It’s a relief when Mary Bourke promises that she won’t be doing any clichéd ‘female comic’ stuff. It’s a surprise, though, when she tells us that her set is a massive phallus rammed full of jokes. This subversion of expectations is something of a trademark. If at first the audience weren’t quite warmed up enough to laugh, by the end, she’d definitely won us over.
The massive phallus of jokes is the first in a series of daringly crude gags that Bourke throws in at cleverly chosen and completely unexpected moments. As Bourke points out - with frequent comparisons between herself and Tony Soprano - it’s difficult to sound menacing in her soft Irish accent. However, where her stand up is concerned, I don’t think this is a complaint. As she lilts a DSK joke, a Gaddafi joke and a fleeting gag about rape convictions, you get the feeling Bourke really enjoys the contrast between her inherently soothing intonations and her more unsettling material. The audience does too.
However, Bourke’s set is far from characterised by its crudity. A lot of her stuff is based on subtleties. This is particularly true of her spiel about comedic irony. ‘Being ironic,’ she remarks, ‘means never having to say you’re sorry’. Bourke makes us think about what’s acceptable and unacceptable in comedy; about what makes some of her material ‘too edgy for Edinburgh’, while others get away with much worse on the grounds that they’re ‘being ironic.’ She concludes this thoughtful discussion with a joke about Mein Kampf. Bourke is an expert at combining crude and clever.
Not all of her material got laughs. This didn’t, however, make Bourke uncomfortable - she strikes me as someone who isn’t ruffled by anything. Ten years of stand up has, she tells us, rendered her dead inside. Like a lot of good gags, I suspect this is at least partly based on the truth. If not ‘desensitized’ as she claims, Bourke does have a slight coldness. It’s not entirely appealing, but it is useful when a joke doesn’t get much of a response.
Graceful and composed, Bourke is very controlled as a performer, and very clever. Just occasionally, I found her air slightly self-satisfied. But perhaps the strength of her set lets her get away with it. Her eyes glint like her rings when she knows she’s telling a good joke. She’s almost always right.