Deirdre O'Kane: 'Demented' is the word

Dublin comic Deirdre O'Kane is ready to make us howl with her new Demented show which rolls into Belfast in September. Here, she ponders the pandemic, the menopause, teenagers and TikTok with Gail Bell

Dublin comic Deirdre O'Kane reckons northerners are 'generally very funny' and has fond memories of The Empire in Belfast. Picture by Frank McKenna
Gail Bell

WE are all – society as a whole and herself included – a bit demented, muses Deirdre O'Kane, and once that axiom of humanity is accepted, all that is left is to sit back and "howl".

The Dublin-based comic, actor, presenter and chat show host is hoping we all do just that – howl with laughter, that is - when her Demented tour arrives in Belfast in September

And, judging by enthused audiences so far in the Republic – when we spoke, O'Kane was still basking in the after-glow of a Longford standing ovation the previous evening - it should be a night for rolling in the aisles.

The delivery of her show – which she thinks is the best she has written yet – is the easy part for the 54-year-old stand-up and co-founder of Comic Relief in Ireland; it is the months spent writing at her desk that exhaust her.

"Performing is the really gratifying part for me," she explains from her home in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

"When you're getting rolls of laughter coming back at you, you know that all the months at the desk were worth it. I do a lot of moaning when I'm sitting at the desk."

Next up in the lengthy Demented tour (which will "probably" run into next year) was the loved-up home crowd in Dún Laoghaire, but you get the impression O'Kane, with her instantaneous engagement and warm relatability, would be embraced by audiences anywhere.

A "late developer", she fell into comedy serendipitously, having already been an established actor for 10 years, although, having a mother from Derry meant funny was always in her bones.

She had been "doing fine, making a living, doing a lot of theatre and a bit of telly" when an unplanned visit to Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival with her director husband, Stephen Bradley, in 1996, upended her plans.

"It was a complete accident," she recalls. "I had never even seen any stand-up comedy live, but I had been complaining about not having enough [acting] work and Stephen, who was making a documentary on the new festival, said why don't you just come along and make the tea or something.

"My payment was an 'Access-all-areas' laminate and I could go and watch as much comedy as I wanted. It was genuinely a 'road-to-Damascus' moment. I spent three full days watching comedy non-stop and I was hooked."

She returned the following year to perform at Cat Laughs and, give or take a few years in between to have babies and return to acting – she portrayed Irish children's rights campaigner Christina Noble in 2014 biopic, Noble (earning a Best Lead Actress Award from the Irish Film and Television Awards) – she has pretty much been laughing ever since.

But the Dancing with the Stars finalist (2018) who recently fronted her own talk show, Deirdre O'Kane Talks Funny on RTE, as well as debuting stand-up series, The Deirdre O'Kane Show (Sky Comedy), was not a funny child.

"I definitely wasn't considered the 'funny one' in school," she laments. "My only memory of being funny at that time is doing impersonations of the teachers – the priests and the nuns – but my mother is funny and my great grandfather was a phenomenal storyteller, so maybe 'funny' is just in your bones.

"I do think Derry people are hilarious and I find northerners generally very funny - and also particularly friendly. I have a memory of being in the Empire in Belfast for the final of the BBC New Comedy Awards and how much good craic it always was there."

Well known as the voice of smash-hit Googlebox (Virgin Media) - which returned for a seventh season in late 2021 – O'Kane, a six-time IFTA nominee, didn't have to think too long for the title of her new comedy show after emerging re-energised but "generally a bit demented" from the pandemic lockdowns.

"We've had two years of sh*te , excuse my lovely language, but really, it's been so rubbish," she says, "so, yes, 'demented' was the word, especially for a woman of a certain age – those of us in our 50s.

"You're talking the menopause, parenting teenagers, having older parents and all the hilarity that goes with that, while trying to save your face from falling into the sea."

Beneath the easy chat lies solid professionalism and the old 'Show must go on' adage rang painfully true for the comic when in 2016 her husband fell seriously ill.

"We all have stuff going on," she reasons, "and we all still have to go to work. I've gone on stage many times after awful news - comics do that all the time, but so do actors and singers.

"When Steve was sick, I think going on stage actually saved me. I was able to escape for a while and just switch my brain off and I think that's a good thing.

"It's the same for people in the audience – they come out to shows and let people make them laugh for an hour-and-a-half. It's a hell of a lot cheaper than an hour with a therapist."

Is anything off limits in her comedy in an age when multiple sensitivities often overlap and all kinds of 'correctness' may temper the script?

"I think every comic just has to keep an eye on his or her own page," she mulls.

"I don't like the thought of offending anyone, so I censor myself and always have done – to a degree. You can't be saintly, you're human, but that doesn't mean political correctness isn't right either. Without it there are so many things that wouldn't be stopped that need to be stopped, so it's just a balance.

"I do think, though, that comedy clubs have to remain just that – comedy clubs – and what I do find a bit worrying is people filming comedy clubs on their phones and posting content because that 'live' room is a different animal. The anarchy is just meant for that room and the people in it."

Her own children, teenagers Daniel and Holly, aren't necessarily immune. "They don't like me talking about them," she hoots happily down the phone, "but I say to them, 'Look, you're fair game, lads... this is what puts you through college, this is what I do..."

"They are aged 14 and 17 and so we are all in the thick of it together - there's a competition in our house to see whose hormones are worse, mine or theirs."

Her teenagers had just helped post her first TikTok video and she was amazed at their reaction the next morning after it had amassed more than 300,000 views. "That's the first time I've seen them get excited – ever," she cackles. "Did they watch The Deirdre O'Kane Show? No, they didn't watch it - had no interest - but the TikTok video? Very excited."

With a "healthy amount of adrenaline" coursing through her veins, O'Kane still gets nervous before a show, but feels this new tour has given her a "second bite of the cherry" as a comic.

"I never really appreciated before what stand-up gave me and I don't think I appreciated that it's not something everyone can do," she says. "It's most definitely my passion and, strangely, at 54, I feel I want to 'make' it now. Isn't that wild?"

:: Deirdre O'Kane's Demented show is at The Black Box, Belfast on September 10.

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