Andrew Dipper

“I won’t stop hugging people”

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Even across the phone at 2.30 in the afternoon Patrick Monahan is inexhaustible.

Even across the phone at 2.30 in the afternoon Patrick Monahan is inexhaustible, a ball of energy able to communicate whole paragraphs without pausing for so much as a breath, let alone punctuation.

Tirelessly friendly and engaging, chatting to Monahan is exactly the experience you would expect if you watched the ebullient Teessider hug his way to victory on ITV1’s ‘comedy X-Factor’ Show Me The Funny. This easy charm is no surprise when you consider that Monahan has worked on children’s television and as a warm up man for programs like teatime cockle warmer The Paul O’Grady Show. But to snootily dismiss Monahan as ‘just’ a family entertainer would be foolish. He may have been described by Time Out as “simply the nicest person ever born”, but there is more to Monahan than bland niceties.

Given his clean-cut image, Monahan’s list of comic heroes is perhaps a little surprising. Family favourite Peter Kay and energetic Lee Evans are clear points of comparison, but the fouler mouthed likes of Richard Pryor and Billy Connelly are more unexpected influences. Yet whilst these performers are very different, they share a common thread in that they all substantially mine the personal for comedy. It is this honesty that Monahan identifies as key to his act.

“The reason why these people are such popular comics is because they talk about their lives and upbringing and it’s so interesting, but it is funny as well,” Monahan explains. “I mean look at Richard Prior. He talked about his life, and even though it was horrific it was just amazing to watch. The best advice I ever got [was] you have to tell the audience who you are. The audience are interested in you, who you are, your background. You’re really in a room with four hundred people but you’ve got to make them think it’s personal, that you’re just sat with them at the bar.”

It was this epiphany that inspired Monahan to talk extensively about his upbringing and his Irish/Iranian roots. “I didn’t think anyone would be interested in that” he admits, “but then I thought, actually this is the most interesting thing I’ve got.”

Much of Monahan’s most memorable material is built around this exotic background. One particular gag revolves around an imagined paint balling expedition, in which the two sides of the family wreak havoc with their traditional methods of warfare. I wonder if Monahan has ever received any complaints from his relatives about the way they are portrayed?

“Oh no, they all think it’s hilarious!” he insists, “it’s that typical thing, you know, when someone’s telling an Irish joke or a joke about the Welsh or whatever, the people who most love those jokes are the Irish people or the Welsh people. You can’t say anything funnier than about them or about their area. I suppose that’s the same with my family. It’s not like I’m saying anything horrific like they’re murderers or terrorists or anything, just that they’re over the top…I suppose at the end of the day, people would rather be mentioned than ignored.”

It’s true that Monahan only ever speaks with obvious affection about his background, and his perky persona immediately diffuses potentially problematic material. In fact, Monahan embraces this image, with the nice guy persona emerging as a natural direction early on in his career.

“The first fifty or a hundred gigs you do are just you finding your voice”, he says. “You can do the best joke in the world but you’re not going to give it the best run out until you’ve done enough gigs just finding yourself. With me there’s no point just coming out and leaning on the mic stand with a drink and going, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the government!’ I mean imagine! People just wouldn’t take it seriously! The act just came out of me just going, ‘Oh actually, I’m just more relaxed here doing this everyday stuff, about my family, about my life.’”

Given that he tends to avoid darker material, does Monahan feel that some contemporary comedians are too reliant on swearing and sex references for easy laughs? “It’s a shame because you see so many good comics who end up thinking they’re gonna be a better comedian just by using taboo words and taboo subjects”, he agrees.

“And, well, the words aren’t really taboo and the subjects aren’t really taboo, the reason people don’t use them much in comedy is because the subjects are just not that funny. I mean, can you imagine if Eddie Izzard, Little Britain, Spike Milligan and all these people just suddenly came on stage and started swearing and talking about dark stuff like abortion? It would just make people uncomfortable. The reason they don’t do it is because they can do funny stuff without doing it, without having to talk about wars or you know, graphic stuff like anal rape. People keep trying to push the boundaries, push the boundaries. And with me I always think what you should be pushing is comedy, you’ve got to be funny, don’t just be pushing boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries, push boundaries to make things funny.”

As a kid growing up in Teesside, Monahan didn’t see stand-up as a career option. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what stand up was. At the school I went to in the North East no one really knew. There was sort of one live comedy club in Newcastle, but apart from that that the working men’s club thing was sort of dying. There was never any idea why anyone would like to stand up in front of a room full of people and just talk – we didn’t know that existed”.

