Laughing all the way to the bank holiday

 

In its eighth year, the Cat Laughs comedy festival added readings to its successful programming formula, while Bill Bailey, Pat Shortt and Jimmy Carr delivered gags galore. Brian Boyd reports.

Shaken, rattled and rolled by this year's Murphy's Cat Laughs, I really can't be bothered fielding any more enquiries about whether this year was the best ever/better than last year, etc. The main strength of this annual laugh-in is its avoidance of unnecessary superlative-grasping, and its down-home desire to do the right thing. The programme is splattered with all manner of local and exotic delights; all you have to do is tick your appropriate boxes and let the festival flow freely around you.

This was the eighth year of a festival which, by overwhelming consensus of the performers, comes as a welcome respite from the trade-fair wheeling and dealing of Edinburgh, Montreal and Melbourne. If you can condense its appeal into one image, it's top US comic Emo Philips standing in a queue in the box office, surveying the programme intently and buying his own tickets for other comics' shows.

There is a by now familiar troika-style programming policy: US/Britain/Ireland. The Americans are parachuted in boasting CVs of Emmys, Letterman appearances and sitcom fame, and invariably represent as good a snapshot as you can get of the current state of American professional humour. The British acts come with a heightened TV profile - albeit of the Channel 4 variety - and range from the household name to the cutting-edge.

I began this year with a stroll down to see Bill Bailey in the Watergate. In hindsight, this was a bad idea because he set the bar so high, the rest of the weekend was spent trying to avoid the descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. Bailey is quite simply one of the best comics working today. The first few rows at his show were filled up by other comics, paying homage/taking notes.

It was effortlessly brilliant stuff. His tales of the unexpected included such original delights as imagining how Gary Numan would sound with a West Country accent and a routine about (get this) the "magnification of confectionary". He had his eye on the bigger picture, though, and after some Billy Braggesque meanderings on the white, English identity, he settled into a polemic on astro-physics.

No, it doesn't sound that promising, but when you have the rich imagination of a Lewis Carroll, the knowledge of a geek and the deft touch of a Tommy Cooper, you can talk about whatever you like and extract humour at will.

Elsewhere, the big talking point this year was the solo début of D'unbelievable Pat Shortt. His shows sold out so fast that the people answering the phones in the box office answered any call with "Hello, we've no tickets left for Pat Shortt". Apparently, he could have sold a few thousand tickets a night. Taking characters from his previous shows with Jon Kenny and beefing them up, Shortt conjured up a richly theatrical show that never strayed too far from mass hilarity.

His performance was masterful, and there was a lot more going on than instantly met the eye. Physically, he worked his characters to the limit, drawing on all his mime skills. The way Shortt walks, moves and shuffles, and his vocal inflections and cadences constitute a rare skill.

Shortt's characters are a townland full of freaks, fakes and fools. Showing great range, he glided between a type of slapstick and some disturbingly chilly moments. The show is a masterclass in comedy performance, and tours the country over the summer.

There's always a new "find" in Kilkenny, and this year it was British newcomer Jimmy Carr. Once you get over his uncanny resemblance to Lloyd Cole, you realise that Carr has developed a very resonant character, which is a type of Hugh Grant, upper-middle-class English fop.

Carr is still at the stage where he's throwing out one-liners without really getting a narrative flow going, but there's enough evidence in Carr's triple-blade razor sharp writing to suggest he can go a very long way.

Canadian Mike Wilmot was something completely different. The blue-collar antidote to Carr's neck-tie, Wilmot is gruff, blunt and crude. He fashions his material, though, in such a way that he can project an unlikely amount of charm. This is route-one comedy, a nostalgic throwback to one-man-and-his-microphone days, with nothing "fancy" getting in the way.

And so much more: one hour of explosive one-liners from Emo Philips, described as "the best joke writer in America". Philips alienates some people with his flailing limbs and a spooky, child-like voice, but there's no denying the excellence of the material.

Omid Djalili played on his Iranian background to great effect; Ricky Grover (aka "Bulla" from The 11 O'Clock Show) won over a new legion of fans; and Irish-Australian comic Adam Hills brought a new dimension to his work, with a new auto-biographical style show.

The "Cat Scratchings" mini-cartoon festival, staged in Kilkenny Castle, was a pleasant diversion, with some fabulously inventive stuff from Gilbert Shelton - the creator of the "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" and Dave Coverly of "Speedbump" fame.

The "Book Soup" component of the festival - a new series of readings by best-selling humour writers drew far bigger crowds than expected and looks like it will continue to run in tandem with the festival proper. Pete McCarthy, author of McCarthy's Bar, had a pan-generational appeal while the brash American writers, David Sedaris and Rob Long were both a mordant delight.

With the cartoonists' workshops, a "lecture" by Phil Kay on the theme of "Irish design" at the National Craft Gallery, screenings of Irish short comedy films, and a series of shows called "Kilkenny Exposed" where Owen O'Neill, Dom Irrera and Rich Hall cast a comic eye on the stories in the local newspaper, there was a 24 Hour Party People feel to this year's Murphy's Cat Laughs. Great fun.