MAEVE Higgins wasn’t exactly sure what stand up was about until, aged 19, the Co Cork native watched Eddie Murphy’s Raw video.
It didn’t exactly resonate with her - whimsy, self-deprecating humour and gags about cats, underwear and the gorgeous Michael Fassbender are more her thing - but it opened her mind to the possibility of stand up as a medium, and of comedy as a viable career choice.
“I hadn’t ever seen stand up or been to a club or anything before I saw Raw. It made me think ‘Oh how interesting - but not for me’. His style is really aggressive and male-like. This was loud and show-off. But it made me think that maybe I could do comedy, but very, very differently.”
Aged 24 Maeve entered a radio stand up competition. She didn’t win, but wanted to keep being funny.
“I went into one of these pubs where you do three minutes and then if people laugh you can come back the next week. I actually can’t remember anything about what I said that first time - I think I was traumatised and I blocked it all out.
“For the first year I did stand up I couldn’t remember anything when I came off stage. I couldn’t look at the audience and everyone used to say I talked way too fast.
“I mean I hated it, I felt sick before I went on and everything, I couldn’t eat. But it was a compulsion, I had to keep doing it. It’s hard to explain.”
Higgins describes her comedy as “pretty personal and observational”: “I talk about my family and friends mostly, they’re the people who make me laugh most. I mean my family aren’t really bizarre or anything, they just bring out the comedian in me, as does my personal life.”
Her 2008 show Kitten Brides talked (in part) about a Victorian taxidermist who had been making scenes of animals doing things, squirrels and cats and, somewhat disturbingly, a kitten wedding.
Often she openly drools over Michael Fassbender. “He’s my man,” she insists. “We should be together but something is keeping us apart.
“I would drop everything if I knew where he was at this second. The last sighting of him I head about was that he was in Skibereen in west Cork on Christmas eve. I’m keeping track. I’m going to see his new film [Shame] because I’ve heard it’s just his bottom the whole time, but I am a bit worried if I go on my own I will seem like some kind of pervert.”
Her new show, which arrives in Belfast on January 26 as part of the Out to Lunch Festival, is in part structured around a strange collection of essays. She might say things about feather boas, castles or eggs (which are really blowing her mind right now because they are so versatile).
“I don’t have many gigs this month so I’m a bit worried that it will just be me getting really over-excited about seeing people around me.
“I’ve written some essays: one about starting a new relationship around Christmas time, one about underwear and another about how much I love dairy. I do really love dairy.”
And she may share some thoughts on the horrors of having joined a gym in September: “The first time I went in it felt like an abbatoir, this black room with metal bars and loud music and stuff.
“My natural habitat is a cafe with other chubby girls sailing around and giving me cake and stuff.”
Her comedy style is unpretentious, slightly awkward but all the more endearing for it, a celebration of the whimsical that can yet fit in well-timed, pitch-black gags, her Irish accent adding a sing-song, lyrical ring to proceedings.
Higgins, who was raised in Cobh, Co Cork, came to fame during 2005-2007 when she was principal writer and actor on RTE’s Naked Camera, which involved pulling the wool over the eyes of a lot of innocent and unsuspecting passersby, then broadcasting the hilarity of their humiliation to the masses. The hidden camera show was a smash hit and ran for three series, with Maeve being devious alongside pranksters PJ Gallagher and Patrick McDonnell. The elaborate ruses often involved eccentic characters: a lovelorn traffic warden who would scrap parking tickets in exchange for a date; a beauty therapist who would offer unlikely sounding treatments promising the impossible. On some occasions Maeve played a pregnant woman and would walk up to a random man and demand DNA to prove he wasn’t the father of her child.
“The thing about Naked Camera was, we did ruin some stranger’s day quite often. And then after you’ve humilated them you had to get them to sign a release form saying that they were cool for the whole thing to be made public.
“It was nervewracking, but fun to watch back if the people involved hadn’t been too annoyed or anything.
“I often see the people we targeted in and around Dublin and it’s really awkward, That’s my payback, my punishment. I try not to make eye contact when we’re both at the traffic lights.”
Higgins and her sister Lily then did a TV show called Fancy Vittles: Lily baked cakes while chatting with Maeve and laughing at her wit, all in front of a live studio audience. “It was fun,” she recalls, laughing, “then we’d give the audience cakes at the end, but sometimes the cakes wouldn’t work out. They didn’t want another series though.”
These days Higgins is one of a despairingly small number of women working the stand up circuit.
“I literally can’t stop doing stand up,” she insists. (She even has a comedy album entitled Maeve Higgins Can’t Stop Doing Comedy.)
“If some miracle happened that made me able to stop, then I think I might like to work in the post office in town or else be a waitress with a cool haircut.”
Why, I ask Higgins, is there such a small number of female comedians compared to the high numbers of male stand ups? Surely it isn’t true that women are less funny than men? The great Jo Brand, trying to explain why there were around 10 times the number of male stand ups to women when she started on the circuit, blamed “low expectations, random misogyny, off-days, comedy paralysis, and slow reactions in the face of hormonal ravages”.
“I definitely know that it isn’t because women are less funny,” says Higgins. “Lots of women are funny and lots of comedians aren’t funny. I think there’s a depressingly small link between being a comedian and actually being funny. Maybe we have more male comedians because they crave things like attention and ego massaging more? I dunno. It’s strange.”
Certainly her own style is most influenced by fellow funny women: American comedian Maria Bamford and London-based stand up Josie Long.
Here’s to more comedy sistas like Higgins doing it for themselves.
Maeve Higgins will perform at The Black Box, Hill Street, Belfast, January 26 at 1pm as part of the Out to Lunch Festival. To book tickets visit www.cqaf.com or call 02890 232403.