Alison Spittle: ‘If you’re friends with a mad bastard, that’s your cross to bear’
The comedian on her new TV show 'Nowhere Fast', a sitcom about women, friendship, and where the men are little more than love interests
Comedian Alison Spittle: her show 'Nowhere Fast' starts on RTÉ 2 on Monday, November 13th.
In an old glue factory in Swords, an outhouse has been renovated to resemble a small radio station. The comedian Alison Spittle is playing a disgraced national radio professional who is now trying to control a violent argument about sheep on late-night local radio. It’s very funny.
It’s the last week of filming for the comedy drama Nowhere Fast. During a short interlude, crew members play darts, eat jellies and occasionally fire nerf guns at one another.
“Ah the magic!” says Spittle, who co-wrote the programme with her boyfriend Simon Mulholland. After lunch, she promises, there’ll be a scene in which “milk will be thrown”.
“That’s as violent as we get,” says Ailish McElmeel, the show’s producer and co-founder of Deadpan productions.
“We’re trying to be Love/Hate,” says Spittle.
I want everyone to like me and that’s the worst trait of me, that massive need
She decides to help with the interview. “What’s been your favourite location?” she asks director Simon Gibney.
“The ‘wake’ episode was probably the biggest,” says Gibney.
“We’ve a very interesting dead body,” says McElmeel.
“I’m very lucky with Simon,” says Spittle. “He lets me do it again if I feel I haven’t done a good job.”
“Ah, she’s a one-take wonder,” says Gibney.
“I’m a comedian, so no self-confidence,” explains Spittle. “Sometimes I’ll be working with someone like Cathy Belton [who plays her mother] and wondering why she’s feeding me the lines so well. Then I remember. ‘Oh, she’s a professional!’ As a comedian, you’re kind of a selfish performer.”
Comedians want to steal every scene, she explains. “I stick pencils up my nose . . . Oh, I was in gas form this morning. You met me at a lull, I won’t lie.”
Shooting six episodes of a comedy drama in five weeks is challenging, McElmeel says, as we sit in the production office overlooked by a wall of cast photos and watched by a very friendly dog with a toy rabbit in its mouth. There are also some children’s drawings by her computer. “My daughter and her best friends were out as extras.” She laughs. “They’re free! They play the children of the priest. My daughter’s credits so far run to ‘annoying child number one’ and ‘priest’s child number one’.”
We discuss the vagaries of film and television production in Ireland. Back in 2007, McElmeel worked on Nicholas Roeg’s Puffball in her home county of Monaghan. It was risqué stuff and caused some local outrage. Even the Arts Council’s launch invites warned that “this film is not for the faint-hearted”. Her mother said, “I can’t believe you made porn in Monaghan.”
Deadpan was born in 2014 when McElmeel and co-founder Paul Donovan decided to focus on comedy drama. McElmeel has, in the past, worked on shows such as Moone Boy, Trivia, Val Falvey and, most recently, Stefanie Preisner’s Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. When I say it’s great to see two female-led comedies on Irish TV at the same time, McElmeel sighs and says: “It’s not by accident.”
She’s a director of Women in Film and TV in Ireland and at least 50 per cent of Deadpan’s output is female-led. “It shouldn’t be odd or abnormal [to see female-led shows on TV] but there’s a real dearth of content for a smart, intelligent female audience,” she says. “With Can’t Cope it was interesting to see how many people were starved of seeing themselves on TV.”
Nowhere Fast originated after McElmeel saw Spittle perform at the International Bar in Dublin 2½ years ago. “I thought there was something to be had out of her crazed relationship with her mam,” she says. “So I called her into the office for a cup of tea.”
After some coaxing, Spittle and Mulholland wrote a pilot. “The first draft was this mad thing,” says Spittle. “It was called Homeward Bound II. In the first scene there was a talking iguana, a talking cat and a talking dog . . . We were told that scene needed to go. The talking iguana market is really small.”
What is it about, now that the iguana’s gone? “It’s about a girl who libels someone on air and this Dublin station gets sued and has to close down so she has to move back to Westmeath and rebuild her relationship with her two friends she half abandoned.”
