‘The Gummo Marx of Irish comedy’ Karl MacDermott is back three years after his critically acclaimed short comic collection Juggling With Turnips. The author and stand up comedian has written a follow up comic novel 58% Cabbage. Set in Galway, it chronicles the hapless adventures of a middle-aged everyman as he grapples with both a sense of loss and a loss of sense while attempting to pursue his comedy dreams. We sat down with the Galway author to discuss his distinguished career as a comedian, the quirky characters in his book and his advice for budding comedians.
What is the inspiration behind the story and the title of the book?
Well, the story about ‘a sit-down nobody who tries stand-up comedy’ is I suppose prompted by my own life. I always loved comedy. From my childhood and teenage years, growing up in Salthill, I avidly watched all the old black&white comedy movies on RTE. RTE’s homegrown comedy output, even back then in the 1970s and early 1980s was non-existent so to fulfil their tickling the funny-bone public service broadcasting remit they showed ancient American and British film acts from long ago – Laurel & Hardy, Eddie Cantor, Will Hay, Abbot & Costello, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Norman Wisdom, The Marx Brothers etc. In fact my alter ego in the book, Roddy Bodkin, laments the fact that having watched all these old comedy films, his comic influences are not exactly contemporary as all the stuff he loves is nearly seventy to eighty years old. Later on, when I was in NUIG (then known as UCG) studying for a B. Comm degree (that in itself was quite a three-year comedy routine) I preferred hanging around the Dramsoc of the time and developed a love of performing. Especially comedy. Once I moved up to Dublin in the mid-1980s I became a future comedy footnote by helping set up The Comedy Cellar in The International Bar on Wicklow Street with Barry (Après Match) Murphy and Ardal (Dougal from Father Ted) O’Hanlon among others. Later, I had a modestly successful career as a comedian until I hung up my microphone 2001. In retrospect, the stage was never really my home – it was more like a B&B in Ballybunion. As for, 58% Cabbage, the title of the book, this derives from my bizarre and frankly unnatural obsession with forensically analysing large round cruciferous vegetables.
Tell us about your characters and if they are inspired by real people?
All the characters are composites. Creations of memory and the imagination. Real people. Imagined people. Some traits of the real people in the imagined people and vice versa. Roddy Bodkin, the main character, would be a like many men as they pass the age of forty. When middle-age approaches and dreams slowly die the white flag goes up and they seem to become stuck and rudderless. His best friend Ambrose Hegarty, is a consummate alcoholic. A talker. A faller-over. Not a doer. Permanently existing in that nebulous space between hinged and unhinged. Roddy’s soon to be ex-girlfriend Lorraine Heuston, is similar to many Irish women over the last twenty years. They bypass their men. Are very focussed and are better at re-inventing themselves and dealing with people and life. Many men, once they hit a certain age, just pull down the shutters. Drink and talk raiméis. In fact, the book is dedicated to ‘all the gobdaws’.
If you were to meet your main character what would you say to him?
Hello me. Roddy Bodkin is an exaggerated slothful version of me. The imaginary me if I’d remained in Galway rather than move to Dublin in the mid-1980s.
You are originally from Galway. Did this make it easier to write about the setting?
Yes. You don’t have to make up street names. And wonder when the character turns left on Palmyra Avenue on page forty-three, what road he ends up on. Also, through Roddy Bodkin, I get to examine a character’s conflicted feelings (in an over-the-top comic vein) towards his place of origin. Most Irish writers seem to find it necessary to proclaim undying love for their hometown and parish and how their one burning desire is to smear their face with the clay of the place where their people are buried. Not me. I’m with Brendan Behan, on this matter, who once said the first duty of a writer is to let his country down. Galway and Ireland are dissed mercilessly throughout the book but (hopefully) in a narky funny way.
What emotions and messages do you hope your target audience take away from the book?
Well, marketing whiz-kids would tell me my target audience would be the slightly pathetic middle-aged men demographic. And that demographic doesn’t buy books. So that creates a quandary. In fact, it seems men of all ages don’t buy books nowadays, unless it’s that discounted Brian O’Driscoll autobiography for €3.99 so I’m hoping to expand my appeal and attract the actual book-reading public, otherwise known as the female population of Ireland. If a book-loving woman does take a chance on the book, I hope, it being a work of humour fiction, that it will make her laugh primarily but I also hope it may shine a light on the flawed men in her life as they flounder under the relentless tyranny of male competitiveness and roll up in an anguished ball of existential pointlessness.
