‘It’s scary moving to the UK. Most of my references are Tayto and village adultery’

Alison Spittle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

One word reoccurs in reviews of Alison Spittle’s work: charm. It’s a valid, catch-all description, but it also falls short. Yes, Spittle’s comedy is charming, but “charm” is a contained king of thing, and fails to capture the expanding, wandering quality that her comedy takes on.

Anyone can get up on stage and do one-liners or gags, and too many do. But Spittle often seems to operate without scaffolding, even without a safety net. On stage, it sometimes appears as though observations have just landed in her head for sharing. As a result, Spittle’s comedy teeters on that magic threshold between amusement and bemusement, the audience brought along by someone who is half a knowingly hapless spirit guide, half a drawing-room raconteur. When she clicks into a flow, the updraft is brilliant. Her meandering anecdotes can appear to start out (and sometimes very much are) serious or dark or rooted in trauma, before the taut atmosphere that forms around them is deftly popped.

Sometimes the jokes emerge like delightful Disney-like woodland creatures prancing around, sometimes they land at the back of the throat like a chunk of poisoned apple. Her jokes can call to mind dioramas, miniatures or dollhouses, initially appearing innocent and cute but then twist your head a little to consider: wait, is this bad? Should I be laughing? If more moody or nihilistic comedians set up jokes to jump out of the darkness, Spittle has a way of making the darkness jump out of the joke. 

Spittle didn’t know how to negotiate a path forward in Ireland, like many creative people who end up finding themselves in the small-country cul-de-sac

Spittle has also hit the emerald ceiling. At the tail end of her 20s, she has headlined what is pretty much the pinnacle of the Irish comedy circuit, Vicar Street in Dublin, she has written and starred in an RTÉ comedy series – Nowhere Fast – her podcast is popular, her name populates festival lineups in increasing font size. Thank you, next.

At the end of October, she moved to London with her partner Simon Mulholland (Spittle’s cowriter on Nowhere Fast.) She’s still settling in. “It’s scary moving over to the UK,” she says. “Most of my references are Tayto and village adultery.”

The motivation for moving to London is manifold: “I did Vicar Street, and I’m not 30 yet, and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life . . . If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. I have lots of friends over in London. The rental crisis here. . .”

She was doing shows in the UK, getting opportunities. If she’s being honest, she should have gone two years ago, something she regrets. She didn’t move then because she was afraid.

She loves Dublin, her friends in the city, the life she made in the capital. “I was never unhappy living here. If Dublin wasn’t so good, I’d be gone straight away.” But more broadly, Spittle says she didn’t particularly know how to negotiate a path forward in Ireland, a situation many creative people find themselves in when they go down all the roads available to them before inevitably finding themselves in the small-country cul-de-sac.

“I’m not Tommy Tiernan, I don’t have the commercial appeal of Tommy or anything like that. I’m totally fine with that. I just have to give it a go over in London.”

Alison Spittle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Alison Spittle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Spittle grew up in England before moving to Ireland at the age of seven, doing the bulk of her growing up in Ballymore, Co Westmeath. She connects most of her idiosyncrasies to moving around a lot as a child. None of these are necessarily negative, which she understands: “I’m fine with myself. It’s grand. I treat myself like that weird friend that you have that’s a bit of a pr*ck and you’re like: ‘Ah sure, I’m with him years.’ Know what I mean? That’s what I’m like to me. ‘I’m 29 years with this person now, let her off. Leave her be.’”

The Dublin Fringe Festival provided a framework within which Spittle could develop, with four stints at the festival between 2014 and 2017, teeing up her Worrier Princess show for that Vicar Street headliner last January. She returns to Vicar Street on March 30th.

Spittle’s steady rise over five years also featured runs at the Edinburgh Fringe (“Edinburgh was a slog with massive highs, tear-inducing frustration and loads of tedium,” she wrote in 2014. “Vodafone Festival and Kilkenny Cat Laughs were a massive high for me this year. I felt fully looked after and like a proper comedian, my name on a notebook, welcome packs, big nice open-minded audiences. I was spoiled and Edinburgh brought me back down to reality.”); multiple festival spots; a relationship with the Guilty Feminist podcast, where she has been a guest and host; a role in Comedy Bites on the RTÉ player in 2015; cropping up in various places as a talking head; her podcast, which is about 70 episodes in; and an appearance on The Late Late Show where she spoke for the countless number of young people in Ireland who still live with their parents well into their twenties thanks to the rental and housing crises.

“You do feel like a bit of a failed adult in a way,” she told Ryan Tubridy. “But you shouldn’t really feel like that. Loads of people have to do it. You’re lucky you’ve got the support structures. I’m very lucky I’ve my Ma. I didn’t have to buy shower gel for three years.”

