As Comic Relief readied to make its debut on Irish television, the woman behind the comedy extravaganza, Deirdre O'Kane spoke to the RTÉ Guide's Janice Butler about working under pressure, why comedy saved her and the recent challenges faced by her family.

Deirdre O’Kane is a tonic on a Friday afternoon in a strange COVID world. She’s exactly what you’d need to brighten your day. While she’s entertaining, she’s equally sincere, honest and relatable, describing the struggles of motherhood and the joys of a dishwasher.

After 30 years in the business, on stage, TV, film and of course, stand-up comedy, she’s putting her connections and widespread popularity among her fellow comics to the test to accomplish the mammoth task of organising Ireland’s first ever Comic Relief TV special, to air on RTÉ on Friday, June 26.

She has organised two previous stage versions of the show at the 3 Arena, but this will be a next stage effort. "I’m absolutely manic. I’m up the walls," she says a little frantically. "I’ve a shooting pain up my arm from
talking on the phone so much; it’s never out of my hand." 

I remark that while most of us have been just trying to survive lockdown, she’s been organising a massive TV event. "I know, what was I thinking? I must be mad," she laughs. Having spearheaded those earlier Paddy’s Night In Support Of Comic Relief shows at the 3Arena, Deirdre has used her time in lockdown to connect with friends, colleagues and contacts in the entertainment industry to bring this charity event to fruition, while also managing to get the national broadcaster on board.

"What’s funny about that is you don’t know you have that relationship with people, you just know you know people," she remarks about her contact book. "I think what people respond to are good ideas. And you also realise you’re in the business 30 years and you’re connected in a much bigger way than you ever realised."

The show will be hosted by Deirdre, along with Nicky Byrne, Jennifer Zamparelli, and Eoghan McDermott and will feature a range of performances and contributions from the likes of Dara O’Briain, Hozier, Amy Huberman, Bridget & Eamon, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Byrne, Normal People’s Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones, and Andrew Scott, plus many more Irish entertainment figures.

Did she have a wish list of people and acts in her head? "What you start with is one or two cracking ideas and you think if I can get that and that, then that’s very appealing to tell other people that you have that. You go where you can go with your personal connections. One of the first people I went to was Andrew Scott and then Ed Guiney to get Daisy and Paul involved. So once you have a couple of those stars, you have the confidence to plough forward."

The live shows in the 3Arena made a real impact, both in terms of the money raised but also in building a relationship with the founders of Comic Relief in the UK (Richard Curtis and Emma Freud). Deirdre and her fellow organisers (Darren Smith, Jane Russell and Patrick Hickey) always had ambitions to take Irish Comic Relief further and when the pandemic hit, it seemed the ideal time to raise much-needed money for charities around Ireland, both big and small.

"We were always ambitious and pushed ourselves," says Deirdre. I would have been heartbroken if this new telethon hadn’t happened this year. You can’t keep on going back to the same pot and the same group of comics – we’re not a big enough country."

In a way, the country being in lockdown has helped Deirdre and the team put the show together as quickly as they have, with more performers holed up at home, having much less work or no work at the moment. "Ironically, if there’s any upside to this pandemic, it’s that we got this together so quickly; this would normally take a year to put together. But because everyone is at home isolating, there’s advantages to artists being stuck at home, not on the road, not busy and more than willing to participate."

Deirdre was due to film Deirdre O’Kane: Live From Dublin at the Olympia in April, five one-hour stand-up shows, with guests and a house band, a show produced by her husband Stephen Bradley, but then the lockdown hit. "Ah! My lovely show," she sighs. "Well, at least it’s only postponed and not cancelled. My own tour was due to happen in September but that’s not going to happen. I postponed until after Christmas because I just didn’t see any way around it," she adds.

She’s continued to try to work on her new show over the last couple of months but admits she couldn’t concentrate, so resigned herself to home-schooling and baking. "I started out trying to write my new show but that didn’t work, I completely lost my mojo," she laughs.