Describe your writing process and setting?
I’ll answer this question in the style of the Orange Ogre, Donald Trump, who famously listed five words (Person. Woman. Man. Camera.TV.) in an interview last year to prove his cognitive prowess. My answer would be – Laptop. Table. Room. Coffee. Brain.
Has your extensive experience with comedy helped or hindered your writing style?
Well, it has created my writing style. Let me elaborate. Humour writers are hard-wired differently and are not really compatible with novel-writing. For starters most stand-up comedians (and comedians who also write) gleam material from their lives so it is all about them (or exaggerated self-absorbed dimensions of themselves) whereas in fiction, reliance on personal stories is frowned upon and it is considered that the best fiction writers are the one’s that avoid any sort of auto-fiction and create completely original stories and characters. Also, most humour writers write short sharp pieces. Basically funny vignettes. Or in performance, perform comic monologues. Everything in humour is geared towards the build-up to the punchline. Humour writers are not genetically amenable towards longer forms. Ever notice how most comedy films run out of steam after the first twenty-minutes? The funny idea is in the set-up. Sustaining it is the hard part. The longest natural form for comedy writers is the half-hour sit-com or sketch show. I’ve tried to overcome the above issues by writing 58% Cabbage in thirty chapters covering a year in the life of Roddy Bodkin as he attempts to launch a comedy career while everything around him unravels and he slowly realises that time is passing him by. So my novel wouldn’t be overburdened with plot but by zoning in on the character of Roddy Bodkin and the mishaps that occur to him, it gives me the flexibility and looseness in structure to introduce slice-of-life observations and some funny and bittersweet experiences we all can encounter.
Do you have any advice for future writers or comedians?
Well, contrary to popular belief, making people laugh is the second hardest job in the world, allegedly tracking hurricanes is harder, but that still makes it number two on the list so most sane people are advised to steer well clear of seeking chuckles and guffaws as a career path. However, if you are feeling particularly insane, and have a ginormous comedy itch that needs to be scratched, Neil Simon’s less famous comedy writer brother Danny had some great advice for comedy writers. ‘In comedy always trust your judgement because external opinion is meaningless.’ And it is true, because comedy is so subjective you have to trust yourself in thinking what you write is funny because if self-doubt enters the picture you will never write anything.
As for advice for young prospective comedians? Well, once the pandemic- induced pause on their comedy dreams eventually ends and comedy venues finally re-open I’d suggest they concentrate on doing one thing well. Find your voice. Plough your single unique furrow. Hone it. Know your limitations. Gig as much as you can. But be one thing. Don’t be versatile. Especially nowadays. The industry is stand-up comedy driven. Audiences prefer a performer to be and do one thing. TV schedulers like a performer to be and do one thing. If he or she is versatile, can sing, act, appear in sketches, it just confuses the audience and the people booking the acts. Also, obviously, dominate all social media platforms with your never-ending output of mirth-making brilliance – sadly though, the more product you produce online ‘for free’ to help promote yourself, you will help hasten the end of that whole antiquated twentieth- century concept of ‘being paid’ for stuff.
What’s next on the cards for you? Have you any future plans?
A sequel to 58% Cabbage is in the works. Due out late 2023. Working title, 74% Cabbage.
Where can we find the book once it is released?
We will be surreptitiously placing one-hundred copies of the book in various cabbage patches in farms throughout the country as a promotional ruse so some rural readers may get lucky, otherwise I’m reliably informed the book will also be found in all good and some so-so bookshops nationwide.
Karl MacDermott is a comedy writer from Salthill, Galway. He has written both radio sit-coms and TV comedy drama for RTE and the BBC and has written two comic novels. In the mid-1980s, he helped set up The Comedy Cellar in The International Bar on Wicklow Street with Barry Murphy and Ardal O’Hanlon among others. Officially hanging up his microphone in 2001, he now is a writer-in-residence at his home in Dublin. His comic novel 58% Cabbage is available for purchase here.