âThe teacher linked England and 800 years of misery, death, famine and oppression to the Norman invasion and then added, âNeil is Normanâ,â the comic explains. âDing, ding, ding, dingâ¦ break time!
âWe went out and I got battered â absolutely battered. It was the Irish families versus the Norman families. Me and one guy called Steven Prendergast got the crap kicked out of us by the Dunns, the OâKellies, the OâSullivans, the Mooresâ¦ the fact that the Cappuccis joined in was a bit of a disgrace, to be honest with you. They owned the chippy; he was hitting me with a cornetto, the Cappucci lad was!â
I had no idea Irish comic Neil Delamere was of Norman descent, and itâs hardly the most vital biographical detail to arm yourself with when going to interview him. Neil is in Sydney to present CrÃ¨me Delamere, his most recent festival show, at the Comedy Store for two weeks, but good luck trying to find out anything substantial about him to take to the interview. Thereâs precious little on offer on-line. Or at least, thatâs the case before I meet him: neither the âNeil Delamereâ Wikipedia entry nor his homepage have much detail, the homepage bio still refering to Delamereâs 2007 Edinburgh Fringe show as his most recent. Which is almost grounds for embarrassment, the surprisingly soft-spoken comic reveals when I meet him face-to-face. True to his description âbanter bombâ (as dubbed by The Scotsman) we have a long, entertaining and effortless chat â as you might surmise from the amount of text that follows. Thankfully, the handful of stand-up comedy and chat show clips available on-line reveal enough to get us started.
For example, thereâs the set Neil delivered at the 2008 New Zealand Comedy Festival Gala, where he opens by explaining heâs from âthe southern part, not the scary Northern partâ of Ireland, and in so doing, demonstrates the mischievous and cheeky streak he brings to the world around him. He notes that New Zealand public transport is âthe oppositeâ of his girlfriend: âthis bus kneels on request,â he quotes. He marvels at the kauri, a species of tree native to New Zealand and famed for its longevity, that he longs to touch. âItâd be brilliant â just rubbing up against 2000-year-old wood. Like Catherine Zeta-Jones does.â But itâs his cute observation, that it takes âan awful long timeâ to get to this part of the world, that will prove the best point of departure, so to speak:
Â© Neil Delamere
While itâs nice to see the Easter references emerging in his humour â suggesting a religious upbringing â I like it most because Neilâs surname, âDelamereâ, is French for âof the seaâ; this international visitor is clearly descended from international visitors. As we sit before a not-quite-roaring open fire â a gas flame in the fireplace â in the hotel foyer that clearly once was the drawing room of a fine and stately home â the perfect place to interview a visiting Irish comic â I put it to Neil Delamere that he âcomes from a long line of travellersâ.
âThat could mean anything!â Neil laughs, not revealing whether Iâve somehow suggested heâs a bastard, or implied some other insult. There is an entirely different tale of lineage and bastardry to relate, it turns out. âDelamereâ is, indeed, French, and does mean âof the seaâ, and âthe fact the Delameres moved to the midlands â the only landlocked part of Ireland,â Neil explains, âsuggests an awful lot about the lazy branch of the family from which I am descended.â
It is at this point that he tells me the name is in fact of Norman origin, as he always knew, but as his teacher only revealed to his classmates when it could do the most damage â bastard! That the chippy-owning Cappuccis joined in to go him with a cornetto is particularly insulting, since the Cappuccis and Delameres may well have been neighbours in the âold countryâ; the Normans did colonise the southern half of what is now Italy, as well as the islands off its coast. But thatâs by-the-by. Turns out the Normans were originally Vikings â which Neil again knows a great deal about, since his 2007 Edinburgh Fringe offering was The Viking Show. âMy motherâs side were Vikings, as well,â he says, âso technically, I am 100 percent Viking â although I donât look it, to be honest.â
Wellâ¦ okay, Neil Delamere is not tall and lanky, but he is at least a bloodnut â a common Viking trait. Itâs an alternate explanation for why the ranga gene is common amongst the Irish â the other being that they are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
What did he say about his mother?
