‘Being one of the lads was my survival mechanism’


Deirdre O’Kane: outstanding comic, stage and screen actor, presenter and sublime Dancer with the Stars

She arrives in great form, and takes her earphones off. Both of those facts seem key to Deirdre O’Kane. The great form: She is refreshingly glass-half-full, but sardonic rather than saccharine, however she manages it. “I’m an optimist,” she says later. “I have dark days but mostly don’t stay in them for long.” She also seems grounded, doesn’t take things for granted. “Thank God for the work,” is a regular.

And the headphones: She’s been listening to herself, round and round, over and over. It’s a recording – by phone in her pocket onstage – of a recent work-in-progress gig. She records most of her stand-up shows and listens back, parsing, analysing, improving.

She keeps most of them, good and bad. “Actually, I often listen to the bad ones. If I listen to a good show and there’s massive laughter you come to expect that; you get yourself into a false sense of security. And that’s never a given. Every room has a different energy.”

And “when you ad lib with the audience, sometimes that can be mined”. Such fierce workovers contrast with her languid, laidback stage persona, and her evident comfort in her own skin. “That is the artform. To make it appear effortless takes an awful lot of work.”

She sounds like a perfectionist. “A lazy perfectionist.” (There’s her characteristic humorous self-deprecation.) “I want it to be sublime. But I’d need to be putting in more hours!”

She has a great, warm cackle, talks quickly with emphasis, and relatability. “I need deadlines to do this.” The current deadline is her upcoming stand-up tour, Demented.

‘I certainly was not funny as a child. Except I was known for doing impressions of teachers. I was always caught’

“I just want to be on stage all the time. It’s the only way to remain match-fit. We’re so rusty, we’re all frustrated by the two years [of the pandemic lockdowns].”

Her father John O’Kane, who died three years ago, figures in the show. “I found it really cathartic to talk about him. There’s a freeing in it. I’m not saying anything that possibly he might not have enjoyed, but I wouldn’t have had the freedom to talk about him in the way that I do.”

She grew up in Drogheda, Co Louth, though “nobody really is of the town. My father was born in London, reared in Drogheda. His mother was English. My mother’s a Derry girl who came to Drogheda when she married my father. So they were outsiders, outliers.

“My father would have been middle-upper class, well-to-do, and my mother would have been working-middle. Her upbringing was in a very loud, full house in Derry, where the world congregated. Very, very vibrant.”

Her father’s family was “sent to boarding school aged seven or eight. All the repercussions of that”.

In the style of her insightful and entertaining RTÉ talk show, Deirdre O’Kane Talks Funny, a series of interviews in 2020 with fellow performers, we wonder, where did the funny come from? “I certainly was not funny as a child. Except I was known for doing impressions of teachers. I was always caught.”

As an actor she’s often cast as funny, “not that I was seeking that. I was seeking drama and high art,” she says mock exasperatedly.

Deirdre O'Kane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Deirdre O’Kane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I was raised with funny. My mother is innately funny. She has wonderful phraseology, she loves language, she’s a brilliant storyteller. And I think my parents were so different from each other, that I came from these jarring cultures, almost. It made for a very interesting upbringing. My grandmother was full of notions. Great snobs. ‘Did you not tell them who you were?’, was a great one.” The family was “very bright, opinionated. Loud! Very good crack. It was an open house.” Her grandfather was “a phenomenal storyteller. The storyteller is in the genes”.

Her mother, Lilian McLaughlin, must have passed that powerful self-confidence on, “because what part of you would get up on stage, unless some bit of you believed you’d a right to be there?”.

Deirdre, one of five, also boarded (“as I say, I was deeply bored”; boom boom), at Loreto Rathfarnham in Dublin from the age of 12. “We went to Mass every morning before breakfast,” she marvels. “And I’m only 53! It’s like another world. My resounding memory is the rumbling stomachs.”

Drama was her thing at school, and she became an actor. Prophetically, one of her first jobs was as Miss Funny, “narrating a dark story” in Vincent Woods’s Black Pig’s Dyke, with Druid. “A phenomenal play. We toured the world with it.”

She was an actor for 10 years before falling into comedy; “It was very accidental and unintentional.” Her husband, film-maker and writer Stephen Bradley, was making a documentary about Kilkenny’s Cat Laughs festival in 1996, and brought her as gofer.

“That really was a life-changing weekend.” She talks about it as a mix of revelation and comedy masterclass. “I had an access-all-areas laminate. I’d never really seen much live stand-up. In Kilkenny everything changed. I feasted on it. And I was just blown away. I could not believe this art form.

‘I have learned that lowering expectations is the route to happiness. Just be bloody happy with what you have’

“What really appealed to me was the rock’n’roll of it, that the audience can voice their dissent if they’re not happy. There’s no sitting in your seat, none of the etiquette I was used to that goes with being a theatre actress. [In the theatre] you behave very well. If you don’t like the show, you can leave at the interval, but you certainly can’t shout out your opinion. It’s the last art form, isn’t it, that goes back, that’s almost Shakespearean? It’s a free for all.”