The comedian Kevin McGahern, who has worked with Spittle, hits upon her outsider-insider perspective: “I always like artists with a mix of both English and Irish,” he told me over email. “Either born in England and moved here, or maybe born in England to Irish parents. It gives you a unique perspective, an inability to truly fit in with either tribe. Steve Coogan, John Lydon, Chris Tordoff, these people all have an outsider’s point of view, a fearlessness, and a wicked sense of humour. Alison has this too.”

Spittle’s early comedy was typified by rawness. It was exposing and personal. She says the stage became a platform for her catharsis “because I couldn’t afford counselling. That would be a big thing, genuinely. Also because it felt like bursting a boil. I really wanted to talk about it. You know people who do observational humour? I would be observing trauma and doing jokes about it.” I wonder if she’s being genuine about the counselling remark or is it just a joke. “I think I’m being genuine about it.” Beat. “But it is funny.”

I have one close friend and that’s it. I don’t seem to be able to push beyond friendship in a higher level. I think it’s from moving around a lot as a kid

After a stand-up gig, people have a tendency to come up to her and say “you’re very natural” or some equivalent. This is something she mulls over. “I don’t think I act off stage like I do on stage. So I think I feel a bit: ‘They think I’m like this, but I’m not actually like this.’” Spittle has given her number to people who talk to her after gigs. Before having a separate Facebook comedy page, she would add people as friends who said things like: “That was a good gig.” The lines of her public and private self became blurred. She sometimes felt that she should be friends with everyone, or else she was “a big fake”. She pauses to digest hearing herself articulate that sentiment. “That’s a bit weird.”

“I have one close friend and that’s it,” Spittle says. “I’ve loads of acquaintances.” Why? “Because I want it to be that way. I don’t know. I don’t seem to be able to push beyond friendship in a higher level. I think it’s from moving around a lot as a kid and having lots of temporary friends, and never being able to have a long relationship with people. I have friends from Mullingar. I’ve one friend from England. There’s only one person I tell my secrets to.”

Sometimes she can be really good with people. Other times she walks away from parties thinking: “What the f*** were you talking about?” She hates silences, and maybe that’s a motivation for doing comedy, having the ultimate control over who talks and being able to fill up the silence at will. In fact, she hates silences so much they sometimes feel like a rash.

One time, she herself stayed silent. She had just started doing comedy and was at a Maeve Higgins show, where afterwards Higgins was signing her book. Spittle’s friend told her to tell Higgins she was a comedian. Spittle refused, so her friend did instead: “Alison is a comedian.” Higgins gave Spittle her email address, telling her to contact her whenever she needed advice.

Alison Spittle in Nowhere Fast, her RTÉ comedy
Alison Spittle in Nowhere Fast, her RTÉ comedy

“I emailed her before all of the Nowhere Fast stuff happened,” Spittle said. “She [Higgins] said: ‘Write down what you want, everything, no matter how stupid it sounds.’ I wrote down bullet points of what I wanted. I looked back at the bullet points last week just to see, and I’ve done all of them bar three. She gave me so much practical advice, and she didn’t even live here. . . She’s so lovely and nice. Every time she does well over in America, any time she gets a selfie with Reese Witherspoon, it just fills me up with so much joy because it gives me hope. She is the person I look to for hope. I think if she wasn’t here, or if she didn’t exist, I would feel lost.”

Spittle is particularly attached to a section from Higgins’s second book, Off We Go, where Higgins, upon returning to Dublin from London to do a gig, overhears a comedian – “A middle-aged white man with a commercially successful line in ‘What are we like at all at all’ comedy” – and his wife laughing about how they heard Higgins was waitressing in London. “I cried when I read it, because that’s the thing I’m most afraid of,” Spittle says. F*** those people, I say. “Yeah,” Spittle says.

Women are still under-represented in the lad-fest of stand-up, but are also making some of the most interesting and acclaimed work

Higgins is a bright lodestar for Spittle to look to. She too hit that emerald ceiling, the type of talent the more parochial side of Irish comedy failed to grasp, and has gone on to carve out successes many of her erstwhile Irish peers can only envy. “I don’t love watching stand-up comedy but I love watching Alison,” Higgins told me over email. “She makes me laugh a lot, she is funny for funny’s sake, she can be silly, wise, goofy and smart all in one set. She’s lovable, with her cute outfits and charming delivery, and she is capable of delivering absolutely vicious blows too, a brilliant combination. Her voice is important. I’m always curious about what she will do next, and always thrilled to see her shining.”

