Irish comedian Keith Farnan tells Fiona O’Brien about his new show on how the internet is as much of a danger as it is a help
“The guy couldn’t fit how much he loathed me into 140 characters so he took a picture of a hate letter and uploaded that to Twitter instead, which I thought was pretty resourceful,” jokes Keith Farnan.
The Cork-born comedian has a new show on the dangers of personal information being spied on by higher bodies on the internet, and he is recalling the time that prompted him to become more aware of what was shared online.
“It was the time of the Scottish referendum and I made a joke about Nicola Sturgeon. It was quoted online, and just like that this one quote was left there forever, and almost defined me.
“Out of context it looked horrible, and as it was taken away from all the content around it I really became a figure of hate for the pro-leave party. I got hundreds of nasty messages online, and all from one quote left on the web.”
Alongside the Wikileaks scandal, and the birth of his daughter, Farnan began to rethink how he used the internet. “Obviously in this age the internet is an essential tool. Especially for someone like me who needs to use it to get publicity and coverage. But it’s the way in which you use it.
“People are very blasé what you put up, and that started to scare me when I saw what friends were putting up on social media.”
“Me and my partner decided that we would not share anything to do with our daughter because you never know where it ends up.”
Farnan worked in litigation for an Irish firm for four years before jumping to comedy. And now having made it as a comedian, it is unlikely that he will return to law. But his experience has given him a wealth of material for his original shows, especially when he got an opportunity to do an internship in America.
Starting off his legal career at the age of 16, when he completed his work experience in a lawyer’s office, Farnan was under no illusion about how dull the industry could be in terms of paperwork, but he also learned a lot about the interesting side, so much so that he pursued a legal career through his degree choice at college. While at college, he qualified, and also became more interested in political affairs.
And then he got his break when he was studying in Dublin and Mike Mears, a public defender from Georgia, came to town with Sister Helen Prejean, the death penalty abolitionist who wrote Dead Man Walking. Mike Mears, loosley, asked if any of the students wanted to come and work with his office in the summer, and Farnan got in touch the next week to offer his services.
That summer he travelled to Atlanta for an eye-opening, life-changing experience. And he got a wealth of life and career experience because the US is so underfunded that interns really get put to work rather than twiddling their thumbs and ‘making coffee’.
“There was one public defender who dealt with every death penalty case in every county and worked 16 to 18-hour days. They only tended to last five or six years because of the intensity. The following year, Farnan spent his summer In New York with The Innocence Project – an organisation dedicated to proving the innocence of wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, and reform to prevent future injustice. “It’s now spread through the US and to the UK, but at the time, it was the only one,” says Farnan.
“It was started by Barry Scheck, who was on OJ Simpson’s defence team – he set up The Innocence Project before the OJ case, which was a good job. There were 12 of the finest young legal minds in the US there – and me. Someone asked me if Cork University was in the Ivy League.”
Farnan was appalled by what he saw as the “politically driven” US legal system, where every district attorney was elected and judged on results – including the number of executions.
“George W Bush got the record when he was governor of Texas. It’s a system that doesn’t want justice, just results.” After these experiences in America, Farnan was offered a number of jobs in criminal law, but: “I decided it was not for me and went into litigation instead. It was fine – I did anything that involved coming to court.”
However, Farnan had been doing theatre work while studying law – and then some improvised comedy. He was asked to MC at a club, it took off from there and he quit law after four years.
Farnan lists his comedy heroes as the late Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) and Dave Allen, stating that if it wasn’t for them pushing the boundaries in their careers that he would never have been able to stand on stage and tell the jokes he does.
“They did it at a time when the Church still very much ruled Ireland, and they were almost ostracised for it. They couldn’t have told those jokes in Ireland, and hence moved abroad. If it wasn’t for the work that they did there would have been no me, or no Tommy Tiernan either.”
So far Farnan’s shows are themed, Cruel and Unusual was about the death penalty, while No Blacks, No Jews, No Irish, No Dogs. All Welcome looked at racism and prejudice. Sex Traffic: How Much Is That Woman In The Window? speaks for itself, while he will bring his new show, Anonymous to London next week. (Tickets £15.40, www.justforlaughs.com, Thursday July 14, 7:10pm, The Mix, Russell Square).
And how does he find it making politics funny. “Well it’s just one of those things that we naturally hone being Irish, it’s a skill that we pick up. If you go into any pub in Ireland you will have great storytellers, it could be three people sat around a table sharing stories, and it’s the most natural thing in the world.
“If you want to get by, or keep up, in conversation then you have to have that perfected. “And the idea of comedy came to me when I was in college. You would have a comedy event and it would get maybe two or three hundred people at it, but then you could have an Amnesty International event next door that might only get low double numbers at it.
“So I thought that if you can make people laugh it can be a very powerful tool. And it means you are reaching a wider and bigger range of the public, just through telling jokes.”
Did he set out to be an issue-based comedian? “It just happened.. The death penalty show started from me trying to recruit law students and since then, I’ve just picked up on patterns in the news.” And with him working as a full-time comedian for the past few years his working hours have opened up to him meeting new people, thus giving him a better insight for new material and also a new audience.
His last show confronted the issues of women’s rights, and particularly Ireland’s 8th Amendment quite head-on. “I’ve taken my daughter to child care centres in the day, kind of like Mummy and Baby groups, and it naturally was all females in these rooms. But why is it natural or assumed? These women were lawyers or doctors before they were mothers and are then expected to give that all up and be defined by motherhood. It doesn’t happen to men.”
And with Brexit dominating the news at the minute, his show is bound to include a few topical jokes. And is he worried about his daughter’s Irish heritage now that she is growing up in London (Keith’s partner is from England and they met while she was working in Dublin.) “No, I think from spending time in America, there is almost this culture of having to prove how Irish you are. But it’s not something that worries me. I think it just comes naturally.”
“Although we are going to have to sign her up for an Irish passport soon with all of the EU stuff going on.”