Instead he dreamed of being an all round entertainer like Michael Barrymore or Paul O’Grady, “just meeting people and chatting and having a laugh, really”. It wasn’t until after college, when a visit to his brother in London lead to a fortuitous open mic slot, that Monahan realised he could build a career around just being himself. “[My brother] said, ‘Just go along and try some of your sketches’. So I went along one night and it was great. I didn’t really know anyone there – I just went on my own and sat in there and put my name down. I literally had no idea what it would be like, whether it would be horrific or whatever, but it wasn’t as painful as I thought. You just stand there and you get to chat, you know. People listened and I thought, brilliant!”

In fact, Monahan took to it so naturally that he ended overrunning his slot and being waved off by the manager. “I’m on there just talking like this and at the back he’s giving me a little wave and I think, Oh what’s happened? I look at my watch and I’ve done seven minutes. Bloody hell!”

Although Monahan seems to have fallen into stand up quite comfortably he admits to suffering his fair share of uncomfortable gigs, particularly in the beginning. “I remember doing a gig in Greenwich at The Creek and that was quite a notorious club for heckling,” he says. “I was just doing an impression of James Bond skiing for some reason… you know, when you’re just in the moment… and I started doing it and the mic lead fell out of the mic, it was hilarious. And the audience were just started laughing along and then they just shouted. The compere was called Malcolm and this place was notorious for hecklers so they all shouted “Malcoooooom!”

Nowadays Monahan seems entirely at ease. “It’s like anything, once you’ve done it for a few years you learn the tricks, your get out of jail cards. In the old days, you’d do material and you’re brand new so you’d just stand there and they’d just politely watch you and wouldn’t be laughing, all you’d do is just talk faster. Whereas now you’d know what to do. If you go to a gig and the gig’s a bit tough there’s no point just standing there talking at them, you’d have a bit of banter with them and break the ice. And you’d sort of know how to get them going.”

It’s hard to imagine the effervescent Monahan being fazed by anything. Even stage fright, the scourge of the most experienced of stand-ups seems to pass him by. “You never lose the adrenaline or the buzz or whatever. I suppose once you lose that you’ve lost it all, really” he admits. “But I just look forward to it – you just get that buzz, you get excited!”

This easy confidence served Monahan well on Show Me The Funny, where aspiring stand-ups were given tasks and told to write five minutes of new material for a different audience each week. Monahan claims his biggest challenge was performing to a room full of soldiers. “They wanted you to mess about with them but I’d been told [by the judges] to stick to my material.” But in other tasks he thrived, at one point winning over a crowd of uncompromising school children by spraying them with water.

Monahan’s ease with the public meant he was a frontrunner from the start, although his tendency to hug audience members lead one judge, comedy reviewer Kate Copstick, to repeatedly tell him to “stop dicking around”. “There will be times when I’m not hugging someone you know,” Monahan laughs, insisting he was the victim of unscrupulous editing. “I wouldn’t just sit there and hug someone whilst I was eating a sandwich!” The show also gave Monahan the unique opportunity to be mentored by established comedians, allowing him to hone his act with expert advice.

“Doing stand up you never really get any constructive feedback, apart from the audience”, he explains. “You’ll do a gig and someone will come up afterwards and say thanks for that, that was nice…but it never really helps you, you can get complacent. Whereas [on the show] you were actually getting people like Johnny Vegas, Alan Davis, Ross Noble – people who had been doing stand-up for fifteen, twenty years, doing TV shows, doing DVDs – who would sit there and watch your act. It’s hard to get good comics like that just to sit and watch you, and then actually sit there with you for half an hour after the show and say right “What’s this? Why do you do this?”

This year looks set to be a crucial one for Monahan. The prize for Show Me The Funny was the chance to record a DVD, which will be released in November and features a mixture of old and new material, “like a greatest hits sort of thing.” Also on the cards is more touring, around Europe and Australia, a second DVD release and some vague television plans, including an idea for a live game show, currently in the planning stages.

Although he is busy enough launching his DVD at the moment, Monahan makes no secret of his ambitions, and it is easy to imagine him continuing into light entertainment, finding a ‘nation’s sweetheart’ niche like childhood hero Paul O’Grady. Nonetheless he insists that stand-up remains his real passion “I see stand-up really as the thing I’ll do for the rest of my life,” Monahan insists. “I mean, you’ll probably do other stuff as you’re going along but I couldn’t imagine not doing stand-up. I’d get withdrawal symptoms.”

So now he’s breaking through into the mainstream does Monahan ever think he’ll stop hugging random members of the public? “No way!” he laughs. “I mean, I was in Edinburgh in August and my brother came up and we were just walking around town and someone came up to us on the street and they just literally put their arms out. I just walked into them and gave them a big hug. And the bloke just walked off and my brother said, “Oh who’s that?” and I said, “Dunno.” It was lovely – we just laughed and I thought, that’s the nicest thing ever. How nice is that!”

Patrick Monahan concludes his tour at the Newcastle Stand on 22 November 22. Full tour information can be found on his website, as well as details of his upcoming DVD.