Deirdre O’Kane told David Hennessy about her second love for stand up comedy, how it surprised her more than anyone when she began to have success as a comic and starting on the stage with Druid.
The last few years have been something of a whirlwind for Deirdre O’Kane. A co-founder of Comic Relief in Ireland, she spearheaded the hugely popular RTÉ Does Comic Relief which raised over 6 million euros during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only that but she also fronted her own talk shows, Deirdre O’Kane Talks Funny on RTÉ as well as a brand-new series, The Deirdre O’Kane Show on Sky Max.
One of Ireland’s favourite comedians, Deirdre is also known for acting roles such as her work in well received RTE mockumentary Paths to Freedom, Dublin heist comedy drama Intermission, Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy and the biopic of philanthropist and children’s rights stalwart Christina Noble called Noble.
However, Deirdre is not one of the many comedians who have graduated to straight acting. It was actually where she started. Having worked with Druid and the Abbey she was onstage for ten years before she thought to give comedy a go.
Deirdre returns to The Soho Theatre this month with her show Demented.
“It’s just been too long,” Deirdre tells The Irish World.
“I need a little London fix.
“I normally would be there every other year so now it’s probably been three, four.”
Deirdre lived in London for ten years before moving back home six years ago.
“We lived in West London and the kids had their primary school years there.
“I really did (like London).
“And it was a really happy time.
“Funnily enough my daughter has just gotten into LAMDA so she’s going back to London.”
So the acting gene has passed on to the next generation as well? “Unfortunately yes,” she laughs.
“I’ve done everything to try and put them off, it’s in the wool. There’s nothing you can do when it’s in the wool.”
One of the themes of Demented is burnout, is that something you have felt? “The burn out was really with the pandemic.
“The first year I think people like us- Performers and artists- managed.
“With no work, we managed. And I think in the second year we lost our minds a little bit because we just didn’t know when we were going to get back and financially it was a huge worry. And then just everything else that was on top of it so that was what Demented is talking about.
“On top of all that, I was aging. I was getting older, I couldn’t afford to not be putting my best face forward so being locked away was the last thing I needed, ‘Not now, I don’t need to be locked away now’.
“And my kids were teenagers, I’ve got older parents. It’s really about all of that.”
You mention parents and you talk about your father who is sadly no longer with us? “I talk about my dad who died four years ago and it’s been amazingly therapeutic actually because you don’t think you’ll find a way to talk about him and for it to be very funny.
“But actually he was quite eccentric and it brings the house down every night so I love it.
“I feel like he’s there all the time which is lovely.
“I pay tribute to him and he gets a good slagging off from me at the same time.
“My father hated two things in life, banks and the rain, and I used to say, ‘Jeez, you’re Irish, you’ve got to make peace with the rain situation’.
“But he never did.
“It’s hilarious really.
“He was an awkward man.
“So it makes me laugh when people go, ‘You give him a hard enough time’.
“I go, ‘Listen, you’ve no idea’.
“My father would be over the moon. I realised that I was inadvertently making money out of telling jokes about him and his hatred of the banks, he would be doing a jig wherever he is.
“That would give him a real kick. I know that so I enjoy it, I enjoy going for it.”
Didn’t your father say he wouldn’t be coming to see you when you were with Druid because the sun would be in his eyes all the way there and it’s always raining in the west? “Yeah, and he never did. I was in Galway for two years and he never came to visit me.
“He had a catchphrase which was, ‘It could be worse, you could be in the west’.
“He rang me regularly because he was always dying to ask me, ‘Well, is it raining?’
“And for two years I had to say to him ‘yeah’, because it never stopped.”
So it was acting for you long before comedy, wasn’t it? “Oh, 100%.
“I did ten years of theatre and then a couple of TV jobs.
“It was a decade of theatre before the telly came and then I segued into the stand up and parked the rest of it for a while.
“But then I did went back to do Moone Boy and things like that.
“But yeah, it was the acting first. It’s usually the other way round for people.”
Deirdre tagged along to The Cat Laughs festival one year and it struck her that she could do what the comics onstage were doing if she just had the material. Inspired, Deirdre would return to the Cat Laughs the next year to perform.
It was very pragmatic of you to see it like that, wasn’t it? “Well it was pragmatic, yes in the sense that I kind of looked at it as, ‘Well that’s really just a monologue, that’s kind of like being an actor, you just have to write it yourself’.
