- 09 Apr 01
On the eve of his appearance in the Dublin Theatre Festival and with a nationwide Irish tour pending, Jimeoin, the award-winning Irish comedian, talks to Tony Clayton-Lea about his journey to fame, from his early jobs as a builder in London and a carpenter in Sydney to his current status as the funniest man in Australia. He may own ten Van Morrison albums but he's still the best man around to liven up a night on the town.
Jimeoin is proof that some people have to leave Ireland to make anything of themselves. He left his home town of Portstewart, Co Derry for London ten years ago to work on building sites, although his love of punk rock was perhaps the main reason for his departure.
“I did a HND in Building Management,” says Jimeoin, “only because I wanted to get out of the North – I was doing nothing there. Plus, all the punk bands – The Jam, The Clash, The Stranglers – were based in London, and that’s why I went there.”
There, Jimeoin met old Irish hands at the job, and asked them how long they had been in the trade. “Thirty seven years,” they told him.
“Fuckin’ hell, I thought. Thirty seven years! That’s me!! That’s going to be me!!” exclaims Jimeoin.
“It was then I realised that I didn’t want to end up being just another Paddy in London, forever digging holes. I knew I had to do something that I wanted to do. A friend of mine ended up getting deported from Australia, and as a result of him talking about the country, I went to Sydney, where I worked as a carpenter and quantity surveyor for various authorities. In one company we ended up being talked to by an accountant, who started advising us on topics like superannuation, pension schemes and how to organise them. I went to the nearest toilet, looked at myself in the mirror, and I thought, thirty seven years! That’s me!! That’s going to be me!! I wanted to shout at myself, this is not what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Sitting in a secluded corner in Dublin’s Jury’s Hotel, Jimeoin ironically looks more like an off-duty navvy than one of the best comic discoveries of the past three years. Dirty green jumper and off-black jeans offset the man’s demeanour, itself bolstered by a continuous train of pints of Guinness. It’s the jet lag (a full day’s flight from Australia, where Jimeoin is positively ubiquitous) he weakly offers by way of explanation . . . Yeah, right.
“I don’t talk about Ireland,” says Jimeoin, prompted as much by the flow of alcohol as he is by my questioning his Irishness in relation to his comedy. “I once got booked to do a gig in front of the Prime Minister of Australia. His people came to see a show of mime, and they cancelled the gig because I didn’t do any distinctly Irish stuff. The only thing Irish about me was my accent. A lot of things I talk about would be the imaginative side of the Irish expression. The English would term it surrealism. Irish logic, I call it. It’s just a way of looking at things, at life.”
Is ‘Irish logic’ in-built or can it be assimilated?
“I think it’s inherent to a certain extent. It’s a part of the make-up, the environment we live in. It probably comes from your friends and family, the people we associate with, who make you think a certain way. Most of my friends are a million times funnier than me. I do comedy as a job now, but what I’m actually doing is capturing a part of life, trying to get a reflection of the people I grew up with. People like to see comedians from different social and racial backgrounds, to try and get an essence of what particular people are like. In that sense, I’m very Irish. I don’t write jokes as such. I don’t see myself as a great wit, or a person who is very funny. I wouldn’t have stood out in a class of comics. All I try to do is to get across to people the bits in life that crack me up.
“The truth of the matter is,” continues Jimeoin, “you don’t really have to go and pay money to see people who’ll make you laugh. Being a ‘comedian’ you have to be funny all the time, whereas I don’t feel I need to do that. I feel the necessity to capture what it is that moves me to laughter. As long as it works on whatever level you want it to work on, then it’s fine.”
Jimeoin defines the point of realising he could make people laugh as his stand-up comic debut in a pub in Sydney.
“I was devastated the first time I saw stand-up comedy,” he says of his introduction to the House of Fun. “I couldn’t believe how brilliant it was. I roared with laughter! I didn’t really know what comedy was – I’d never seen stand-up comedy before, and when I saw that comic in the pub I was inspired. That’s the first time I got up myself. The second time I saw stand-up comedy, the same comedian told the same routine word for word. I was devastated again, but for all the wrong reasons. Then I realised it was an act. These people weren’t funny in the way your mates were funny down at the pub.”
Jimeoin moved to Australia over six years ago, following a stint at working at the aforementioned London building site for four years. He worked in the building trade in Sydney until his moment of comic epiphany. Thereafter, came a swift succession of comedy awards that enabled Jimeoin to branch further afield than the major Australian cities and towns, consequently making a name for himself in America and England, culminating this year with an Edinburgh Festival Critic’s Award for Best Comedy Performance.
It’s a long way from Portstewart, is it not? Does he miss living in Northern Ireland?
“There are people that I miss.” He mumbles this, as if not really too keen to go into details.
What does he think of the Peace Initiative?
“Brilliant. What else could anyone think of it? When you get away from it, it’s not very fair to comment on it. It’s very easy to laugh about Northern Ireland when you don’t live there. People always ask you, what’s going on there? And you can get bogged down on that! There should be day excursions to show people what can happen there . . .
“But then I realised that the apathy I had and most people have is what keeps the thing going, the ability that people have to get on with their own lives. Bombs? What bombs? The ability people have to switch off is what fuels the indifference. It’s probably a built-in mechanism, and to be honest it’s very difficult to comment on the North when I feel I’m only half way towards an answer. I’m discovering things out for myself, only to be told by my mates that some other guy has already written a book about it. Great!”
Enough, already. Besides, Jimeoin has a wonderful Van Morrison joke to conclude the interview with. It’s a Northern Irish thing, for sure, and a joke that possibly only Van fans will get, but here goes. Take it away, Jimeoin . . .
“Well, I had this idea that I always wanted to interview Van, because I’m actually a real fan of his. I’ve got at least ten albums of his. Anyway, my fantasy is that I’m interviewing him. We settle into the soft armchairs in some plush hotel. He recognises me as a fellow countryman and a fan, so he’s plainly at ease.
“Van, I’d begin the interview, you know that song on your excellent album, Hymns To The Silence – ‘Why Must I Always Explain?’ And Van would ruminate, and nod his head, as if he would like me to continue. Well, Van, I’d say, can you tell me what that’s all about?”
• Jimeoin plays The Olympia, Dublin on October 16th and November 13th. He also plays Hawks Well Theatre, Sligo, November 11th/12th; Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny, November 14th; Theatre Royal, Wexford, November 15th; and the Belfast Festival, November 18th/19th.