Ambition, energy, and the people are some of the things that spark curiosity about New York City. And those are the things that Irish comedian and writer, Maeve Higgins, has found during her time here. With an upcoming book and a monthly comedy show based in Brooklyn this hilarious bird is one to keep an eye on.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I got here on the 31st January 2014, and I had a show that night at the Irish Arts Center. That’s what brought me to New York, and I had a year long visa. The previous June I had done the Kansas City Irish Festival, which is how I got the visa. Before that I was living in London and hating it. I’d always wanted to move to New York.
I had the experience, which I think a lot of people have, in that New York feels very familiar. I’ve always felt very at home here. I think because you know it from film and books.
Since then I’ve been doing some stand-up. I’ve actually been a stand-up comic for 10 years, but I prefer writing. I have a book contract with my agent in Ireland and I wrote a book called “Off We Go”. It’s about leaving home when everyone around you is settling down.
Is your stand-up also based on that theme?
My stand-up is really about everything, mostly observational stuff. A producer at Union Hall put me together with Jon Ronson who wrote ‘The Psychopath Test’. We started doing a show together that we do every month called ‘I’m New Here’, and it’s all about being new to New York. It was great for writing my book because I could test my material on stage.
To make money I also baby-sit, but I also really enjoy it. I work with one family and they’re amazing.
Have American audiences been receptive?
I was based in Ireland, but I would always travel to do shows. Every year I did the Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Auckland Comedy Festival, the Edinburgh Festival and the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival here in New York. I’m used to doing international crowds. It’s very liberating to do shows where nobody knows who you are.
There is a bit of a difference between doing shows here and in Ireland. Obviously in Ireland there’s a familiarity there, it’s a real pleasure. You can just launch into things without explaining them. I prefer it here though, it’s very freeing. The audiences here, if anything, are too indulgent.
Do you think they’re just laughing because they don’t get it? [Laughs]
I’m not sure why they’re so supportive here. London was tough because I think they had already made up their mind about me, ‘oh, another Irish comedian’. You can’t know though why you do well in some place and terrible in others. People in New York are very supportive of new things.
In Ireland, and I think also in Australia, you often have to go away, do your own thing, and then they’ll listen to you when you come back.
How did you first get a break in the industry?
I always thought when I could start paying my rent with comedy I’d quit my day job. I went to a technical college and did photography, after that I was working in retail and during that time I had started to do open mics.
I ended up getting a spot on a hidden camera TV show in Ireland, where I would dress up as a bride and go up to guys and say ‘could you just come in here with me for a minute?’ I’d lead them into a church and be like ‘you have to marry me!’ [Laughs] Oh, yeah it’s top-notch stuff! But it was really popular in Ireland.
Another time I had a fake pregnancy and I would ask guys for a strand of their hair to see if they were the father. It really preyed on the helpfulness and curiosity of Irish people; they would all stop what they were doing and get involved.
If you’re standing with a map open in an Irish town, they will swarm on you to tell you where to go, what you should be doing, where you should eat. We exploited that on this show. It was pretty innocent though, it wasn’t a cruel show.
Did you always want to be a comedian?
You know the saying ‘if you see it, you can be it’? I never saw a female comic growing up. I watched an Eddie Murphy video when I was 14, and I remember thinking it was funny but nothing sparked in my mind that I could do that.
I worked in New York as an au pair after I graduated for a year, and I saw a Margaret Cho special, and a Kathy Griffith one. Maybe it went into my brain then.
When I first started I was embarrassed about doing it, I didn’t’ tell anyone. It was a compulsion, an itch I had to scratch. I thought I just needed to get it out of my system. Then I started to get work from it, and then I just was a comedian.
Who do you look up to?
I really love Maria Bamford; she’s incredible and brave. I also really like Josie Long, a British comedian and a friend of mine. Jean Grae, is so funny. She used to be a rapper, and her career is very interesting to me. I love how much care she puts into her work.
How do you go about constructing your jokes?
I have maybe one idea or line in my mind. It could just be a few words. I often try to work it out on stage, which can go either way. I don’t really write my stuff down, but I always mean to. Now I realized it’s probably just not how I work.
If you want to get a TV spot on Conan or Seth Meyers then you need a tight seven minutes. I have hours of material, but getting a seven minute set just seems beyond me. I’m not sure if I want to do TV sets, but it’s such a handy, quick way to get out there.
I think the funniest time you say something is the first time you say it. I don’t watch a lot of stand-up sets, it can feel very contrived. That can kind of work against me I think.
Tell us about your new book!
It’s short funny pieces about the last few years where I’ve moved around a lot from place to place. I’m actually going home to do a publicity tour for the book, so I have to get better at talking about it!
How do you feel now about being in New York?
There’s such ambition, which is why you move here. You want to achieve something. I’m just that little bit older though, where I can see that once you achieve one thing, you just want the next thing. I’m not enamored with that part of being here; it’s not what I want.
I love it here for the people, kindred spirits that I haven’t found anywhere else. I love the culture here.
There are things that don’t sit well with me about New York. Obviously how expensive it is to live here. I was really lucky to find my place here; if you aren’t lucky finding an apartment it can be really hard being an artist in the city.
How you do like living in East Harlem?
I love it. There is an amazing taco place next door called El Paso that I adore. The Museum of the City of New York is really lovely; the café there is also really great to work in. The conservatory gardens in Central Park are also up here, it’s beautiful.
What are some of your favorite places to see comedy?
Union Hall is a really good comedy space. It’s the perfect venue, the right amount of intimacy. UCB is obviously good; Whiplash is one of the best nights in town. It’s the 11pm Monday night show there.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
If you want to write, read. I used to think I shouldn’t read other humor writers, because it would sway my own writing. But now I read them all, and learn from them. You will write out your influences, and it will be fine. Reading should be part of your writing practice.
Where is your favorite place to take out of towners?
I love the model of New York in the Queens Museum; it’s up at the old World Fair site. It was made in the ‘50s and takes up a whole room.
What is your favorite New York moment?
So many, but my favorite moments here are the same ones I’d have anywhere because they’re about people. Yesterday on the subway, this old man’s walker was stuck in the door as they were closing and me and this other girl helped him. Then he started talking to us; he was asking us if we had any peppermints. It was a really lovely moment.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is people; anytime I make a connection with somebody it feels important.
Keep up-to-date with all of Maeve's news at maevehiggins.com.