"The two kids were in the house all day and I was trying to go out to the office and work but then come back and see if everyone had been fed. It just didn’t work so I had to let it go and once I did, I sort of relaxed into it. There was a lot of bread-making and cooking and I enjoyed it. I did my best to make the most of the time. I really enjoyed not having any pressure on me for a while, but I’m over it now. Now it’s hectic again with this. I never seem to achieve balance; it’s always extremes."

Does she thrive under pressure? "I do. I never fully appreciated that I did, but I obviously do. When things are slow and boring, I just want to nod off; I’m obviously an adrenaline junkie. You mustn’t be able to be a comedian if you’re not. Ah sure, there’s something wrong with you if you’re in this profession."

Over the last four years, Deirdre and her family have had to face their greatest challenge yet. Husband Stephen, daughter Holly (15) and son Daniel (11) moved lock, stock and barrel from west London to their new home in Dún Laoghaire and three weeks later, Stephen, a film director, was told he had stage 4 bowel cancer, which had spread to his liver. His care plan included a major liver operation, followed by a succession of minor procedures, as well as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

The couple spoke for the first time about the diagnosis on The Late Late Show last October. Since then, Stephen has released an autobiography, Shooting and Cutting, detailing his battle with cancer as well as his 20 years in the film business. During her husband’s treatment, Deirdre had to return to stand-up after eight years, to keep the family finances afloat. 

Looking back now, she says it’s something she will be forever grateful for.  "I hadn’t intended to go back to comedy. I thought I had walked away from it forever. 

But this time when I went back it saved me," she says. "I was lucky because I had written a show, I had small children at home and I was so rubbish at being a stay-at-home mum. Steve said to me, 'I think you really really need to write a show and go back on the road.’

But what we didn’t expect was that Steve was going to get ill not long after. If I hadn’t had that show, the
wheels would have come off for us financially because he wasn’t going to be able to work for two years. So
when we got home to Ireland, while he was in getting treatment, I was on the road telling jokes.

"Comedy saved me in more ways than one.  It was a brilliant escape to get on stage and perform, even though it’s probably hard for people to understand that there were nights I left Vincent’s hospital, left him in an awful state and I drove myself into Vicar Street to tell jokes."

Stephen is in good health at the moment: "He’s flying it, thank God," she says. "He directed a sketch for me the other night for Comic Relief – shot in our kitchen. But he’s busy, he’s back making films, so yeah we’re very lucky. He’s only two years out of it, so he still needs to be watched and scanned."

Were they worried at the threat of the pandemic, as Stephen would still be in a high-risk category? "He was very careful but I wouldn’t say he was overly worried," she says. "But we certainly stuck to the rules very rigidly and didn’t take any risks."

Both working in the arts, Deirdre says they bounce a lot of ideas off each other and work well together, unless he’s directing her (as he did to such telling effect in the award-winning Noble), in which case she’s always begging for more time. "There’s no adhering to the ‘Don’t bring your work home’ rule; it’s constant conversations about work but they’re nice conversations. It’s that or it’s a conversation on whether we have enough money to get through February."

Does she find it stressful not knowing where the next job is coming from? "Ask any actor or writer or anyone in the industry, any of the normal ones that aren’t huge stars – which is 99% of us – we are just used to it and you know you will always find a way."

It was while Steve was going through treatment that Deirdre was approached to do Comic Relief. "It just shows you that when you’re up against it, it can be a good catalyst to say yes to things. "Without sounding too corny, I think good things, generally come out of bad, tough situations."

She has a goal in mind of how much money they’d like to raise on the night but she doesn’t dare to say it out loud. "I’m too scared to say it because if you don’t reach it you feel like you’ll disappoint people. Let’s just say it’s millions not thousands."

"Irish people blow my mind with how generous they are. But I would say for people who can’t contribute on the night, just sit back and be entertained. The night is also a thank you to people for staying home and playing their part."

You can watch RTÉ Does Comic Relief on the RTÉ Player now and you can donate here.