Neil Delamere: 'People ask if we record The Blame Game in one week - if I could predict the news like that I’d be in the bookies’
Comedian Neil Delamere tells of his surprise of the success of the panel show and how he once did a gig at a pub that doubled as an undertaker's
Neil Delamere is a seriously funny man. But the comedian from the Irish midlands insists he isn't joking about his plans to play Ballymena on St Patrick's Day next year.
"If you're going to Ballymena for a comedy show, what better time to do it than St Paddy's Day? I'm sure it'll be a great night. I've been to the Braid Theatre before and the audience was fantastic" says 37-year-old Neil during a break from recording an episode of BBC Northern Ireland's hugely popular panel show The Blame Game, in Belfast.
It's a comedy programme which centres on the news of the day and which has made him a household name and enabled him to pack theatres all over the province. But Neil wasn't always big-time.
"I remember one of my first shows was in a tiny pub in south Armagh, where we were told we could relax in the kitchen - but in the corner there was a body in a coffin," says Neil, who is as likeable off-screen as he is on it.
"Being south Armagh, I imagined all sorts about diesel-smuggling and rackets, but it turned out that the bar doubled up as an undertaker's."
The former computer applications graduate never imagined The Blame Game would become so popular. "I was approached 11 years ago to do a pilot programme for Radio Ulster, and obviously I never thought I would be back recording a new series in 2016," he says.
A special episode of the show was recorded last month in Belfast's Waterfront Hall, and the regulars shared the stage with Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges, just one of a number of stars from Great Britain who made their TV debut on The Blame Game.
The Beeb received an astonishing 15,000 applications for a couple of thousand tickets in the first 24 hours alone, according to Neil, who was headhunted by BBC producer Jackie Hamilton, who knew him from his days in the Empire Comedy Club in Belfast, where Blame Game colleagues Colin Murphy and Jake O'Kane were frequent visitors.
"I knew Tim McGarry from his work with the Hole in the Wall Gang, and we all just seemed to click into a rhythm from the very start, with each of us finding our own niches in certain jobs," says Neil, who struggles to keep a straight face as people here ask him the same question about The Blame Game.
"They always want to know if we record all the programmes in the series in the one week," he explains.
"But I stress that it's a topical comedy show, and if I could predict what was going to happen in the news over the next eight weeks I wouldn't be talking to them, I would be in the bookies."
Neil admits that at the outset Northern Ireland wouldn't have been his specialist Mastermind subject.
"I'm from a small place called Edenderry in Co Offaly, and unless you lived in a border county you wouldn't know a lot about the North," he says.
"But in the early days on The Blame Game, I was able to make a virtue out of the fact that I didn't know the ins and outs by turning to another panellist and asking them for an explanation, which would then give them plenty of material."
Nowadays, the comedian is an avid student of the province's news and nuances, and insists that while the comedians aren't told what questions they're going to be asked in advance, it's not difficult to guess which subjects will come up. Although no one knows what anyone else is going to say.
"I read a lot and watch the TV, but I also pick up a lot by dint of doing tour dates north of the border and via The Blame Game appearances," says Neil, who acknowledges that what's funny during his live appearances in the North might bomb in the South and vice-versa.
"There's a media border, as well as the other one," he says. "When RTE's Gerry Ryan died, for instance, the impact in the Republic was markedly different from the one in the North. Similarly, Stephen Nolan isn't well known in the South, so it's very definitely a case of two different places and two different ideals.
"Why would someone from Dublin be interested in the finer details of Stormont? Or why would someone in the North be fussed about what was happening in the Dail?"
Consequently, Neil tailors his live solo shows to suit his surroundings, and he says that while topics such Gerry Adams, Donald Trump and Brexit will work anywhere, Twaddell Avenue won't.
The comedian, however, isn't restricted by global boundaries. He's a veritable jet-setter nowadays, having toured 15 countries, including Australia and South Africa. But, he hasn't followed in the footsteps of comedians such as Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay, who have made millions by playing gigs in massive arenas such as the 02 in London.
"People like Dara O Briain could easily fill arenas," he says. "But he chooses not to do them because he doesn't feel they suit his more intimate style of interactive comedy.
