Maeve Higgins: ‘It’s weird when you leave Ireland, right? I felt a bit guilty’

The first day Maeve Higgins was on the set of the film Extra Ordinary she, in her lead role as Rose Dooley, was in pyjamas and a dressing gown in an old farmhouse. “I didn’t really know what everyone was doing on the set. I knew my directors, but I haven’t done a film before,” Higgins says.

“I had heard the terms ‘grip’ and ‘spark’, but I was, like, ‘Who are all these people?’ The way I made sense of it in the end was that it felt like a construction site. My dad’s a builder, so it’s, like, Okay, I get it. The directors are like the architects. My dad would be the first AD [assistant director], making everything run on time. Then there’s all these subbies whose speciality is camera, make-up, script supervisor. That analogy was how I made sense of it. But then I was, like, ‘What am I?’ I’m concrete! I’m just a block that needs to go there. Maybe a foundation. Maybe iron piling.”

Sitting outside a cafe in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, Higgins is detailing what was just another day in her ever-expanding and -evolving career. Extra Ordinary, which opens in Irish cinemas in a fortnight, is wacky and funny, and Higgins is central to its vision.

Directed by Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, the horror comedy is about a driving instructor who is grieving for her father while continuing his legacy as a sort of ghost medium. Higgins’s trademark tenderness makes a virtue of intentional awkwardness; Rose is the type of good-natured heroine you can’t help rooting for.

Extra Ordinary: Maeve Higgins with Will Forte
Extra Ordinary: Maeve Higgins with Will Forte in her new film

Raised in Cobh, in Co Cork, Higgins introduced herself to New York back in 2014 with I’m New Here, a monthly event with Jon Ronson at Union Hall in Brooklyn. Since then she has found multiple other outlets for her talents. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times; her third book, Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else, published in 2018, is her best yet; she starred in the brilliantly random and sparkling web comedy series Dinette; and there have been several podcast series, too, including Mothers of Invention, with Mary Robinson on feminist solutions to climate change; My Best Break-Up, produced by Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine; immigrant tales in Maeve in America: Immigration IRL; and her latest scripted comedy-drama series on Audible, Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, written with Shaina Feinberg.

There’s something about Maeve’s style of comedy that I really love. It’s the Irishness to it, but there’s nothing diddly-eye. There’s a modern Irishness to it

It’s a lot of new stuff, but some things never change. Jokes sort of fall out of Higgins. “Superfast,” is how Ahern describes Higgins’s ability to conjure comedy in the moment. “She’s so funny and so fast,” he says. “There’s something about her style of comedy that I – and Enda – just really love. It’s the Irishness to it, but there’s nothing diddly-eye. There’s a modern Irishness to it.”

Ahern and Loughman wrote Extra Ordinary, their debut feature film, with Higgins in mind from the get-go – “Even before we wrote the first draft,” Ahern says. Throughout the process she contributed additional writing. In a short proof-of-concept piece shot before the film went into production, the character of Rose is already right there, Higgins sitting on a chair making notes while a levitating woman floats before her, with a concerned husband and a clatter of children.

Mothers of Invention: Maeve Higgins with her podcast cohost Mary Robinson. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Mothers of Invention: Maeve Higgins with her podcast cohost Mary Robinson. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

Although she now runs the comedy showcase Butterboy, with Jo Firestone and Aparna Nancherla, in Brooklyn every Monday, Higgins often expresses something of an aversion to stand-up. She is a brilliant stand-up, oscillating between pensive and controlled meandering observations, but it’s a form she has a complicated relationship with.

“There’s lots that I still appreciate about stand-up,” she says, “It’s a very direct form of communication. You can be spontaneous. You can think of something in the morning and then say it at night. But by its nature it’s quite crude, I think. For me to really figure out what I think, I need to take more time. Obviously some stand-ups take it to another level and can understand themselves a bit more through stand-up, and be profound. Those are few and far between – Maria Bamford, Hannah Gadsby... For me it has always been a love/hate thing.”

In truth, Higgins can’t believe she stuck at it for so long. “The maleness, the misogyny, the actual lifestyle where you’re just travelling, and then you’re on your own in a hotel, then you’re on your own on stage and you don’t know anyone. All of that stuff is not fun.”

Unfortunately, the kind of people who do stand-up are not interesting to me, usually. I can’t believe I did it for so long. It was a good way for me to create a platform for myself, I guess. I sound very LA

What began as a compulsion to perform started to fade as she was fulfilling herself creatively in other forms. “It has always baffled me how worshipful people are of stand-up... It wouldn’t be my choice of a night out, ever, but I like keeping my hand in,” she says.

“I do this show every week in Brooklyn, and I love seeing what the young people are doing. It’s really cool, too, to see voices I didn’t see when I was coming up doing their thing, being immature. I’m happy to see and laugh and cheer that on. But, unfortunately, the kind of people who do stand-up are not interesting to me, usually. I can’t believe I did it for so long. It was a good way for me to create a platform for myself, I guess. I sound very LA. But, you know, it was a way into writing, a way into acting.”

Katie Holly, one of the founders of Blinder Films, which produced Extra Ordinary, is a long-time fan of Higgins. She particularly likes Fancy Vittles, the cooking show from 2009 that Higgins hosted on RTÉ with her sister Lilly (who writes a food column for The Irish Times each Friday).

“It was so brilliantly offbeat,” Holly says. “I love the sense of humour; it’s just really well observed and really funny, a little bit off-centre, and really warm.”

