Clown under: Comedian Jimeoin on making it big in Australia
A household name on both sides of the world, Jimeoin's career has been more circuitous than most. The comedian (49), born James Eoin Stephen Paul McKeown, lives with wife Catherine and their four children in Melbourne, Australia, but we catch him on one of his regular trips home to see his family in Portstewart.
He looks understandably tired but carries it with grace, and in any case travelling to the other side of the world is second nature to him after more than 25 years Down Under.
He says he gets home "quite a bit, luckily enough" - several times a year in fact.
And he insists that the travelling isn't as arduous as you might think. "I used to live in London and I had to get the bus back," he says. "That was 15 hours. Flying from Australia, there's not much difference. It's really nice to go home and hear the accent. The Northern Ireland accent is something I miss."
He'll be able to hear that accent soon when he performs at the Waterfront Hall on October 24, as part of his UK tour.
Jimeoin is every inch the accidental comic - it wasn't until he lived in Sydney in his 20s that he even tried comedy. But how did he end up there in the first place? "I wanted to work in a nice environment and see the world a wee bit," he says. "I was 22, doing that thing that Northern Irish people do - going travelling. I had a year's visa and I bought a one-way ticket, so maybe that said something ..."
He claims that he didn't even know what stand-up was before going to a comedy club with friends. "A girl put my name down for a try-out section and I got up and told three jokes," he says. "But I didn't realise stand-up was something else - talking."
Once he'd worked that out, he realised he had a talent for it, and soon it became his life. "I'd go down on a Monday night and get up and tell some jokes," he says. "I had this dossy office job, so I'd sit and think of things to talk about and really plan it out, almost like a dance. I'd never really seen stand-up and I didn't know what observational comedy was, and that was such an asset. I was just going, 'this stuff makes me laugh, I wonder does it make other people laugh'.
"When I started doing stand-up it was like a bungee jump, just to give it a go. I didn't think I'd make a living out of it. The first time I go paid I opened a separate bank account and said, 'any money I get from a gig, I'll put it in there'. It got the point where I had to make a decision whether to go full-time with it. That took about six months."
Jimeoin spent the next 20 years as a professional comic in Australia, working the clubs and winning over Aussies on their own patch - without ever trading on his background in Northern Ireland. "No, I never did," he says. "I remember the Irish community in Australia getting their nose out of joint because I wouldn't really go down that path. Sometimes you do press interviews for magazines and they go, can we get you holding a Guinness, or eating a potato? Then they'll put shamrocks on it. If they're going to do that you're better off just avoiding it.
"There wasn't a big audience coming from the Irish community, really. It was Australian people, so why try and sell it to them when I've already sold it to them? Irish people would come along because they'd heard my accent but I didn't have to sell it as far as looking for an audience is concerned because I'd already found one with Australian people - 'we understand you and we get your jokes'. That was enough."
Jimeoin tends to studiously avoid talking about politics and in particular the Troubles, but that hasn't stopped him playing on paramilitary graffiti on his latest tour poster, which depicts him covering up some UVF graffiti with the word LOVELY. "I used to see it a lot, and it always made me laugh," he explains. "There was somewhere where there was a massive LOVE written on a roof, but really someone had written UVF and someone had changed it. I thought calling the show Lovely was a way of writing over the ugly side of things."
And yet you don't address politics or the Troubles in your show. Why not? "I think it's conspicuous by its absence, the fact that I don't. It's not really on my radar, and that's really what we're about. We're just going to ignore that and get on with our lives. Where I grew up, that's how we went about things. If anybody brought up political conversations I'd walk away.
Even now, if anyone starts a political conversation in a bar, about anything, I'll walk off. I'll talk about anything else but I'll not talk about that. The poster is a very subtle thing, it's only for people from Northern Ireland, It genuinely used to make me laugh so that's why I did it."
There has been a flood of Irish people to Australia in the last decade, which makes Jimeoin something of a pioneer, and he says that there is a real connection between the two countries, which is part of why his career took off so quickly. "People could really relate to an Irish sense of humour," he says. "The accent is different, but the way they go on is exactly the same. There's a real strong connection."
More so than with the English? "Oh yeah, they're called 'whinging poms'," he says, affecting a credible Aussie accent. "They're quite racist towards them - I feel genuinely sorry for English people in Australia, they give them a hard time. But they love the Irish."
What about his children, Rose, Mario, Grace and Frances - do they have much of a sense of their Irish heritage? "Yes, they do," he says. "A couple of them talked to me about it. My wife's Maltese so they don't overly, but they look like me more than my wife."
Jimeoin was a major name in Australia through the Nineties and Noughties, but remained a well-kept secret on this side of the world, only grabbing the attention of comedy aficionados or anyone who saw his Aussie-made movies The Craic (1999) and The Extra (2005). But eventually that would change. So how long was it before he really felt he was gaining traction here?
"I'm only starting to get it now," he says modestly. "I never really toured the UK until about seven years ago when I made a conscious decision to give it a go here. LiveNation, who book the tours, said, 'we'll tour you but you have to commit to coming over - you can't just expect to get an audience'. I can't be away from my family for months, so I ended up doing four tours throughout the year, and that worked. Then I was on TV shows like Live At The Apollo, McIntyre, the Royal Variety Show (and our own The Blame Game), and through that I got a really good audience in the UK now, which is great."
Jimeoin is amused that "people think I've just started" but, on the contrary, he has a wealth of experiences in his back pocket. One of the more unusual ideas was turned into a BBC Northern Ireland TV programme. In Jimeoin Down Under, the comic and a companion toured the most unlikely and remote outposts in Australia in a kind of comedic travelogue - with plenty of fishing. "A friend of mine had been deported from Australia twice for overstaying his visa, on both passports - Irish and British," he says. "It took him 18 years to get back in and by that time I had a whole life there. He arrived over and we were mad on fishing, so I said, 'I'll do a tour and we'll go fishing and we'll film it, but just s*** gigs. It's easy to go to the regular venues so let's go to the really terrible places'. There was one where the guy had chickens running around the venue.
"There was an Aboriginal community and that was pretty full-on. There was a fight at the start of it. This was up in the Gulf Of Carpantaria - there's an island off the coast and these guys heard that I was on and went, 'Oh my God, he's going to die on his ass' and they chartered a plane and flew over, just to see me die on my ass. They were laughing their heads off, going, 'oh man, you sure delivered there - we were hoping you were going to go on your a*** and you did, big time'."
Those days are behind him now - from Portstewart to the wilderness of northern Australia and back, Jimeoin is reaping the rewards of 25 years of effort.