SOMETIMES THE best way to undermine something is to laugh at it. Sometimes the best way to raise a difficult issue and to challenge people to think is not through lecturing, but through humour.
For Co Cork born comedian Keith Farnan, racism is something which should never go unchallenged and he will be taking on the ugly spectre of prejudice, xenophobia, and discrimination through humour, satire, and wit in his show No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs. No Irish. All Welcome!
No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs. No Irish. All Welcome! will be performed in the Town Hall Theatre studio this Sunday at 7pm as part of the Galway Comedy Festival.
Keith Farnan is a busy man. He has just finished a string of shows in southeast Asia, played the Edinburgh festival in August, spent the last 12 months touring Ireland, and is currently booking shows in England. It’s hectic stuff, but he would not want it any other way.
“It’s mental but if you’re busy you take the work and you’re happy to do so, especially in times like these,” he tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “I see really good comedians who should be getting their breaks now having to go on the dole, and I’ve been at six going away parties over the past while for friends who are emigrating.”
Keith is one of the fortunate ones. During the Celtic Tiger years, while many comedians found they could make a decent living playing mostly in Ireland, Keith went down a much older route of paying your dues on the English comedy circuit.
“I went to England on my own bat and spent a few years there, but it’s really paying off now,” he says. “I’ve had sold-out runs in London and I’m going back again to play more shows in the coming months.”
Keith’s profile has risen considerably these last few years with his appearances on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and the Edinburgh festival, and his MCing at numerous comedy clubs around Ireland, but also because of his acclaimed topical and thought provoking comedy shows - Cruel and Unusual (which focussed on capital punishment ), Sex Traffic: How Much Is That Woman In The Window? (about sexism, women’s rights, and the sex trade ), and No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs. No Irish. All Welcome!
“The title No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs. No Irish. All Welcome! comes from a sign I saw in the back room of a restaurant I worked in,” Keith explains. “It was a sign that was once seen outside businesses and in B&Bs in the US and the north of England. It was a sign of how far we have come, as in that restaurant there was working an African-American girl, a Jewish guy, and me, but there was still no dogs...some prejudices never die!”
The show was also inspired by what Keith sees as the rise of racism in Europe. “I try to write topical comedy and you pick up what is around you - the BNP getting seats in the European Parliament, the evictions of Roma in Belfast by Loyalist thugs, the rise of far right Governments in elections across Europe, and the ban on Islamic scarves in France,” he says.
For Keith, the rise in racism and the election of far right politicians is a by-product of the economic slump across the European economies.
“Any student of history can point out how the decline in an economy produces a rise in racism,” he says, “but they cannot tell you what it was like - the manipulation and fear caused by governments and the worries people have about their jobs, their home, their livelihood.
“How do you talk about immigration without being labelled a racist? How do you talk about integration without taking away from people what they already have?
“In Ireland, I think we have dealt with immigration into our country very well. It happened very quickly and while there have been incidents of racism, I think overall we adapted well. We looked abroad and saw how other countries handled this and we did our best not make the same mistakes.
“However with the economic slump there could be problems. The point of the show is to make people laugh, it’s not preaching. I think there is a hunger for comedy with a bit more meat on it.
“It’s trying to bubble up to the surface what people should be aware of. I don’t think Ireland will have many of those but we should remember to keep an eye on things that could otherwise get out of hand. Also, the Irish, may have to take the brunt of things now that we are again going abroad.”
Cork, Galway, and the world
When I call Keith for the interview he is not long back from a string of shows in Hong Kong and Shanghai, where he was performing for English speaking ex-pat communities. “They are more like world villages really as they have populations of 22 million,” he says. “I saw companies out there that are now in NAMA and thought, so that’s where you’re hiding?”
Southeast Asia is a part of the world Keith is very familiar with and he has noted the enormous changes which have taken place there over the past 20 years.
“I was in Shanghai when I was three as my dad worked with Irish shipping,” he says. “It’s so strange to think of how closed a society it was then. They have opened up their doors and at this stage China is entirely different to what it was 20 years ago. They welcome everyone from the west with open arms and in the hotels, oil companies and Tesco hold conferences. Everyone is chasing the Chinese yuan now.”
Coming back to Ireland, in a recent edition of The Irish Times, Keith was among a number of Irish comedians who gave a humorous take on the types of people to be found in Ireland. For Galway and Mayo Keith described us as “Farmer poets, yoga loving fishermen, and other artistic weirdness”.
“It’s that lovely combination of the very practical, very earthy, the way of life, and the influx of artists who like to observe,” he says, “only in the west can you have a farmer and an artist sit down and talk about the merits of Chilean wine. There is a great eclecticism out west, I call it Hippy Dippies with a purpose.”
Keith himself is from Cobh, Co Cork, and like all true Corkonians, he is proud to be from ‘The Rebel County’ and ‘The People’s Republic’. So where does that intense sense of pride Corkonians have in their county come from?
“I think it comes from their perfection as human beings and as such celebrated lovers of women...” he says before breaking out into a laugh. “I don’t know where it comes from it’s been around since time immemorial.
“There has never been a Corkman who has been backwards about coming forwards, maybe it’s because we take great pride in everything we do, even in winning an under-14s competition in badminton.
“You just grow up with it in Cork and I sometimes wear ‘The People’s Republic of Cork’ T-shirt and it does raise eyebrows. We’re the Irish equivalent of Texas, we’re the largest county and one day we will be free.”
Keith notes with interest that in GAA terms Cork and Galway are the only two counties where the hurling and football traditions are equally strong. Although he is a keen sports follower, Keith laments that he would never have made it onto the Cork hurling team.
“Being called Keith disqualifies me from hurling,” he notes, ruefully. “Imagine the line up, Donal Óg, Seán Óg, Setanta, Keith...no it just doesn’t work!”
For tickets contact Zhivago, Shop Street, the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777 ), or see www.galwaycomedyfestival.com A limited number of tickets will also be available on the door.