Maeve Higgins: ‘I feel more freedom to express myself in New York’
The Irish comedian on immigrants and the American right to eat a raw burger
Maeve Higgins: “If you move to New York from somewhere else, then you’re probably going to be after something. It’s a very capitalist city. You come here if you have ambitions.” Photograph: Michael Nagle
Maeve Higgins: “I always want to know why someone moves from where they’re born. I always end up talking to people about that. I just find it so interesting.” Photograph: Michael Nagle
April Bloomfield’s deviled eggs have probably never been described as First Holy Communion style. But that’s what Maeve Higgins says when the $5 egg with fancy piped filling arrives in The Spotted Pig.
We are in Bloomfield’s gastropub in New York’s West Village to chew over Higgins’s life, work and the delights of dumplings in her adopted city. But first: deviled eggs.
“They’re one of my favourite things to bring to parties because everyone laughs at it,” Higgins explains. “They’re delicious and they’re protein and they’re nostalgic, and people are like, I love these; how do you make them? It’s like the most basic thing.”
Peel boiled eggs, cut them in half, take out the yolk, mash it up with mayonnaise and paprika, and put it back in, since you’re asking. “It’s just like adding fat to eggs, which is such a beautiful thing to do.”
Higgins tells me she can put the whole half egg in her mouth in one go “because it’s you”, which I take as a compliment. “But if it was a date, I’d be like, ‘ooh, ooh’,” says a girly girl who only eats in tiny nibbles.
From something as simple as a boiled egg, the Cobh-born writer and comedian mines a rich seam of comedy. When I ask how she brings them to parties (yes, a little detail-obsessed, but . . . Tupperware or platters?), she pauses, grins and delivers a classic Higgins line.
“I think I might have said that more aspirationally than actually meaning it was true. I can’t remember the last time I made them. Cos, yeah, you’re not going to go on a subway with a tray of them.”
For Higgins, life is simply too busy to stuff an egg. She’s writing another book. (Asking when it’s coming out earns a snippy “my deadline is next year so I’m just working on that now. Okay?”) She hosts a monthly live show with writer Jon Ronson, and is finishing off a two-season podcast about immigration that will begin airing later this month.
We’ll return to that but, first, as an awestruck visitor, I ask her: does Higgins still get surprised by the utter New Yorkness of the place?
Familiarity feeds content
“I think that it still strikes me. And everything has a familiarity, even if you’ve never been here before,” she says. “All the little neighbourhoods are very familiar, and places like Williamsburg . . . I’ve a friend who says Williamsburg is like a nest. So there’s a version of Williamsburg in Dublin – for good or for bad, I don’t know. But it’s very familiar. But I still appreciate those moments when you meet a stereotype of a New Yorker. I really like that. Like whole families on the subway.
“If you move here from somewhere else, then you’re probably going to be after something. It’s a very capitalist city. You come here if you have ambitions.”
So what was Higgins after? “I think I always wanted to be a writer in a city. That particular trope always appealed to me, like . . . ” she adopts a lofty Pathé News tone . . . “being a writer in New York city.” But another big reason was to meet these people who were doing things and making stuff, and I’ve been doing that for the past few years.
“That part has not disappointed. I find really interesting, cool people here all the time.”
She later notes another selling point.
“I like being here because I think this is a city of writers. I felt the same in Dublin, but it was a different vibe. Irish writing is, like . . . ” She pauses; a small sigh . . . “male. I’m sure it’s my perspective as well, but I think of Maeve Brennan and how democratic it is here. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better than Ireland. I feel more freedom to express myself here.
“There’s so much: podcasts, newsletters, comedy and journalism. It’s so bolstering to just have access to other people doing great things.” Like other women? “Totally.”
How did she manage to find her feet?
“Work is really useful. If you come here and you have work to do, then that’s how I made some friends. But, as well, when I first got here I would go on friend dates. I sent a general email saying if you know anyone in New York, let me know. And then I met up with people and then I chose my favourite people and pursued them relentlessly. And now I have brilliant friends here that I chose, that I didn’t just inherit or grow up with.”
Joking for dollars
Higgins’s temporary office is on Broad Street in the financial district, about as far as possible from her apartment in East Harlem on the other end of Manhattan. She’s ambivalent about the “weird energy” in the money hub. The coworking space is festooned with slogans on the wall such as “bust the hustle”.
“There’s a Chinese bank next door to me,” she says. “They do unusual hours. The guy in the next cubicle, all he seems to do is make dinner reservations and talk to his girlfriend on the phone. I don’t know what he does. And he argues with delivery men on the phone.”
Higgins had to move from working in her bedroom to an office because she is making a podcast, Maeve in America, with a team of three from First Look Media. “The first two seasons are going to be about immigration to the US, and it’s me talking to an immigrant because, obviously, I’m an immigrant.”
She is well aware that “immigrant” has become a loaded word in the US.
“At the moment, there’s such a strong rhetoric in the media and politics, and when people talk about immigration they’re specifically talking about brown people. They’re talking about Muslims and Mexicans and South Americans. It’s not just in reaction to that. It’s just because every person in America, unless you are a native American or was brought here as a slave – you’re an immigrant.
“So I just think, cool, there’s millions of stories and we all have this in common. I always want to know why someone moves from where they’re born. I always end up talking to people about that. I just find it so interesting.”
Each episode will feature an immigrant’s story, with historians, scientists and experts on board to give it a big-picture feel.
“I think there’s value in just people telling their story, and just that humanness is important,” Higgins says. “I don’t want it to just be a story show, but often just putting a face and a voice behind that big word ‘immigrant’ . . . that’s what I’m interested in doing.”
The foreign treatment
Does she worry that we have an empathy deficit towards certain people? “I think empathy could really help. Preaching doesn’t help, but I’m so angry at the way Ireland treats immigrants and refugees, and the way America does too. It’s just trying to figure out how best can I do something practical with that.
“Understanding that 600 people drowning in the Mediterranean is preventable, but when it happens it’s just as devastating for each family, just as much as if a white person died. The race thing can’t be ignored. So often if it’s an Eritrean disaster their lives are valued less.
“I think I’m really lucky to be here at this time when Black Lives Matter are so strong and doing such great work. It’s such a simple statement, like: black lives matter. And those lives on the boat matter just as much as a girl doing her Leaving Cert in Tralee. So, yeah, I’m saying preaching doesn’t help and I’m preaching.”
Higgins hopes humour will be a way to talk about these big issues, especially in the aftermath of the toxic US presidential election. Good podcasts can garner huge listenerships, and she loves the medium.
“It’s a way to get that little bit of extra time to get someone’s heart, or even just their attention,” she says. “TV is very quick judgments, very quick everything. You get a little bit more time with radio.”
Freedom of stupid choice
By now I’m gnawing on the legendary Spotted Pig burger, virtually raw meat topped with Roquefort in a brioche bun. It would be illegal to serve it like this at home. “Little fusspots,” Higgins says. “It should be up to the person, like cigarettes and drinking. It’s our own stupid choice. Or is that very nihilistic?”
Her favourite place to eat is Veselka, a Ukranian diner on Second Avenue.
“It’s a real comedian place,” she says, “because it’s kind of like stodgy food late at night, and drink is served. I’m drawn to dumplings. Veselka do pierogi boiled or fried, and they’re just so hardcore you eat two of them and feel so full you’re uncomfortable.
“I just thought there was one kind of dumpling growing up, and I was happy with that. That was already enough joy in the world. But now I find out so many nationalities have their own dumplings. It’s just the best.”
Maeve Higgins’s Maeve in America begins on November 22nd. Subscribe through iTunes or any of the usual podcast providers.