Owen O’Neill is a true virtuoso in the art of storytelling, traversing many mediums from stand-up comedy to film to television and theatre, acting, directing and writing with an ease that belies how difficult each of the genres can be.
Generously, Owen agreed to speak to me before going on stage in Newcastle to do ‘one night only’ of his hilarious stand-up comedy show ‘I’m Telling You’. I managed to catch up with him as he was in transit to the venue, when Owen jokingly tells me, ‘I’m actually on stage now’. Owen’s infamous wry sense of humour instantly shone through, luckily enough for me though he was actually joking.
Owen, who was born and raised in Cookstown, Co Tyrone began his career, as nearly every comedian out there has braved, with the open mic session, Owen explains, ‘the Comedy Store was beginning in London and I went down and did an open mic spot and it kind of went from there really’.
Fiercely autobiographical in his work Owen doesn’t shy away from dealing with many subject matters, ‘I like to mine my own life for ideas and then exaggerate everything, that’s the way I work. I like, when I’m writing to have an element of truth to what I am doing, and I think if the audience believes what you are telling is the truth, nine out of ten times they will be able to relate to it’.
Influenced by the comic talents of W.C. Fields, who like Owen was a truly skilled practitioner in many areas of the entertainment field, along side other greats such as Buster Keating and more contemporary comedians such as Richard Prior, Owen likes his comedy to be edgy and have substance, ‘I think I’ve always had quite a warped sense of humour, just say I’m watching a comic, I’d much prefer to see his personality coming through and maybe a bit of vulnerability’.
Owen, who never writes any of his stand-up shows down has honed his comic genius to find humour in situations most people would gloss over, ‘you just keep your eyes and ears open, like for instance, last week I walked into a newsagents, there was a sign and it said Please do not ask for change, I thought there’s a joke there somewhere and I came up with, I walked into a newsagents down the bottom of the road and there was a sign that said, please do not ask for change and it was ten quid for a newspaper, it’s just sort of an odd little gag that comes to me. But mostly it’s about relationships and life in general really’.
As the time for Owen’s stand-up performance draws closer our conversation turns to his imminent stage appearance, ‘lots of different routines, lots of different stories’, he explains, ‘some of them will be from my one man shows I’ve been doing over the years, autobiographical stories, it will be quite a mish mash of stuff really. The beauty of it is, I don’t really know what I am going to do until I get up on stage, you do find a lot of comedians who have a lot of material, but they would do it A to B to C, they have a rota, where as I don’t do that and I think that it keeps it fresh, for me as well’.
Before Owen takes to the stage though we discuss, through all his varied writing projects from hit TV series, to award winning stage shows is there any particular character he has created that may hold a special place in his thoughts, one in particular he reminisces on, ‘there was a psycho Gaelic games coach that I quite liked, he was called Collarbone McCracken and he was a character that was an amalgamation of a few people I knew when I was growing up in the North of Ireland, in those days, in the late 60s you weren’t allowed to play soccer on the Gaelic football pitches, but we use to play soccer all the time and this man he was convinced that soccer was invented by the English to decimate the Irish Culture, he was a complete lunatic, I really like him, Collar Bone McCracken.’
So what does the future hold for the immensely talented Owen O’Neill, barring the obvious impending stage performance? Earlier this year Owen completed postproduction on a short film called ‘The Basket Case’, which he wrote and directed, ‘it was exhilarating and very rewarding, making a film is a real collaboration, even more so than being on stage, or writing. The film opened in Galway and it was very well received, it’s going to the Cork film festival and the Irish Film Board will enter it into all the other festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Berlin and Venice. It will go into all of those next year, so we will see how it goes’.
Along side directing, Owen has also penned a new one-man show and a three hander play which he will direct, he has also been commissioned to write a feature length comedy screen play; with reference to his recent film directorial debut Owen enthusiasm shines through, ‘I would like to direct again, I’d like to direct a feature, that’s the plan. I’m a bit of a gypsy, I like to keep moving, I’d like to be a bit of a maverick and keep popping up and if any acting jobs come my way in between, then I will take a look at them as well’.
On that note Owen leaves me with a parting wisdom, before stepping out onto the stage, ‘stay healthy in mind and body and you can’t go wrong really’, an excellent philosophy for someone with the energy, enthusiasm and general joie de vive of the comic maestro Owen O’Neill.
Comedian Owen O Neill published NI Homes & Lifestyle
Words by Tina O Rourke