Karl MacDermott Talks Cabbage
58% Cabbage, a humour fiction novel from Karl MacDermott about a ‘sit-down nobody who tries stand-up comedy’ has just being released.
Last week HeadStuff sat down remotely and talked to Karl about the process of writing, stand-up comedy, the perils of hoovering and his intriguingly titled book.
Karl, how did you become a comedy writer?
I drifted into it after failing abysmally at stand-up comedy. It was all my parents’ fault back in Galway. My three siblings were training to be a doctor, an engineer and a lawyer and my parents said that they were bored by all this over-achievement, conformity and success. They wanted one child to be the black sheep of the family. I had my heart set on being a quantity surveyor. But they insisted. Freud is right. Your parents are always to blame for everything that goes wrong!
So when was this?
The late 1980s.
And the stand-up didn’t go well?
No. I ended up in A&E after most gigs. A victim of violent assault. If truth be told my persona lacked a certain tactfulness for the Ireland of that time. I billed myself as ‘Ireland’s only home-based anti-Irish comedian’.
So you could say you have suffered for your comedy.
Look at my nose. Six operations and still counting. Actually, with this poor Zoom connection, you probably can’t see my nose too clearly. By the way is that a green fez on your head?
No. It’s a Dypsis lutescens, also known as an Areca palm or a Butterfly palm, in the background. Only twenty-four euro at Homebase on the Naas Road. Great for purifying air during Coronavirus.
Do you know what’s bugged me the most over the last eighteen months of Covid? Joggers! Panting and gasping prospective pathogens in my face as they run past me. How come they never had to wear masks? The rest of us were not allowed laugh, roar, sing or shout but they can wheeze around at speed to their heart’s content.
Good point, Karl. But let’s back to your early career.
And then there are the joggers with their dogs on a leash trailing behind them! You try and step out of the way of a panting and gasping jogger hurtling towards you and you are already tripping over their dog’s leash while narrowly avoiding a potentially catastrophic collision with a feral youth on a speeding e-scooter coming up from behind.
I know. I sympathise, Karl. It’s tough out there and it has been a trying time for us all. So returning to your stand-up comedy days, it was not a success then?
Most definitely not. To be honest the stage was never my home. It was more like a B&B in Dunmore East.
Fáilte Ireland approved?
So you wouldn’t recommend a life in comedy for anybody?
Comedy is a cruel and fickle mistress. She laughs at you. Not with you.
How would you describe your stand-up comedy?
An agent who once caught my act said to me ‘You are not ‘funny ha-ha’. You are not ‘funny peculiar’. You are ‘funny unfunny’. I think that sums it up. I referred to a laugh as Godot. I spent my whole career as a stand-up comedian waiting for one.
But on a more positive note you’ve now put some of this experience into your new book 58% Cabbage.
Will there be a book launch? It must be still very difficult trying to plan anything in the current climate.
Absolutely. The situation seems to have turned a corner recently but I still don’t trust things. I think I’ll wait to have my eventual book launch until sometime in mid-2023 after the Upsilon Variant.
Tell me about the book.
58% Cabbage is about a middle-aged everyman from Galway, Roddy Bodkin, simultaneously experiencing both a sense of loss and a loss of sense as his life spirals from one minor calamity to another as he tries out a career in stand-up comedy.
You were born in Galway. You had a stand-up comedy career. Surely, this book must be very autobiographical?
Each novelist borrows willy-nilly from a smorgasbord of experience and imagination. And it is never easy to attribute exact percentage to what is real and what is made up, although giving a wild guess off the top of my head, I’d say it’s 54.27% autobiographical, 45.73% imagination.
And of course 58% Cabbage.
Good one. Ha. Ha.
Which segments are particularly autobiographical?
Funnily enough the bit about the actual smorgasbord referred to on page eighty-nine is true. My mother went through a Swedish phase in the late 1970s because of The Swedish Chef, her favourite character from The Muppets.
Tell me about your writing day?
I get up. I hide under the bed. I cry for two hours. I think of something funny. By the time my near obsolete laptop has warmed up and switched on, I’ve forgotten what it was. Then I try to be active. Useful. I do some hoovering. But my hoover has a mind of its’ own. It constantly disobeys me. It’s like wrestling a baby giraffe. So, by the afternoon I’m exhausted and just have to lie down.
Where do your ideas come from?
I have this little man in a cage in my garage. He’s sort of tied up. You could say he’s held captive. But he has some great comedy ideas. In his younger days he read all the high-profile exponents of humour fiction. P.G. Wodehouse, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman and of course our very own Flann O’Brien but he is also up to speed with later generations of witty wordsmiths like George Saunders and Charlie Brooker so when I’m stuck I just go into him and ask him for some help on a certain topic and if he can’t think up an original angle he’ll just borrow an idea from one of the maestros. He’s got such an excellent memory. Must be all that fatty fish I feed him.
What’s your favourite book?
There is this American book on quantity surveying I really like, Appraising and Tendering For Construction Work by Robert J. Kuechenmeister, which I feel captures so well the nuanced and complex world of the quantity surveyor.
And finally Karl, apart from 58% Cabbage have you any other projects in the pipeline? You must have had a lot of free time over the last eighteen months.
Yes, despite everything and all my griping I’ve had a productive pandemic – ‘a good war’ as those old army officers used to say in those Second World War documentaries. I’ve a debut poetry collection coming out in early 2022, published by Sludge Lagoon Press, titled A Lot of White on The Page. I’m very excited about that. I’ve also been working on my first screenplay after a long while. At present, all I’ve got is the log line. ‘By day he sits in coffee shops and writes TV ideas. By night he collects money for the mob – he is Manbag Bagman!’ Although, in the present climate I think I’ll have to completely re-work that log line with reference to face masks, hand sanitisers, endless queuing and panting, gasping joggers.
Sounds intriguing – when will it be produced?
Well, it’s early days but I’ve already got Colin Farrell attached. Literally. He’s tied to the little man in the garage out back.