The last laugh

 

BEST GET THE disclosures out of the way first. As the observant among you may have already noticed, John Butler is a columnist for this magazine, offering up a confession on the inside back page each week. As if that wasn't cosy enough, he's also a close friend of mine, writes Louise East

So there goes my journalistic integrity. I won't lie to you. If, during the course of this interview, John let slip that it was he who authorised the midnight burglary of the Watergate building, I'm not entirely sure it would make the piece. What luck for us all then, that John's only crime, ladies and gentlemen, is to have co-written and directed a comedy show of great wit and arguable taste. For the moment, you'll have to take my word on that, but on St Stephen's Day at 9.40pm, you can draw your own conclusions. Your Bad Self is half an hour of quick-fire comedy sketches performed by a cast which would qualify it for media attention, regardless of Butler's Irish Times connections.

From Michael McElhatton, who will be forever Rats in the minds of many Paths To Freedomfans, to Justine Mitchell, who filmed the show on breaks from playing Hedda Gabler at the Gate, to Domhnall Gleeson, Tony-nominated at the ripe ol' age of 25; the cast of Your Bad Selfis eclectic, unusual and unarguably cool.

Of the sketches, Butler says: "They're not subversive. It's more about people behaving really nicely in unmentionable situations." It should be pointed out that the scenario he's talking about is one in which a rather prim schoolteacher (played by Karen Egan) is propositioned by a past pupil (Gleeson) hoping for a bit of action.

"So you're a kerb crawler now," she enthuses.

"Yeah, keeps me off the streets," he replies amiably.

"They're non-political, non-topical sketches and I guess they tend to be a little bit dark," Butler elaborates. "It's not a belly-laugh show. I think with sketches, if you get four laughs in half an hour, you're doing well."

The sketch-show is not a format with a long history in Ireland, while in Britain, its obituary appears nearly as regularly as Jimmy Carr. The theory goes something like this: Brass Eye was so corrosive it fatally eroded the sketch show format; The Officejunked it, and more recently, "sit-com nouveau" Gavin and Stacey disposed of the scrap.

Which does little to explain why it remains such an enduringly popular format. Whether it's the gross-out humour of Little Britain, the catch-phrase comedy of The Catherine Tate Showor the sharper, darker laughs mined by British sleeper hits such as Big Train and Man Stroke Woman, sketch shows show no sign of disappearing. "It's a format really suited to these times," Butler reckons. "Attention spans are lower than they've ever been before. Each sketch could be a YouTube clip without much difficulty."

It was Ireland's total lack of home-grown sketch shows which first got Butler and his co-writers working - and before any irate Irish comedy auteurs write in, it should be noted that this was back in 1999. At the time, Butler was making on-air promos for TV3; Ben Kelly worked in the news department of RTÉ and Eoin Williams was teaching English.

"I was in UCD with Ben in the 1990s and Eoin was a childhood friend of Ben's. We used to meet in each others' living rooms over a borrowed laptop every Tuesday night and hammer out these sketches. It was either sit in the livingroom and write or go to the pub, and one was as much fun as the other." Not expecting much, they sent some scripts to RTÉ, which responded with an offer of funding for a short pilot which they shot in 2000, calling on actor friends such as Peter McDonald, who had already hit the big time in 1997's I Went Down. They delivered in 2001 (Butler remembers editing during 9/11), received good feedback and then all went quiet.

"We thought we were on this irresistible upwards trajectory and then it all just stopped. The person who commissioned it was no longer there and it seemed like there was no outlet for scripted comedy. Entertainment was variety- and music-based; I guess our pilot fell between the cracks." None of them stuck around to count the tumbleweeds. By 2007, Butler had a couple of short films under his belt and a column in The Irish Times; Kelly was a producer of entertainment television with credits on I'm A Celebrity, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmaresand Strictly Come Dancing, and Williams was back at university studying psychology.

Then the phone call came. RTÉ had a new commissioning editor for entertainment, Eddie Doyle, and a supportive development officer, Jennifer Griffin. They'd found the tape on the RTÉ shelves and wanted Butler et al to convert the original 15 minutes into a 30-minute for-broadcast comedy pilot.

"We were apprehensive," says Butler of the eight-year time-lag. "We ditched a huge amount based on it feeling irrelevant and tried as far as possible to come up with new material. Really there's only two minutes of old stuff in the pilot and the rest of it is new." Ironically, more often than not, it was real world events which extracted the teeth of the original material, rather than the sketches losing their edge. A 2000 scene featuring a couple flicking through colour charts to decide which baby might best suit their curtains does not look quite so far-fetched in the light of certain celebrity adoptions.