“That was my innocence,” she laughs.
“But there’s a truth to it as well.
“My terrible mistake was I used to not take it very seriously.
“I had intended to use it as a filler when I wasn’t working as an actress.
“I thought, ‘Sure that would be handy, it could fill in there’.
“But of course it gathered steam and it gathered a momentum of pace that I had no intention of happening.
“It took me a long time to take it seriously and go, ‘God, you’re actually good at this’, and it completely took over the acting work, completely surpassed that by a mile.
“And nobody was more surprised than me.
“But I guess at the time there were very few women in the industry so I probably got a lot of attention (because of that).
“Again, I wasn’t really aware.
“I didn’t realise that that was the reason I was probably getting a lot of attention.
“That it was highly unusual to be a woman in comedy.”
Was it difficult being the only woman in the industry? “It was difficult in hindsight but at the time I didn’t dwell on that.
“I just thought that it was very hard.
“I just thought it was very hard anyway regardless of what sex you are.
“So the fact that I was female didn’t really loom large in my head.
“Looking back now I understand that when you are the minority in a room, that is a huge disadvantage.
“I didn’t really realise that at the time but I suppose you just do what you have to do to survive.
“I’m very good at being a chameleon and blending into my surroundings.
“I’m quite good at that, and I was extremely fond of my male colleagues and I sort of became one of them. I became one of the boys.
“That was how I did it.
“Because that was the easiest way, I felt.
“But I suppose if you weren’t able to do that, it would have been much tougher, and I did see other women who weren’t as easily able to adapt and become one of the lads, and I think it’s harder for them so it’s only with hindsight I realised, ‘God actually I was the only woman on the bill for ten years.
“That was tougher than I probably realised.”
Now you have so many female Irish comedians like Aisling and Joanne McNally. Emma Doran was at Soho Theatre not so long ago…
“It’s all changed utterly and it’s so wonderful that it has.
“Finally, the female perspective is heard.
“It’s extraordinary that we listened to so much male perspective for so long.
“We don’t talk about different things.
“We talk about the same things. It’s just the perspective is different.
“So yeah, I find it genuinely very liberating I have to say. And it will only get better and the comedy will only get stronger.”
It was in 2003 that Deirdre would be part of black comedy film Intermission and a cast that included some of the biggest acting names in Ireland.
“Intermission was one of those films.
“Every now and again a job comes along and you pick up the script and you know you’re reading something that’s gonna be great.
“That’s a very rare thing.
“I always remember the table read when all of the actors were in the room, anyone who was anyone in Ireland was in that film.
“It’s just one of those, it’s Cillian Murphy and Colin Farrell, and Kerry Condon, Colm Meaney. It was just one of those great casts and the energy of the table read was electric.
“I thought, ‘This won’t fail’.”
Something that took Deirdre away from comedy was her straight acting and in particular the film Noble.
Something of a passion project, the film was directed by her husband Stephen Bradley and told the story of Christina Noble, the Irish woman who is revered for her tireless work for homeless children in Vietnam.
“To be honest with you I kind of deliberately took myself away from the comedy.
“I actually stepped away from comedy for 10 years.
“It was because my kids were little and I just thought, ‘I can’t be on the road and out every night with little ones, it just doesn’t seem to work’.
“So I kind of threw myself back into the acting for those years and I made Noble and Moone Boy in that time.
“Noble, because my husband wrote and directed and produced it, it sort of lived in our house for five years. A feature film of that scale takes a long time to get made, it took up a considerable amount of time but very proud of it, very glad that we did it.
“There was great passion in telling it (her story).
“I had read her books when I was just a young wan in my early 20s and she had stuck with me for some reason.
“Every time I was here (Ireland), she would pop up on the Late Late Show or somewhere and I would think, ‘God, I’d love to do something about her’.
“It didn’t occur to me that it would be to make a movie but that’s what it turned out to be, I just kind of felt like she was always there in the background.”
Someone who popped up in Noble was Brendan Coyle. Now well known as Bates in Downton Abbey, Coyle played O’Kane’s husband in Paths to Freedom all the way back in 2000.
What was it like to work with him again? “Oh, God, it was wonderful.
“We had remained friends and he had gone on to do Downton Abbey so when we were talking about the film we said, ‘Brendan is the perfect person to play this’.”