The show had a cult following, and an amazing opening line that encapsulated Higgins’s style at the time: “Today we’re making fancy vittles for our girlfriends. I think everyone is familiar with what girls do on a night in. What we do is, we all meet in one person’s house, and then eat and drink and gossip, and then go home and cut ourselves.”

Fancy Vittles: Maeve Higgins with her sister Lilly, in their 2009 series for RTÉ
Fancy Vittles: Maeve Higgins with her sister Lilly, in their 2009 series for RTÉ

The more we encounter it, the more we can start to characterise this type of humour, where self-deprecation lurks wide-eyed in the darkness, as the loose style of Irish female comedic authorship; slightly emotionally unavailable, carrying intergenerational trauma, no-nonsense but charitable, and in parts frank, apologetic, gruff and somehow adept at balancing optimism with resignation.

These are the characteristics that, with varying degrees of intensity, run though everything from Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght’s Aisling novels to Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, Joanne McNally’s stand-up and Alison Spittle’s writing for stage and screen. Holly repeats the word “empathy” when characterising Higgins’s work.

In Higgins’s adopted hometown of New York her sense of self seems to have shifted again, from emigrant to immigrant. New York City often feels like a Tetris of new arrivals, all slotting into a slipstream of pace, aspiration and energy, and although that can be overwhelming sometimes, it’s here that Higgins has come into her own. It’s a city that has a way of opening up people’s potential, and perhaps that is true of Higgins, who is thriving there in a way that Dublin or London probably could never have provided for.

The place for humour, I think, is as a distraction. I don’t know how best to deal with racism and misogyny. I mean, I have ideas about it, but I probably don’t think it’s as a sweet joker

Right now the things Higgins thinks about a lot are “borders and nation states. The fact that you happen to be born in one place makes your life wholly different from somebody born in another place, and how we can end that.” Recently she wrote a piece for the New York Times about spending a day observing immigration-court proceedings in Lower Manhattan.

Another thing concerning her is whether “being funny as a way of changing hearts and minds” actually works. This gets to the essence of the role comedy and satire have in a world – and particularly a country, the United States – that feels beyond joke-cracking.

“I’m not sure about that now,” she says about comedy as a tool to change things. “I can be funny and make comedy purely as a distraction from the horror, and that’s fine, and that’s a legitimate thing to do. But I also have to be real and take action. I see comedy people do this – and I definitely fell into that trap – of being, like, ‘You know, I’ll just add my voice and it will help, it’ll shift the needle and change the temperature.’ Now I’m, like, Oh no, I need to fight...

“The place for humour, I think, is as a distraction. Yes, of course it comes into all of our real lives wherever you’re at, but I suppose I just don’t see the evidence of that in my own work, and in other people’s work. Where has it happened where people have been, like, ‘Oh, I saw this show, I listened to your podcast, and it changed my mind’? That isn’t what changes people’s minds. I don’t know how best to deal with racism and misogyny. I mean, I have ideas about it, but I probably don’t think it’s as a sweet joker.”

Extra Ordinary: Maeve Higgins with Terri Chandler
Extra Ordinary: Maeve Higgins with Terri Chandler in her new film

She finds herself escaping, too; a while ago she completed a Game of Thrones binge-watching marathon so intense her hips locked. “I was on the couch thinking, My hips! What did I do in yoga? And then I was thinking, You haven’t been to yoga in months. Literally, the weight of my own body as I watched Game of Thrones locked my hips. It was such an escape. This is what people have been saying about entertainment forever, but I was always, like, ‘Entertainment can mean something!’

“Now I’m, like, I don’t know that it can. Certainly, representation is important. If you’re a young queer kid or a black kid growing up in Ireland, and you don’t see a face like yours, that means something. But for me, as a comedy writer, I’m just going to write comedy. I’m not going to try and get a message in and then do my other work in some other way.”

That other work is essentially journalism, which Higgins is increasingly gravitating towards. “Certainly in the US,” she says, “white liberals being (a) hopeless and (b) pithy. It’s not really good enough. It’s a very shabby response. What we need to do is fight more and maybe talk a bit less.”

When Higgins pictures creative Irish women now ‘it’s like an electrical wire with bulbs going all along, just dotted connected to things’. Like Stranger Things? ‘Yes! They’re in the walls! You know the Sheela-na-gigs? Light bulbs in their vulvas!’

Back in Ireland there is always such a warm, proud response to Higgins’s success. I wonder if she’s aware that so many Irish women in particular hold her in such high esteem. “I feel that way about Irish women too, though,” she says. “Growing up in the generation that I did, it has been such an interesting generation. Coming through the recession, I left; felt bad about leaving. Then going home every now and then, and getting this love, is just what I feel too... It’s quite a unique experience, being Irish and being female and being this age. Actually, it’s maybe not even age; it’s the time that we’ve gone through together.”

Earlier this year, at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dublin, Higgins found herself having a great time meeting her peers. “We were all on the same page. It’s weird when you leave, right? I felt a bit guilty for a while. But then I also see all this cool stuff that has happened without me. When I [lived] in Ireland I felt this affinity with my women friends around the world who I would meet at comedy festivals – Josie Long, Kristen Schaal, Claudia O’Doherty. We were all on the same wavelength but all in different places. Then I came over here, and I now feel that about women in Ireland.”

When she pictures creative Irish women now “it’s like an electrical wire with bulbs going all along, just dotted connected to things”. Like Stranger Things? “Yes! They’re in the walls! You know the Sheela-na-gigs? Light bulbs in their vulvas! I just get that vibe. It’s very hard to put your finger on it. When I read Irish women’s work I just feel this...” She pauses, then the word comes. “Affinity”.

Extra Ordinary is released on Friday, September 13th