‘There’ll be no jokes about boilers or the Irish language’

Standup Colin Murphy
Standup Colin Murphy

Belfast standup Colin Murphy is perhaps best known for appearing on BBC panel show The Blame Game alongside fellow comics Tim McGarry and Jake O’Kane. Together they take the mick out of Stormont politicians and other Ulster absurdities, taking a sideways glance at politics and life, bantering about people and places with a wry and riotous sensibility.

But Colin is also a standup in his own right and has been working the comedy circuit for 25 years having first started out as compere at both Queen’s Comedy Club and at Belfast’s Empire - where standups like Paddy Kielty first showcased their talents.

His new Bald Ambition tour is not about to offer advice to the follically challenged but will riff around themes like getting older and the whole idea of change.

As a boy Colin confides he dreamed not of comedy fame but of becoming a bus driver - he liked the big steering wheel the driver sat at. He admits to having been “a bit of a wee swot” at school before he reached his teens. A love of art led him to a career in graphic illustration and for a while he lectured on the subject at a college in Castlereagh. He first decided to do some standup having “fallen in with the wrong crowd”.

“A comedy club opened in the Empire and my friends - most of them on the dole and doing bits and pieces of theatre at the time - forced me into getting up on stage and doing some standup. It was a punk rock ethic of just going for it and giving it a go. I was absolutely terrified the first time. It was a very effective laxative. Then when I did it and pulled it off I was bitten by the bug and wanted to do it again.”

Colin, who hails from Downpatrick and now lives in south Belfast with his wife and kids, grew up watching Saturday Night Live and loved comics like Billy Connolly and Dave Allen - master storytellers who he sees as having inspired his own comedy craft. He also has high praise for the surreal wit of standups like Dylan Moran.

“For me it’s all about the story. I love a good story. That’s what people like Billy Connolly and Dave Allen were all about. Dylan Moran is amazing but I’m much less flowery with my language than he is. I’ve gigged with him before and he’s just so erudite. I’m more direct.

“My biggest theme is people. I’m just obsessed with people and the way they interact with each other. And all the frustrations of dealing with other people. When I was younger I used to get so wound up and a lot of my commentary was negative but now I try to find common ground with the audience.

“I was ridiculously shy growing up and that meant I spent a lot of time just watching what other people were saying and doing. So that made me a good mimic and I’ve been able to see both how annoying and how wonderful other people really are.”

After his comedy club debut Colin began touring in the 1990s at a time when things were very unstable politically and the Troubles still cast a pall over Northern Ireland.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years now and I will turn 50 in April. So with my new show I’m looking back over the years and remembering the madness when I started out in 1992. Things were difficult politically but yet I and other standups were still driving around Northern Ireland doing comedy gigs, people still wanted to get out and have a laugh. But it was a bit like the new TV show Derry Girls - there was comedy in the midst of dreadful things happening.”

Colin doesn’t like to over-script his standup routines, preferring a bit of improv and freewheeling interaction with the audience. It sounds like he has turned flying by the seat of his pants into an art form.

“I never sit down to write jokes or anything. I like to go up there and wing it and see what the audience responds to and then build a show over time. I have it all in my head. If I ever get knocked over or hit over the head I’ll end up having to starve. I never write my stuff down. I just have notes that look like the ramblings of some sort of serial killer.

“I’m avoiding politics with this show so there’ll be no mention of boilers or renewable heat incentives or the Irish language act. It’s about getting angry about lots of things, like the fact that we have all these adverts for shops we can’t actually afford to buy anything in.”

Colin Murphy’s Bald Ambition tour will be at the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen tonight (February 23); An Granian, Letterkenny, February 24; the Burnavon, Cookstown, March 2; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, March 3 (sold out); Waterfront Studio, Belfast, March 9 (sold out); Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, March 15; Millennium Forum, Londonderry, March 16; Braid Theatre, Ballymena, March 22; Waterfront Studio, Belfast, March 23 (sold out); Market Place, Armagh, March 23 (sold out); and Waterfront Studio, Belfast, April 19 (tickets still available).