Why Andrew Maxwell's shows are so character building
Ahead of gigs in Omagh, Londonderry and Belfast, funnyman Andrew Maxwell talks to Edwin Gilson about politics, conspiracy theories and his alter egos Derek and Nige
After listening to Irish comedian Andrew Maxwell talk for 30 minutes, you come to agree with his evaluation of himself as a "man who was born with a certain amount of bonhomie". The 39-year-old seems built for spirited conversation, whether he's joking about unjust evictions on Celebrity Big Brother or debating the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum.
"I'll happily banter with anyone about anything," he declares in his impish Dublin accent. "If someone wants to discuss constitutional politics, I'm into that. Failing that though, I've no problems with talking t*ts and budget holidays."
Maxwell, who plays a range of dates here, beginning with Daly's Comedy Club in Omagh next weekend, has been earning rave critical reviews for his observational stand-up routine for almost two decades, despite never truly making the breakthrough to the top tier of commercial comedy. Yes, he's appeared on numerous television panel shows but he's never achieved the mainstream success and widespread adulation of, say, Michael McIntyre.
Not that Maxwell seems duly bothered. Since moving from Dublin to London in the early Nineties, "around the same time a lot of other Dublin comics relocated to England", he has battled hard to win a devoted following, touring tirelessly and putting in yearly, rapturously-received appearances at music festivals and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Twenty years since leaving his homeland, it's a pleasure to return, says Maxwell, because "Ireland is inherently funny". "It's a ridiculous place," he chuckles. "All you have to do to generate laughs at a stand-up show in Ireland is just stand still and watch the daftness unfold around you."
Maxwell laments the fact that there was "no scene" for comedy in Ireland when he first became interested in the medium, meaning he was effectively forced to leave to pursue his dream. "In Northern Ireland there was The Empire in Belfast on Tuesday, Queen's University on Wednesday and that was it. The South had a few gigs in Galway, Cork and Dublin, but it wasn't enough."
Though the comic is now firmly London-based, and raising his two children in England, the notion of Irishness remains a firm fixture in his sets. "I like to drop in and out of different Irish accents and characters, which the crowd love – from Derek the east Belfast bodybuilder to 'Big Nige' from Cork."
It's testament to Maxwell's widespread interests that he can go from this lighter material to deeper issues like Scottish independence. "Every day I check the news, sport, culture and finance pages just because I'm interested," he says. "You never know where the divine spark of your next joke is going to come from, but you can keep trying to find it."
The Scottish issue is a potentially thorny one. Material about this year's vote on independence forms an integral part of Maxwell's current set, which he performed in front of many Scots at Edinburgh last summer. Did any natives have objections to an Ireland-born, England-based comedian joking about the future of their country? Clearly Maxwell is well educated on the matter but, as he points out, "it seems very few people in England or Ireland know about the issue. And God knows what the Welsh are thinking about".
"It's essentially a question of trust," he ponders. "I've been performing at Edinburgh for 20 years and I've got a large following of loyal Scots. They know I'm not just tossing things around; I've considered the issue and know Scotland very well. The matter is pressing, it's relevant! You can only perform material that's relevant to a set audience. If you went on in Belfast and talked about the hilarious misunderstandings between Argentinians and Uruguayans, you might as well be talking about the man on the moon. You might inform and entertain them, but you're not going to make them laugh. You can only make them laugh by talking about what they know."
In Maxwell's measured view, Scottish independence should be "much higher up the agenda of Ulster folk than it currently is". "If the vote does go through," he adds, "it would have massive implications for Northern Ireland, both security and budget-wise. It would have the same impact on both Catholics and Protestants."
Through his cheeky, affable nature, Maxwell has managed to avoid severely offending any given audience thus far, but he's certainly not afraid to highlight and mock the perceived failings of a place or people. There'll be no let up when he hits these shores.
"Northern Irish politics is so incredibly insular; profoundly insular!" yelps Maxwell. "It's almost as if they have this attitude of: 'Nothing else is as interesting as us talking about ourselves!'."
Depending on your disposition, you may want to avoid sitting in the front row at Maxwell's gig. He often picks on crowd members and quizzes them about their lives. "That's when my people skills are really called upon," he laughs.
Such intrapersonal capabilities were also required for his BBC3 series Conspiracy Road Trip, a run of programmes which also saw him come face-to-face with 9/11 conspiracy theorists, creationists and UFO seekers. However, it proved something of a challenge for Maxwell to empathise with some of the more far-fetched theories put forward.
"Ultimately, the problem with conspiracy theorists is they are all awful analysts," he says. "They are fundamentally confused by the differences between probability, possibility and plausibility. It's that old saying that you should keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out."
Maxwell received a barrage of vitriolic online comments during the broadcast of the programme, most of them from conspiracy theorists.
"When someone trolls me on Facebook or Twitter I just think they are wilfully, wildly naïve. There will be ramifications for them. I guess the main motive for internet trolls is they can get on a level playing field. On the face of it, these people are deeply unimpressive human beings. But the internet evens it up; you can scream at anybody you want. But these people who threaten others with death or rape – they can get done for that.
"I think Twitter is a mediocre platform for confrontation anyway; you only get 140 characters! I mainly use it to plug shows and wish people a happy Halloween. I usually live in the real world."
And when your 'real world' persona is as funny and intelligent as Maxwell's is, that's certainly a wise move. My final question to him relates to the restraints of being a comedian. As an impressively clued-up fellow, is it ever wearing to have to make a joke of everything?
"It's a welcome restraint; I don't want to be a windbag!" chuckles Maxwell. "Nobody's paying me to be a windbag. If everyone in Ireland got paid as well as I do to be a windbag, Ireland would be full of f*****g billionaires."