THERE IS no such thing as ‘easing into the New Year’ for Karl Spain. Only three weeks into 2020 and the Limerick comedian has hit the ground running, with gigs in Dubai already under his belt.
Indeed before January is over, he will have presented a TV documentary on the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway; introduced a new, regular, comedy night at the Róisín Dubh; and to top it all, 2020 marks a major milestone in Karl’s comedy career – his 20th year in the business. To quote that infamous slogan from the 2002 general election, this is very much a case of ‘a lot done, more to do’.
Karl has just returned from the McGettigans Comedy Festival in Dubai, his seventh appearance at the festival, and, he reckons, his 15th time visiting the emirate. “It’s my Christmas,” he tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “I’m not a fan of Christmas, but when I know I’m going in January, that’s when I get excited ‘Christmas is here, in two weeks I’ll be in Dubai!’
“I love it, it ends up being like a holiday. You do two shows, it’s like, ‘You’re on holiday, but we’ll give you two shows so when you go back you don’t feel like you’ve missed out on your comedy, or lose your sharpness’, and that bit of sun in January is phenomenal. It breaks the winter, and then you come home and find the heating is broken…that’s when you feel the love of Dubai…”
The face of Galway comedy
Though Limerick born and bred, Karl is arguably the face of Galway comedy, hosting the city’s chief comedy night, the Comedy KARLnival in the Róisín Dubh every Tuesday, and annually, the Late Night KARLnival at the Comedy Carnival – always a highlight of the festival. “The great thing I can say about coming up to the Róisín every Tuesday,” says Karl, “is that when I get into the car in Limerick, it never feels like a chore, it never feels like I’m going to work.
“I think Galway can make a real, legitimate claim on being the capital of comedy in Ireland. Tommy Tiernan, although he wasn’t born here, began his comedy in Galway, and then there is Kevin Healy in the Róisín, and Gerry Mallon, they’ve played a big part in educating audiences about comedy. There is a desire for live entertainment here, and they provide that, and in my 20 years in comedy I’ve been coming to Galway for all of it. It’s a fantastic place.”
‘The Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway is the best week of the year for me’
The Comedy KARLnival is set to expand this year, with a new monthly Friday night outing, in addition to the regular Tuesday shows. The Friday Night KARLnival starts on January 31 with a headlining set from Northern Irish comedian Colin Geddis, while Seann Walsh is due to headline in March. “We will be doing bigger shows on the Fridays,” says Karl. “It will be a great showcase. I think I’ll be driving Seann around as well. I hope he doesn’t start laying claim to his Limerick heritage. If himself and Jimmy Carr could just stay English, I’ll be happy!”
Laughter In The Eyre
The day before the new Friday night show, on Thursday January 30 at 10.30pm, RTÉ 2 will broadcast Laughter In The Eyre, a documentary on the 2019 Vodafone Comedy Carnival, as well as Galway during a festival period, which will be presented by Karl and fellow comedian Anna Clifford.
“The Comedy Carnival is the best week of the year for me,” says Karl, “and Laughter In The Eyre captures the stand-up so well – I helped in looking through the footage which was a joy, you get to see how Reg D Hunter does his jokes, Maxwell was just a joy, and Terry Alderton I could watch over and over again – and it’s not just the bigger names, many newer comedians, who I think will go on to be bigger, are showcased as well. It’s great to say that their first TV appearance was this show in Galway.”
Karl points out that the show will be as much about Galway as it will be about the festival. “It shows Galway looking fantastic,” he says. “It was like summer weather in October, swimming in Blackrock, the guided bus tour, the bicycle tour. It’s a great document. It would be great if they did this TV show every year – especially if I was presenting! I think which they have to do now, just for consistency!”
Taking those first comedy steps…
In a sense Karl has come full circle, as it was presenting programmes during his college days that encouraged him to take up comedy. “I did TV production in college in ‘96,” he recalls. “The presenting was the easiest part. All the work went into directing, organising the cameras, getting the script together, all presenters had to do was present, you didn’t have to be good at it, you just had to remember to say, ‘And now over here…’
‘With MCing, I love that feeling of you don’t know what could happen. I remember Tommy Tiernan used the phrase, ‘If you leap, the safety net will appear’
“In my twenties I was very shy – I’m genuinely very shy – but this was just looking down a camera, people at home aren’t watching this, only 30 people would ever see it, so I was totally relaxed and I could be funny in it. The others liked that I was being funny and they kept asking me to do the presenting.”
Confident he could make others laugh, Karl began to properly consider stand-up, but it was watching someone ‘die on stage’ which gave him the final push. At that same show he had his first real taste of what a comedy MC is all about – a role which, these days, Karl is a master.
“A Scottish girl came to stay with us and she was booked into the Laughter Lounge,” Karl recalls. “I went to see her and thought, ‘She’s terrible…I could do that.’ Joe Rooney was the MC. I had no concept of what an MC did. I saw him come out, and I thought, ‘I like him. He was in Father Ted.’ And he goes ‘So what do you do?’ to someone in the audience, and I’m thinking, ‘Tell a joke!’. ‘Where are you from?’ – the things an MC would do at the start of a gig, but I’m still thinking ‘Tell a joke. Why is he asking questions?’ but as it went on I thought he was really funny and he was my favourite act on the bill. Two weeks later I did my first gig.”
It is the spirit of unpredictability and spontaneity that Karl most loves when it comes to MCing a comedy show. “I love that feeling of you don’t know what could happen,” says Karl. “I love the sense of fun. I remember Tommy Tiernan talking about how he writes on stage – not his improvised shows, now – but he’ll have an idea, and he’ll start expanding on it, and he used the phrase, ‘If you leap, the safety net will appear’, you’ll find something to keep you safe. And I do have material to fall back on. The late night show during the carnival is when I’m at my happiest – the most positive feedback I get from other comics is from those nights – If all my weekends were like that I don’t think I’d ever take holidays.”