"I did support for Kevin Bridges for 10 nights in a 10,000-seat venue in Glasgow. It was mental - the stage seemed like it was four-and-a-half miles away from the back of the place. It was like Live Aid or something.
"There's a certain skill to playing venues that big. You do the joke and you have to wait for the laugh to go all the way around and come back at you like a wave."
Belfast has become almost a second home to Neil, but he still finds it slightly weird as an 'outsider' to play in venues such as the Ulster Hall, where the late Ian Paisley made some of his most fiery speeches. However, Northern Ireland's divisions are a godsend for the star.
"Extremes are great for comedy," he says. "I often wonder how people do comedy in Scandinavia, where everyone seems to be logical, reasonable and rational and will talk through everything, whereas it's so much easier to find humour among lunatics on the far sides of each side. They can and should be mocked mercilessly."
For Neill, there is little that he would not target for a joke. "I don't think anything is off-limits," he insists. "As a general rule, I don't think there is any subject that you can't tell a joke about.
"However, if I was somewhere in the North which had been affected by a specific incident in the Troubles, I wouldn't dream of talking about that.
"But making fun of something abstract like the Northern Bank robbery and the paramilitaries is another thing altogether, and being able to play in towns on both sides of the community shows that you're insulting people equally."
In 2011, however, 350 RTE viewers complained about Neil's risque description on the Late Late Show of the Duchess of Cambridge and her sister, Pippa Middleton. But he's rarely had any negative feedback in the North.
"There was one letter a while back complaining about something I'd said on The Blame Game, but the writer thought it was Jake O'Kane who was responsible, not me," he says.
Heckling is par for the course for comics, and Neil has grown to love the slagger, even though in his early days he thought everyone who shouted out was looking for a row.
"I was so nervous I just told them to shut up, but I discovered that some hecklers were actually agreeing with me and supportive," he says.
Neil's humour is seldom vicious or hurtful, even when he is poking fun at places such as Larne, a town which is regularly singled out for comic effect on The Blame Game.
His first visit to the Co Antrim port was for a recording of the show, and his funny bone was tickled by the much-ridiculed Queen's Jubilee Crown at one of its roundabouts.
"It's like something Elton John left behind after a concert," says Neil, whose live show relies on interaction with his audiences, particularly with people who sit in the front row.
Sometimes, these people can steal the show, like the Northern Irish couple who went to one of his performances in Scotland. The man was blind and his guide dog did what all dogs must sometimes do, much to the embarrassment of its owner's partner, who took it outside.
Neil says: "I had a chat with the man when the woman was away and he said that they were engaged. I asked him when they were getting married and he said, 'never'.
"Seven years later, they came to see me in Newtownabbey, and they said they still weren't married. I asked the man why they hadn't tied the knot and he told me, 'It'd mess up my benefits'."
The comedian is expecting to see the same couple back in Newtownabbey during a marathon 60-date tour of Ireland called Handstand, which takes in virtually every town and village on the island and starts, unusually, the night after Boxing Day.
"People often wonder why we begin so soon after Christmas, but most people that I know can't wait to get out of the house after four days with their families" says Neil, who invariably heads for his home in Dublin after most of his gigs.
"That's the great thing about stand-up in Ireland," he adds. "Most nights I'm only a couple of hours away and can get back to the house in good time, which allows me a fairly normal life."
Neil married his wife, Jane, two years ago, and his pet dog - a lurcher called Charlie - is always on hand to greet him when he returns from performing at a gig.
"No matter how the show has gone, Charlie always welcomes me home like I'm a rock superstar," he says.
However, Neil isn't just a stand-up. He has a weekly radio programme in Dublin and, as well as appearing in comedy shows in the Republic and Britain, he has also presented TV documentaries about the likes of St Patrick, Finn MacCool and Cuchulainn.
He says: "Some people tend to dismiss history as a set of dates, but history is really all about stories about people who have the same motives today as they had in the 1600s - greed, sex, power, love and nationalism - or not nationalism.
"Plus, with documentary making, I get to dress up in stupid clothes or abseil off something or other."
For details about Neil Delamere's new Handstand tour, visit www.neildelamere.com/gigs