Iâm glad Neil brought up his Mam. As mentioned, there is a dearth of biographical detail available regarding Neil Delamere on-line. According to the Wikipedia entry, he was born âcirca 1980â. Wha? âAround 1980â? Either side, give-or-take? Thatâs an unfeasibly long labour â which, letâs face it, given Viking lineage, Neilâs poor Ma may well have been equipped to endure. Or Neil is being coy about his date of birth.
âNo,â Neil says, âthereâs no coyness. Iâm 30.â
The reason thereâs not been much of Neil Delamere on-line, the comic confesses, is because âIâm really lazy with my website â which is kind of ironic considering my degree wasâ¦â
âThatâs another thing!â I interupt before he can finish. The Wikipedia entry says he âcompleted a degreeâ. No specifications. âWhat degree? Where from? It could have been purchased offâ¦â
âNo,â Neil interupts me this time. âItâs from Dublin City University. And Iâll tell you how I can prove itâ¦â
Turns out, Dublin City University â Irelandâs self-proclaimed âmost innovativeâ university â is now producing bookmarks. Neil discovered this while visiting his alma mater. But thatâs not the most innovative bit. They feature photos of the institutionâs more impressive alumni â or, in Neilâs modest words, âpeople who are meant to have a bit of a profileâ. So, along with Matt Cooper, one of Irelandâs leading broadcasters and journalists, and Jamie Heaslip, who plays No. 8 with the British and Irish Lions rugby squad, you can find Neil Delamereâs âstupid faceâ (his words) peeking over the top of book pages. Of course, like any good comic should, he does material about this find. âThe new Edinburgh show is called Bookmarks,â he announces.
So Neil Delamere attended Dublin City University where â get this â he completed a degree in Computer Applications. Thatâs the irony of his rather meager homepage. Since graduating, Neilâs âgone the other wayâ and become a âludditeâ, more-or-less: âI still enjoy gadgets but I have no interest in geekiness,â he says. Unlike Neilâs older brother, who completed the same degree. âNow heâs earning millions from IT and Iâm doing this. I feel like Dannii Minogue!â
Offaly nice place to visitâ¦ by mistake
Neilâs branch of the Delamere clan comes from a small town called Edenderry, in County Offaly, virtually slap-bang in the centre of Ireland. As fitting as it may sound that marauding Norman invaders might settle in a place named after offal, Neil explains that âOffalyâ is actually an English corruption of âUÃ Failgheâ â pronounced something like âee-VOLE-yaâ â which means âland of the Failgheâ. This is the original kingdom that occupied what is now Ireland, before said marauding Normans invaded. That the county takes its name from the landâs earliest known inhabitants suggests that it is steeped in history, and indeed it is. But the other way of looking at it, Neil points out, is that âthe midlands of any country is the place time forgetsâ, producing âodd places and great charactersâ. He cites England â âalways a bit odd in the middleâ â Ireland, and even Australia, whose middle includes the likes of âAlice Springs, the Nullarbor and all that sort of nothingnessâ. According to Delamere â (âof the seaâ, remember) â âmost people are drawn to and hang around coasts, and the ones who go further inland are the people who kind of look at you with a twitch.â
Historically, what is now County Offaly once included Clonmacnoise (Iâm not even going to attempt to spell it phonetically!), a monastery whose monks kept learning alive while barbarians destroyed Europe during the First Millennium. Offalyâs more recent past has not proven so spectacular. âIf you name the year, I can name the tourists,â Neil boasts, offering an example: â1994 was Jans and Ulrich, two lovely lads who grossly underestimated the cycle to Galway, and ended up in Edenderry.â
If two lost tourists are the highlight of your calendar year, there canât be a lot to do in your small country town in your landlocked county. At least Neil had the influence of two brothers â one ten years older, the other seven â to broaden his horizons. They essentially introduced him to comedy.