In Kilkenny, she saw Anthony Clark, an American comedian, every day. “I loved his set; it really made me laugh. When I saw him the second time, repeat that set, and not change a word, honestly, was the first time I realised this wasn’t a stream-of-consciousness, this was a written piece. Because the delivery is so effortless, like you’re talking to an audience for the first time. People forget how written it is.”

After the third time, “the penny dropped. I thought, you’re just an actor. That’s what I do. Except that you’ve written it. You’re delivering a piece of writing. And I thought: I could do that. I’m sure I could do that. I’m already doing that. I just haven’t written the piece.” She laughs. “That was my innocence.”

Out of about 40 comics in Kilkenny that year, four were women, and “I noticed it, not in the way we all would now. But I was looking out for them, I just wanted to see a woman”.

There are plenty of women comics now. “I don’t see any difference in gender when it comes to comedy; it’s really very black and white. You are funny, or you are not funny. It’s a real democracy because the audience decides. That’s why this whole business of cancelling people is irrelevant. The audience will cancel a person and nobody out there needs to have an opinion. They don’t like you in the room, and you’re dead on that stage.”

Deirdre O’Kane and husband film-maker and writer Stephen Bradley at the premiere of their movie, Noble. Photograph: Brian McEvoy
Deirdre O’Kane and husband film-maker and writer Stephen Bradley. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

Of British comedian Jimmy Carr, getting flak for a Holocaust-gypsy joke, she observes: “There’s a lot of people who need to be cancelled right now. I’d be putting Putin on top of that list. And Assad. Jimmy Carr is not on that list. The people will decide, with their pocket.”

Of US comedian Louis CK’s sexual misconduct, she says: “I’m fully expecting to see Louis CK back on stage. He’s been called out for his behaviour. I don’t think he’s a monster. I’m sure he’s full of regret. He’s still among the best comedians in the world.

“Louis CK is not Harvey Weinstein. That’s a man to be cancelled. Louis CK isn’t a man to be cancelled. I’m not saying the behaviour is okay, but they weren’t threatened in the corner like a Weinstein victim.”

(The New York Times reported in 2017 that five women described situations in which Louis CK either asked them to watch him masturbate or forced them to do so; he said the encounters were consensual, but conceded later he had abused his power.)

“That things are now called out is good because it will make other men question their own behaviour. They will go, actually I can’t behave like that because I’m going to be called out publicly.

“What I’m very for is making men think about their behaviour, and think about who’s in the room. For the best part of 20 years I was always the only woman in the room. The sort of stuff that went on didn’t affect me, because it was how society was. It was the norm, so you had to find a way to roll with the norm, because you weren’t going to change it.

Gerry (Catherine Walker), Carmel (Una Kavanagh) and Marie (Deirdre O'Kane) are best friends in RTE One's Bittersweet
Gerry (Catherine Walker), Carmel (Una Kavanagh) and Marie (Deirdre O’Kane) are best friends in RTE One’s Bittersweet

“But now it has been changed. That is a good thing for everybody. It’s good for men, and it’s good for women. I was always the only woman on the bill. That’s changed. And they’re slaying it, really slaying it. To see Joanne [McNally], and Aisling Bea, thrills me.”

Back then, “I became one of the lads. That was my survival mechanism. You can’t be different in a green room full of comics. But I loved them too; it wasn’t like it was a hardship. But certainly there would have been a load said that I would now call out. Oh, really? Think that’s hilarious do ya? Yadda ya.

“But I was younger. I don’t think we were all very aware. The cluelessness. I don’t think the young wans are as clueless as we were.”

After O’Kane’s eureka at Cat Laughs, “I started writing jokes in the car on the way home. And the really mad thing was, I played Kilkenny the following year. That’s how fast. It was too quick, really, but I got away with it.”

Her comedy career blossomed, but after another decade she paused. She and Bradley moved to London. Their children Holly and Daniel were small, and she did other things: theatre, TV comedies, Moone Boy and Bittersweet. And she and Bradley made Noble, a feature film where she played children’s rights campaigner Christina Noble.

“I have regrets about it. I lost a lot by stepping away” from comedy, missing out on building her audience, but “I wanted to be an actress again. To be fair, Noble was consuming me. It took us five years to make. It was in our house every day because Steve was writing and raising money. And then whatever acting jobs I was doing, and I had two little ones. So I had enough on my plate.”

Later, she roars laughing about how “I’ve always wanted it all! I used to rally against people who said you can’t have it all: be a mother, have a career. I used to be very vociferous. You can, you can, you can. Then of course I had to give up the stand-up at a certain point because it was all just too much. I still believe, of course you can do everything, to your own limits, if you’re lucky enough.”

