When you can get a word in edgeways, Aisling Bea (born O’Sullivan) might just take notice of what you say and engage with you. Otherwise, this most charming and talkative London-based Kildare comedian/actor/writer will carry on chatting. This is a default setting, she advises you, brought about when you are raised in a family that includes a mother and seven aunts. She learned early on in life, she says, that it benefited her to be able to talk and listen simultaneously. “I don’t understand when people wait for me to stop talking because I’m used to everyone talking at the same time.”
Aisling Bea’s star is rising, but as anyone involved in the acting, comedy and writing scene will tell you, sometimes those pesky stars take an awfully long time to emerge. It started in Kildare, in the family home (“performing for granny – inappropriate renditions of Big Spender, and things like that”), where significantly influential levels of pop culture didn’t make any serious impact. Her biggest comedy influence, she recalls, was Father Ted, her only genre role models Pauline McLynn and Deirdre O’Kane. “Outside of that, I didn’t know anything about UK or American comedy performers – I mean, I knew Steve Martin from Father of the Bride, not from The Jerk.”
Her acting skills developed during her years at Trinity College Dublin with stints in Players and sketch unit H-BAM. She then moved to London, where, she says semi-theatrically, she enrolled in drama school “to be a very serious actress. But when I came out I found that all the serious parts weren’t being given to me, and I couldn’t work out why that was.” Bea subsequently diverted her skill sets, got herself an agent, and set about on a fitful acting spurt that might have been too random to call a career but which nonetheless positioned her on a shaky ladder. Roles in Fair City, Holby City (she likes cities, she wryly notes), Lewis, We Are Klang and Come Fly With Me followed in quick succession, but it was when she decided to take her career into her own hands by developing a stand-up comedy show that people really began to take notice.
“Stand-up is a different thing altogether, and I knew if I didn’t do it before I was 30 I’d regret it. I saw some people do it and thought I’d give it a go. I was dubious, yes, about out-of-work actors trying comedy just to pass the time, but I didn’t want to do a character-based show. I wanted the test of having to be myself, which is a bit scary because with an actor audiences mightn’t like the character you play – and so you can blame the writing or someone else – but when they don’t respond it’s you they don’t like.”
In 2012, Bea won the much acclaimed (Edinburgh venue) Gilded Balloon’s ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ competition. Devised in 1988 as part of Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the competition has been previously won by a who’s-who of UK and Irish comics: Peter Kay, Dylan Moran, Lee Mack, Tommy Tiernan, and David O’Doherty, while over the years the finalists have included Reginald D Hunter, Ed Byrne, John Bishop, Ardal O’Hanlon, Alan Carr, Johnny Vegas, Kevin Bridges and Jason Byrne. There was a spot of a typically mediocre media fuss, however, when it was noted that Bea’s success made her only the second woman to have won the competition in its 25-year history (Scottish comic Rhona Cameron won in 1992). Befitting a female who was brought up surrounded by aunties, Bea is having none of the men-are-funnier-than-women labels. “You’ll only stay watching a comedian if they’re funny.” She says this in a very matter-of-fact, unquestionably logical and rational way. “You won’t continue just because you like a particular person – and comedy doesn’t depend on whether you’re thin or fat or short or tall, either.”
So no lack of respect or regard from the male members of the comedy community? “I’m only surprised when I run into a man who isn’t supportive at all levels of life. I think in fifteen years time if anyone wants to go down the gender route they’ll be embarrassed they asked – in the same way that it’s now just not thought of to ask if it’s more difficult for black comedians to be on television. The gender topic is just an area I think shouldn’t be broached – every time it comes up it’s putting the idea back into people’s heads.”
What about the kind of competitive spirit that can often break the notion of community? The perceived wisdom – if not verified behavioural statistic – is that men have a more competitive streak. “In general, I don’t do well in competitive environments, but I think you can fight it well enough. That nature is a side of the work, of course, but you don’t have to be part of it – and it doesn’t have to be competitive. It exists as part of the comedy world, as does the community part, where you’re all trying to help each other. In a way, I suppose, that’s people aiming to have a good night on stage rather than furthering their own career, and that’s what I’m happier being part of.”
Initially, Bea got into stand-up by MC-ing, which she equates, somewhat liberally, with “hosting a party. It takes the pressure off regarding timing and even being good.” Through this, she made tiptoe forays into doing longer and longer stand-up stretches, all the while determined to hone the craft. “I feel strongly about the crafting of it, because the comedy has become a career thing, which means I have something to lose. What is lovely about it is that I have a job for the rest of my life doing stand-up; with acting it’s up to someone else whether I get the gigs. I might write my own scripts, but when I submit something it goes through so many processes – and it might even not get made. Whereas with stand-up I have a bag of stuff and I can dump it anywhere in the world.”
With no great comedic notions of wanting to impart the Zen of this or the philosophy of that, Bea’s style is the simple (but not always easy) art of storytelling. “It’s a basic thing that moves people,” she explains. “People still need stories, and people still want to laugh. In Ireland, the most important person in the town isn’t the prettiest or most handsome, it’s the person in the pub telling good stories.”
Life since nabbing the ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ gong has been a big learning curve, notes Bea, particularly the increase in media profile. “Winning the thing was pivotal in that I was better known after it, but I still don’t get stopped walking down the street. I mean, I’ve been acting for ten years – and done some things in that area I’ve been really proud of – and no one ever wanted to interview me.”
Is there a hint of ego-driven irritation there? We think not. Years of slogging it in the UK and Irish bit-part television circuit has clearly been a hard-earned, edge-knocking experience. For her, she remarks, it’s all about “getting better at it, crafting it.” Beyond that, at least for now, it’s anyone’s guess, yet we’d safely guess that Aisling Bea is on the way to bigger, brighter and better things. The best aspect she learned about her years of acting, she outlines, was not to compare herself to other people.
“I’m not owed an acting career, I’m not owed a stand-up gig – it’s a very middle-class dream to have, and we’re all so lucky to be allowed to do it in the first place. You work hard and no one will ever be able to take it away from you, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get somewhere. If no one wanted to talk to me about acting, then fine, there are more interesting people out there. If, at the moment, some people want to hear or know about me because of the stand-up, then great. Do I get a bit cynical about when the interest might wear off? Yes, but that’s why you keep gigging and touring – they’re the bits you can keep and hold on to.”
(This first appeared in Sunday Times/Culture Ireland, 2013.)