One thing which has changed very little is the cast of actors: McElhatton, McDonald, Mitchell, Egan and Hugh O'Conor were all in the original and have been joined by the likes of Andrew Bennett, Tom Farrelly and John Light.

"Actors are as understandable to me as alchemists. Even the ones who aren't remotely funny in real life, show up, turn on and become incredibly brilliant performers," says Butler. "With guys as talented as this, you just know they're going to come up with better stuff than you could write." So the camera was rolling and the improv was just hilarious. The writing team has expanded too; Justine Mitchell, who was already writing sketches with English actor Emily Fairman, contributes some of what Butler admiringly describes as "the most filthy and outrageous material, God bless them." Butler has nothing but praise for his cast and crew, and not just because they "worked for buttons and pulled together some fantastic stuff." Your Bad Self is fairly unusual in that unlike most sketch shows, from The Fast Show to The Catherine Tate Show, it's penned by writers who are not themselves performers. "That's an interesting phenomenon," says Butler. "With a show like The Fast Show, the way Paul Whitehouse says a word is hilarious but for a writer, pitching that is difficult. We tend to write material that doesn't need a personality to sell it because none of us can act.

"All the people who play parts in Your Bad Selfare actors who are probably best-known for their work in theatre, film or TV drama, rather than stand-up comics or TV personalities. To perform the kind of material we write, it helps to let the dialogue do the work." If Your Bad Self gets commissioned for a series, Butler is interested in the idea of bringing more writers on board and creating an American-style writers' room. "That kind of writing system is great because you can instantly tell if something's funny by the reaction of other people. It's like telling a joke in the pub; if they don't laugh, you're not going to pursue it."

Your Bad Selfis on RTÉ 2 at 9.40pm on St Stephen's Day

COMEDY

Domhnall Gleeson Nominated for a Tony at the age of 23 for his role in the 2006 Broadway production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. May have felt like deja-vu for Gleeson who also appeared in McDonagh's Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter. Domhnall's father, Brendan Gleeson, co-starred with Peter McDonald in 1997's I Went Down.

Tom Farrelly There are people who think Farrelly might as well retire. After all, what could possibly top roles in both Doctor Who(he voiced Swabb in the David Tennant incarnation) and Father Ted(as Gerry Fields)? Farrelly refuses to oblige; alongside his stage, television and radio work, he's an accomplished screenwriter (RTÉ's Raw).

Andrew Bennett Even if you haven't scoped Bennett on stage at The Abbey (The Importance of Being Earnest, Tarry Flynn)or on screen ( Garage, Pure Mule, Paths to Freedom), you'll recognise his gravelly baritone: he narrated Angela's Ashesand his voice frequently adds gravitas to documentaries.

Peter McDonald Came to the Your Bad Selfshoot fresh from filming the much-anticipated The Damned United, the Peter Morgan-adapted movie of David Peace's cult book, in which McDonald converts into an uncanny Johnny Giles. A much sought-after figure on the London stage, next year he's signed up for the West End revival of Dancing at Lughnasa.

Karen Egan Once part of the Nualas comedy trio, Egan's one-woman cabaret show and critically-acclaimed 2006 album, Very Very, has earned her a dedicated posse of fans. An early member of the Your Bad Selffamily, she also appeared in Butler's film George.

Justine Mitchell With consecutive title roles in the Abbey's Three Sistersand Brian Friel's version of Hedda Gablerat the Gate, 2008 was the year when everyone sat up and took notice of Mitchell's considerable talent. It was also the year when she married Your Bad Selfwriter, Ben Kelly - ironically, Mitchell appeared in Kelly's first pilot in 2000, but the pair never met.

Emily Fairman Hertfordshire-native Emily Fairman met Justine Mitchell at drama school in London and the pair have been writing together ever since. Fairman has worked with playwright John Godber, but if were honest, we recognise her from roles in Emmerdale, Coronation Street and The Bill.

Michael McElhatton Changed the Irish comedy landscape (together with co-writer/director Ian Fitzgibbon) with 2000's Paths to Freedomand 2002's Fergus's Wedding. Good friend of McDonald with whom he recently appeared in a Butler/O'Conor short movie, Spacemen Three, which also featured Pat Short as a really annoying astronaut.

Hugh O'Conor (not in picture) The length and breath of O'Conor's CV (from 1988's Dathrough My Left Foot,the Three Musketeersand Chocolatto his 2008 outing as writer-director with Spacemen Three) belies his years (he's just 33). Star of Butler's first short film, George.