Alison Spittle: ‘I just tried stand-up like you would try abseiling’
Spittle is a comedian with a difference: in one of her shows, which tackles mental illness, she talks about the time she ‘pissed into a pint glass’
Alison Spittle: “I want to be able to order a Just Eat without looking at my bank account.” Photograph: Aidan Crawley
‘You’re talking to me at a transitional time. It’s all like unset jelly at the moment,” says Dublin-based comedian Alison Spittle when we meet. She is drawing 2FM DJ Louise McSharry’s face on a flashcard upstairs in the Workman’s Club in Dublin, as various people approach her about “the monologue” and a band set up in the corner.
Spittle is due on stage – a couch at the front of the room – in an hour to host her monthly chat show, the Alison Spittle Show. A small team of people are scurrying around writing notes on to flashcards and getting the room ready. This is much like how The Late Late Show is run, she imagines. “I’m totally gunning for Ryan’s job,” she jokes.
As the band soundchecks, Spittle suggests we go somewhere quieter, before taking me upstairs to a storage room, where we do the rest of the interview sitting among piles of boxes, in the dark. She has finished drawing McSharry and moved on to drawing her second guest of the night, Mark O’Halloran.
“Aw, I’ve drawn Mark really shit. Does that look shit? That looks terrible. I’d be offended. F*** it,” she says, before turning back to tell me about the show.
“It’s like a punk version of a chat show, a punk version of the most unpunk thing in the world. There’s no budget or anything like that. There’s no real reason to do it either, it’s just something to do.”
Before she chats to her guests, typically there is a warm-up comedy act – it’s Andrea Farrell tonight – and then Spittle performs a monologue about anything and everything. The monologue is written by a team of people – including Conor Smith, Ellen Tannem, Alan Maguire and Ciara Knight – into a shared Google Doc. Spittle is trying to decide how topical to keep it.
“Ten minutes before, we choose what jokes to use. The lads write in about 40 jokes, and then we choose some and change it around and if there is half a joke there – which most often there is, which is cool – we’ll add on stuff or word it a bit different. It feels like a writer’s room,” she says.
The group dynamic is a welcome change, she says. Usually Spittle’s comedic process involves a lot of writing at night, running with ideas she has come up with as her head hits the pillow.
She started doing comedy more than five years ago, when she was working for iRadio with Bernard O’Shea, who suggested she should try it and got her a slot supporting PJ Gallagher.
“I just tried it like someone would try abseiling, just for the hell of it. I thought it was a chance to meet PJ Gallagher and tell all my friends, so I did it. It was the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my life and I’ve always been trying to chase that same high. I did my first gig in Portlaoise and I had a good time. All I did was talk about my gran.”
Not only had she never considered comedy as a career before, but she wasn’t even that interested in at the time. “The only comedy I’d seen was Eddie Murphy. I lived in Westmeath, so I had no idea about stand-up comedy before I met Bernard and he was a comedian. I was like, ‘Oh you’re one of those, what’s that?’ kind of thing.
“I don’t enjoy that much stand-up comedy, to be honest with you, but I love doing it. I love Maria Bamford and Maeve Higgins; that is the kind of comedy I like. My flatmate is very into stand-up comedy and she’s a comedian herself, but she was firstly a massive fan. Sometimes I feel guilty, but I love doing it,” she says.
Spittle was born in London. Her father was a builder, and they moved to east Germany, where the work was, before moving to Westmeath and settling there. Although Westmeath was not exactly a hotbed of comedic talent, she thinks moving to Ireland has helped her comedy career.
“The network I have around me is incredible. This show wouldn’t have happened at all if I wasn’t friends with people who are really talented. There are really talented comedians, film-makers, musicians, and you have this pool of talent where you’re able to get together and make a show, and it’s just great. Dublin is full of up-and-coming talent,” she says.
