Joanne McNally: ‘There was always a bang of show pony off me’

The Dublin comedian, who was adopted, explores what’s in our DNA in her new show

Joanne McNally: ‘I want them to laugh. Laugh, laugh, laugh. That’s all. I’m just a clown.’

Joanne McNally: ‘I want them to laugh. Laugh, laugh, laugh. That’s all. I’m just a clown.’

 

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Joanne McNally did about 50 shows in less than a month. Half were her own gig, The Prosecco Express. The other half was made up of everything from live podcasts to MC duties to Best of the Fest gigs and other stand-up spots.

“One woman messaged and said she had mascara down her face and no one told her for a couple of hours after the show,” McNally says over the phone, with a handful of shows to go. “That’s the sh** I like to hear. I want them to laugh. Laugh, laugh, laugh. That’s all. I’m just a clown.”

When McNally arrived on the Irish stand-up scene five years ago, her jokes felt fully formed, her onstage persona an extension of her own magnetic one. Her brilliant bolshiness and radical honesty gave her a sense of invincibility on stage, the unspoken ingredient in a form of entertainment people pay for tickets to see succeed. Here was a comedian self-aware enough for her self-deprecation to land spectacularly well – all south Dublin attitude and stories of dating escapades gone wrong that gave her own questionable behaviour equal weight in the punchlines.

It was obvious from the get-go that McNally was a star; all that was left to do was hustle and grind. So she got to work.

Right now, McNally has a fairly decent metric by which to measure her rise. Two years ago, she woke up every day during the Edinburgh festival with only about four tickets to that day’s show sold. Last year, that rose to maybe a dozen. In 2019, every performance bar one of The Prosecco Express sold out the 60-seat Studio 4  theatre at Assembly George Square Studios. It’s some achievement within a festival known for its punishing slog, competitiveness, and the frankly overwhelming number of acts performing 4,000 shows across more than 300 venues.

The Prosecco Express

The Prosecco Express began as a meditation on personal origin. McNally, who is adopted, is interested in how much of us is inherited. The family she was adopted into is “not a show pony family, whereas there was always a bang of show pony off me. It was just there. That has always made me quite curious. Where did that side of things come from? Do you inherit it? Is it your own thing? What’s your data? What’s your DNA? Being an adopted kid, you’ve no context.”

But when she started to write, the material morphed. “I just always gravitate towards relationships, love, friends, the girls, kids, marriage . . . So of course the show ended up being about three minutes of DNA and destiny . . . Then it became about drinking prosecco at other people’s milestones and just observing them, milestones I have not mile’d. So now when I’m flogging it to people, I’m like, ‘ignore the blurb, it’s a lie, fake news!’”

McNally believes people aren’t in “autopilot” anymore, less inclined to go down the marriage-and-kids route without a second thought. Yet the judgment on women’s life choices remains.

McNally recalls an aunt who never married or had children, but was “this turbo-feminist character, went off in the ’60s, left her teaching post, ended up with the UN working in Africa . . . A total little maverick. As a seven-year-old, I was like ‘poor auntie Mary, never married or had kids’. I was sleeping on a plastic sheet in a single bed because I was still wetting it, feeling sorry for this woman who was obviously making loads of cash, travelling all the time.”

McNally has a way of brilliantly skewering the irritants of contemporary over-sharing (“we made that heinous mistake of de-stigmatising mental health, now when people are struggling they tell you”) which lands because she too has been part of that culture. Bite Me, her funny, moving and genuinely courageous show from a few years back about dealing with an eating disorder, was a hit, but her sights are set on things bigger than shows that work in a festival context. She wants Vicar Street gigs (more of them – her show Gleebag sold out this year).

A lot of the shows in Edinburgh, she says, are the consequence of the pressure “to go down the very personal route, sharing a personal story or tragedy. A lot of it up here is stand-up tragedy more than stand-up comedy.”

McNally is now based in London. “I live with a sexual psychiatrist. I can’t explain how exciting that is.” She has a comedy TV pilot in the works, co-writing with her frequent collaborator Una McKevitt. She wants to write a book, and is also starting to work with BBC Comedy.

“I’ve no idea what’s going to happen. That’s the exciting bit . . . I don’t like routine. That’s probably why I’m in this job.”

The Prosecco Express is on in Smock Alley Theatre from September 10th to 15th as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. See fringefest.com

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