You’d be forgiven for thinking he’d disappeared off the radar but the truth is homegrown comic Owen O’Neill has never been busier, with a slew of award-winning films, plays, stand-up shows and adaptations under his belt. Ahead of two Belfast shows this weekend, he spoke to Audrey Watson
He’s one of our most acclaimed comedians and playwrights, yet searching for information about Owen O’Neill on the internet is frustratingly unproductive.
He’s not on Wikipedia, he doesn’t have his own website or MySpace page. Google him and you come up with a few reviews and potted biographies, but nothing substantial.
Maybe he’s a recluse? Or a difficult interviewee? Thankfully, neither is the case — he’s just not very good at self-promotion.
“I know... I know...” laughs the Cookstown-born comic. “I drive my agent mad. I was supposed to be getting a website, but then I went off on tour. “It’s not deliberate, it’s just mismanagement on my part.”
Although now based in London, O’Neill is back in Northern Ireland this evening for a two-night run of stand-up shows at The Laughter Lounge, Belfast’s new comedy paradise in the Odyssey Pavilion, where he will regale the audience with his trademark hilarious accounts of life’s absurdities, strange characters and the joys of Northern Ireland.
Because of his laid-back attitude to publicity, you would be forgiven for thinking that O’Neill had performed a vanishing act over the past few years, but this isn’t the case.
The talented multi-tasker has so many irons in the fire, he’s working round the clock.
Plans to bring Absolution, his controversial play about paedophile priests (which wowed critics at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival), to Northern Ireland have had to be put on hold because of other projects.
As well as adapting Oscar-winning movie The Shawshank Redemption into a stage play which will run at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in May — his version is already attracting a lot of critical acclaim — O’Neill is also scripting a feature film which is due to go into production in the spring.
And apparently there’s a novel (“12,000 words written so far”) in the pipeline as well. How on earth does he get everything done?
“I have a rota!” he laughs. “I have to tell myself, ‘I’m working on this today or I’m working on that’. You have to have a routine.”
However, all this other activity doesn’t mean stand-up is ever on the back burner...
“I’ve always continued to do stand-up,” he insists. “I think because I do so many other different things as well, sometimes people think I’ve stopped doing one thing altogether because I’ve been working on the other.
“I love doing them all though stand-up is more addictive because it’s more immediate — you get your fix, your reaction, straight away — whereas with writing and acting it takes a bit longer to find out if anyone likes it or not.”
Although he claims he wasn’t at all funny at school, O’Neill admits that the seeds of a comedy career were sown growing up in Cookstown in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I’ve always loved comedy. As a child, I loved WC Fields. He used to make me laugh until I cried.
“I also adored Laurel and Hardy and then in the late 1970s, I saw a video of Richard Pryor and it was the funniest thing I had ever seen.
“It wasn’t just about telling jokes, it was much deeper because he was talking about life and things like growing up in a brothel with his mother, drug-taking and the whole nine yards.
“It was also poignant and heartfelt and I realised then that stand-up could be an art-form. He was a big influence.”
In his late teens, O’Neill headed for Belfast and an English degree at Queen’s University, but things didn’t quite pan out.
“I was only at Queen’s for a couple of weeks before I dropped out,” he reveals. “There was a lot of personal stuff happening to me at the time and a guy told me there was a job in Italy picking grapes, so off I went.
“I stayed there for a while, then moved on to Amsterdam and by the time I was 21, I was in London where I worked at everything from bricklaying to laying oil pipelines.
“Then I drove a van around delivering stuff and also worked as a teacher, which I hated — I think I lasted about three weeks.
“I started doing stand-up in the early 1980s a bit by accident, but I never really saw it as a career.
“It actually evolved from poetry that I had written. When I was doing readings I used to chat between poems and gradually the chatting got longer and longer until finally there were no poems at all.
“I remember reading in Time Out: ‘Owen O’Neill, Stand-Up Comic’ and thought, ‘Oh, so that’s what I do’.
“A lot of modern comedians have five-year plans and are very ambitious, but I just did what I wanted. I thought I’d like to be an actor, so I got myself an agent and then I got bored with that, so I moved on and published a poetry book and then I thought that I would like to write a play for TV, so I did. Thankfully a lot of the things I do work out.”
The term ‘work out’ is a bit of an understatement when applied to O’Neill’s success as a comic, poet, playwright, actor (movie credits include The General and Michael Collins) and film director.
The aforementioned TV play was directed by the now very famous Danny Boyle and O’Neill made his own telly debut on Saturday Live in 1985. He has since performed on numerous TV shows including his own stand-up special for the BBC.
His debut feature film was screened as part of the BBC Film on 2 series and a short film, Shooting to Stardom, won the Best Irish Short at the Cork film festival in 1999. Another short scooped a prize at the 2008 Boston International Film Festival.
The full list of awards that have been bestowed over the years is just too long to print.
Then, of course, there are his successes at the Edinburgh Festival where he has written and performed eight one-man stage plays (and toured them all over the world), won a string of accolades including three Fringe Firsts and also starred opposite Hollywood megastar Christian Slater in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and in 2005, alongside fellow comic Bill Bailey in The Odd Couple.
Most of his self-penned work (apart from Absolution) is loosely autobiographical and it is observations on life in Northern Ireland that still provide most of the material for O’Neill’s stand-up routine.
“I spent the first 18 years of my life in Northern Ireland and I still talk about it and remember things and think — ‘that would make a good routine or that particular character I’d forgotten about him’.
“I come back home a lot and I’ve noticed a big change — for the better. The demographic has really changed — you see lots of other different cultures which is good and attitudes have changed.
“Obviously, there is still a lingering suspicion here and there and it will take time for that to disappear, but thankfully, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Owen O’Neill plays The Laughter Lounge, Belfast tonight and tomorrow at 8pm. Tickets cost £12. The Laughter Lounge delivers a night’s entertainment under one roof for one entrance fee. After the comedy acts you can stay on till close and enjoy the resident DJ and late night bars. www.laughterlounge.com/ belfast. Bookings can also be made on 9045 0450.