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Jake O'Kane on returning to live comedy with new Maskerade tour... as Omicron measures disrupt shows

David Roy quizzes north Belfast comedian Jake O'Kane about getting back on the road with his new stand-up tour Maskerade: The Mask Comes Off, which will be coming to a venue near you soon – Covid regulations permitting...

 Jake O'Kane's tour has been disrupted by the latest Covid measures days before it was due to start. Picture by Mal McCann

:: WHEN were you last on stage doing live comedy?

I actually can't remember, time seems to have wrapped into itself over the past two years. I think it was February 2020. This is the longest I've been off stage since I started doing comedy.

It was surreal, I'd literally just finished my tour [Nobody Shouted Stop!] in mid-February. Christmas is usually brutal for me because I only see the family on Christmas Day and that's pretty much it until February or March, when we have a tradition of going away together for three or four days.

Last year, I thought I'd treat them and take us away to New York. And that was my first inkling that this [Covid] thing was serious: we were sitting in JFK and this woman walked past whose own husband wouldn't have recognised her: she had surgical gloves, a full surgical facemask and wrap-around glasses.

I was sitting there going 'look at that f***ing idiot' – little did I know.

:: You were quite active online during lockdown last year with your Jake In His Jammies YouTube videos and have continued to post regular Jake Uncut videos. Have you enjoyed adapting your comedy to that format?

That was me figuring out 'how can I still do what I do without doing what I do?' And it was a steep learning curve. Even just recording the stuff, for the first three weeks the sound was s***e.

Eventually, I phoned the guy who does sound for me on tour, Sean Boyle: he came to see me after the first lockdown ended and told me that the big expensive microphone I'd bought wasn't actually turned on.

Then you have to edit the stuff, which is a nightmare – it takes twice as long to edit it as it does to record it. But I'm lucky that my wife Caroline is a very good editor. She will immediately tell me what I can and can't say about someone.

The nice thing about doing Jake Uncut is that it's an indication that there's a genuine need for me to be doing this – because there's no financial gain from it at all. I found that comforting in a way, because sometimes you start to wonder, 'Am I doing this for the money?' And it's as well I'm not – you'd have to be mentally unwell to do it for the money .

I also enjoyed writing a radio play for Simon McGill down in the MAC. It's a thing for the centenary of Northern Ireland – they say write what you know, so I basically did the opposite: it's a skit about a loyalist trying to buy rugby tickets and getting rejected by the UK because they no longer recognise him as being from the UK, so he ends up having to buy them off a guy in Dublin who doesn't recognise him as being Irish. That should be on their website [themaclive.com] soon.

:: What about the new tour, Maskerade – have you finished writing it yet?

The way I do this, it's very regimented: I put an awful lot of time and effort into getting the timing and the material right – but I've still only got it half-way written.

It's a weird sort of thing with me. I've an arty farty friend who tells me, 'That's just your creative process, Jake' but I'm like nah: I'm just a lazy b*****d.

I have it all in my head – I'd be worried if I was sitting going, 'What am I going to say?'. I've a wee mental filing cabinet which I fill up over the year with things I want to talk about. But getting it from my head onto paper can sometimes be a pain.

I like to do between an hour and an hour-fifteen: there was one year I did two hours. Now, that isn't a comedy show – that's some sort of torture or form of abuse. But you live and learn.

The Irish News is still the 'backbone' of Jake's live show. Picture by Ann McManus.

:: Do you still use The Irish News to help you write the show and as a visual aid during it?

Absolutely. My relationship with the Irish News dates back to well before I ever wrote for it: The Irish News was our family paper, so it's part of my DNA. And it obviously influences a lot of what I do on stage.

I do read other stuff as well, but the Irish News is sort of the backbone. It's the first port of call for any story I want to talk about – and then I'll sort of go, 'right, now what do the Protestants think?'.

:: Is your weekly Irish News column useful for gathering material for your stand-up?

It's a nice thing to do but it's a totally different discipline.With the stand-up, obviously a lot of what I do is talking with a lot of improvisation and other bulls***. That's easy. When you actually have to sit down and write something from start to finish, that's a totally different kind of writing.

I have to keep a spreadsheet of what I've done [in the columns], though, because there was one week when I had a whole column finished in about half an hour. I was thinking, 'This is easy, I've got this beat now': then I gave it to Caroline to read over. She says, 'What are you doing? You've written this before'. And I had, almost word for word.

But I do like it, in the sense that it stretches wee bits of the mind that don't get stretched with the comedy. Although my last three weeks have all been about getting old, which is just observational stuff and a wee bit like doing comedy in a slightly different form.

There's some weeks I like to be a bit of a bolshy b*****d, but what I'm very aware of is that The Irish News does not need another political commentator. I'll allow myself a wee rant now and again, but I'm trying to manoeuvre away from that to writing a bit more about life in general. I'm never going to compete with Newton Emerson.

Jake O'Kane

:: Do you miss The Blame Game?

To be honest, no. I'd done it, you know what I mean? It was great fun while I was doing it but eventually it was a bit like what I was saying about my column – I'd say something and then think, 'Hold on, I think I've said that before. In fact, I think I might have said it three or four times'. That's the point when it's time to go and do something else.

:: What about the upcoming tour, are you at the point now when you can look at that list of dates and know roughly what to expect from each venue/town?

You've a rough idea, but there's never a guarantee. That's the beauty of stand-up, that's what I love about it – you can't relax. You can't just sit back and go 'well, I've done this place five times, it's going to be fine.' It's live, you're right in front of them and they might not react the way you think.

Some gigs are harder than others, that's just the nature of the beast. It can be down to a multitude of things – the demographic, the night of the week, whatever. But then there are ones that are always going to be great. I mean, the Opera House was built for what I do, so that will be a nice one to finish on. If we ever get to do it.

:: Jake O'Kane's Maskerade tour featuring Terry McHugh was due to start on December 28 at Strule Arts Centre in Omagh, but last minute changes related to the latest Covid-19 developments mean that show has been rescheduled to March 5. Other changes include the shows scheduled for the Canal Court in Newry, which has been moved from December 29 to February 25, and the Ardhowen in Enniskillen (from December 30 to March 20. The show at The Braid in Ballymena on January 21 has also been rescheduled, with a new date to be confirmed. At present, the three dates at Grand Opera House in Belfast (February 17 to 19) are going ahead. See Jakeokane.com for full dates and ticketing details.

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