“NO FAMILY has been left unscathed in Iraq, they’ve been through the ringer.”
A conversation with Maeve Higgins ends up in some unexpected places. The Cork comedian, who relocated to New York two years ago, was in Erbil in Iraq last month, doing a comedy workshop, and now she’s trying to wrap her head around the whole experience in order to write about it for the New York Times.
“I was asking my peers there if what we were doing was helpful and the answer was, ‘Yes, the darker it gets the more we need the light.’ And they know. I remember Colin Murphy used to say that during the worst years of the Troubles, that was when the queues for the Empire, Belfast’s comedy club, would be the longest.”
The healing power of comedy in conflict zones is a far cry from putting cubes of cheese on cocktail sticks and decorating butterfly cakes with her sister Lilly for Fancy Vittles, her kitsch and kooky 2009 RTÉ comedy show, or taking to the stage for her distinctive blink-and-you-miss-it delivery in stand-up routines, but Higgins has been undergoing an evolution from comedian to writer, and her focus and trains of thought have matured as a result.
“Basically, I used to express myself through stand-up. It was a compulsion to get out what I was thinking and feeling, but now it’s kind of drifted to writing instead,” Higgins says. “For the past four years, it’s been more about writing; I still love stand-up but I don’t do as much.”
With two books under her belt — including last year’s Off You Go: Away From Home and Loving it. Sort of — Higgins has just signed a book deal with Penguin in the States. “So now I’ve got another book to somehow make,” she says. “I’m doing loads of other bits and pieces, like every freelancer does.”
The bits and pieces include guest appearances on Inside Amy Schumer, writing and co-hosting Startalk with Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the National Geographic Channel, and her regular monthly show in Brooklyn with Jon Ronson, the UK author of Men who stare at Goats, who relocated to New York at the same time as Higgins did.
“He was having a tough time settling in, but for me, as soon as I got off the plane I was like, ‘I’m hooome!’ So we made a show all about being new.”
Despite New York’s reputation as a tough town to get a break in, Higgins says audiences are very supportive. “It’s America, so people go like: ‘Look at her, she’s trying’, and they basically applaud your effort, which doesn’t happen at home. People are much more indulgent here in the US. Honestly, sometimes when I go to shows here it gets so supportive that I’m going, ‘Ah here, is anyone going to boo? Should I?’”
A trip home for the Cat Laughs Festival in Kilkenny at the start of June is on the cards, and she’s looking forward to performing to her home audience too. “When I perform at home, I don’t have to put things in context, everyone just knows what I’m talking about; it’s so bolstering,” she says. “Comedians love Cat Laughs because it’s a mixed bill and everybody does 20 minutes, with people who probably do very different comedy to you. It’s brilliant to see how people work off each other.”
One of five sisters, Higgins will take time to catch up with the women who “share the same basic head” when she’s in Ireland. “They’re all in Cork and sometimes, in Cork, people think I’m Lilly or when they see my other sisters they think they’re me. It’s a mess, a real mess. Now, some of them have babies and when the babies are surrounded by aunts they’re just like, ‘Mama?’ And looking at us blankly.”
Higgin’s sister, Lilly, has been a collaborator in the past, both on Fancy Vittles and on their Edinburgh show Ha Ha Yum, and has gone on to a career in food writing and broadcasting. Being from a big family can be overwhelming; does Higgins live abroad to assert her own identity, separate from all those sisters? She says that’s not the case. “They’d actually be my reason to stay. Everything else is a reason to leave: work, money, opportunity. Everything else.”
There’s an undercurrent to that “everything else” and it comes being a woman working in comedy. After years of being described as “niche”, and wondering where she was going wrong, part of Higgins’ maturing process has been to acknowledge the effect of gender politics on her work and life.
“For a long time I thought this was just a feeling that I had; maybe I could be working harder, touring more, releasing DVDs like all the male Irish comics do and then suddenly I went, oh no, there are actually systems here that are bigger than you and that are effecting you.
“I wish I lived in a world where it didn’t make a difference being a woman in stand-up but unfortunately it does. Most male comedians can just do interviews and talk about their show or the book they’re selling, so it used to annoy me that I had to spend some time addressing the fact that I’m a woman, but now I’m happy to talk about it because there’s so much sexism, both in comedy and in the world in general, and naming it is helpful,” she says.
“In Iraq, there were 40 comedians and four were women, so it’s a global thing that women’s stories and women’s voices are not as respected as men’s are.”
Higgins has always addressed female experiences: the ridiculous aspirations of the “domestic goddess” that are foisted upon women through the media, and darker undercurrents too, of low self-esteem and insecurity, and the kind of self-belittling Irish women are so adept at, have always been interwoven through her work.
She may be evolving, but so too does she stay the same: self-deprecating, grounded, and with a keen eye for the surreal and ludicrous moments that remind us who we really are.
“I was walking my friend’s dog there; she lives in a really great apartment and has a cute dog so I basically borrowed her life while she was away. It was a real New York City moment: spring was coming and I was in the park with my dog and my coffee. Then the dog caught a rat and I don’t know what happened, but the rat shouted. Like a man. Like, he roared, it wasn’t like a squeak, he yelled. And the dog got such a fright that he barked, and I screamed and dropped my coffee. I went from a totally fake version of ‘making it in the city’ to the real me, which is basically about dropping something hot on a shouting rat.”