The Irish are known for ‘the craic and the drink.’ Many well-known comedians have given up on one.
People of Irish descent face a host of notions and expectations of how they should be – some based in reality, others plucked from the air and given weight over time. Chancers, charmers, affable but discerning, fiery but kind, quick-witted storytellers, and good drinkers. It’s these last two that so often seem to go hand in hand: the laughter and the drink.
Whether they aim to or not, a number of the funniest and most successful comedians of Irish heritage working today are challenging these ideas. Colin Quinn? Sober since the ’80s. Greg FitzSimmons? Since 1990. Des Bishop? Hasn’t had a drink for nineteen years. Denis Leary? Sober. Kathy Griffin? Never had a drink.
In doing so, they’re also achieving something the best comedians shine at above all others – asking us to take a real look at ourselves.
For Greg FitzSimmons (best known for his stand-up, podcasts, TV writing, and work with Howard Stern), who grew up in a very Irish family in Tarrytown, NY, drinking and laughter were constant parts of his environment. “The dinner table was a place where you told funny stories,” he said, speaking over the phone from Portland, Oregon where he was doing five shows in early July. “And if someone’s story was boring, you’d give them shit for being boring. It was like the family business.
“My family also drank a lot,” he added. “We had parties at the house, and of course all the holidays revolved around booze, drinking and laughing. It’s the lubricant for good times, for sure.”
Greg started drinking when he was 13, and continued throughout high school and into college. “I was arrested a few times for drinking and fighting,” he recalled, “and I was managing my feelings with alcohol and escaping into it. They were all signs that maybe somebody else wouldn’t have been sensitive to, but I was very sensitive to not ending up unhappy because of my drinking.”
He quit drinking after his first year of doing comedy, when, after being drunk on stage a few times, he realized it wasn’t sustainable. “I can handle bombing, but I couldn’t handle bombing because I had made a bad decision to drink,” he said. “That felt like I just wasn’t trying hard enough, and if I was going to cripple myself in this way then there was no way I was going to make it.”
Once sober, comedy became his new escape. “It’s like therapy – I get to unload anything,” he enthused. “A lot of my stand-up is just talking about what’s going on in my mind right now, my midlife crisis or my frustration with politics. I get it all out and everybody shuts up and listens, and then they laugh, which gives me immediate gratification. . . . So I don’t miss drinking when I’m doing that, because, as opposed to being the drunk who thinks he’s the center of attention, I actually am the center of attention.”
Other comedians with a history of alcoholism have noted the cathartic nature of their profession. Rob Delaney, the LA-based comedian famous for his Twitter prowess, didn’t start pursuing comedy seriously until a severe drunk- driving accident in 2002 forced him to confront his addiction and depression.
“Comedy brought me to feelings I had never allowed myself before,” he said in an interview with popular therapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. “I was too afraid to try [stand-up] before the accident. Some people would say “but wouldn’t booze help to take the edge off?” It might have, but I know I wouldn’t have been as funny. . . . The happier I am, the funnier I am, even if I’m talking about dark material or things that I’m angry about. If I’m not depressed and I’m not drunk, then hopefully I can see the world more clearly and translate it into the jokes that people enjoy. Mental health and happiness and creativity go together real well, so I always seek to torpedo the idea that you should be a tortured artist.”
Both Delaney and FitzSimmons use their past experiences with alcohol as comedy material. This can sometimes be tough, Greg explained, in comedy clubs where the two-drink minimum more or less guarantees the crowd is mildly buzzed. “Sometimes I will turn the table entirely and talk about how weak people are who drink and how I’m better than they are, because I’m so tired of the dynamic of people treating me like there’s something wrong with me because I quit drinking,” he said. “They’ll go ‘Hey, you want a shot?’ and I’m like ‘No, I quit drinking,’ and then they treat you like an 8-year-old. They’re like ‘Oh, do you want a Coke, or a lollipop?’ So I try to play with that dynamic of not feeling ashamed or less-than because of the fact that I chose clarity in my life.”