He’s not the only member of the Paths to Freedom cast Deirdre reunited with in recent years.
Peter McDonald and Deirdre played the parents Liam and Debra Moone in Chris O’Dowd’s semi-autobiographical series Moone Boy.
Peter played Tomo in Paths to Freedom but actually Deirdre and Peter go back all the way to his breakout film I Went Down where Deirdre was involved in the casting.
What was it like doing Moone Boy? I’d say you were like a family by the time that was over… “Yeah, we were very close.
“Moone Boy brought me back into the fray.
“That was my first job back after I had been a stay at home mum for a few years.
“I needed something to bring me back into the business and Moone Boy came along.
“I remember wanting it very badly.
“And that was another one of those scripts that I read and I thought, ‘This is going to work’.
“I remember just being desperate to get that call.
“I’ll always remember it as one of those jobs I needed, wanted and needed badly.
“And yeah we were like a family, we were great together.”
Speaking of Paths to Freedom reunions, didn’t you get Michael to revive his ‘Rats’ character for Comic Relief? “Yeah, God, you know your stuff.”
You played a massive role in the fundraiser, how did it all come about?
“Darren Smith had been trying to get Comic Relief in Ireland off the ground for more than a decade.
“He produces Gogglebox which I do the voice of here and one day I innocently said, ‘Well, I’ll help ya…’ thinking I would literally be making calls to comics who were friends of mine, thinking it would be a one off live gig but of course it became three live gigs and a telethon.
“The telethon was a full time four months of my life, the phone never out of my hand but that was very gratifying as well.
“Please God we can do another one.
“We’re desperate to do another one, it’s the commitment from broadcasters we’re struggling to get.
“There were at least four if not five internationally viral pieces out of it, including the Normal People sketch with Andrew Scott playing the hot priest.
“Saoirse Ronan popping into Derry Girls, there were moments in it that were enormous.
“I was flat out with it for four months, three full flat out months and in a way I probably couldn’t have done it If I wasn’t able to commit that amount of time because there was nothing else happening, there was no other work.
“So once RTE gave us the green light, it meant we were able to go at it hammer and tongs.
“I was glad of the Covid payment then, I’ll tell ya.”
What have you got coming out we should look out for? “I just finished a very exciting job called LOL: Last One Laughing for Amazon and Graham Norton was the host.
“I think that’s going to be out soon.
“It’s a crazy show where they put ten comedians into a room and they’re not allowed to laugh but they must try and make each other laugh.
“We were locked in a room for 12 hours.
“And you get a yellow card if you even smile.
“It was insane, it was one of the craziest jobs I ever did in my life. You go a bit mad, and I suppose that’s the idea of the premise.”
Deirdre has spoken openly of going onstage during hard times including during her husband’s cancer battle.
“Every performer has to deal with that.
“You can’t pull a show at the last minute and I kind of guess lots of people do, don’t they?
“They have to go to work, they have to keep going.
“You never know what’s going on at home.
“It’s just particularly unusual if you’re setting out to make people laugh when you’re possibly in the horrors.
“But it’s amazing what we’re capable of.
“It’s amazing how you can compartmentalise.
“Even though I dreaded it, I felt like it didn’t do me any harm.
“It was an interesting discipline to force yourself to be resilient and be a bit stoic even if it’s only for a couple of hours.”
Everything is okay now, isn’t it? “Yes it is, thank you.
“He’s in great shape. He’s all clear.
“And actually busy editing LOL which I was telling you about.
“So God love him, he can’t get away from me.”
You are equally known as a comedian and actress, is your heart even slightly more in one than the other? “I think my natural bent is towards comedy, whether that’s being a comic actor or not.
“Still if somebody offered me a very straight role, I’d love it.
“Great writing attracts more than anything else.
“At the moment my focus is the stand up for sure.
“I seem to be having a second love for stand up.
“I started out when I was about 28 and I did 10 years and I stopped for ten and I came back to it only five years ago.
“And this time- Maybe it’s because my kids are almost reared- I just have a new energy for it and a new love for it.
“I’m enjoying it more this time.
“I don’t know whether that’s my age but I’m loving it now more than I ever did.
“And I’m better at it. More to the point, I’m better now.”
Deirdre O’Kane brings Demented to Soho Theatre 19- 22 July.
For more information or to book, click here.