Ha Ha Ha-ppy Birthday to The Empire Laughs Back

By Kate Jackson (she/her)

Comedy legend, Colin Murphy, keeping laughs constant as Master of Ceremonies

Nothing beats a good night of comedy. In recent years, a comedy boom has rippled across the city of Belfast; on a weekly basis, the best of ‘our wee country’ team up with guest talent from further afield, to administer a strong dose of serotonin. I can confidently say that until you have been an audience member at one of Belfast’s comedy nights, you are yet to experience the true spirit of the city – just remember to avoid the front row unless you are game for a good roasting!

Last week, on 18th October, ‘The Empire Laughs Back’ turned thirty. Established back in 1992, as the first dedicated comedy night in Belfast, over the past thirty years it has undeniably set the tone for the Belfast comedy scene as we know it. Bringing world class talent to my doorstep on a weekly basis, this comedy night has become a staple in my calendar; I am truly addicted. No matter what type of day I have had, Tuesday nights at The Empire Music Hall are guaranteed to put a smile on my face.

The building itself is stunning and full of character; a converted church, its impressive Victorian architecture and Art Deco style conjures up a comforting, olde worlde feel. As soon as you walk in, the buzz hits and you are pulled into the wave of excitement and anticipation. It immediately becomes clear that you have entered a special space. The Empire is a sacred little corner of Belfast; they simply do not make buildings like this anymore. Moreover, the beauty of this cosy venue is that no matter where stand or sit, the view of the stage is excellent.

The atmosphere on a Tuesday night is always electric, but it was particularly special last week as the thirtieth birthday celebrations yielded a fantastic turnout. As always, the room was packed, and the line-up was stellar. At 8.50pm, I perched myself on the stairs, pint in hand, ready to laugh until my stomach ached – I was not disappointed. Belfast legend, Colin Murphy, who was one of the few stand-ups in the city when ‘Laughs Back’ first started in the ‘90s, returned as MC to keep us entertained between sets, showcasing The Empire’s famed audience engagement.

The first half saw Shane Todd and ‘Divis funnyman’ Paddy McDonnell, take the stage. Two of the fastest rising talents on the comedy circuit who are quickly becoming household names, both comics have nailed the art of storytelling, relaying a mix of hilarious anecdotes and self-deprecation. After the short interval, Scottish Comedian of the Year (2021), Liam Farrelly, made a surprise appearance. Also an impressive storyteller, Farrelly shared the tale behind his latest title; ‘God’s brother-in-law’, following his sister’s decision to join a convent. With vising acts always receiving a warm ‘Belfast welcome’, Farrelly easily bounced off the enduring energy from the first half. The evening closed with a set from Ryan Cullen, notorious for his clever, near the knuckle one-liners that leave you simultaneously gasping in horror and laughing uncontrollably.

What makes our comedy scene so unique, is the fact that Belfast’s audience sees themselves onstage. Witty and sharp-tongued, a Northern Irish comic’s set boats local content full of sarcastic, put-down humour that is always taken in good spirit. I would argue that a Belfast comedy night is the only place in the world where political jokes land so effortlessly; the humorous edge to commentary on the goings-on (or lack of) in the Northern Irish Assembly, is almost always well received, with an unspoken acknowledgement of intent from the audience.

On this note, Belfast’s comedy scene has helped cross-community relations immensely. Not only do we see a range of diverse voices onstage, with bigger acts supporting the new talent breaking through, but comedy nights in Belfast bring people of all backgrounds together for a much-needed laugh. In this space, sectarian societal boundaries, that historically wreaked

havoc across Northern Ireland, dissolve. Furthermore, as local talent turned to digital platforms to satiate a growing appetite for comedy during the pandemic, valuable online exposure on TikTok and YouTube has cultivated a new audience; pre-pandemic regulars are now joined by the new faces of an increasingly younger demographic that reflects the youth and energy of a modern, regenerated Belfast.

This is a truly exciting time for comedy in Belfast. Happy Birthday to ‘The Empire Laughs Back’ – here’s to another thirty years.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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