How close is she to her main character in Nowhere Fast? She laughs. “So close that I called her ‘Alison’ until the week before . . . The big conflict is whether she likes where she lives. Does she want to leave or stay? That’s the way I feel about my village [Ballymore]. I do like it but don’t want to stay.”
As a teenager, Spittle had no notion of becoming a comedian. Her first love was radio (and she still hosts the excellent Alison Spittle Show podcast). “I loved Sean Moncrieff, Rick O’Shea, Adam and Joe . . . They listened to the listener. A text could change the whole subject of the show. It felt really instantaneous and good and democratic. No one’s going to text into this TV show,” she adds, wistfully. “Well, I suppose they can if they want, but we don’t yet have the technology to break the fourth wall.”
She studied radio and got a researcher internship with iRadio in Athlone, where she worked with comedian Bernard O’Shea. “We would chat during the songs and he told me to go on air,” she says. “I had said something about how when soap [opera] children reach puberty they develop a six-pack and become a different person . . . Then [later] they challenged me to do stand-up. I had no interest before that. I had two weeks [to prepare]. Bernard gave me advice.”
Like what? “No paedophile jokes.” She laughs and mimes throwing her notebook away. Other than that, she says, his advice was largely about stand-up “etiquette”. “Don’t go over your time. When someone flashes a light at you, get off stage straight away.”
It was the scariest thing she had ever done, she says. “I want everyone to like me and that’s the worst trait of me, that massive need. I think it’s from moving around a lot. I go at people and compliment them. I’m surprised I didn’t do it to you.” She tries it. “I like your jumper . . . Stand-up digs into that negative part of me that I can now use for good. I love it so much. I’m fully in love with someone but still not as much as how it felt when I first walked off that stage.”
Seven years later she’s still chasing the feeling of that first gig? “Yes. And I never quite get it.”
She wasn’t too aware of stand-up history at that point. “And I didn’t see a lot of women doing it.” She mentions a number of comics she loves, including Chelsea Perretti and Maria Bamford. When she started though, she says: “I wasn’t really aware that much of me being a girl. But then people would go ‘Oh you’re really funny for a girl’.” She sighs. “All the time.”
Sense of humour
So if she didn’t grow up watching stand-up, where does her sense of humour come from? “My dad’s a builder, so wherever the work was, we’d go – London, East Germany, London, Ireland. My dad’s a proper, proper Englishman. He loves England so much – Danny Dyer and the Queen and all that shit. I kept my accent for a long time . . . I started trying to be funny all the time because it’s a shortcut to making people like you. ‘Okay, I have to make a friendship group in the space of the four months. I don’t have much time.’ So you had to be the new funny girl.”
The biggest thing at stake in this sitcom is the friendship between three women
Her teenage years sound difficult. Her father left for England in her teens. “It was me, my mum and my three little sisters. One is six years younger, one 10 years younger and one 13 years younger. I was like an aunt. My mam tried to do everything she could . . . She was a great provider but sometimes the phone would be cut off and you’d have no dial-up internet. ‘But I want to go to my chat-rooms, ma!’”
Nowhere Fast is partly about mental health, she says. “I was a bit mentally ill as a teenager and a lot of this is actually about people’s treatment of me when I was mad, in a nice way. I was on medication and had to go to counselling for a while. I had an incident where I punched a potato into the floor and mam was like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong here’.”
Nowadays, she likes being able to help her family and friends. “My sister is 15 and I got her a part in my show,” she says, “just a line. She wants to be an actress when she’s older and I wanted to be an actress when I was younger but we couldn’t afford the classes.”
She finds a picture of her sister. “There she is getting her make-up done. She’s playing an underage drinker. She’s a better singer than me and funnier. She’s a great kid and I can’t wait to see her grow up. I want her to move to Dublin.”
Her own life started to make a bit more sense when she moved to the capital and found a community of like-minded comedians and film-makers. She had, she said, been an indie-kid in a council estate in Ballymore listening to Morrissey while her friends listened to DJ Cammy. She looks for DJ Cammy on her phone and laughs. “It’s the worst commercial dance you’ve heard in your life.”
Friendship is the theme of the show. “[Some people] worried it might be a bit soapy because it was domestic, but I really love the domestic part of life . . . The biggest thing at stake in this sitcom is the friendship between three women. When I moved to my village, there were six people in my class . . . If you f**k up with one, you’re f**ked for a few weeks. You grow up with them and they know everything about you. And you don’t choose them either. If you’re friends with a mad bastard, that’s your cross to bear.”
