Sixteen was a key year for me. I moved from a mixed school on a pretty rough estate in Slough to quite a fancy all-boys grammar school in High Wycombe. I went from being one of the lads and not working very hard to thinking, ‘Right, I had better do well in my A-levels and go to a good university.’ I basically gave myself a wake-up call when I was 16.
But I’d tell that 16-year-old that obsessing over academic results is not worth the stress. I think I took it all too seriously. I did very well academically but it never really served much of a purpose. I occasionally get stuff right on QI and that is the only purpose of those excellent A-level grades.
The teenage me was quite religious. I used to have what I would refer to as “my imaginary friend in the sky”. I grew out of that very late. I was about 26 when I finally went: “This is not for me. This is made up.” It was a huge weight lifted when that finally broke.
I used to have what I would refer to as “my imaginary friend in the sky”
I was brought up Irish-Catholic. My parents were from Limerick. We didn’t go to mass every Sunday but we went enough. My mother, as she got older, got slightly more religious. A belief in God was an assumed thing. I was never expected to be an altar boy or to go into the priesthood. There were enough aunts and uncles who were nuns and priests.
We had a month every summer in Kilkee and I would have been moaning about being on the west coast of Ireland. Looking back – it was heavenly. A summer on the coast in Ireland is idyllic and beautiful. But at the time I was too busy being bored. Moone Boy is a fabulous show, it really captures that “Oh right, rainy again?” aspect of Ireland.
If you weren’t funny at school, you weren’t one of our friends. That taught me to handle hecklers. Having a good sense of humour was how you’d be in the group. Everyone was just very, very good at taking the piss. That really has been a lifelong love of mine – taking the piss and knowing where to draw the line. If someone heckles me now I just think, “OK, here we go. I’ve been doing this for years!”
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I don’t think I made a decision about life until I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t make a decision to go to Cambridge. I just went: “Where is the best place I can go? Let’s try and get in there.” It was always the line of least resistance.
I really enjoyed working after university in advertising and marketing. I’d tell myself at 16 it is nice to have a relatable and normal life. If you go straight into showbusiness you are never really grateful for how fucking easy it is. And it is really fucking easy. When you start doing comedy it is the first time you are self-employed so you think you are never going to do any more gigs than this – so you do all of them. I remember for the first four years in comedy I was doing upwards of 300 gigs a year. If someone asked me if I wanted to go to Plymouth for £60 I’d say yes. I was paying my dues.
I was making a living telling jokes to people. Everything else was gravy. It was just about having a full diary and having fun
People misinterpret ambition in comedy. My first Edinburgh show, where I got nominated for the Perrier Award, was called Bare-Faced Ambition. I got successful about two years before anyone thought I got successful. Playing the Comedy Store [in London] twice on a Saturday night, the early and the late, and playing the Balham Banana Cabaret in between felt like I had absolutely made it. I was making a living telling jokes to people. Everything else was gravy. It was just about having a full diary and having fun.
The advice I’d give myself at 16 would be don’t go to Spain or Greece with your mates, go to Edinburgh. Go to the Fringe Festival and go and see shows. I still tell people that now. It is an incredible festival of comedy that is a train ride away. But people don’t go. I didn’t even know it existed until I was in my 20s. I had a vague idea there was an arts festival there. I thought it was ballet and opera and so not for me. This incredible thing is happening, especially now with the Free Fringe it really feels like a scene.
Sixteen-year-old me would have loved the worlds of stand up and TV. You are on your own on stage and you decide what you can say and what you can’t say. The audience laugh or they don’t laugh. There is an immediate feedback. Sixteen-year-old me would like the absoluteness of that. The other side of my life now is the really nice sense of community. I work in television and it means you get to work in a team. It’s like you’re part of a new class in school and they make you head boy on the first day – and everyone is there to try and make you look good. It’s brilliant.
My mum showed me the power of comedy. Brash is too strong a word – she was very loud and very funny. She didn’t get embarrassed by anything. I owe her everything [she died in 2001]. She had that ability to make it feel that the party was here, with her, and this is where you want to be. It was that early exposure to someone who people thought was hilarious on a personal basis. Friends and family would think my mother was hilarious. I have never really thought about this but subconsciously you would aspire to be that funny so that people would want to be around you.