It’s an interesting time for women in comedy. Women are still under-represented in the lad-fest of stand-up, but are also making some of the most interesting and acclaimed work. In the last few years, RTÉ began commissioning female-led comedy either in reaction to or a keenness to reflect that: Stefanie Preissner’s Can’t Cope Won’t Cope, Spittle’s Nowhere Fast and Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy. Joanne McNally made Baby Hater for TV3, and off screen, a landmark show with Bite Me. In 2018, Electric Picnic programmed an all-female comedy line-up on one of its stages. Sharon Horgan has become the most successful Irish television makers ever. Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls enraptured Britain and Ireland. Aisling Bea is on Netflix. Deirdre O’Kane is in the best form of her career.

In a blog post in May 2016, Spittle wrote: “I’ve had coffee with a few women wanting to try stand-up, they say they want advice but I really think they want permission.” There are now, thankfully, plenty of women for other women starting out in comedy to look up to. But with RTÉ still the main platform for indigenous television projects, one wonders whether sufficient development and writing time is given to projects, and crucially whether the enthusiasm to commission is matched with an enthusiasm to sustain a series. In the case of Nowhere Fast, it fell at that hurdle.

Alison Spittle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Alison Spittle. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Spittle says she is very proud of Nowhere Fast and “cried for months” when it didn’t get a second series. Her disappointment was compounded by the responsibility that comes with having a television show dozens of other people were also involved in. “I felt guilty at destroying their chance at work or whatever, you know? It’s weird when you have a TV show. You think about yourself, but then there’s 60 other people whose jobs relied on you. You liked every one of them individually. Also, you wanted to creatively do something.” Her disappointment remains “fierce”, but equally so her pride in what she and everyone else involved created.

The Nowhere Fast chapter must have also been another motivation for moving to London. “Yes,” she says, frankly. “What else is there, you know?” Spittle has realised that she’s more ambitious than she previously thought. A friend who is in Los Angeles working with Mindy Kaling and Richard Curtis made her think “I want to be in writer’s rooms in LA and stuff like that,” something she struggles with saying aloud in case it doesn’t happen. “It’s hard to put that out in to the world and then fail, but I’ve decided to not care that much.”

These are the ways in which she has changed over the last few years: she is more confident; she does not put up with horrible behaviour; and she speaks up for herself more. “I think people give me less shit, you know?” She pauses to specify what she’s getting at. “I mean, [they] pay me the same as other people. . . Men. By ‘other people’ I mean men.”

It was a good year, 2018. Headlining Vicar Street was the happiest day of her life (“I’m never going to get married, so that’s my wedding.”) She did the Palladium in London with The Guilty Feminist. A woman came backstage and Spittle thought: “That woman looks very like Emma Thompson.” It was Emma Thompson. “That was nice.” She brought the Worrier Princess show to Edinburgh and interviewed Sharon Horgan for her podcast at Electric Picnic.

People hate emotions. People hate you being emotional about stuff. They want to you to be logical. They feel it’s manipulation to show emotion

But like many, she also suffered from the impact of the abortion referendum. “I did not have a good June after that because it just felt sad. . . It was done, and you were happy, but then all your friends have flagellated themselves in the media and are destroyed, and you look at the sacrifices they made.

“Also, when you’re in it, when the referendum was happening, you didn’t have a real chance to feel emotional. You felt outrage, almost performative outrage: ‘Look at this! This is terrible!’ You didn’t really think about it because you had to win the referendum. So yeah, I think a lot of people felt bad after the referendum. It was a time of reflection.”

“It’s hard because you can’t talk about it because you won and you don’t want to seem moaney. It’s so weird. People hate emotions. People hate you being emotional about stuff. They want to you to be logical. They feel it’s manipulation to show emotion. It’s tough.”

Spittle broadens the discussion out into the role emotions and trauma play in her stand-up. “Before I got on telly and I did comedy, I would do comedy about anything I wanted to. I would just puke! I’d feel like I was just purifying myself by naming every horrible thing that’s happened to me. ‘Just talk about it and it’s fine.’ Now I don’t. Now I want to keep some stuff back because I realise it wasn’t making me feel good, really. I thought it would but it didn’t. Also, I don’t know, I’m so afraid of people thinking I’m manipulating them, which is weird. That’s my big fear.”

Now waking up in London every morning, in the ex-sitting room of a nice home, where she and her boyfriend have their own balcony with a squirrel tormenting them by eating the bulbs they’ve planted in anticipation of spring, Spittle knows she has made the right decision when she leaves the house and is immersed in her surroundings. It’s when she’s in her room trying to write when self-doubt creeps in. “I’m going to have to be at peace with it,” she says. The doubt may always be there, but it’s also fuel in the engine that’s driving her somewhere, fast.