Nowadays, she likes working with her friends. She got DIY comedy creators Dreamgun to help her make some shorts for RTÉ and she hired her friend, stand-up comedian Ruth O’Kelly Hunter, for a small part on the show. “You’ll be writing about her next year,” she says.
And she cannot give enough praise to her co-writer and boyfriend Simon Mulholland (“such a brilliant, creative lad; he’s the driving force”). She talks about the rules they had for writing the show. “Everything has to sound like a real conversation,” she says. “And ‘mam’ characters in TV shows never have a life outside their families, so I wanted the mam in the show to have a friend. And the three girls talk about stuff that’s not men [her favourite sequence is a bit in which two of them discuss the contents of Take a Break magazine]. And the men, a lot of them are love interests without much agency, which is a shame.” She laughs. “It’s reverse sexism. They’ll be developed more in series two.”
Spittle is warm, insightful and very funny. The TV world still feels new to her. When she recounts plot points, she says: “Isn’t there a rule when you’re chatting about your TV show not to give away twists and stuff?” And as we’re discussing the programme’s themes she worries her “elevator pitch” is more like a “taxi-journey to Swords pitch”.
So I also ask Ailish McElmeel how she’d pitch Nowhere Fast. “That’s easy,” she says. “Essentially, it’s Alison’s life if it went really wrong.”
She laughs as she says it, because there’s little chance of that happening.
Nowhere Fast starts on RTÉ 2 on November 13th at 10pm
Alison Spittle’s comedy inspirations
“Maria Bamford is a massive influence. I remember listening to her album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome – I stopped washing up and just laughed solidly for an hour. Her Netflix stand-up show, Old Baby, just compounds how special she is. Every aside and tangent is a well-thought-out bit. Her material is as good as the voices she puts on. She’s blisteringly honest about her mental-health issues and makes the heart-breaking absolutely hilarious.” mariabamford.com
“I remember catching Pulling when I was in secondary school on my small bedroom telly late at night. I’d to keep quiet as I didn’t want to wake my sister in the bunk below. It struck a massive chord with me. I had an inkling it was a realistic depiction of what adulthood would be like and I was correct. She continues to top herself with each project.”
Firehouse Film Contest
“It’s a monthly film contest in A4 Sounds, Dorset Street. It’s exposed me to hilarious people such as Ruth Hunter, Giles Brody, Seamus Hanly, Diarmuid and Donnacha O’Brien. Going to the Firehouse definitely changed my direction in comedy. I was surrounded by funny, talented, but most of all, nurturing people. I’ve made two films, one called The Power of Mel Gibson – it’s a sketch about a girl who get’s electrocuted and can only hear music in other people’s heads and Skate Goat Meets the Pope – the title is self-explanatory. As soon as I got some sketch work from RTÉ, I turned to my friends James McDonnell and Conor Barry – they along with Diarmuid O’Brien helped me make some of my best work.” firehousefilmcontest.com
“Dreamgun make fantastic sketches and now they make a podcast. They rewrite a famous movie script and put a funny spin on it. I’ve laughed until I’ve cried. The only annoying thing is their increased popularity. Their last script reading sold out within four hours – being part of the audience feels special, we all feel lucky to be there. It’s the best live thing in Dublin and everyone involved deserves a long and successful career in film-making and comedy.” facebook.com/dreamgunandsons
Dustin the Turkey
“Dustin ruled my afternoons for years as a child. He was high energy, he was rude and sharp. My mother bought me his greatest hits for Christmas and every long trip to granny in Galway went that bit quicker with his horrible singing voice pumping through the speakers. Dustin used to always refer to brown envelopes and the building trade and as an adult living through the recession looking back at Den 2, like a bad film you realise the clues were there along. Dustin was making jokes about corruption to eight year olds and still making them laugh. That’s a special skill.”
Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats
“One of the best stand-up specials on Netflix. The audience cameos are as funny as the jokes. The special reminds me so much why I love comedy. In fact, as soon as I’m finished typing, I’m going to fire up the Netflix and give it another spin. I can’t wait to see what she does next.”