess with genius. 

Karl MacDermott

Thursday arrived. My very first comedy gig. Thoughts flooded my cranium in the passenger seat as mother drove past Spiddal towards Carna. What makes somebody want to be a comedian? They must lack something in their lives to want to stand up in front of a group of strangers and risk it all to receive some short-lived guffawing affirmation. A very profound thought for an eighteen-year old, I mused.  Gee, I’m much deeper than I thought I was. Maybe, I should re-think things, and try doing philosophy in college.

“Maybe, this comedy thing is a bit….maybe I could try and get into college and…”

The car suddenly pulled up outside a large cottage. Mother looked at me. She leaned across and opened the car door. 

“Enough of your old chat, now. The show must go on.” 

She really is well up now on all this show business stuff. I got out reluctantly. 

“Good luck, pet. Your father will pick you up around half-nine.”

As introductory gigs go, it wasn’t a complete disaster.  Not a cruel crowd. Not a heckling crowd. Sadly, not a laughing crowd. I’ll put it this way. The moose was dead on arrival. But the evening did give me valuable experience, as it was the first of many nights, over a fifteen-year stand-up comedy career, where I learned to cope admirably with the sound of coughing and silence.

Former stand-up comedian Karl MacDermott, once described as ‘the Gummo Marx of Irish comedy’, is an Irish comedy writer. He has written for television and radio in both Ireland and the UK and is the author of three books of humour fiction. A recent recipient of the prestigious Falkland L. Cary Obscurity and Underachievement in Literature Award he is currently writer-in-residence at his home in Dublin. Find out more about him here.