Another comedian who is keenly aware of this is Des Bishop. “I know what Irish people think when they hear me say [I’m an alcoholic],” he has said. “They think ‘Oh, Des Bishop thinks he’s an alcoholic. Typical Yank. I’d say he got sick once and went Oh my God, I lost control! I’m an alcoholic! I need to do something about my drinking.’”
Born and raised in Queens, NY, Bishop began drinking at age 12, and at 14 he was sent to Ireland, to study at a boarding school near relatives in Wexford. There, he continued drinking heavily, and by 19, after failing his first year at University College Cork, he decided to do something. He had his last drink at 7:30 a.m. on July 16, 1995, by himself in a pub in Cork. He didn’t do his first gig until he was nearly two years sober, encouraged by someone he met through AA. In the years since, he has become one of Ireland’s most famous comedians.
Bishop’s humor is decidedly socially-minded, featuring observations of Irish life from his insider/outsider perspective. His latest TV series, Under the Influence, a funny but unflinching look at Ireland’s relationship with alcohol, aired on RTE in February and caused a divide among viewers – some lauding it for its insight and courage, others protesting that it paints far too negative an image of Irish life. “You hear a lot about Irish drinking habits these days, and not a lot of it is positive,” he says in the pilot. “The aim of this series is to take a look at what’s driving alcoholism, from the weather to addiction. Why do Irish people drink so much?” It’s not so much a question of tackling behavior, he adds, but of exploring identity.
Over the course of four episodes, he speaks with passersby on the street, revelers with pints, journalists, doctors, comedians and marketing experts. Late on a Friday night he attempts to drive through Dublin city center (or Stumbleville, as he calls it) and encounters a “modern Irish traffic jam” of drunk pub-goers stumbling zombie-like through the streets clutching their high heels and styrofoam takeout boxes. He questions the role of beer companies in sponsoring Irish sports and other national events, travels back to Queens to talk to his mother and aunt, and visits Ireland’s only rehab center for teens to speak with some of the patients.
Not surprisingly, some of the people he speaks to who prove the most adept at analyzing alcohol in Irish life today are his fellow comedians. “It’s become a thing you can blame,” says Abie Philbin Bowman. “‘Oh yeah, of course I’m drunk, I’m Irish. . . . ’ Having the ‘Ah sure everyone does it, it’s fine’ helps us as a people to get over the fact that we’re really guilty about everything.”
“If the only way you can have a good time is by being drunk, what you’re essentially saying is, you don’t actually know how to have a good time,” David McSavage declares. “And the fact that it baffles people that you can have a good time without drink shows you how insanity has actually been normalized in Ireland.”
Journalist Michael Clifford adds that the association with booze in Ireland has been “overall a hugely negative thing. It projects this image of the jolly, happy, clappy Paddys having a few jars and laughing and coming out of themselves – being funny, talking. That’s great, that’s 8:00 at night stuff. . . .What they leave out is the rest of the night.”
Bishop, who is currently in China taking lessons in Mandarin and filming a new documentary series, has no qualms about stirring up these deep-seated issues. “I’m not trying to make a controversial program, but people are very defensive of alcohol,” he said. “Sometimes my sober presence alone can challenge people, let alone talking about it. I think when you’re challenging people’s behavior, particularly around something as ingrained as Ireland’s drinking habits, there’s going to be some kind of response, sometimes not so positive. I don’t mind rocking the boat to a certain degree, so it’s possibly not the worst thing in the world to not be around when that’s happening, because I’m easily wound up,” he told the Irish Examiner.
Segments from Bishop’s live stand-up routine about alcohol, filmed in Ireland, are interspersed throughout the episodes. In a sense, these are the most interesting scenes, simply because you can see how the audience responds to him. They’re enjoying themselves because he presents his message in such a genuinely funny way. But you can also see the unease – some slight hesitation before laughing, or hearty laughter followed by pause as what he’s really saying settles in.
“My mother was raised in a proper Irish family – she was raised by two alcoholics,” he begins, and the audience releases peals of laughter. “See, that shouldn’t be funny!” he pounces. “That’s the whole thing, this shouldn’t be funny. And on one level you say Ireland doesn’t have a problem, but if it doesn’t have a problem then why the fuck is that joke funny?”