‘Everyone has one cancellation in them’: standup Joanne McNally on her unfiltered comedy

From career doldrums to fending off pantless stage invaders, the straight-talking Irish comic’s journey to becoming a must-see act has been a wild ride

At a recent gig, an audience member was so taken with Joanne McNally’s standup that she tried to get on stage with her. It wasn’t the first time the comedian had come into contact with overexcited fans during her bumper Irish tour – which includes a whopping 50 nights at the Dublin venue Vicar Street – but this one was particularly out of control. “Apparently she’d no pants on – maybe she lost them when she was scaling the stage?” muses McNally. “I took a selfie with her while she was getting held by two security guards.”

McNally was only slightly perturbed by this turn of events: she knows the vibe she cultivates at her shows encourages her fans to let their hair down – to put it mildly. “I think she got caught up in the night and was completely carried away,” she says. “The main demographic is women who wine, basically. So you can’t then be annoyed when it spills over into stage invasions.”

It is an anecdote that makes a McNally show sound like an especially unruly hen do – an impression reinforced by the tour’s title: The Prosecco Express. Yet while it can be fruity and raucous, McNally’s standup is no lowest-common-denominator ribaldry. Instead, the 38-year-old inspires passionate (if very drunken) devotion because she radiates relatability; she’s able to sum up many women’s innermost thoughts and feelings with lightning wit and an invariably hilarious turn of phrase. And The Prosecco Express is not a reference to mindless fun: it’s about the fact that McNally has spent her 30s celebrating other people’s life events while neglecting to “mile [her] own stones”. She remains “single and unfertilised”, she explains, speaking over Zoom from the home of fellow comic, and tour warmup, Gearoid Farrelly. Cross-legged on a bed, she looks glowing and glamorous from the neck up, but also slightly like she is wearing her pyjamas.

Word of McNally’s talents has been spreading fast over the past year. Having already established herself as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed new comics, the Dubliner will soon embark on the UK leg of her tour, which seems to be getting longer by the day. The additional dates are a result of the colossal success of My Therapist Ghosted Me, the twice-weekly podcast she hosts with her close friend, the TV presenter Vogue Williams – a word-of-mouth phenomenon that racks up 2.5m downloads a week.

McNally at the National Opera House in Wexford.
‘I’m a social liability’ … McNally at the National Opera House in Wexford. Photograph: Kenny Ruttledge

Named after the fact that McNally’s therapist unceremoniously ditched her during the pandemic, My Therapist Ghosted Me doesn’t really have a central premise but tends to consist of the pair discussing bizarre news stories alongside the weirdest moments of their respective weeks. That they do this while enthusiastically taking the piss out of each other (and, frequently, Williams’s husband, the ex-Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews) is what makes the show so crackingly funny. I tend to miss approximately a third of the conversation the first time round because I am laughing along so loudly.

It is the kind of dynamic that can only come from intense, long-term familiarity. The pair have known each other since their teenage years, but only became close a few years ago when Williams invited McNally to stay at her house for three months while the latter did unpaid open spots on the London comedy circuit (prior to that she’d been staying in hostels: “kennels” practically, she says). McNally thinks the contrast between their lifestyles is another reason why the podcast works so well. “It’s this upstairs-downstairs thing: she’s very well-off, very well groomed, with two kids with aristocratic names, living in a castle in Battersea, has chefs coming to the house,” says McNally. “I’m living in a shared house in Clapham with five other women who are all just drunkenly accusing each other of stealing their hummus.”

They may lead very different lives, but Williams and McNally share the same comic sensibility. That “great dark sense of humour”, as the comedian puts it, connects them to their listeners, too. McNally is not the kind of podcaster who finds the parasocial relationships that come with the job a chore; instead, she spends a lot of time replying to her fans over Instagram, and thinks of friendships as a two-way street. “I find that the women feel very similar to me, so I guess they feel the same,” she says. “It’s like finding your tribe – for me as well.”

While My Therapist Ghosted Me was an overnight sensation, it took McNally a long time to find her groove, career-wise. She had wanted to go into journalism after university but “didn’t have the confidence”, so plumped for PR. She had fun, but the work left her feeling both stressed and unfulfilled, a combination she thought might be exacerbating her eating disorder. She had developed bulimia years before; partly, she thinks, because she believed she “wasn’t very good at anything, so I decided weight loss would be my thing. It’s encouraged! It’s what women do.”

She subsequently switched to a lower-pressure job at a mental health charity “and, ironically, just completely lost my mind. I was sleeping in the office because my bulimia was so out of control that I couldn’t go back to my housemates, and my mum wouldn’t let me back into the family home until I got treatment.” When her mum went away for the weekend McNally broke in, “binged and purged all the food in the house” and collapsed on the way to the shops to replace it. It was a wake-up call. “I was like: ‘I’m completely fucked, I don’t know what I’m doing: this is not a lifestyle, I’m not on a detox.’” She started treatment shortly after and says she was “in a psychiatric ward for a substantial amount of my early 30s”.