âIâd be watching Blackadder when I was 12 or 13, and Cheers and MASHâ¦â Neil recalls. When stand-up became popular enough to feature on BBC television, he was exposed to the work of Tommy Tiernan hosting The Stand-up Show. Ardal OâHanlon (Father Ted, My Hero) was hosting by the time the likes of Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran were winning the Perrier Award for Best Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (1998 and 1996, respectively). âSo,â says Neil, âit was put in my head that âthese are the lads who could do this sort of stuff and theyâre from roughly the same background as youâ.â Thus, he figured, he might as well give it a go. âI did it once in a bar and just kind of kept doing it. But didnât do it until I left college â I was 21 or 22.â
Havinâ a laugh
That was in 2001. International success wasnât too long in coming. In 2004 Neil Delamere was invited to play the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, featuring in a related television show at the same time. âSomebody saw me and got me to do The Panel,â he says. Oh yes, Working Dog sold the format of The Panel to other countries, and Irelandâs version features Neil Delamere as a regular panellist as well as, in more recent years, host. He works a treat on it, as YouTube clips demonstrate. Heâs so natural that itâs hard to tell if heâs pulling in pre-existing bits of stand-up where relevant, or is very good at making with the funny business on the fly. Neil insists he rarely resorts to doing pre-existing âmaterialâ.
âThe great thing about The Panel is youâre on with four other people and we make each other laugh. Weâre not good enough actors to fake that, to be honest with you. So what happens is, when you see one of us laughing at the other personâs jokes, itâs genuine and spontaneous.â
This is, of course, ground that would have been covered when the local version of The Panel hit big â and is probably asked of every humorous topical game or chat show: how much is spontaneous and how much is rehearsed? âThere is no rehearsal whatsoever in the show that we do,â Neil explains. Of course everyoneâs pretty much going to know what the main stories up for discussion are each week; working comedians would have written gags about them or immediately seen a funny side of them anyway â thatâs what comedians do. I reckon if you put the same people from The Panel in each otherâs company in, say, a pub, theyâd have virtually the same discussion, and Neil agrees â adding youâd probably have to record the entire conversation over the course of the night and then âcut it down to the funniest 50 minutes.â But thatâs the greatest compliment to the show â that feels as though itâs a bunch of mates â even you and your mates â having a bit of a yack at the pub.
âThe lack of contrivance is the aim of all stand-up,â Neil reckons, but itâs also âone of the problems of stand-upâ: when you make it look like uncontrived âtalking off the top of your headâ â as the best stand-up should â âthe lines are blurredâ. Nobody would heckle a play; they canât heckle the telly. But they heckle at stand-up because âitâs like talking to you in a pub!â
This raises an important issue every comic must face: not every heckler is trying to be disruptive and some heckles actually contribute to the performance, giving the comic something new to react to and build on. But if you encourage it, it may become âopen slatherâ for the audience and then detract from the show. Where do you draw the line? How do you ensure it adds to the audience experience?
âYou have to take each heckle as it comes,â Neil acknowledges. âThere are myriad reasons why someone would heckle. Each one has to be dealt with on its own merits.â Pause. âAnd I have a hammerâ¦â. We both laugh at the tag. âNo, I donât, I donât,â Neil reassures me. âBut it would be good if I did, though, wouldnât it!â
The way the cookies crumble
You wouldnât expect it of a so-called âtopicalâ comedy panel show, but old episodes of Irish Panel are be hilarious. At least, the bits that make it to YouTube are. Thereâs a clip that features the discussion arising from an expensive biscuit company wanting to sue a budget biscuit company whose packaging is, they argue, indistinguishable. Neil, as host, reminds the other panellists of the time when cheap brands actually looked cheap, because, he says, âpoor people needed to be reminded that they were poor. Big military writing: âYOU ARE POOR!ââ
Nowadays, I guess, printing is affordable enough that the so-called cheap brands can look expensive â and your parents always would argue that they tasted the same anyway, so why pay more money for the âprestigeâ product? Because, Neil argues, âif your mates caught you with thatâ in the supermarket, theyâd tease you mercilessly: âHA HA HA HA HA! Yellow Pack! Vincent de Paul! Vincent de Paul!â
