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Footloose and Filter free

Sinead Culbert and Sue Collins, known as Dirt Birds, spoke to David Hennessy about bringing their live comedy show to the London Irish Centre, growing their audience on YouTube and social media during lockdown and the pressures on women today.

Dirt Birds bring their live comedy show to the London Irish Centre in Camden this Friday.

Made up of Sinead Culbert and Sue Collins, Dirt Birds have racked up hundreds of thousands of views for their comedy sketches on YouTube.

Often based on real life, the Dublin/ Dundalk duo’s humour is relatable and often focuses on family life and the pressures put on women in today’s society.

Sue, who is married to actor Phelim Drew who was himself featured in The Irish World recently, was previously one third of musical comedy outfit The Nualas and Dirt Birds came about after Sue and Sinead worked together on a sitcom script for the BBC back in 2016.

Although the sitcom would not make it to the screen, Sinead and Sue decided to keep going making YouTube their medium, and Covid saw their audience triple as, working from home like everyone else, they took on subjects everyone could relate to such as the mundanity of lockdown.

The comedy duo are coming here fresh from an Irish nationwide tour but this will be their first UK appearance or indeed show outside of Ireland.

With their skits finding a global audience, they have been getting invitations to go as far afield as Australia and USA.

Sinead told The Irish World: “We kept getting requests to come over to the UK, ‘When are you coming? When are you coming to London?’

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“So we responded to requests.

“Our plan is to do a UK tour actually.”

Sue continues: “I don’t see why, if we’ve got a very healthy audience in Camden Irish Centre, we wouldn’t have the same success elsewhere.

“And we’d love to get over to the States as well.

“We keep getting asked to go over to Boston and New York in particular and Australia. That would be great.

“We’re looking forward to it and it should be great night of craic and laughter.”

Both with a background in stand up, the duo got together six years ago to write a comedy script for the BBC.

Sue said: “We were picked up by BBC Three, we were in development for a little while. It didn’t get made in the end.

“It was actually called Dirtbirds and it was about two sisters who were living in a very dysfunctional situation with their aunt.

“It was all quite light. It was very sort of Only Fools and Horses.

“And when that didn’t get made, someone suggested that we start to write sketches and put them up online. I think our first sketch was in 2016.”

Although that sitcom may not have come to term at that time, the duo would like to do something like that again some time in the future.

Sinead says: “Sometimes you find in life the journey that you expect to go on doesn’t actually happen, and it comes about more in a roundabout way.

“So I think perhaps it wasn’t the right time, and we probably flexed our writing muscles a little bit more over the last few years.

“We’ve just developed and developed and developed and you just get better and better as a writer as you keep going on.

“I think perhaps our time is probably coming fairly soon.”

The Independent have said of Dirt Birds: “Their comedy is based on observing normal-life situations and turning them into very intelligent quips, sketches and stories.”

The Times adds: “Sinead and Sue identify a gap in comedy that women can relate to, they are passionate mothers themselves and have first- hand experience of life’s challenges.”

Sinead says: “It’s based on our own lives and just that kind of female struggle with life and life challenges as a woman and mother and partner and everything else day to day.

Sue says: “It’s very observational comedy.

“The first sketch actually went viral and it gave us that lovely energy and then the fans started asking us about the live show.

“So we’ve been touring the live show. We’re on our third tour now with a third show, actually.

“But during COVID, we just kept going.

“We kept posting and posting and posting.”

Indeed while the country was locked down, the duo dealt with subjects everyone could relate to such as how to lose Covid weight or spending too much time with a spouse.

Sinead says: “Yeah, I think that was the big thing for us, our followers tripled during COVID.

“We kind of did a Mash Report sketch on the trauma of trying to figure out what you’re going to have for the dinner.

“And we did sketches on just surviving in level three and stuff like that.

“I think it really helped people through it, it gave people a lift and a laugh and sort of distracted them.

“We’re reaping the rewards of that now because they’re coming out in their droves to see the shows and it’s fantastic.”

You did many lockdown themed videos, did they help you to cope with it all?

Sinead says: “It did keep us going. It was a struggle. And we obviously were experiencing it the same way as a lot of people were, but it really helped us because we get all these messages from frontline workers and nurses that were doing night duty in hospitals with COVID patients, they would text us and send photographs of them in the staff room, and thank us for keeping it light.

“So it helped us and then it helped other people.”

Social media may have its downsides but it has helped Dirt Birds to cultivate a global audience.

Sinead says: “That’s the wonderful thing.

“It’s just fantastic that you can reach all these different countries and all these different people and Irish people abroad in all these different countries as well.

“It’s made us. We were born on social media, and it’s absolutely powerful.”

Sue adds: “You’re in control of your own work, as well, which I think, is really brilliant.

“You’re your own editor, your own director, writer, performer.

“Your audience is your barometer.

“You’re learning through what the fans like and the response to the work as opposed to being at the mercy of producers and directors.

“I know from talking to friends of mine who’ve written for telly and stuff, it is quite difficult because you’ve got a few cooks in there.

“I mean it’s great to be in control of your work.”

Sinead cuts in: “We’re happy to work with some great directors now. Very happy now for some American producer who wants to do for a while as well, we’re okay with that. We can collaborate.”