My Therapist Ghosted Me

In 2014, soon after that time, her friend the writer-director Una McKevitt asked McNally to be in her new stage show, Singlehood, a mixture of comedians and “real people” talking about their love lives. The then unemployed McNally agreed, and told a story about a bald man dumping her. “I think the line was: ‘I’ll stop you there – you know you’re bald? This conversation sounds like you think you’ve got a full head of hair.’” Singlehood was a hit in Ireland; when it ended, one of the comics who was in the show encouraged McNally to start a career in standup and join him on tour.

Initially, she “guffawed” at the idea. “I was like: ‘As if!’ I don’t even think I’d ever been to a comedy show.” It seems fitting that McNally was initially reluctant: the impulse to get on stage, tell jokes and risk looking like an idiot in front of a crowd is about as unrelatable as it gets. “Standup felt so alien,” she says. “That’s why comedians are such weirdos – who would choose to do it?”

McNally very much does not cleave to the comedian-as-weirdo stereotype: she comes across as completely ordinary, in the best possible way. What isn’t remotely normal, however, is her impeccable comic timing and sense of the ridiculous: it quickly became clear standup was in fact a feasible career. She also wrote a one-woman show with McKevitt about her bulimia. Bite Me was “dark” in places, but she didn’t have to look hard to find the funny side of her illness. “Madness is hilarious, come on,” she insists. The show was also deeply fulfilling on a personal level. “I feel like Bite Me was my reward for having to go through all that, because it got me on to the stage, which I love.”

After quickly making it on to Irish TV, McNally headed to London. The reaction in the UK was warm from the start – partly, she thinks, as a result of her accent. That said, she has been lost in translation at times. A couple of years ago she saw an email from a British production company praising her “lovely Irish working-class authenticity”. In actual fact, McNally went to a private girls’ school. Class, she says, is not such a big deal in Ireland, but sometimes she spells it out for audiences in the UK. “I do say I’m from a posh part of Dublin and then I slag them, going: ‘I know you don’t think we have posh people in Ireland but we do.’ They can’t tell the accent – they just think I sound like Bono with tits.” Despite that, she “likes to think the material is classless; maybe that’s a very privileged thing to say, I don’t know.”

Fringe benefits … McNally performing in Edinburgh in 2019.
Fringe benefits … McNally performing in Edinburgh in 2019. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

Clearly, many of her British fans understand McNally perfectly – that’s partly because My Therapist Ghosted Me sees her share her thoughts in great detail. Sometimes too much detail. “I got in trouble the other day with a friend of mine for talking about her on the podcast – I didn’t think anyone would recognise it was her. I’m going for dinner tonight and she rang to say the group have asked that nothing anyone says or does will be on the podcast. I’m a social liability.”

After The Prosecco Express ends, McNally and Williams are planning to take their podcast on a live tour. McNally is slightly apprehensive at the prospect. “I was like: ‘We’re going to need a delay or we’re going to get cancelled within three minutes of going up there,’” she says, referring to the fact the podcast is heavily edited because of the unfiltered nature of the friends’ chat. Does she really worry about getting cancelled? McNally recently appeared on Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of Everything, hosted by Jimmy Carr, who earlier this year faced a huge online backlash for a joke about Roma people being killed in the Holocaust. She doesn’t want to comment on that specific case but believes “people are kind of getting tired of [cancel culture]. There are always people who seem to confuse comedy with a Ted talk; you’re there to get laughs, you have to be able to take the piss; that’s what comedy is, it’s taking the piss. I’m just not going to take the piss out of a vulnerable community; I know that’s not a good look for me,” she laughs. Even so, she does ponder the prospect. “I think everyone has one cancellation in them; it’s like everyone has one book in them.”

McNally’s next project is, in fact, that book: a collection of essays that still sounds very much in the development phase. She wants to incorporate “pop psychology – why we do the weird things we do” – but has also recently been inspired by “a documentary about the history of syphilis. I’m sure Penguin are wanting me to have a clearer idea at this stage. I’m like: ‘It’s a book about syphilis.’ They’re like: ‘No, it’s not, Joanne. No, it’s not.’”

It may be a publisher’s nightmare, but if anyone could find a completely hilarious and highly relatable angle on a terrible sexually transmitted disease, it would be her.

• Joanne McNally’s UK tour The Prosecco Express starts on 4 May. joannemcnally.com In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808-801-0677. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association is on 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is at 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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