IT takes a lot of nerve to say you fancy yourself as a comedian — especially somewhere like Northern Ireland where funny people are everywhere.
o even self-proclaimed show-off Teresa Livingstone admits selling laughs for a living is something she fell into rather than set out to do. She’d never have dared.
“Saying you’re funny isn’t something you’re really allowed to say here, is it?” she laughs. “I’m a hoot! You daren’t say it. But this is a job I kind of stumbled into at a bit of a crossroads in my life. I was 33, single and living at home with my parents. Just where every aspirational young woman wants to be. I’d quit my career as a teacher, and no one would give me a job so there was nothing else for it but to at least try and make myself laugh. It was either that or cry!”
After finishing school at Our Lady and St Patrick’s in Belfast, Teresa headed for Scotland for a degree in music.
Next followed a year of teacher training in Edinburgh before she landed her first job at 22 in a west Belfast’s boys’ school — an experience that provided lots of material for her stand-up shows in later years.
“That was a baptism of fire,” she says. “There was hardly any age difference between me and the boys. I was teaching and yes, it was a geg in the end, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard work.
“After a couple of years, I got itchy feet. I was single, I was only 25 and I wasn’t ready to put my roots down in Northern Ireland just yet. So very randomly, I moved to Spain.”
In 2005, Teresa upped sticks and moved to Gran Canaria, taking up a position at an international school in the sunny city of Las Palmas.
“I know, mad,” she laughs. “I didn’t speak Spanish when I got there, but I did by the time I left. It was a brilliant experience, like going to uni again, only this time with a salary.”
Teresa was there for more than five years in the end, before she decided to pack teaching in altogether.
“I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do,” she says. “But I knew teaching wasn’t it, so I handed my notice in and moved back to Edinburgh for a Masters in Music in the Community.”
Once that was done, aged 33 Teresa found herself back home in Belfast and living once again with mum Paula and dad Jim Livingstone. “I’ve felt better about myself,” she laughs. “The oldest of four, back home with my tail between my legs.”
But with plenty of time on her hands, the comic started evening classes at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.
“I basically needed out of the house,” she says. “I needed friends! So first of all, there was Tai Chi, then I did Burlesque. Those didn’t take. The third term came and then I tried a comedy class, Improvisation for Beginners, and I loved it.
“There were about 10 of us and it was all about creating funny scenes in the moment and whenever I managed to make the others laugh, it was incredible. It was almost like being a kid again and I could relax and play about.
“Around the same time, I started writing songs at home about everything annoying me — and back then, there was a lot of material to work with.”
With a new circle of funny friends and invitations to come along to comedy clubs and open mic nights, a brand-new world was opening up.
“I was at this open mic stand-up night, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll get up and give it a go’,” she says. “I got up with my wee piano in front of about six people and they were all laughing away through the song. I had a ball, so I did it again and again.”
Soon Teresa was invited to join Wonder Frog in 2014, a live improvisation comedy group that performed regularly in Belfast’s Black Box, where she gained not only experience on stage, but found herself a man.
“Yes,” she laughs. “That was something off the list, at least. I met Frazer Robb, a very funny man who became my boyfriend and later my husband.”
And proving popular with audiences as she performed her laugh-out-loud songs, Teresa’s onstage persona grew.
“The whole act expanded from these wee songs about the things annoying me in life to a whole character developing round it,” she recalls.
“I ended up as this really exaggerated version of how I felt at the time, bottle of gin in hand, mascara smudged all over my face, saying, ‘Yes, I’m delighted for you, I’m so happy you’re engaged, I’m so happy you’ve got a brilliant job’. That was back around 2014, and it’s all gone from there.”
Now one of the best-known faces on Northern Ireland’s comedy circuit, Teresa, who has starred on BBC’s The Blame Game, Soft Border Patrol and Late Licence, is set to headline a show at the Portico Comedy Festival in Portaferry on September 23, along with stand-up comic Diona Doherty. Her own show Class is on at Waterfront Hall Studio on October 8.
Yet despite her own success, and pal Diona’s unstoppable progress, Teresa says the comedy scene in Northern Ireland is crying out for more women.
“Here, we stick out a bit,” she says. “I think it’s easy for people to look at me or Diona and say, great, that’s stuff for women. Women will love that; they’ll find it really funny. Like we’re a genre, but that’s weird. You wouldn’t look at a man on stage and think, great, men will find him funny. Me and all the other women do different jokes.
“As a woman I think you do have a bit of a harder start to get the audience to relax and reassure them you’re actually funny. And it’s not just men who hold back, you get some women coming up and saying, ‘I don’t usually like women comedians, but I thought you were funny’. Well, cheers. Thanks for that. It’s a weird thing to say.
“But I think if there were more of us doing it, we wouldn’t stick out so much. I have to say when I stumbled into comedy, I certainly wasn’t thinking of flying the flag for anything, I just wanted out of the house. But I can see it close up now, and the fact is we could definitely do with more women out in front. There are plenty of funny women out there in Northern Ireland — they just need to get themselves up on stage.”
Which is where Teresa will be on September 23.
“I absolutely love being out there in front of an audience,” says the star, whose grandmother Bridie Gallagher was one of Ireland’s first pop stars back in the 1950s. “It’s in the blood. And I might not always have been a comedian, but I’ve always loved performing, and what better way to spend a night than making people laugh.
“I might be biased, but I’d say that comedy can be lifesaving. I started it when I was at my lowest point and it changed everything for me, and it’s what’s helped so many of us through the last few really tough years. Nothing takes the edge off more than laughing at your problems and realizing that you’re not alone.”
Teresa is performing at the Portico of Ards in Portaferry on Friday, September 23 in a stand-up double bill with Diona Doherty. The gig is part of Portico’s Comedy Arts Festival, running September 16-25, supported by Ards and North Down Borough Council. She is also performing her show Class at Waterfront Hall Studio on October 8