Maeve on stage

Higgins takes New York

Maeve Higgins on stage at the Irish Arts Center.

By Sean Devlin

I was pretty nervous walking into the Irish Arts Center Tuesday night. I had spent a few minutes walking around the block, pacing in the cold, trying to collect my thoughts on what to say. Maeve Higgins seemed so lovely during our emails back and forth about the story I was going to write about her for the Irish Echo, but this seemed different. You see, she’s one of my comedy heroes. I’ve listened to her album, read her book, and watched everything she’s had on TV, as well as played one of her favorite stand-up clubs in Dublin. How do you figure out what to say, as a journalist, as a fan?

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

When I do manage to work up the courage to walk into the lobby of the Irish Arts Center, I hear Maeve’s voice, muffled by the wall, rehearsing her material for the evening. She’s been doing a set of shows called “One Night in Heaven,” featuring her own stand-up, the work of other comedians, journalists, and artists. Tonight, the featured topic is money. The lobby has tables decorated with chocolate coins to go along with the theme. I take a seat at a table and nervously recite some questions I’ve printed up.

Maeve walks through the double doors at the front of the room, smiles, and comes over to me to shake my hand. “You look a bit different than your picture! Have you done something with your beard?” I instinctively reach for my face, thinking I’ve walked out of the house looking like a crazy person. We small talk for a moment, and I grab a few shots for the Irish Echo article. We then part, agreeing we’ll grab a bite at a diner after the show, and I take my seat in the crowd.

The show itself is brilliant. Comedians Courtney Fearrington and Joe Zimmerman perform stand-up sets about their relationship with their finances. “MarketWatch” journalist and Irish émigré Quentin Fottrell gives a talk on “10 facts you don’t know about billionaires.” Heather McCabe presented her experiences with a social experiment centering on using the $2 bill in everyday life, and singer Salina Sias closed the show with a few ballads on money’s real worth.

After the show, I hang around with the comics, as I often tend to do, telling Courtney I loved his set and Joe that I own his album, as I wait for Maeve to finish in the green room. She emerges, and we small talk on Ireland, comedy, and “Tony the Booker” at the Battle of the Axe Comedy Club in Dublin, where Maeve started. She asks me if I ever managed to win “the duck,” the prize for the best act at that club (in reality, it’s a blue turtle toy). I say I hadn’t, but I’d come in around third, saying that hopefully a bronze medalist is up to her caliber for this interview.

We sit down for grilled cheeses at a diner in Hell’s Kitchen late night, a quintessential comedian’s experience. Here’s my interview with Maeve Higgins, Irish comedian and television star.

Sean Devlin: How’d you get your start in comedy?

Maeve Higgins: The first show I did was in the Ha’penny Bridge Inn [the aforementioned location of the club in Dublin]. That was the first official stand up open-mic night I did. Other than that, I’d done some stuff on the radio where you have to call in, which I managed to win.

SD: Most comedians have influences or people they look to when they start out. Who were yours?

MH: One of my comedy mentors was definitely David O’Doherty, because he’s a Dublin comic and I started out there. There’s an expression, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”, and that’s definitely true for women in comedy. I didn’t know about a lot of women in comedy, but I knew a few. I’d had a bit of a hard time trying to figure out who I wanted to be like; I didn’t know where I fit in.

SD: Did you have friends and family encouraging you to get in to comedy?

MH: Oh God, no. It was a secret for a long time. I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t explain to people what I was doing. It felt like a compulsion, going up on stage was like a way of thinking and figuring things out.

SD: What sticks out in your mind as your favorite ever performance, be it TV, radio, live act?

MH: I remember the first year I did an hour long show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a lot of fondness. My sister Lilly was on stage with me, and she’s quite shy. I sort of tricked her into coming with me. The thing about stand up is that it’s very solitary and I was very new in the game; Edinburgh is like a dogfight and there’s a thousand shows a day. I didn’t want to do that on my own. I told her no one would come to the show and we’d just have a nice time in Edinburgh. The show went really well and Lilly made cakes and we gave them out at the end for the crowd [Lilly Higgins is an Irish television baker]. That sticks out as my favorite.