“I wanted to get out of here for ages, move to London, my home London, and then I had a panic attack on the Tube and was like, ‘I don’t want to live here, there’s too many people.’ Dublin is a very happy medium for me.”
Her most recent stand-alone stand-up show, Alison Spittle Discovers Hawaii, centred on mental health. She took it to the Edinburgh Fringe for a week and then back to the Dublin Fringe Festival, where it was nominated for the Little Gem award for the best show less than an hour long, and the First Fortnight award for fighting the stigma against mental health.
“Who here has suffered from mental illness?” was her opening line on opening night of Discovers Hawaii at the Dublin Fringe. “Liars,” she shouted, when no one responded. The show looked at her own experiences with mental illness and a mental breakdown, although she says rather than finding it hard to write about serious topics, it is almost helpful to her in processing her feelings.
“With Discovers Hawaii, there’s a bit where I talk about having pissed into a pint glass. I needed to tell people why I’ve pissed into a pint glass. I knew after I pissed into a pint glass that I was going to write a show about it, because I thought, If I wrote a show about it, it wouldn’t make it weird. That’s a lot of my life; a lot of my life I say, ‘Look, if you throw it into a set then it wasn’t for nothing.’ I built a show around pissing into a pint glass, but I didn’t want to call it Pissing into a Pint Glass, so I called it Discovers Hawaii, which is a lot more palatable.”
Spittle has spent the past two years considering comedy her full-time job, after making a new year’s resolution to ask for more gigs.
“What held me back for a long time is that I’m very shy and very afraid to ask people for stuff, so I wasn’t asking for gigs – the bigger gigs, not that I thought I should have been getting, but that my friends were getting.”
Venues wish list
She has been offered more and more shows since she emailed asking to play the Vodafone Comedy Festival two years ago. Last August she made a short wishlist of venues she wanted to play some day: Whelan’s and Vicar Street. Since then she has played Whelan’s. Later this month she will support Rob Delaney at Vicar Street.
“The more you do or you’re seen to be doing, the more you get. In comedy, you put the hours in on stage and you do a lot of stuff for free. Being sound helps, too . . . It’s tough as well because there are some months when I’m not able to pay the rent or I’m scraping by. The Vicar Street gigs or Vodafone Comedy gigs make me feel good because it’s an actual milestone, but if you look at my bank balance, it’s not. They pay well, but I want to get to the stage where I can just live in Dublin properly and have a nice life. I want to be able to order a Just Eat without looking at my bank account, or to buy a frappuccino every day. That would be great,” she says.
Stand-up comedy is her main gig, but Spittle is also a regular guest on Newstalk and is in the process of writing a second series of Comedy Bites shows for the RTÉ Player with her roommate and fellow comedian, Teresa Coyne. It will be released later in the year. “It’s going to be the most surreal thing I’ve ever done, so I’m excited for that,” she says.
Finding a venue
She is hoping to give Discovers Hawaii a full run at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in August, providing she can find a venue.
“The only reason I do radio and TV is to try and get more people to come see me, because if more people come see me, I can get booked regularly. It’s all to support my comedy, because I don’t feel better any other time than when I’m on stage.”
She enjoys doing the Alison Spittle Show as a comedic side project because it offers her a challenge. Since last October, Spittle and fellow comedians Giles Brody and Diarmuid O’Brien have been producing the show, but due to work schedules, the team has disbanded. Spittle is relaunching the show this week with two other comedian friends, Andrea Farrell and Sarah Geraghty.
Edwin Sammon of Republic of Telly and Stephen Byrne of TwoTube will make up the guest panel, but the new trio plan to pare back the show. It originally involved plenty of comedy sketches and bits, but now it’s a “real talk-show talk-show”. They plan to launch a podcast of it afterwards, and she has big plans for the show.
“There are some really big guests coming up. George Hook said he’d come on the show; we just have to set up a date. I can’t wait to get him on,” she says.
- The Alison Spittle Show is on upstairs in the Workman’s Club, Dublin, on April 8th. €8