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.”
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.
“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.
But Fame Academy had called. And lucky for Kielty it did. Because it was here, in 2002, that he met one Catherine Elizabeth Deeley (Cat to her friends), an ex-model fresh from being regularly sawn in half on Ant & Dec’s SMTV Live.
“There was always a little bit of a spark between us,” he says, his eyes lighting up, “but either she was with someone or I was with someone and by the time we were both single she was in America [she’s presented US talent So You Think You Can Dance since 2006]. It was always one of those things that never worked out.”
Well, it has worked out now. In early 2012 Kielty revealed that he and Deeley had become “more than friends” and in September that year they were married in Rome with “lots of dancing and pasta. When the Irish turn up in Rome it’s always mayhem. We had a ball.”
Of the ten-year gap between meeting and marriage, Kielty says, “Women tend to be in charge and we men just have to get on the pitch, stand on the leg that’s shaking most and not drop the ball when it comes our way.”
For someone who spends an unconscionable amount of time in the air (with homes in County Down and London, he says he’s an air mile millionaire) as he and Deeley make sure that the Atlantic doesn’t get in the way of their marriage, Kielty is as down to earth as an Ulster fry. “The longest we’ve been apart is two weeks. We only plan two or three months in advance, because we want to be together – it’s a nice way to live.”
So, I query, you don’t plan anything? I raise my eyebrows as meaningfully as I can.
He shrugs. “Will you have kids... will this happen if you get this job... I tend to find with all things in life now, I am not a planner. If we’re lucky enough to have kids... all that stuff ’s down the road. We’re just taking it a step at a time.”
Having said which, Kielty’s next couple of months are planned out. He is taking an hour of new, very personal stand-up to the Edinburgh Fringe, followed by a nine-week tour. Although he hasn’t done a big stand-up show since his 2005/6 tour, Kielty is reasonably match fit for his first ever Edinburgh stint. “I never stopped doing stand-up,” he says. “It was never an either/or – I kept doing little gigs.”
Comedy, he says, gives him the autonomy he now cherishes more than ever. “Comedians are very lucky people. We’re not like actors – we don’t have to wait for a script to drop throught their door – or presenters, where they’re going in and pitching themselves to present a show.
“If you’ve got a show, you can write it and put tickets on sale. It’s a nice bit of independence and I don’t want to give it up again. I’m like the sub who, while the rest of the team have been knockin’ their pan out for the whole match, comes on for the last 15 minutes.”
Unlike many of the big names, Kielty is playing a small venue – just over 200 seats. “Personally I think you should be able to see the comedian’s eyes if you go to a stand-up gig, as opposed to the eyes on the screen at the side of the stage,” he says. I think it is almost impossible for this man to be any more likeable. Does being dismissed as “him off the telly” worry him?
“I quite like people coming to see me with the attitude, ‘Well, there’s the guy that presents on telly’, because I know that if they come with a low expectation they will go away pleasantly surprised,” he smiles. “I don’t mind working from a position of stealth.”
Patrick Kielty: Help is at Assembly George Square Studios, 24-30 August, and you can buy tickets on edfringe.com
The One Show at the Edinburgh Festival begins tonight (Wednesday 12th August) at 7pm