Since the cheap stuff is virtually indistinguishable from the expensive, there has been a shift that coincides with Irelandâs fortunes. âIreland was one of the richest countries in the world in the last ten years,â Neil acknowledges, âall based on a house of cards, really. But we went through this period of being loaded and lovinâ it. Lovinâ it! We completely lost our inferiority complex with Britain because itâs a lot easier to take a derogatory joke from somebody if you know deep down you can afford to have them killed. But now weâve gone back the other way and itâs become genuinely fashionable to be thrifty again, so weâre all going back to those days and buying âhome brandâ stuff.â
One other thing that may change back to how it was, now that Ireland is less well off, is a massive and groundbreaking tax incentive called The Artists Exemption. For a time, creative types who contributed to the cultural life of Ireland were granted tax breaks so significant that it was in the best interest for talented people like U2, say, to stay put, and inject their massive earnings back into the local economy, rather than going, as English performers were wont do, into tax exile. But it was such a good tax break that people like Van Morrison â from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and therefore part of the UK rather than the Republic of Ireland â and Elvis Costello â a Liverpudlian with Irish heritage that he conveniently rediscovered â moved to Ireland to make the most of it. The Artist Exemption was introduced in the â80s by then-Prime Minister â or âTaoiseachâ, as itâs called (pronounced something like âTEE-shockâ) â Charlie Haughey, Neil explains.
âIt was for struggling artists â your guys writing books or self-publishing poems, sculptors or artists or whatever. But they didnât think to cap it, so you had people like Frederick Forsyth and Lisa Stansfield moving over.â
Lisa Stansfield, eh? Sheâd been around the world, and she, she, she â decided Ireland was the most lucrative place to be. Eventually, The Artists Exemption was capped at â¬250,000 â at which point U2 started moving their holdings to The Netherlands.
âThere was a lot of controversy over that,â according to Neil. âBono on one hand saying, âgive your money to the poor and make poverty historyâ, meanwhile moving most of U2âs business holdings to a foreign country.â Question is, does such an exemption aid comics? Do government officials consider comedians as creators of art, contributing to the social life of their country?
âWe absolutely do!â Neil insists. âThe trouble is that itâs very hard to prove that itâs original material and itâs very hard to hand something to the taxman. If you write a book, you can hand him the book; if you write a script, you can hand him the script; if you write an album, you can hand him the album. Itâs quite difficult to hand him your set of jokes. Itâs weird, because itâs only on the writing of stuff, itâs not on the actual performing, so itâs complicated. I think itâs a great idea, but I would say that in six months, itâll be gone, because we are poor again.â
Well then, Neil Delamere, you have six months to record, release and hand to the taxman a DVD of your work, I offer. To which he replies, âthe DVD is already recorded â the second one. Itâs coming out in early November.â
Neilâs first DVD, No Message was released in 2007 and went platinum â âin Ireland, thatâs 14 DVDs, so all the family bought itâ â but he has no idea where itâs available, and he hasnât smuggled any into Australia to make some sly, tax-free spending money. âOnce you release it, you kind of forget about it,â Neil explains. âIâm sure you could order it from somewhere.â Pause. âIâm the worst salesman in the world! âIâm sure you can get it somewhereâ¦â Jesus!â
Neilâs success as a stand-up comic grew with the success of The Panel, enabling him to tour off the back of the show. Itâs also meant that he could return to Edinburgh Fringe with a bigger profile, and has been doing so over the last few years, as well as record and release DVDs. For local audiences, itâs meant heâs had a big enough profile to justify doing a show at this yearâs Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and returning to Australia now for his two-week residency at the Comedy Store. But just as this yearâs Comedy Festival turn wasnât his first, this current stint at the Store isnât his first visit to Sydney.
âI was here four or five years ago and probably did three or four gigs around Sydney, but people wouldnât even remember,â Neil says. âThat year we did the Fringe Festival in Adelaide, and then did a mini tour around places like Ayr, Townsville and Mount Isa.â
Mount Isa, eh? I had a friend in Mount Isa who, if you named the year, could probably tell you which comics toured, maybe even which ones misjudged their Georgetown cycling holiday.
