I turned up in Dublin with few plans and fewer contacts. So my first day in town, I sent a facebook message to an Irish comedian I’d met in Edinburgh, asking about shows that might welcome a visiting American. As luck would have it, he himself was hosting a show in Tallaght, just an hour or so south of Dublin’s city center. What I didn’t know, when he offered me a spot there, was that the venue was an old IRA hangout turned working man’s pub.
The night before the Tallaght show, I got some stage time at a venue in the city center, with a big, warm audience and a friendly atmosphere. For the second time that week, I had a crowd that seemed almost to like that I was American. London crowds, by contrast, seemed to especially enjoy my jokes when they used Americans as punchlines. In Dublin, I took revenge. I had a couple of British hecklers one night, so I went after them for centuries of imperialism and destroying Native American and Irish cultures, among others. Was it fair of me? No. Did they deserve it? Absolutely not. Was it funny? The crowd thought so.
Anyway, at some point that evening I mentioned to another comedian that I had a show the next night in Tallaght. He raised an eyebrow, and then started doing that uncomfortable thing people do when they explain that a neighborhood is poorer than the neighborhood you’re currently in. “Well, let’s put it this way, he finally said: if Dublin is New York, then Tallaght is the South Bronx.”
And later he said: “They call it a working-class neighborhood, Tallaght. But I don’t know why, ya know, because no one there is workin.” He chuckled.
The next night I take a late bus from town over to the Jobstown House, per Google Maps’ advice. I tell the bus driver I’m going to Blessington Road, and he asks me if I’m sure I got that right. “I’m doing a comedy show there,” I say.
“Oh, ok.” He hesitates for a moment, his lips curling in a concerned kind of frown. “I’ll give ya a shout when we get there.”
Even at night, you can see the neighborhoods change as the bus leaves the city center. In 10 minutes time, there are fewer shops. In 20 minutes time, the roads are narrower, the street signs are crooked, and the buildings are shorter and older. And in 40 minutes time, the only break from the darkness are street lights, neon flashes from pubs open late, and a late-night pizza place or two.
The bus driver shouts as we get to my stop. I wait next to him for a moment as a few passengers file out before me. “You sure this is where you’re headed?” He asks. “You know who you’re meeting?” He seems to size me up as he’s saying this. I imagine what he must be thinking, looking at a round-cheeked kid hunched over with a backpack and a funny accent, about to wander into Tallaght at night. Concern washes over his features again. “You sure then?” He says. I tell him I’ll be fine, but of course how do I know. He nods and takes a breath, as if to say, “How would you know?” But anyway, he lets me off the bus with a “look after yourself, ok?”
The night is cold and dark and windy. The smell of the water from the city center is gone, and in its place is rough dust. I shield my eyes with my hood and my hands. A couple of street lights are on at the other end of the street. I march in their direction, my buddy Google Maps urging me on. Cars whisk past, and for a few minutes that’s the only sound I hear.
I walk into the brightly lit Jobstown House and instantly feel better. The paintings on the walls remind of me of 1920’s American art, but that’s probably because I know so little about art. Here and there between the paintings are signed rugby jerseys with Irish names. People are laughing and shouting and drinking, and they don’t care that an American kid in a backpack has just walked in. But then maybe I’m wrong: as I walk up to ask the bartender if I’m in the right place, I hear someone behind me say, in a thick Dubliny-but-not-quite-central-Dublin accent, “He must be one of the comedians.”
I meet the show’s host at the door to the ballroom. He’s in good spirits, collecting plenty of tickets at the door, and he points to the table at the back reserved for the comedians. In the next 5 minutes I meet 6 Irish comics, whose names are Robbie, Kev, Rob, Cormac, Barry and Billy. I’ve having trouble remembering which Irish name goes with which Irish face. But they don’t mind, because none of them can remember how to pronounce “Al-tee-air-ee,” and they start calling me “Aller-ton.” I tell them they can just call me O’Donnell, if it’s easier. But a few people at the pub are already called O’Donnell and that’d be confusing, so we stick with “Allerton,” or just “Ricky.”
