Tim McGarry and Patrick Kielty used to be our only homegrown comedians, but thanks to telly’s Blame Game, a whole new generation of talent is coming through.
A man walks into a bar Well, okay, not a bar, but a coffee shop in Belfast's city centre, but that's not exactly the traditional opening gambit of a joke ...
Not that the man in the coffee shop in question, Belfast comedian Jake O'Kane, does traditional jokes. For one thing, he can’t remember any of them.
“I've a really bad memory,” he confesses. “That's why I've never done two nights of stand-up the same.
“One night at The Empire, I had to introduce Tim McGarry, who I've known for 15 years, as ‘someone who doesn’t need an introduction’ because I'd forgotten his name.”
Rather than tell jokes, Jake cracks laugh-out-loud-funny one-liners, makes hilarious observations about life in ‘Norn Iron', tells inspired monologues and creates well-observed comic characters, such as his ‘ spide' alter-ego, Jaunty (or 'Janty', depending on how thick your Belfast accent is).
“They're always called Jaunty aren’t they, no matter what religion they are,” explains Jake. “Stand-up's great, but I like to do something different with it too.”
Yet the north Belfast funnyman has a gentle, non-vindictive line in taking the mickey when it comes to people like Jaunty, because, as he points out, “I grew up with people like that, they're my mates. I always say that I'm the only one of the Blame Game team who doesn’t have a degree.”
Ah yes, The Blame Game.
If you don’t recognise Jake from his regular role as MC in Belfast's Empire Laughs Back comedy club, you've probably seen him on BBC NI's panel show, The Blame Game, which rips local culture and politics apart at the seams with banter, insults and finger-pointing.
As Jake points out, having made jokes at the expense of both the DUP and the Catholic Church in one episode: “I'm an equal opportunities offender.”
He's keen to tell me all about Harp Laughs on Tour, which started out last year as a few dates across Northern Ireland and has turned into a hugely successful tour that has, so far, taken in around 25 shows.
Most of the dates have been sell-outs, and extra shows were recently announced for the end of the run, in the Grand Opera House, on November 17 and 18.
From Carrickfergus to Coleraine, local audiences haven’t been able to get enough of the show's stars (all Blame Game regulars) — Jake, his mate Colin Murphy (or ‘Murph’ as he calls him); The Hole in the Wall Gang's Tim McGarry and Dubliner Neil Delamere, who is, like the others, also a regular face on RTE's The Panel.
“I love the Opera House: standing on stage there you don’t get the feeling that you're in front of 1,000 people, it's very intimate,” says Jake.
“And fair play to Harp, for backing it. They allowed us to take it out to wee places all around the country, which was a risk, but it's been very well received. But I think it will be the last time all four of us will be on stage together, it's getting harder for us all to find the time, at the same time, for it.”
Growing up during the Troubles, Jake went to a total of 13 different schools (his family moved around a lot), which has left him with the ability to be funny in Draperstown, Londonderry and Belfast accents, among others.
He was inspired by Billy Connolly, listened to tapes of Lenny Bruce performances and was fascinated by footage of Richard Prior who “took on the persona of animals on stage, I'd never seen anything like it.”
But it was for rather more practical reasons that the former barman first got into the comedy business back in 1992.
“I went to the Empire comedy night and couldn't get in, because it was sold out,” he explains. “Someone told me that if you do an open spot, you'll get in for free, so I did, and it went well.”
In ‘real life', he's quiet and softly spoken, even admitting to being shy, but says he never gets nervous on stage, and even welcomes hecklers.
“Belfast being Belfast, if you can't deal with hecklers, you're in trouble. I love the spontaneity. That doesn’t mean I always win with them,” he admits, before cracking a cheeky smile and adding, “but usually I win.”
Ask him which contemporary comedians he admires, and his poor memory prevents him from actually remembering any names, so I fire some at him.
He's hugely enthusiastic about Radio Ulster's Gerry Anderson, although he thinks the feeling isn’t reciprocated.
“Even though he doesn’t like the Blame Game, I like him,” says Jake, emphatically. “He's one of the sharpest broadcasters anywhere.”
He likes Dylan Moran and a female performer whose name, naturally, escapes him, and he's a big fan of Co Tyrone comic Kevin McAleer.
In fact, he admits that his new one-man show, Tear Gas — which he calls a ‘stand-up with pictures' using images taken by respected local press photographer, Brendan Murphy, and which he'll go on tour with next year — was inspired by shows McAleer used to do with a slide projector.
“I've got 15 years' worth of material about growing up during the Troubles. Some people are a bit touchy about it these days — there's a form of cultural amnesia — but I lived through it, so this is a way to de-commission those 15 years of material.
“Brendan Murphy generously allowed me to use whatever pictures of his I want, and (multimedia producer) Orlaith Cullinane has put animations along with them.”
As for the future, while writing an autobiography is out of the question (he's bemused by the likes of Jordan who fire out memoirs seemingly every year), Jake, who has had parts in Two Ceasefires and a Wedding and Give My Head Peace, wouldn’t mind getting more into the acting game.
Perhaps it's time for Jaunty to get some air-time in his own sitcom?
Jake already has Jaunty's outfit picked out for the Opera House dates: “I know exactly what he's going to wear, right down to the jewellery and trainers,” he says.
So that's wardrobe taken care of.
If we can televise the jokers in Stormont, surely Jaunty is the next local character who's ripe for TV exposure?
Harp Laughs on Tour arrives at the Grand Opera House on November 17 & 18.
Jake O’Kane also plays the new, late-night ‘festive funnies’ slot at the GOH on November 28, alongside Stewart Francis and Fred MacAuley.
Other late-night comedy stars at the GOH between now and Christmas include Phill Jupitus (December 5), Colin Murphy, John Colleary, Craig Hill (December 12), John Bishop, Tim McGarry and Brendan Burke (December 19).
Tickets for any of the above from GOH box office