My role model when I was growing up in Dublin was the late great Dave Allen. OK, I tell a lie, but it’s a good story and almost true.
You see, Dave Allen was the funniest man on the planet. He was Ireland’s first major international standup star (if you don’t count the musical hall stuff that came before, and if you ignore the fact that Dave wouldn’t actually stand but sat back on a high bar-stool for most of his act).
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he was the godfather of modern Irish comedy. Here’s a very quick taste of him, from a date unknown, subtitles unknown (after watching too much Wallander I think it might be Swedish), doing the drunk bit.
Despite the bar stool routine, he was a surprisingly physical comedian in his sketches, when he did his popes and priests and drunks and kids. Oh, and lots of South American revolutionaries about to be shot by a firing squad, for some strange reason.
Only Dave Allen (and Dario Fo perhaps) could get away with doing a sketch about the pope doing a striptease.
But he wasn’t just a funny guy. He said profound things about life, sex, power, religion and clocks.
He often joked, “I’m an atheist, thank God”, and regular targets in his act included the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the bigotry of Ian Paisley. Yep, the fundamentalism word.
In 1998 he stated:
The hierarchy of everything in my life has always bothered me. I’m bothered by power. People, whoever they might be, whether it’s the government, or the policeman in the uniform, or the man on the door – they still irk me a bit. From school, from the first nun that belted me – people used to think of the nice sweet little ladies… they used to knock the fuck out of you, in the most cruel way that they could. They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain – grabbing you by the ear, or by the nose, and lift you, and say ‘Don’t cry!’ It’s very hard not to cry. I mean, not from emotion, but pain. The priests were the same. And I sit and watch politicians with great cynicism, total cynicism.
He was cynical, wicked, a rebel, he swore a lot, was a mega star yet banned by RTÉ in his own homeland. No wonder kids adored him.
He looked suave and sophisticated, knew the Beatles and dressed like James Bond, yet he could also dissolve into the silliest of faces. And he always had that dangerous edge. He chainsmoked on stage until he gave up the smokes in his fifties. Had a missing tip of a finger too (left index, just above the middle knuckle) for reasons unknown. Silly minor details, perhaps, but they all added up to what he was.
Dave Allen came along at a very decisive time; the Catholic Church still held sway in Ireland, but he’d been abroad – London, Australia – he’d seen the world, and come back to haunt us.
He poked fun at religion and Churches at a time when it wasn’t the done thing, yet despite the cutting edge his humour was also warm and inclusive. His parting line in each show would be “Goodnight, thank you, and may your God go with you.”
Some of his scathing jokes were even raised in Westminster, such as the one in his final series for the BBC in 1990:
We spend our lives on the run. We get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, go to work by the clock, get up again, go to work – and then we retire. And what do they fucking give us? A clock.
So that’s why I used to adore that man when I was a kid, with his hilariously funny, angry and brilliant observational comedy. No wonder he was dubbed “God’s own comedian”. And I can’t help wondering what he’d make of the terrible #JeSuisCharlie events of this week.