25 years in the funny business
It’s a small, dark place, with no microphone and it’s not even in a basement – so what’s the secret to the Comedy Cellar’s success?
Ardal O’Hanlon, Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy; three of the four people who launched Dublin’s Comedy Cellar at the International Bar on Wicklow Street with their act Mr Trellis.
Dara O’Briain. Photograph: Frank Miller
Tommy Tiernan. Photograph : Matt Kavanagh
The Nualas – Sue Collins, Maria Tecce and Anne Gildea – with Jason Byrne
Des Bishop. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Eddie Izzard. Photograph: Jerod Harris/FilmMagic/Getty
There was the night when a nervous Dylan Moran did his first ever comedy gig (a five-minute open-spot that didn’t go that well); the night Eddie Izzard turned up to do an unannounced spot and was charged in by the person on the door who didn’t recognise him; and the time Tommy Tiernan was near-sick with the nerves waiting to tread the boards of the legendary venue.
Expect all these stories – along with the unprintable ones – to be recalled when a bunch of old lags and fresh-faced newcomers from the Irish comedy world congregate in Vicar Street tomorrow for a show to mark the 25th anniversary of Dublin’s Comedy Cellar.
From Wicklow Street to the world, the Cellar has been the comedy nursery that nurtured and developed the biggest names in Irish comedy. Barry Murphy, Ardal O’Hanlon, Dylan Moran, Dara O’Briain, Jason Byrne, David O’Doherty and others have all earned their chops on the first floor of the International Bar on Wicklow Street. To this day, the Cellar holds an unlikely world record in producing the most ever nominees and winners of the main Edinburgh Festival comedy prize.
The club first appeared in 1988 when four bored, disillusioned and fairly unemployable DCU students were looking for a city centre venue to host the sort of “alternative” comedy that had taken a grip in the UK. Barry Murphy, Ardal O’Hanlon, Kevin Gildea and Dermot Carmody billed themselves as “Mr Trellis – The Mormon” (a Flann O’Brien reference).
For a generation more used to today’s bespoke clubs, the Cellar is a ramshackle throwback to alternative comedy’s roots. It only fits 60 people and there are no microphones, lighting or dressing rooms.
Three men and a dog would be a gross exaggeration of the Cellar’s early audiences but word soon spread and the venue became the place for those interested in trying out something new. Performers such as Alex Lyons, Joe Rooney, Karl McDermott and Paul Tylak helped fill out the bill while early audience members watching and wondering at this new experiment in comedy included Moran, O’Doherty and Andrew Maxwell (the first two later won Perrier awards and Maxwellwas twice nominated for a Perrier).
Another early spectator-turned-performer, Jason Byrne, went on attract more ticket sales than anyone else in the history of the Edinburgh Festival.
When, in 1991, Mr Trellis went to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe, they shared a one-hour show with an up and coming English comic called Eddie Izzard, who came over to perform at the Dublin venue he had heard so much about.
“I had worked in Dublin as a street performer during the 1988 Millennium celebrations and noticed that there really wasn’t that much happening in terms of stand-up so it was great to hear from Trellis about this new club they had in the International Bar,” says Izzard.
“As a comedy act, Mr Trellis blew me away. They had amazing stuff. I’ll always remember Barry Murphy walking on to the stage and just singing that Wonderful Life song and then walking off again. It was stupidly beautiful and very ballsy, a very Barry thing to do.