Maeve encourages me to pick away at the fries she’s ordered. I ask another question, and the blender in the background drowns out my recording. We laugh, and I change directions to the more Irish-centric questions.

SD: The Irish community is really strong in New York. Did you think that would be factor on fitting in here?

MH: I was living in London, having a horrible time, and I got an email from the Irish Arts Center about doing one night of comedy at the beginning of last year. Already, that was a welcome. I thought, “Why don’t I just stay there?” I ended up playing a huge Irish festival in Kansas City, full of folk bands, Irish dancing, and bagpipes being sold for no reason. They got me my visa for one year. When the Irish Arts Center in New York talked to me, I thought “Why should I keep having a shitty time in London when I can just go to America and people will be interested in what I have to say and my experiences?” I’ve been here and done shows before, and the audiences here are very warm and great. There’s also a nice blend of Irish people and Irish-American New Yorkers at my shows.

SD: You’ve done Dublin and London; how is it adjusting to New York?

MH: I used to spend six months traveling all around the English-speaking world, so it’s nice to be settled. There’s a few things that get lost in translation, but not a lot. I grew up in the 1980s in Ireland, and a lot of our culture was American culture. New York City feels very at home to me; it was familiar to me before I even got here. I think that’s an experience a lot of immigrants have. The communities I’ve found here, both comedians and Irish-American people, have been helpful with setting up a foundation. I didn’t find that many gaps in mindset. It’s nice when you do a show and people are like “We get you.”

SD: What do you think of the mix of Irish and Irish-Americans that come to your shows? Some of them do have slightly different senses of humor.

MH: It’s funny because sometimes I feel as if there’s an expectation of me to behave in a certain way because I’m from the “old country.” I just left there in 2012. Ireland is so different now than it was in 1985, and 1965 as well, it’s odd trying to square that away with an expectation people have for me. I love being here and part of New York culture. I don’t want to be defined by Eamon deValera or whatever. When I think of things like the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I realize that I’m grateful for Irish America for supporting Ireland through really rough times, but at the same time, I think, this is not us [she refers to banning gay people from marching under their own banner]. I have a different version of Ireland on my mind.

Personally, what I find interesting about Ireland are the new stories of emigration and people moving to New York. Ireland and Irish people tend to be very secure in their whiteness and their privilege in America. We’re the ones that should be offering a helping hand.

SD: Storytelling is really big in Irish culture – I know that from my family, and it’s how I got into this line of work. How does that inform how you do your job?

MH: It’s funny because the longer I’m away from Ireland, the more I realize that. On the one hand, it used to always irritate me when people would say “You’re Irish, you could read the phone book or tell me about mailing a letter and I’d listen because you’d put it in a story.” Now, the longer I spend away from Ireland, it’s kind of true. There’s something about how we’ve adopted the English language to use as our own that we can’t help putting our experiences into stories. It’s kind of innate.

SD: What’s your favorite thing about New York thus far?

MH: The people. I think the people, and I know that’s really cliché, but it’s been really healthy for me creatively to come across people who work in a lot of different disciplines from a lot of different backgrounds. You can’t get that in Ireland. Ireland is still very much monocultural. That’s what really excites me about New York — the diversity of experience.

Maeve and I talk for a few more minutes, about the cab app Gett, where she lived in relation to my old neighborhood, and how Irish media in New York can be changed for the better. We also joke that her cab driver’s name on the app is Shaquille, and about the basketball star moonlighting as a driver. We part ways into the cold New York night, with Maeve Higgins instantly shooting to the top of my list of most admired comedians.

You can check out what shows Maeve Higgins has coming up at maevehiggins.com, and you can buy her book “Off You Go!” on the same site. She will perform at the Bell House in Brooklyn on Sunday, Dec. 20, in a UNICEF benefit for Syrian children called “Raise the Roof.” Go to http://www.thebellhouseny.com/event/1002349-raise-roof-help-syrian-brooklyn.

 

 

Donate