âIt was kind of strange, but a brilliant craic, I have to say,â the comic fondly recalls. âIt was a âBest of Irishâ compilation show, which is amazing: you can put them on anywhere and people will go to see them, for some reason.â The reason is, as Neil says of that tour, and Iâd say of this conversation, because itâs kind of strange, but a brilliant craic!
Lord of the flights
Seeing as we started our chat with long-haul flights, itâs fitting we should end with them. Neil flew to Australia this time with Air Etihad, a carrier he âcanât recommend enoughâ because they fly direct from Ireland. Which makes the most difference heading home.
âWe always used to have to go through London, and thereâs nothing worse than being on a plane for 24 hours and then realising youâre not home yet â that itâs going to be another four hours before youâre home!â
Iâd agree, but before Iâve had time to, Neil considers what heâs just said. âWhen I say, ânothing worseâ, I mean, obviously, crucifixion is pretty rough; and mutilation is pretty bad, as well. But four or five hours when youâre stuck in Londonâ¦â
Iâm wondering if itâs all down to a matter of those final hours, though. Iâd heard Neil had been banned by Irelandâs low-cost airline â the âyellow labelâ of flight, if you will â Ryanair.
âWell, that might be a slight exaggeration,â Neil says of the story. âI certainly did a gig with Michael OâLeary, whoâs the Chief Executive Officer of Ryan Air, and I may, perchance, have slagged him off in front of 700 peopleâ¦â
It was a corporate gig that Neil was MCing and the organisers had gone to great pains to point out that keynote speaker Michael OâLeary, âworth half a billion Euroâ, was doing the gig for free. âPlease donât mess with his introduction,â they begged, and Neil, of course, promised he wouldnât. But he was lying.
âI had no intention of agreeing,â he confesses. âI thought, âIâm never going to get this opportunity againâ.â So he introduced Michael OâLeary:
âIn 1987, Ryanair ferried 5000 passengers across Europe; in 2007 they carried 50 million passengers across Europe. Of those 50 million, 10 million got to the country they originally booked for, and some got their bags back. Ladies and gentlemenâ¦ Michael OâLeary!â
Naturally, OâLeary took the stage and started slagging off his MC. So when Neil returned to the stage after him, he gave OâLeary âdogâs abuse! It was dogâs abuse!â The best bit was when Neil produced a paper aeroplane, and said, âIâd like to symbolically represent a Ryanair flight right now. If you can just imagine that corner to my right over there is the country you actually want to get to â watch!â
And then 700 people watched Neil Delamere turn and throw the paper aeroplane in the opposite direction. The crowd loved it. Michael OâLeary leant over and said, âItâs good to go last, isnât!â to which Neil replied, âYes it is!â
For Neil, it was an opportunity to be funny with a well-known identity. âI thought, youâre never gonna get this opportunity againâ. It was an odd gig; it was very loud. But as he was the keynote speaker and I was the MC, I knew he would be the one whose introduction I would listen to, so I took the opportunity to get the few lines in there and just kind of slag him off a bit.â
So there is a conclusion you can draw, as to why Neil Delamere may avoid flying Ryanair nowadays. âI had a horrible feeling, the next time I took a Ryanair flight,â Neil concurs, âthat as I walk up to the counter Iâd see the guy reach under for a silent alarm and dogs would bound up and rip my testicles off. But that only happened onceâ¦â
Time to go
Our own craic has run its course. Neilâs got a gig in a few hours, and since he only touched down in the country five hours earlier, itâd be nice if I let him rest. But Iâm quite amazed that heâs awake and so lucid.
âNo,â Neil corrects me, âIâm actually asleep. This is entirely a dream. Iâll have no recollection of this conversation in about 20 minutes.â
Neil Delamere is at the Comedy Store until Sat July 18
Some YouTube Clips:
2008 New Zealand International Comedy Festival Gala clip
The Panel McVities v Jacobs clip