Although you can understand Sinead not wanting to close any doors, it is probably a blessing to not have any producers meddling or trying to get you to do stuff that does not come naturally.

Sue says: “We have had that in the past, ‘Can you be a bit edgier? Can you talk about this? Can you talk about that?’

“But that’s not who we are.

“We’re a bit cheeky and a bit bold at times but generally, it’s stuff that Michael McIntyre would talk about, or Billy Connolly, or one of them.

“We just talk about stuff that affects us.

“But again, it’s just filtered through the female voice our perspective, which is very different.”

So what can people expect from the live show? “The live shows are great craic,” Sinead says.

“Basically, there’s some stand up in there.

“There’s some very funny character stuff. There’s some concept stuff.

“There’s some funny songs, so they literally get everything.”

Sue continues: “I think it’s sort of a continuation of the sketches if you know what I mean, it’s the same brand.

Sinead adds: “Yeah, the feedback is, ‘Oh, my god, I love the sketches. But the show is hilarious’. That’s kind of the feedback we get.

“And there’s always lots of very glamorous women and three men hiding down the back terrified hiding under chairs going, ‘Please don’t see me’, but we always see them.”

Sinead and Sue say the show discusses a world where women ‘are expected to have the patience of mother Teresa, the arse of Jennifer Lopez, the social media profile of Kim Kardashian and the BMI of Elle McPherson’.

Entitled No Filters, the live show’s information also jokes that perfect women are not allowed in.

Sue says: “I think social media has a lot to answer for in that in that regard.

“It’s kind of the insta- perfect world we’re being subjected to all the time.

“I heard actually a great author, I can’t remember her name now, sorry.”

Sinead interjects: “Look at her pretending to read, David. You hear that?”

Sue continues: “She was on the radio, and she’s an American lady who has written a great book. Apparently, I haven’t read it.

“The interviewer said to her, ‘Can women have it all?’

“And she went, ‘Yes, they can but not the version that we’re sold. That’s unattainable because it doesn’t exist’.

“So we’re going around thinking that there’s a version of having it all, when in actual fact, what we’re writing about, and what we’re lampooning is the idea of trying to do that.

“You know what I mean? Everyone struggles, everyone.”

Sinead says: “What’s interesting is it’s not just about being a woman, it happens that we’re two women.

“And so it resonates a lot with women.

“But we talk about relationships.

“We talk about the stress of couples living through the pandemic together and surviving that.

“We also talk about raising teenagers, surviving two staycations.

“It’s all very observational but from the female perspective and I think that’s what’s really fresh for people as well is that there probably aren’t enough women up there telling it from our point of view.

“But it’s certainly not anti- man, or we’re not specifically talking about anything that men can’t relate to.

“But I think it just resonates with women, because it’s from our perspective.

“And I think women are particularly because we are good at multitasking, we kind of are very empathetic- most of us.

“And we’re thinking all the time of everybody else.

“So whether you have a career or a job, or you don’t have a career or a job, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I should walk the dog and how is my child? Does he have an earache this morning? My oldest daughter is doing her exams…’

“And whereas my husband- who’s Dutch- he’s a wonderful father and husband but he’s like a nuclear missile if he’s focused on one thing like the fence- He’s putting up some wood at the back of the garden at the moment. That is literally all he can see and it doesn’t make him any less of a great parent.

“But it’s just we don’t have that skill to zoom in on one on one thing and focus on it completely.

“So we’re caught, women are constantly pulled.

“I think that’s the difference in the experience and that’s why women find that funny.

“We do a yoga sketch on the stage of a woman trying to do an online yoga class.

“That mightn’t sound particularly funny, but the women find it very funny because there’s so many different distractions, and so many different moments where she can’t actually do the class.

“I think if that was a man, he’d lock the door and unless the house blew up, he would get that yoga class finished.

“But it’s just nice to hear the everyday from the female. The experience of a mother or a wife. You don’t have to have kids to enjoy our show, I think it’s just about the female perspective on life and women really needs to hear that I think.”

Is there still that snobbery to female comedians? “I think it’s probably still there a little bit.

“But funny is funny.

“And once you go onto that stage, people can have whatever preconceptions they want but the joyous thing about the medium of comedy is that it is instantaneous, and you cannot fake laugh.

“You can go to a piece of theatre and go, ‘That was wonderful, darling’, but you cannot deny if something is either really funny or effective, or an audience is engaging with it in a comedy show or whether it’s dying because nobody’s laughing.

“I think that’s the wonderful thing, the work speaks for itself.”

This will be a return to the London area for Sue who lived near to the London Irish Centre around 1989.

She says: “I used to live in London when I was about 19 or 20.

“It was eight of us in a flat very near Camden, actually quite near where we’re playing.

“I just realized it was Mornington Crescent.

“I worked in Wardour Street and it was the usual craic: Eight Irish young wans going over to work in London.

“We thought we were very cosmopolitan altogether.

“It was brilliant. Brilliant time, you know? Character building stuff.”

Dirtbirds perform at London Irish Centre on Friday 17 June.

For more information, go to dirtbirds.net.

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