By the time I climb the stairs to the top floor of the Cork Opera House to meet Neil Delamere, I am huffing and puffing. It is not a problem that Delamere would face, I imagine. While most of us sat on the sofa streaming box sets and mainlining chocolate during the pandemic, the comedian was undertaking two of telly’s toughest endurance tests — Ireland’s Fittest Family followed by Dancing With the Stars.
Those programmes, along with some online work and smaller shows, when guidelines allowed, kept Delamere ticking over during the pandemic. The excitement about getting back to full-scale live performance, including an upcoming gig at the Opera House, cannot be matched though, says the Offaly-born performer.
“It’s savage to be back out there. It was weird because everything wasn’t shut for the whole time, it was like those flowering plants that would open for 25 minutes. You would ring someone and go ‘where’s open, where has a beer garden, where has patio heaters, I’ll be there in half an hour’. I was doing gigs at one point for 15 people outdoors, to keep some degree of sharpness. It is great to be back just walking out in front of full audiences. I have been doing this for a long time so perhaps I took it for granted and maybe audiences took it for granted but nobody does any more.”
Having said that, the cynical comedic instinct kicks in fast: “I don’t know how long the honeymoon will last though. I reckon on May 1 they’ll be like, ‘you’re a prick,’ but for the moment it’s great.”
Delamere, who is based in Dublin, has been a regular and versatile presence on our screens for more than 15 years now, since he began appearing on the RTÉ show The Panel aged just 25. He had graduated with a degree in computer applications from DCU and went into comedy full-time after he won a competition. While Covid gave him some pause for thought, he says he can never envisage himself doing anything else now.
“I got some money after I won the competition, but I was fully convinced that six months later I would be back working in computers. Then I got on The Panel, I was having too much fun. I started touring when I was 27 or 28 and then I just kept doing it. I don’t think about it too much but Covid made me think about it a little bit. But I’m completely unemployable now. Imagine me going in for a job and asking ‘what are the hours? Oh, they’re not between 8 o’clock and 11 o’clock at night? I’m not interested, thank you very much’. I genuinely have no idea what I would do now if I didn’t do this. I always think the next show is going to be the best show as well. I still love it and I still have a few things I want to do. The day I don’t get excited about having an idea, good luck.”
Delamere’s success is also down to his willingness to try new things. As well as comedy, he has presented radio shows and written and appeared in history documentaries. Having no pressure to write a show during the pandemic gave him a chance to explore opportunities he wouldn’t previously have considered.
“It did mean I said yes to certain things I wouldn’t necessarily have said yes to before. I did Ireland’s Fittest Family, it’s a great show but I also knew that it would make me train for two months. And I said yes to Dancing With the Stars. I had been asked to do it before but for various reasons, I couldn’t do it. It was terrifying but I felt well, life’s short, do it.”
Delamere and his dance partner Kylee Vincent were the second couple to be voted off the show. While he was disappointed, he says he got a great deal out of the show: “I wanted to do one or maybe two more dances. The great thing about that show was the people who were in the final were by far the best dancers, they were unbelievable. Up until that, there are the vagaries of voting and everything else but you know that when you go into it. I wanted to learn the tango because to me, tango is Scent of a Woman and Al Pacino, and the jive, because my parents used to jive in the 1950s. They met in Mullingar in the County Hall at a dance in the 1950s and I wanted to do the jive because that is still an arts venue. I played it two weeks ago, my Dad was at it, he’s 86 and came to the gig.”
When it came to the glitz and glamour, he embraced it all, for the main part: “There was one day I was doing a gig in Limerick and they were saying, ‘we’ll have to fake tan you,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t have time.’ They said, ‘well your arms are going to be out’. I said, ‘can you do half of me,’ so they did. My waist up was golden brown and waist down, white, I looked like 20 Benson and Hedges. The only way to do all that sort of stuff is to go for it. The audience will forgive you making mistakes, they won’t forgive you not going for it.”
When I meet with Delamere, debate is still raging about the recent Oscars and ‘The Slap’ that reverberated around the world. As a comedian, what did he make of Will Smith’s reaction to Chris Rock’s joke? “I thought Chris Rock, after he was slapped, handled it very well. I thought Will Smith shouldn’t have hit him. I thought Rock shouldn’t have said it… because it was a terrible joke. You have to be able to stand over things that you say. You know that phrase, ‘punching up’? I think that is generally a good idea — punching up rather than down.”
When it comes to what makes him laugh, Delamere’s taste ranges from the absurd to the classic: “It depends on the mood I’m in. I love watching surreal stuff, where I go, how did they even think that was funny? Sam Simmons is a great absurd Australian guy. Half of the audience would hate it and he doesn’t mind. He did this thing where he lit a pine cone and pulled it up a wall on a piece of string — whatever way he did it, I was pissing myself but half the audience were like ‘what is this?’
“I love Tommy Cooper. What I don’t like is when people are prescriptive about what comedy is, so they go ‘comedy has to speak truth to power’. No it doesn’t. Tommy Cooper didn’t do that. Or ‘comedy has to be satire.’ Morecambe and Wise weren’t satire. Comedy has to be funny, that’s all. I like Chris Kent, from Cork, who’s an anecdotalist, Gary Delaney who’s a one-liner man, Ross Noble, who’s improvised, Michelle Wolf, who does whip-smart political stuff.”
He and his wife Jane rewatched some comedy favourites during the pandemic. “During lockdown, we watched all of 30 Rock. Oh my good lord…that is so well-written, there is not a dud episode in it and it is layer upon layer upon layer of stuff. That and Frasier have stood up so well. Frasier is incredible.”
Delamere says he doesn’t get nervous before shows but thrives on the need to think on his feet: “I love that interaction, when you end up in a conversation with somebody and you’re bouncing back and forth, that’s the craic. When you come up with a joke that didn’t exist a few seconds ago, that’s the holy grail. What you get better at in stand-up [over time] is ensuring the [right] conditions exist for you to do it. So you’re calm.
“We had to go back to Dancing With the Stars for the last show, and I was looking at the group dancers. They were messing around, chatting to each other, waiting for their cue, they were so relaxed, then they just jumped in and did their bit. You are going, how do they do that? Then my friend says to me ‘I’ve seen you eat a burger, take a bite while being introduced and then walk on’. It’s the same thing. It’s the calmness that you get that allows your brain to work.”
He is looking forward to performing at the Opera House, which he describes as a great venue in terms of interacting with the audience.“It’s big enough, you can hear the roar but also you can see the whites of their eyes, and they can see the whites of yours. Cork audiences are brilliant — I know that is plamásing them but my instinct would be to not plamás them because people in Cork think they are special. But sadly they are.”
- Neil Delamere’s show Liminal is at Cork Opera House on Thurs, April 28; corkoperahouse.ie
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.