Serious laughs with Joanne McNally's Bite Me
Dublin comedian Joanne McNally was supposed to play Belfast's Black Box back in January, but ended up in Galway by mistake. David Roy quizzed the former Republic of Telly star on finally bringing her acclaimed eating disorder-themed show Bite Me to Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival next week
HI JOANNE, is it true you managed to confuse Galway's Black Box with Belfast's identically named venue back in January?
Yes! It's not the first disaster I've had and it won't be the last I'd say. But I'm coming back – and I know where I'm going this time.
You've recently started touring a new stand-up show, Wine Tamer. Is it going to be weird to jump back into Bite Me mode again?
Wine Tamer is my first hour of pure stand-up, basically, it's my new Edinburgh show. All the shows I've done thus far have had some sort of 'emotional journey': Singlehood was about relationships, Separated At Birth was about adoption and Bite Me is about my bulimia and anorexia.
But it's funny, with Wine Tamer I feel like it doesn't have the same punch as the others, so I'm probably going to add some more depth to it – especially for Edinburgh, because they want more than just traditional stand-up there: they want to be brought on some sort of 'journey'.
Even as a punter, I always prefer when there's something a bit more going on than just surface level gags, so I think I'm going to work with Una McKevitt who directed Bite Me and see if we can we kind of do something more with Wine Tamer.
Why do you think audiences respond so strongly to 'personal' shows?
There's humour in truth that people can kind of relate to. The more truth that's in there, them more relatable and enjoyable an experience it is for the audience, I think. American comics tell jokes – they're really funny, but it's obvious that these things never happened. Whereas, I think here we prefer funny stories that you can actually believe.
The problem is, there's only so many mental health issues you can have and still maintain a career!
A lot of people who've seen Bite Me have told me that, although they don't have an eating disorder, they can still identify with the stuff I was saying: that feeling that something else is in control and you don't realise it until it gets to a very dark place.
Maybe other people are concerned about something in your behaviour and you just dismiss them – which is what I did for a very long time. Ultimately, it's a show about addiction.
How did your eating disorders begin?
It started in my 20s when I was desperately unhappy with my life. I was doing an office job with no creative output and I think that's part of the reason I got sick.
In the beginning, it was about being really thin. I thought I was on a detox or something. Eventually, I knew that something wasn't right, that what I was doing wasn't normal, but I certainly didn't think I had a mental health issue.
I was constantly binging and purging, I couldn't have anything inside me. I was addicted to the feeling of being empty – anything other than that made me feel completely anxious about weight gain.
I told myself that anyone who was thin was doing this, but they just wouldn't ever admit it, like I was in a secret club.
Then once I admitted I was sick, there was almost a release in it, because I'd beaten myself up so badly about not being able to control my weight without starving myself or binging and purging.
It was like being possessed by something, so then being 'a sick person' became my identity for ages. Like, I think my mum thought that once I admitted I was bulimic, it would just go away – but of course, it didn't. You have to change your entire way of thinking and your entire relationship with food; you basically have to re-map your brain.
You need to kind of go into yourself and become completely self-absorbed, because it's so hard to recover from. Eventually, one friend rang me and said, "I know when you were in treatment you had to be very self-absorbed, but now you're better and you're still self-absorbed – you need to snap out of it".
Did your recovery overlap with your comedy career?
I was literally starting my treatment when I did my first stage show [Singlehood]. It was actually wonderful because getting into performing gave me a reason to get better – if I hadn't had that, I don't really know if I would have had any motivation to get better.
Getting into comedy was a total game-changer; it changed my life. But I was still quite fragile at the time and I wouldn't have had the best self-esteem, so if it had gone badly I would have been like, "told ya". I'd probably still be sitting in my mum's house, doing nothing.
But I started getting booked and then I got the Republic of Telly gig. I was like, "this suits me much better than my old life, I feel much happier". I felt alive on stage.
When did you decide to share your eating disorder experience with Bite Me?
I basically wrote Bite Me in treatment because I had nothing else to do. I didn't know what it was – I thought it was going to be a book or something.
I've known Una my whole life, and it was her who suggested that we try to make a show out of it. The first time we tried it, it failed, because I just wasn't comfortable, I felt too exposed. By the time we did it again, I had enough distance that I was able to let go and not be so sensitive or precious about it.
But even then, there were some parts of the show – like the fact I used to hide bags of sick in my wardrobe – where I was like "Una, I really don't think they need to know that".
I was worried it was too voyeuristic, but Una said "yes, they do" and she was right, because it shows exactly what bulimia does to a person. People think it's like just throwing up your dinner and then going on as normal, when really it takes over your whole life.
:: Joanne McNally, Bite Me, Thursday May 3, The Black Box, Belfast, 1pm. Tickets £7 via CQAF.com