Deirdre O'Kane in Noble (2014)
Deirdre O’Kane in Noble (2014)

She avoided social media while Talks Funny was broadcast on RTÉ. “I saw the odd comment by accident. But if you allowed yourself to go there, how would you get out of bed in the morning? I think the majority were very positive but the one dissenting voice is the one you remember. The positives don’t stick, that’s the tragedy.”

Her new year’s resolution was to put “a 30-minute timer” on Instagram and Twitter. “Because every criticism damages. This culture of comparing yourself … I have learned that lowering expectations is the route to happiness. Just be bloody happy with what you have.”

Also, she says, “there’s a kudos in having sustained it for this long. I believe in giving myself that”.

In London the family lived in Chiswick: “Very fancy. I have notions. I always like to live in a nice place, that’s why I live in Dún Laoghaire!”

Eventually, she was dismayed that her daughter was “the only child in her school that wasn’t being tutored for the 11-plus [an exam to get into grammar school]. I didn’t like the system.” Her father was also very ill at the time. “I thought, what in the name of all that’s holy are we doing here?”

Three weeks after coming home to Dublin in April 2016 came a horror. Bradley was diagnosed with advanced cancer.

While her husband was seriously ill for 18 months, O’Kane was working, telling jokes to put dinner on the table. “It was challenging. But it was also a gift to me. I had no choice but to park it for those few hours I had to go into showtime space.”

‘And Freedom of the City, don’t start me: five women and 90 men. They haven’t thought of giving it to Christina, who’s a Dubliner. She’s only saved about a million people in her life’

The work, she says, kept her “sane”. “I had to do it. Financially we needed it, but I wanted to do it. There was great pride in doing it. It gave me more than it took from me. Like, bloody hell if I can do that, what else can I do? You don’t know what reserves of resilience you have until they’re challenged.”

Bradley came through that period of life-threatening illness.

One particular night stays with her. “You have moments in your life that define you, and this was one. He was very ill. He’d just had a huge surgery. I went into Vincent’s [hospital] on my way into Vicar Street. He looked like he’d been pulled from a car. I said to the nurse looking after him in ICU, I have to go. I have to go on stage now and do my thing. Do I need to be worried about him? Could he die, is basically what I was asking.

“And this nurse, he just said, I’m doing my job. I’m brilliant at it. Nothing will happen him on my watch. I’ve got this. Now you go and do your job. I was so emotional. But it was a gift to me. He was doing his bloody job, brilliantly. So me doing my job brilliantly in rough circumstances… Everybody’s doing their bloody job in rough circumstances. You don’t know what people are going through, and yet they’re turning up to work.

“And honestly, I just relaxed. And I was able to get in the car and breathe and drive myself in and do that show. I didn’t tell anybody around me. You have to compartmentalise.”

Shortly afterwards O’Kane co-founded the Comic Relief charity fundraiser, broadcast on RTÉ. “Stephen might have been a little bit annoyed with me that I was again taking on something, but I just felt very empowered.

Deirdre O'Kane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Deirdre O’Kane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I’ve gone on stage many times after awful news. I remember going on minutes after Steve rang me to tell me his sister was terminal with breast cancer. Comics do that all the time, so do actors and singers. It’s where the phrase comes from, the show must go on. And I get a lot of gratification for what I do, a lot of people telling me you’re great.”

Acting, comedy, presenting; all involve juggling different versions of self. Stand-up leaves no place to hide. “Even acting you’re always drawing on your own experiences.” But TV presenting is pretty exposing too, she says. “Nearly more so. I found that doing Talks Funny. Being a stand-up you’re the funny version of you. When you’re presenting, you’re just you. It’s your job to get the best out of your guest.”

She looked comfortable in that chair and says she’d like to do it again, with an audience. “I love success. I revel in other people’s success. I love beefing [the guests] up. We’re not great in Ireland at acknowledging talent.”

She bemoans the lack of State recognition or honours in Ireland. “The things people have done, the lives they’ve led. Christina Noble. Debbie Deegan, Peter McVerry, the people I really regard. And Freedom of the City, don’t start me: five women and 90 men. They haven’t thought of giving it to Christina, who’s a Dubliner. She’s only saved about a million people in her life.”

Among her bow’s many strings, “at the moment stand-up is my love. When I was engrossed making Noble, that was my life. Comic Relief is very, very high on my priority list. But the truth is, I like doing it all, because you actually need to do it all, as a comic.”

It all feeds the comedy. “If I didn’t do Dancing with the Stars; I got an hour out of it. If I didn’t go to Gaza with Trócaire. If I didn’t do these things, what are you talking about? I need those new experiences. I love actors. I miss them. So I’m always looking for a project. And when I do all that and I go away from comics, I want their company again.”

Demented tour dates are on deirdreokane.net

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