Patrick Kielty on returning to his first love: stand-up comedy

The presenter and comedian talks personal tragedy, new love and jokes ahead of his latest show at the Edinburgh Fringe

“I think we all think we are just slightly more important than we actually are,” Patrick Kielty says of his fellow celebrities. “Performers really need to put what they do into context – it’s a job, it’s a very nice job.”

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Comedy is a job he was ruthlessly blackmailed into starting, he says. Aged 15, young Patrick was threatened with being dropped from the school football team if he didn’t do his impressions (various teachers, plus Barry McGuigan) at the Christmas concert. It was then he was given one of the best bits of advice ever as a stand-up. “It was from my dad,” he says. “He told me, ‘Lean on the leg that shakes the most.’ I did!”

By all accounts the gig went well, and by the time he was 18 and at university – where he was studying psychology, mainly because “there were 112 people in the class and 85 of them were women” – his skills were honed to the point that he won a keg of beer in a talent contest and psychology lost out to comedy.

“If my first gig hadn’t gone well, I wouldn’t have been coming back. I wouldn’t have been going home and going, I must regroup, I must have another plan. My first couple of gigs went well and I thought, ah, this is nice and so I continued.”

It was not all nice for Kielty. On 25 January 1988 his father Jack was shot and killed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters. So just how did he then escape being sucked into the sectarian vortex of violence that claimed so many young men at that time?

“In a weird way I probably have my dad to thank for not being caught up in sectarianism afterwards,” he says. “The area we lived in wasn’t a sectarian place – we were in the countryside. My dad owned a construction company and he employed both sides so the support system that came around us was made up of friends of my dad from both communities.”

Kielty, 44, no longer considers himself Catholic. “When you grow up in Ireland, somewhere that is completely obsessed with religion, and you experience the divisions that it can cause…” He shakes his head. “I am very much of the Dave Allen school, which is ‘Good night and may your God go with you.’ Your God.”

As a baby stand-up in the Belfast clubs in the early 1990s, Kielty received the second best bit of advice he ever got, this time from comedian Owen O’Neill. “He came to open the Comedy Club Belfast and he said to me you have to compere this club. I only had 15 minutes of material. I told him I couldn’t do it. And he said you have to write your own material, every week, go through the newspapers – that’s what comperes do.” So he did. And Patrick Kielty the Political Comic was born.

In time, local TV bosses noticed him, he got his own show, PK Tonight, and when his chat show Patrick Kielty Almost Live hit mainland BBC1 in 1999, he found a whole new audience, one that had a whole new perception of him, which didn’t include the 12 years as a successful circuit stand-up that he had to his credit.

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“In Ireland I was always referred to as a comedian who had gone into telly,” he says, “but over here it seemed like I had gone straight onto telly.” His brow crinkles and his hand covers his heart. “I started seeing myself in print being referred to as a presenter and just… this tiny part of me died.” He looks genuinely pained.