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Thranifesto: An Interview with Leeann Toland

Ahead of live outings in Belfast, Derry & Dundalk for her first special, Thranifesto, Derry-based comedian Leeann Toland chats to us about the local scene, the etymology of thranness, bridging comedy and music, loving problematic men, and Madonna as a psychohistorical tool.

Photo by Billy Woods

How is the comedy scene in Derry, and how did you get started within it?

The scene is quite small in Derry but strong, The Cosh – run by Fintan Harvey and Ro Boyle – has a monthly night on in The Brickwork – run by Peter E Davidson – too, where I’ll be performing my first show.

I did my first gig at Chicken Box Comedy in Bennigans in Derry, it’s the only open mic night here and it’s been going strong for a good few years. I’ve performed here more than anywhere else in my four and half years of stand-up. I always like the buzz because it’s not paid in so lots of people just coming in for a quiet pint with friends who don’t remember that’s the night ‘the comedy is on’ end up being part of the audience. It’s where I try all my new material, a room a feel very comfortable dying in. Rory McSwiggan runs that night, which is how I ended up getting started. Rory came to a drama showcase I was doing with The Makey Uppers and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing stand-up. I’d been toying with the idea for years but was always too scared. I just wanted to do it once to tick off the bucket list, but realised how much I enjoyed it and just kept going. I’d only been on stage about 5 times when the pandemic hit so there was long year and half pause when I was just getting started.

Can you tell us a little about your special?

The show Thranifesto is basically just a collection of my best sets from my first few years of stand-up, a way to say goodbye to most of it…like a funeral for my jokes, and just start from scratch next year I guess.

The word thran is mostly just used in the North West, it means contrary, stubborn, obstinate. My mother used to call me ‘Thran Leeann’ when I was a child and that’s the name I used for stand-up for the first few years. I wanted to stop using the name because it made me sound like I was performing a hacky character as opposed to myself but I still wanted to include ‘thran’ in the title as an ode to that.

David Doherty-Jebb came up with the name once when he was MCing a gig I was performing at. My sets tend towards long rants, or bit of stories, as opposed to one liners, and when I came off stage he said “I hope we all enjoyed that little thranifesto”, and I was like YES, that’s what I’ll call the show. So thanks David.

You’ve often performed, or performed alongside music as part of your act – can you tell us how is, blending those two worlds?

This is an acquired taste for a comedian but I very much enjoy it. I can be very hectic at times. I regularly perform at Life After Art in the Black Box, a mostly musical act night with one or two comedians. You don’t get the same laughs as you would on a traditional stand-up night, sometimes it feels like you’re dying up there and afterwards you’re very surprised to have people come up and say how much they “enjoyed the comedy” and how they wished there was more stand-up alongside musical acts. I don’t know how much I would enjoy it if wasn’t for the class bands that I’ve got to perform beside; Dirty Faces, The Deadlians, Rare Witch, Lunch Machine, Acid Granny and Tramp to name a few.

I would like to try bridge the gap between the music and the comedy scene. They feel very separate from each other and maybe I’m biased but I like the overlap. I have performed music as part of stand-up nights before. I’m still not sure where those songs belong, most of them were written as my own folk songs and I guess just ended up at comedy nights. I performed a rap just before Christmas taking the piss out of the NI comedy scene, mostly cause I think out of anyone, comedians can be the worst at taking a joke. But I think that’s part of the job as a comedian to poke a little bit and say what you have to say even if no one agrees with you. My show Thranifesto starts off with me talking about how I don’t like dogs, so I’m very comfortable with alienating an audience and the trying to get them back on your side. I’m gonna make an EP of the folk songs I’ve written so far, does anyone want to listen to it? Sure, we’re all gonna die, just make the EP.

Does music play much of a part in your comedy, and creative life in general?

Well, the folk songs I’ve performed would very much be influenced by Malvina Reynolds – please, please, please if you haven’t already, listen to her album Malvina Reynolds Sings the Truth – every song on there is a masterpiece. The other big influence is Daniel Johnston, his music and art. Daniel Johnston’s music is too gorgeous for this world.

But I spose the same as everyone music plays a big part in my creative life. I love music as a form of time-travel. Sometimes when I’m trying to write about a specific time, like say 2003 for example, I’ll put music I don’t even like from that time just because it was popular, to jog my memory. I was researching that year recently and I put on Madonna’s American Life, terrible album, one of the sorest things you’ll ever listen to, but the memories that came flooding back. I remember being given that for my Confirmation, and when I put the album on, I remembered what I wore to that conformation, chunky shoes that I could barely walk in. The horror of low-rise jeans and those train conductor hats that girls wore, it was a grim time. I’d recommend it though, put on an album from your childhood that you don’t like and see what you can remember.

Who would you cite as your biggest influences?

This is the part where I list problematic men and defend my choices, dear lord. My favourite comedian of all time is Louis CK, probably the reason I do stand-up. But then you have go grapple with the way he treated women around him, which I don’t defend…CAN people change, WILL people change, when are second chances deserved? All great questions that I’ll probably never have the answers to but I’d be lying if I didn’t mention him as an influence.

I love(d) Dave Chappelle too, an amazing comedian but why he’s obsessed with telling jokes about the trans community, I just don’t know.

Lenny Bruce, what a fucking ride, if I only had a time machine.

I LOVE Maria Bamford, Stewart Lee and our very own Kevin MacAleer.

It’s always important to me that when you’re writing stand-up to be vulnerable, even if most of my set is complaining about something outside of myself, I like to think I’m giving a little bit of myself away. Some people say that you shouldn’t give yourself away too easily, but I’m an emotional exhibitionist and for me I love the feeling to admitting to something that other people maybe haven’t heard anyone say in public before. The little warmth you get off the audience when they realise, “Oh hey, I have that bitter thought too”. I wish I knew who the first person was that admitted to smelling their own farts, I would shake their hands, a true hero. For me, that’s what stand-up is, complaining about phone notifications whilst simultaneously confessing to the disgusting pile of cringe that is a human being.

Thranifesto will be performed across the following dates:

Thursday March 28th, Brickwork, Derry 8pm – tickets here
Saturday March 30th, Black Box, Belfast, 3pm – tickets here
Thursday 4th April, Spirit Store, Dundalk, 8pm – tickets here