The show gets underway and the host, Joe, does a little crowd-work to warm people up. It’s the night of his 11th wedding anniversary, and he’s brought his wife and some family to the show as a kind of celebration. For a moment I imagine my father taking my mother to a comedy show to celebrate an anniversary, and then I imagine it being their last anniversary. “I’m a lucky man, for my wife to let me do this as an anniversary date night,” Joe says, acknowledging what the room was thinking and getting a laugh.
It’s a good sized crowd, maybe 60 or so, and as I scan the room I ask one of the other comedians to film my set, thinking I might get some laughs. But, in a few minutes, I see that my confidence is misplaced. Joe’s doing some great jokes, but the crowd keep chatting and ordering drinks, and seem content to just tune in when there’s a lull in their conversation. That’s tough to work with, because the chatter distracts even the audience who want to listen to you. So Joe addresses it, but gets an “okay, whatever” kind of response.
Joe’s in a tricky situation. This kind of crowd response doesn’t rise to the level of proper heckling. If the crowd had been shouting at him, Joe could insult them, get a laugh, and command the room again. But unless they do something that’s very clearly rude, he’d seem crass for making fun of them.
I’m in the back thinking about my set and trying to gauge what the crowd will like. These shows in working-class pubs are always tougher for me, because the crowd (quite rightly) don’t care what an American kid who just finished school finds funny. I’ll need to work to get the audience on my side.
I play over my set, considering jokes and deciding whether to replace them with others. The comedians before me have been doing jokes about drinking. One comedian goes on for 5 minutes about how difficult it is to know if you have a drinking problem in Ireland. “We don’t say he’s got a drinking problem. We just say, ‘he’s fond of a drink.’ I tried to tell my therapist I might have a drinking problem and he said, ‘Well, I suppose we’d better have a talk about this. Meet me at the pub tonight.’”
He carries on: “And when your friend gets drunk and breaks things, we don’t say, ‘he’s got a problem.’ We just say, ‘He’s a bit of character.’” Somehow he manages to crowbar America in: “The problem,” he says, “Is that all the books about drinking problems are written by Americans. They ask stuff like, ‘do you drink regularly by yourself?’” He puts on a silly American accent for this last line. “Right, cause that’s how I talk,” I mutter.
One of the other comedians hears me and shrugs. “Pretty much,” he says.
The crowd is loving the drinking bit. “Have I ever had a drink by myself? Has anyone here not had a drink by themselves?” The crowd claps and cheers. “These American books, I’m telling ya. They say, ‘do you find alcohol affects your job performance?’” Again with the accent.
The crowd’s laughing hard enough that he needs to raise his voice to be heard. It’s a great moment. “As we Irish know, the whole point of working,” he says, “is to drink. So the real question should be, “is my job affecting my drinking performance?” Another big laugh.
For a moment, the audience pays full attention. But the next bit doesn’t get the same response, and then the same kind of apathy comes over the crowd again. People start chatting, and by the end of the set, the energy in the room has returned to its starting level.
At the break before I’m supposed to go on the host says to me, “Hey listen Ricky, the crowd usually aren’t like this—if you don’t want to go on, I totally understand. It’s no problem,” he says. I sense he kind of doesn’t want me to go on, because he’s worried I’ll kill what little energy is in the room. But I came all the way out to Tallaght, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get to at least say some jokes into a microphone. “I’ll be fine!” I say, maybe just to convince myself. He nods and tells me just a quick 7 minutes will do, and that I’ll go on 2nd in the next half.
I have a drink during the break to ease some nerves. I don’t usually drink before I go on. Perhaps it’s the American sensibility, telling me that this would qualify as having a drinking problem. But I usually feel like even one drink slows me down just a little, makes me just a little less sharp. And also, I like the challenge of rising above my nerves. I like to feel the butterflies and fully experience the tension as I take the microphone and feel everyone’s eyes on me, the foreigner, the kid, the outsider.
