Ahead of his Dublin Fringe Festival show, the Co Down comedian talks about finding his voice and overcoming ‘a much-needed wake-up call’
Based in London for the past decade, John’s focus on gigging in Ireland started last year when he supported more than 70 dates of Patrick Kielty’s show Borderline.
“At the same time, I was part of Best in Class [Panel Prize], which won an Edinburgh Award, which was a big deal as well. Then I had a sitcom optioned with Hat-Trick. It feels like this past year, definitely, things kicked off, but it’s been 10 years since I started doing [this], so it’s definitely not overnight,” he, says, laughing.
“Definitely some of it is the right place at the right time. But it’s also about finding your feet and getting your voice in comedy and getting to a place where, whenever the opportunities come, you’re ready to take them.
“In the last year, everything sort of settled. I figured out what I’m doing, basically, both on stage and the things I want to talk about, and that seems to be connecting with people now.”
That connection can be felt during John’s new Dublin Fringe Festival standup show, Calm, in which he explores the impact of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles before moving to Britain.
“You have to laugh at us,” says John, who was nominated for Best Standup Performance at Buxton Fringe Festival earlier this year.
“If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. You have to be able to laugh at the strangeness of it all. And the more that I am away, the more I realised that those things that make us different there, that is the string to our bow that other people don’t have.
“Northern Irish comedy now is in an incredible boom. There’s a group of people there — Colin Geddis, Shane Todd, Micky Bartlett and those guys, who are selling out arenas and their podcasts are massive. And that’s not just in Northern Ireland, they’ve got audiences everywhere.
“It does just give us an eye on the world that you don’t get if you grew up in Kent, maybe.
“I noticed that, on the tour with Patrick, it felt like the further south in Ireland we got, it was different: there was definitely a different mentality, a different kind of humour.
“It was not better or worse. I grew up in a fairly nationalist council estate. I would have always grown up saying that I was Irish. I actually was born in the south of Ireland and I grew up in the north.
“The more and more I go away from that now, the more I would say I’m Northern Irish now.”
Having done warm-up for Jarlath Regan just before Covid hit (“Our last night was at Vicar Street in Dublin, on the Friday, and lockdown started on Saturday”), John contacted Patrick after he appeared on Jarlath’s podcast, An Irishman Abroad.
“We just connected on Twitter — when it used to be good for things,” he laughs.
“I found out Patrick was at home and I just messaged him and said: ‘We both live in London, but we’re from similar neighbourhoods at home.’
“I grew up in Newry; Patrick from Dundrum. And so I just said: ‘Hey, I’m doing the same thing. If you’ve ever got any time for a coffee or whatever, let me know.’ A few months later, he watched a video of mine on YouTube and called me and just offered me the gig. It was amazing, definitely one of the best phone calls. I ended up doing 71 dates with him last year.”
Watching Jarlath and Patrick perform not only helped John hone his craft but boost his confidence too.
“The stuff Jarlath does with his podcast… He has a very nuanced take on a lot of things. His comedy is so well thought out and each word sort of earns its place. I can go off on tangents, which is a plus or minus. So I learned from Jarlath.
“Then Patrick, it’s in his bones how to perform. His movement and his emphasis on different words. You could see how he was able to play with a crowd in one moment and hit the punchlines hard. Also, he was so good with his time: he would be watching me and [would] come back and give me advice. It was like going to university. I was so lucky to have the two of them.
“I actually started [standup] in England. I was living at home but I did my first ever gig when I was visiting a friend, and then, within about six months, I moved to London to just go full time,” says John, who was also nominated for the BBC New Comedy Award.
“The circuit there is so small that you end up working with everyone. I’m very lucky to get to work with the likes of Katherine Ryan and Romesh Ranganathan, the biggest names in comedy. I’ve been lucky; I’ve only had good interactions with people, who have been very great craic and chatty.”
Another aspect of John’s show Calm is reflecting on how to keep his blood pressure down — something he knows about all too well as regards to health.
He was balancing a full-time job with dedicating time to comedy when, in 2018, aged 33, he received a “much-needed wake-up call” after suffering a mini heart attack.
“It was almost like my body was giving me a yellow card. I was pushing everything a bit hard: I was gigging every night, I was working in quite a difficult job that was 50, 60 hours a week. I suppose it was too much — you can’t do that forever.
“Eventually, my body was like, ‘Here, we need to stop now or it’ll be stopped permanently.’
“Once that happened, I just had to stop everything and take a proper look and think, ‘What am I doing? You’re living a life that’s not very healthy either.’ I was very lucky that I had my now wife [Jenna Al-Ansari] with me there and she was very supportive.
“I didn’t even go to the doctor whenever it happened. I went to work that morning. I thought I’d pulled a muscle in my chest. I just felt sick, a bit woozy. I didn’t have any problems before. It was only actually when listening to someone else talk about having a heart attack that I thought, ‘That sounds familiar,’ and that’s what sent me to the hospital.”
For John, who was a former member of the Irish karate team and competed across the globe, it was a “fairly dramatic turnaround”.
“I remember the first physical thing that I did was lift a bowling ball and I was shattered — a child’s bowling ball.”
“No spoilers” but his recovery included moderation, relieving stress, yoga and a change in diet.
“You’re completely exhausted from the smallest walk upstairs. It leaves you [feeling] as if you’ve been awake for 48 hours. You just need to sit down,” he explains.
“Because you’re not going around with a badge that says ‘I’ve had a heart attack’; because, if you looked at me, you would probably go, ‘That lad’s a bit pale,’ but that’s it. You’re sort of living in a bit of a strange world where you feel 104 years old.
“That’s when I started doing therapy and it has been amazing. It’s the best thing that I could have done and I began speaking more. And I brought that into my comedy then, talking more about growing up at home, and what that was like, and growing up on the border as well.”
John says the time feels right to talk about his background, mentioning how he speaks to audience members after shows who have similar experiences.
“[Such as] people who’ve grown up in Northern Ireland, left and went to England, had trouble settling.
“I suppose it’s probably no big shock. If you’re looking, from the outside, at my relationship, I’m married to a woman who grew up in the Middle East during the Gulf War.
“She was lucky not to be there the whole time, but she understands what that’s like. Whereas — and I think this is the same if I talk to people in the south of Ireland — sometimes you feel like an alien. They feel like there’s disbelief as well.
“Because the stories can be so outrageous and hilarious, they can be so tragic, the depth of them,” he continues.
“I was chatting at a dinner party. I just happened to be telling a story that I thought was a funny story about growing up. And at the end of it, one of [the guests]said: ‘Thank you for sharing that.’ You’re in a different planet almost.”
Seeing as he works in comedy, we ask John whether he worries about cancel culture.
“No, I really don’t worry about it. People talking about ‘woke culture’ — it’s, like, define what woke culture is. Cancelling… I don’t really know of anyone on a national level who has really been cancelled.
“There are people who get s**t online for jokes, and [who have] jokes that have aged poorly or whatever. I do see that.
“The only time I was ever involved in the Twitter pile-on was in a football thread when a load of football fans came at me for it. But I know it’s not nice, I get that.”
Dublin Fringe Festival 2023 runs city-wide from September 9-24. Calm by John Meagher will take place from September 18-23. The full 2023 programme is on sale now at fringefest.com