Funny was not part of the game plan. When I was growing up, I idolised writers and philosophers or, to be more accurate, I idolised the teenage boys who claimed to idolise writers and philosophers. Going onstage and trying to be funny was utterly opposed to what my idea of myself had been for my whole life. They were things to do with intellectual gravity, but also to do with femininity and being unassuming; always coquettishly avoiding the eye, never demanding too much attention of people; laughing at jokes and not making them. I had a horror of people seeing just how much I wanted their approval. So how did I end up at Monday Curry Night in an Edinburgh pub with three comedian friends, all of us silently poring over our notes and anxiously downing two quid pints? All of us futilely struggling to figure out where the last gig had gone so, so wrong before we had to go back on and do it all over again?
I only performed stand up intermittently for a year or so. My fragile ego was not built for the deafening silence which habitually greeted my joke-attempts, at least outside of tiny alternative comedy nights filled with my friends. While I was still hustling though, I was delighted to be taken under the comfy gag-wing of Maeve Higgins, the wise mama owl of Irish comedy. Maeve is one of my favourite comedians and every time I see her I think she is smarter and sharper than the last. I asked her a few questions the weekend she performed in the Vodafone Comedy Festival.
Megan: I was wondering as I read your book (We Have A Good Time…Don’t We?) if you had wanted to be a writer before you were interested in comedy? Does having your column in the Irish Times and a book behind you change how you feel about your cultural output? Are there other styles of writing or expression of any kind you would like to work within?
Maeve: I don’t revere stand up comedy at all, so it comes easily to me. I love reading so much that whenever I thought about writing anything, I froze, because it scared me so much. My favourite writers make me feel things in ways real life or any other art cannot or has not, so far in my life anyway, so of course I am in awe of them. The paralysis I felt around writing only lifted when I stopped thinking I had to be a brilliant writer and started actually writing. I have a long way to go to becoming a good writer, I need more practise. I would like to keep writing essays and things for radio, and also I want to write a screenplay. That’s a really different way of writing so I have to learn it.
Megan: With prose and most forms of writing, it’s generally considered better to edit and revise everything before allowing it to be read. With comedy, though, it seems like often you will only learn what works by trying it with an audience. Do you find that difficult or do you prefer the immediacy of an instant reaction like that?
Maeve: Stand up is great for spontaneity and suits laziness, the way I do it involves me fretting all day then forcing myself to produce new jokes on stage. The immediacy, the bang – it’s over thing that happens on stage is definitely something I miss when I write. That said, I’m glad I’ve gotten past the stage of needing instant approval – it’s good for my confidence, because I have to believe myself that the thing I’m saying is funny or true or interesting, and not rely on a group of strangers who’ve been drinking to tell me so. Sometimes, to be honest, I’m still a needy stand-up and make my sister read what I’ve written
Megan:There seems to be a fairly steady drip of articles in Sunday supplements and magazines over the years about how women are funny after all. Do you find this sort of thing tiresome, or is the sort of slow progress which will hopefully make it more usual for a woman to try stand up?
Maeve: The thing is, being funny and being a stand up are often totally unrelated. I know a crushing number of truly unfunny comedians who get by on confidence and tricks, and even more truly funny non-comedians, many of whom are women. I wish there were more women who tried stand up, I understand why there aren’t, I hope it changes. My favourite comedians right now are Maria Bamford, Kristen Schaal, Josie Long and Claudia O’Doherty and none of them, as far as I know, have balls.
Megan: Your sister Raedi once told me that after we met (when we both performed at Cian Hallinan’s show Voicebox), you went home and said “I found something”- she didn’t say that you said it in a low, gravelly voice, or that you were rubbing your hands together with your eyes glinting madly, but that is how I imagine it. Do you go out of your way to be a nice, nurturing influence on baby comedians you come across?
Maeve: I remember the first time I saw you reading and I was so thrilled. I thought you were funny, smart and cool and wished you were my daughter-friend. It’s important for me to be encouraging and helpful to good people because that was my experience coming up. David O’Doherty, PJ Gallagher and Josie Long provided guidance to me when I started out, and it made all the difference. I don’t like when great new talent gets swallowed up by the crappy TV machine so I can be annoying about that. I worry that sometimes I cross the line from helpful to controlling though, so watch out.
Megan: Who is your one single person on Twitter we should all follow? Maeve, please don’t say me because that will be embarassing for us both!
MH: @nickcoyles cracks me up
Megan Nolan @Megaroo writes essays, poetry and jokes, in the interim period between finishing Dawson’s Creek and beginning it all over again.