But tonight, in Tallaght, I have a drink, because I’m only the only one in the pub without one. Earlier in the night, when I ordered a water, the bartender looked at me like I had 7 heads.
Joe introduces the comedian before me as being “all the way from Cork,” which is a few hours away by train. The audience gets really excited by the prospect of someone who comes all the way from another part of Ireland. They jeer and make fun of his accent.
I finish the drink quickly and get another.
A few minutes later I’m on stage. I say the word “perform” and someone in the back goes, “Purrr-ferrrm,” making fun of that round American “r” the world loves so much. Some people in the crowd laugh, but not enough that I have to address it. I figure not everyone heard him and I’d just get sidetracked going after him. Plus, he’s enormous and drunk.
I just press on with a little crowd-work, while I still have their attention. “I get a little nervous performing in front of such diverse crowds,” I begin. Then a tense pause. “On this side of the room, we have some white people,” I say, gesturing. “And over there, we have some…white people,” I say. They like it. They laugh.
Next, I take a crack at the venue, making fun of the lighting and the décor. They like that, too: they’re proud of the janky decorations, and they laugh when they hear it described through my eyes. Somehow, after those two jokes, they’re with me: the rest of the set doesn’t go brilliantly, but it doesn’t go badly either. It goes kinda well, and that feels like a big win, because this is Tallaght.
I hang out at the pub afterwards for a while and meet some of the audience. In person, in conversation, they’re not intimidating at all. They’re friendly and personable, and they’re curious to hear why I came to Tallaght and what I’m doing in Ireland.
If I’m honest, though, the pub atmosphere soon got outside my depth. This crowd is known for being able to handle their liquor, even in Ireland.
One guy starts asking me if he can get into America with an arrest record, and I don’t know what to tell him. But one of his mates knows, because he got into America with an arrest record.
Some of the older women at the bar give me very big hugs, and I can’t really tell if they’re motherly or come-ons. They feel like a mix of the two.
A British man in the bathroom—the only other foreigner in the pub, I think— tells me jokes as I’m at the urinal, but the jokes rely on his facial expression, so he asks me to turn my head around. I do, and I think all the pee still gets in the urinal, but the bathroom floor was wet and smelled of urine anyway, so I can’t be too sure.
A few different people offer to house me for the night. But they’re all hammered and I don’t know whose driving and I don’t want to sleep on a floor if I can avoid it. Some of the other comedians invite me to a nightclub. It’d be a cultural experience to go, and maybe I should’ve, but I don’t like nightclubs in America and I figure a nightclub here probably isn’t that different.
I walk out in the night, colder and darker and windier than before. Thankfully, a cab turns onto the road. I hop in and tell the driver to take me back to the city center. It’s going to cost me about 20 euros, he says. But no buses run at this hour, and it’s too far to walk back, and I don’t want to sleep at the pub, so I tell him to go ahead.
“You American?” he asks.
“You’re the comedian, t’en.”
“ Yea, that’s me. How’d you know?”
“aye, was a fella in my cab about 40 minutes ago, said he seen an American comedian at the Jobstown pub, couldn’t believe it, he said.” The driver paused for a second.
“What’d he think?” I say.
“He liked ya, know what I mean? Says he enjoys an American sense of humor, thought ya were great. Said he liked ya, really did.”
(Side note: I wonder how he would have rendered my accent on the page, because it’s definitely not entirely fair for me to put his speech phonetically and leave my own in formal written English. But I feel OK about it, because people in England and Ireland and Scotland have gotten plenty of mileage out of my American accent.)
The driver leaves me at D’Olier Street and after a short wait I get on the night bus. A few minutes into the ride, a passenger dances up to the driver, looking as though he really needs to pee. “Can you stop the bus for like, 20 seconds?” He asks.
