Dancing With The Stars brought Fred Cooke a whole new audience – kids just can’t get enough of the funnyman. On the eve of a new tour, he tellshow the show transformed his career.
He foxtrotted his way onto our TV sets and into audience hearts while busting his moves on Ireland’s biggest reality TV show. But funnyman Fred Cooke has revealed how he initially asked producers to feature on Dancing With the Stars, such is his passion for music and dance.
The Meath man made contact with the show’s producers as soon as he first heard the show was coming to Ireland three years ago. And he was thrilled to get the chance to cha-cha on his third attempt.
“It was like dance college,” he says of the experience. “I was very lucky to get 12 weeks, because I managed to get into different genres of dance across the board.”
Even friends who knew of his fun moves on the dance floor had encouraged him to try out.
It wasn’t like when people ask: ‘How were you when you got the phone call?’ I was trying to make the phone call! I was coming the other way.
“I was full of the passion of dance, the rhythm and the musicality but I’d no discipline whatsoever. I’d no structure. It was just the spirit of it as well.
“I’m very wary of doing reality stuff, of putting my name to something ‘celeb’ or ‘star’. I think it can be a dangerous enough concept. I just try to put my work out there and leave it at that. But I always said if I was going to do anything it would be Dancing With The Stars and when it came out, when I got wind of it that Shinawill productions had it, I emailed my agent, this was two years ago. And then last year I went in for an interview and I didn’t get it which is fine. It really was third time lucky.”
Cooke’s game-for-fun attitude and likeable demeanour made him one of the show’s most popular stars and he is still regularly approached by the show’s young fans, which he enjoys.
But when we meet in a Dublin hotel for our interview, it is he who is starstruck. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy is sitting at a nearby table — he is a huge fan of the band, and of music in general.
“I have all of his albums and I look forward to them coming out. I adore music. When I listen to the Divine Comedy it’s just beautiful. I love amazing arrangements and melody and bands like the Beatles.
“I play piano and guitar. I find it very therapeutic to sit down and play music. I did piano lessons as a kid but I didn’t have the maturity to appreciate it. I mean, it’s very hard to sit in an organ gallery as a 16 year old when your mates are outside kicking a football.”
In fact, before his comedy career took off, he considered a career in music and took a music degree in university. It’s being put to good use — like some of his favourite comedians Bo Burnham and Bill Bailey, funny songs are becoming more and more a part of his routine.
“I’m definitely using more guitar and keyboards now, the guitar’s on me the whole time, the keyboard’s tilted to the left and I move from one to the other. At the moment I’m getting ready for Edinburgh previews and stuff. I’ve this idea for a song about how an Irish wedding is the only reason why we want to lose weight. I find comedy songs very hard to get initially. The idea has to be strong.”
Still, Fred Cooke always had an itch to tickle people’s funny bones. One of his earliest childhood memories involved doing a stand-up routine from an upstairs bedroom window to make his friends and neighbours laugh.
“I always loved attention. I do remember being seven and I would go up to my mum’s bedroom and I’d hang out the window smiling at people, looking at them. I would gather a crowd of mates outside the house. And I don’t know why I did it, I’d just be talking down to them, like the Pope. There was always this want for attention some way.
“And there was a moment I’d say when I wanted to be a standup and I wasn’t getting gigs, and I wasn’t being acknowledged, that I was probably being quite unbearable socially! It’s only in the last two years I’ve learned to relax a bit more and leave it to the stage.”
Comedy has brought him success, with gigs at the Vodaphone Comedy Festival in July before he heads to Edinburgh with a new tour, which will also see further Irish dates later this year. But comedy has also brought him romance, and he recently celebrated being a year together with fellow comedian Julie Jay.
The very first time they met, Fred was on stage and the old romantic serenaded her. “Yeah, I was doing the sound check and she came in the back of the hall. We were gigging together, that was the first night I met her though I knew of her. I’d supported Tommy Tiernan for two years, and when you go on that tour you’re not doing the circuit anymore.
“So when I came back, started doing clubs again, we just met up, kept messaging and I was living in Galway at the time. We went for food in Galway, we went on a date and here we are. May bank holiday is our anniversary, it’s a year. It’s great.
“I’m going to be on the road in September/October with this tour I’m doing in Edinburgh. She’s supporting me for the gigs, which is lovely because people associate standup comedy as a lonely thing.” Life and work is going well, but his entry into comedy in his early twenties was not a smooth one and he laughs at the mortifying memory of his very first paid gig.
“I used to work in Kells swimming pool and we’d have Christmas dinners in Sharky’s hotel in Virginia. There was a comedian on before the band I went up and told them: ‘You know I do comedy as well’.
“Now these are hard gigs because they’re Christmas companies, no-one cares about a guy in a corner with a microphone and they don’t have to either. It’s their night out. The next night I arrived with a white shirt and a Christmas tie. I went out and no one would listen to me. In fact one of the waitresses gave me the jokes from the Christmas crackers — and I used them. And some people laughed at that.”
Was it a case of dying on his very first paid performance? “Oh yeah. And not only that, it was a local death because it was only down the road for me. The audacity of me to think that it was going to work.
I was full of confidence but no direction. I wasn’t surfing the energy at all. I didn’t gig for a long time after that!
It was a valuable lesson in the need for structure in his approach, and as he started to notch up gigs in venues like The Laughter Lounge, the LV in Cork and later City Limits (Cork and Derry audiences his favourites) he started to think more about which directions he wanted to bring his comedy in.
“Getting paid also made me become a better comedian because you know you are responsible to a ticket price which I never really was before. But now people pay a lot of money. There’s no time to mess around and you do your time and that discipline really helped me, I needed it, because I’m so scattered naturally that it took a real discipline to get it right.”
He’s excited at the prospect of bringing new material to Edinburgh in August and Irish audiences later in the autumn. “The reason it’s great is the stage time, you could be doing an hour of live comedy a day. And that’s why Edinburgh really works — it creates opportunities and you need to find those opportunities yourself.”