The comedy don

Sat, Jan 2, 2010, 00:00

Barry Murphy is seen by many insiders as ‘the godfather of Irish comedy’ thanks to his work at Dublin’s Comedy Cellar where he quietly guided others on to bigger things. Now, the ‘Aprés Match’ star is the middleman in a new RTÉ panel show, writes KATE HOLMQUIST

WHEN AN unknown Tommy Tiernan did his first show in the Comedy Cellar at the International Bar, in Dublin, Barry Murphy predicted he’d be huge one day. When a guy called Eddie Izzard cut his teeth at the Cellar, Murphy said this guy is amazing – don’t miss his show.

Then one night a young Dylan Moran tried his hand at stand-up. Remember his name, Murphy told friends. Tiernan, Izzard and Moran have since become household names here and in the UK, which is why Murphy is known to some as “the godfather of Irish comedy”.

Twenty years ago when Murphy was starting out, there was no alternative Irish comedy scene – no Des Bishop, Patrick Kielty, Dara O Briain, Graham Norton, Neil Delamere, or Podge Rodge. At the time, the style of comedy was traditional punchline stand-up – Brendan Grace, Dave Allen and Niall Tóibín.

Then Barry Murphy, Ardal O’Hanlon and Kevin Gildea created Mr Trellis – a fresh approach at physical, surreal and scatological comedy. The three met at NIHE (now DCU) and Mr Trellis began performing in the International Bar, inviting other acts to test their mettle. The Comedy Cellar was born.

Comedians who were there describe the scene as a porridge of styles, improvisation and surreal sketchwork, with Murphy as compere holding it all together with his own bits of story-telling, often about what happened to him on the bus on the way to the venue.

There were no rules – only that you had to be original to earn your place on the stage. There was a lot of improvisation, with the audience choosing the content. A typical improvisation sketch involved the audience shouting out a location (a toilet), characters (Jean-Paul Sartre and Bruce Forsyth) and an event (the launch of a book on existentialism for game show hosts).

Patrick McDonnell from Naked Camera started there, playing the slithery Noel Farmer. TV star Jason Byrne, the biggest selling act in Edinburgh for the past four years, was also tested at the Comedy Cellar, where there were no lights, no mics and you could see the whites of the audience’s eyes.

“It was Murphy’s delivery that held it all together, so we could go off on flights of fancy,” says a comedian who got his start at the Cellar.

Murphy wasn’t a mentor exactly, but he was influential.

For anyone who wanted to be comedy literate or aspired to perform, the Comedy Cellar was the place to be and to be seen and Murphy was its unelected boss.

For up and coming young comedians, Murphy’s critiques could come in a sideways scathing manner, but the very fact that he had bothered to comment on your performance at all meant that he had noticed you, and that was good enough. Many who started out in the Comedy Cellar have gone on to fame in the UK, while Murphy has remained a home-bird, earning his way, not just through comedy, but also as a sought-after voiceover artist.

In 1996 he married Flo McSweeney, a former Irish pop star who he met in 1992. Today she is a voiceover artist and the couple have two children.

In 1993, Murphy began to explore TV when he became the Saturday night presenter of RTÉ’s first foray into late night chat and comedy, The End. Seán Moncrieff presented on Friday nights. Murphy launched many of the characters, such as Frank Stapleton, that would eventually appear in Après Match.

Après Match began with Euro 96 as a bizarre five-minute routine directly following the standard post-match commentary, with Murphy doing Frank Stapleton with a wooden box on his head. The idea came from Murphy and his friend, comedian Risteard Cooper, who used to imitate the pundits and commentators while watching football matches at home.

Après Match created the “three Joes”, three versions of Joe Duffy debating about tea-bags and the woman from Clontarf. The take-off of one of Ireland’s most popular radio presenters seeped into the public consciousness to the extent that even a current Vodaphone ad features a shot of Joe Duffy and “a man from Clontarf” helping a lovelorn boyfriend .

In 1998, Murphy and Mark Doherty, along with writer Ian Coppinger, created Couched for RTÉ, where Murphy and Doherty played two men in a Waiting for Godot scenario, stuck somewhere, not knowing how they got there and how they were going to get out.

“There aren’t any rules,” Murphy said at the time. “I suppose the only one we had going in was that the show was not going to follow the traditional stand-up route of joke, joke, joke. The scenes of us in ‘the room’ were originally written in that way, but as we went on we started deleting the more obvious jokes, which may sound strange, but we were going after a more naked, skeletal approach where the humour depends on the characters.”

He also said that he’d be happy if the show got an audience of a couple of thousand. Couched remains influential and admired among comedy cognoscenti.

“He has influenced everybody, whether they know it or not,” says a contemporary. “Sometimes you’ll see a young comedian in the Comedy Cellar doing something that is very Barry Murphy, and the newcomer won’t even realise it.”

Some say that Murphy would be more famous than if he had been pliable and commercial. “He’s the conscience of Irish comedy. He’s got very, very high standards and hates any sort of cash-in. He’s a purist,” says a friend who has known him from the beginning.

Which is why some are surprised that he has agreed to take on the role of compere in a new RTÉ satirical news panel programme, That’s All We Have Time For, starting this week. Murphy is known for taking a rather jaundiced view of TV comedy panel shows, such as Mock the Week, so he is expected to put his stamp on the new show and move it away from the standard practise of filling in the headlines with blokey, old-school banter.

MURPHY’S CAREER is marked by edgy strokes of genius that never quite took off as popular hits, but which retain a cult audience, with Couched and Soupy Norman still popular on YouTube. Soupy Norman was created in 2007 by Murphy and comedian Mark Doherty. They took a real Polish soap opera and dubbed it in English. One of the voices is Mario Rosenstock, who will feature in That’s All We Have Time For, along with Kevin Myers, who suffered being sent-up by the Après Match team. Going mainstream with That’s All We Have Time For may be unexpected, but it also plays to Murphy’s strengths as an Angus Deayton-style straight-man who can allow others to shine.

“Barry rarely does something he doesn’t believe in and he should be a bigger star than he is. He has never sold out, so you presume that he is doing this show for the right reasons, and on that basis I think it’s going to be great,” says a friend.

“He’s never done bad stuff, a bit weird, but never bad. He is always very original. He’s the sort of person who will have no problem walking out if he feels it’s not working.”

That’s All We Have Time For is on RTÉ One on Thursday at 10.15pm

CV Barry Murphy

Occupation Comedian, writer, voice-over artist

Why is he in the news? Compere of RTE1’s new satirical comedy panel programme, That’s All We Have Time For

Claim to Fame Après Match and founder of the Comedy Cellar at the International Bar in Dublin