“Afraid not,” the driver says. He’d gotten this request before, I imagine.
“Just 20 seconds, mate, c’mon. I’ll be in and out,” he says.
“Afraid not,” says the driver.
“OK, just let me off then,” says the man with the full bladder.
“Next stop, you can get off.”
For maybe a minute the bus keeps rolling on through the night. I’ve spent the whole night watching intelligent stand-up comedy, but I have to restrain myself from laughing at a man who needs to take a whizz. Finally, we stop, and almost in one motion he leaps off the bus and starts peeing on the curb, just as other passengers are getting on the bus.
A few stops later I get off and walk to the place where I’m staying, with a local couple who have given me a room through air bnb. I’m quiet as I come in, hoping I won’t wake anyone. And I crawl into bed and smile with a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling, a mixture of the beer in my belly and thick covers that I wrap around my torso. I pop open my laptop and find a message from one of the other comedians, asking whether I know how he got a black eye. He’s been asking around, but no one seems to know.
My newsfeed is full of photos of Amherst: it’s homecoming weekend. I scroll through pictures of the beautiful fall foliage, with good-looking people wearing scarves and fancy black coats in the foreground. My friends from college have whiter teeth, cleaner clothes, and prettier faces than most of the people I hang around with now. I realize that I felt much more conscious of the way I look and the way I carried myself around Amherst friends than I ever would with comedians.
On the other hand, I have been self-conscious this year about the way I speak. I sound bookish, sheltered, and naïve, I think. I worry the other comedians see the inexperience all over my face; they imagine the hours I spent hunched over tables in a library; and they can tell that mom and dad have paid for everything. I worry that they will think my humor comes from a place of cleverness or false self-pity, rather than honesty.
But I think this self-consciousness is healthy. It makes me listen, turn outward, and stop talking about myself. It helps me see in their comedy and their stories and their bearing many things I don’t know about making comedy you care about, taking big chances, and having no safety nets. And it makes me appreciative for this extraordinary opportunity, to travel and do comedy without having to worry about the rent. Sometimes I think that it’s for these brief conversations between sets and after shows that I gave up a comfortable job and the comfort of home.
My focus turns back to Facebook as my newsfeed updates. As I systematically hit “like” on the homecoming photos, I remember walking around the college quad, talking with my friends about comedy or music or books, enjoying the weather and the beautiful view from memorial hill. I remember procrastinating in buildings across campus, ordering coffee after coffee, and then finally writing long papers on little questions that seemed so important. I remember wandering in and out of dorm rooms, having my closest friends in my pockets, feeling I never had to be alone. I remember Gads, my improv group, and the practices and the shows and the hanging out. I remember long meals in a cafeteria that, for all the shit people gave it, had really, really good food and a cozy atmosphere, and sometimes even felt like home. I remember feeling like part of a community, whatever its problems and failures.
I miss it. Damn, I miss it.
I get goosebumps when I zoom out and try to understand how my years in college somehow led to this. And my heart races when I realize that I don’t know what’s next. I have a grip on tomorrow, and a vague idea about the week ahead, but even a month from now, I know little more than what city I’ll be in and that I’ll be trying to tell jokes.
As I get drowsy and close the laptop, I feel lost, nostalgic, capable, uneasy, and free. I feel like I could disappear without being noticed. I feel that my memories from the past few months belong only to me. Above all, I feel I only have to answer to myself. But these words, which I used to toss around as an ideal way of living, feel much more complicated and troubling, now that, for the first time in my life, they are actually true.
Facebook beeps. I have another message from one of the comedians: “Great job tonight, fellas. You were all killer out there.”
I made ‘em laugh in Tallaght, I tell myself. I smile. For now, that’s enough. I pull the covers up around me to fend off the cold Irish night seeping in through the window, and I fall into a deep sleep, dreaming of college quads, old friends, microphones, and Irish pubs.