On the Verge: Maeve Higgins

Welcome to our series On the Vergewhere our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.

A few years ago I was a recent Park Slope transplant searching for a reason to leave my stuffy, windowless apartment on 5th Avenue. I ventured to a nearby comedy show at Union Hall, fittingly called I’m New Here–Can You Show Me Around? hosted by Maeve Higgins and author Jon Ronson. The show’s focus lay in Higgins and Ronson’s respective journeys moving to New York City from Ireland and England. “Maeve Higgins brings the pain - of laughter! She is a writer and comedian standing at 6’4 or thereabouts,” her bio for the show stated. It became clear when I attended the show that 1) Higgins has a wonderfully unique comedic sensibility, and 2) she is not 6’4.

One of the most endearing features in Higgins’ comedy is her sincerity. Even if she’s lightly trolling the audience, her good nature and honesty shine through. A joke about her sharing an apartment with “a lot of rats and dreams” can be funny, tragic, exaggerated, and entirely relatable simply based on her delivery. Since first seeing her show at Union Hall, I’ve wanted Higgins to have her big break for a while. She’s certainly respected among her fans and peers, but she merits a wider audience, and not just among comedy enthusiasts.

Higgins was born in Cobh, a town located in the south coast of County Cork in Ireland, one of eight children (there’s only one boy). She performed her first show at the Ha’Penny Bridge Inn, a pub in Ireland that still regularly holds open mic nights. “That was the first official standup open mic night I did,” Higgins said in a 2015 interview. “Other than that, I’d done some stuff on the radio where you have to call in, which I managed to win.”

She eventually left Ireland, first for London then to live in New York City. When we spoke in 2016, she told me that when she moved to New York she realized American life was already recognizable. “American culture is so familiar because it’s so pervasive globally. And I definitely find a curiosity and a welcoming here amongst Americans that’s just really a beautiful thing.”   

The first year of performing was particularly tough for Higgins. She said she “sort of can’t remember it. Even the day after, I’d be like: ‘I wonder what I said?’ Because it was very frightening. But it quickly became the best way I could find to express myself. It became a compulsion, more than something scary.”

Since beginning her comedy career, Higgins has accomplished what most aspiring writers and performers would be thrilled to achieve. She’s written two bestselling books: We Have a Good Time…Don’t We? and Off You Go: Away from Home and Loving it. Sort of. She’s co-hosted a science and pop culture radio crossover show with Neil deGrasse Tyson and made an appearance on Inside Amy Schumer in 2005.

In 2009 she landed her own television show in Ireland, Maeve Higgins’ Fancy Vittles, which aired on RTÉ2, an entertainment channel that’s part of Irish national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann. The show featured Higgins and her sister, professional chef Lilly. It’s a wonderful series in which the sisters would cook together as Higgins told anecdotes directly to the audience. Her stories included her fear of accepting compliments, the inherent wonder in the beginning of romantic relationships, and the dreaded White Witch of Cobh.

Higgins also hosted one of the best podcasts of 2016. Maeve in America, which has had two seasons thus far, expertly highlights the numerous struggles immigrants face when moving to the United States, blending moving stories with an episodic data segment and cameos from comedians like Eugene Mirman and Kumail Nanjiani. I often listen to the podcast on my commutes to work, hearing stories about the neverending tedious protocols with which immigrants face, not only in getting to the US but living here day-to-day. As an immigrant herself, Higgins finds both humanity and humor in the various stories she tells on the podcast. She told me that when she began speaking with other US immigrants their experiences often didn’t match hers, which sparked her curiosity and helped inspire the concept for the podcast.

In one episode, she tells the story of Nayyef Hrebid, an Iraqi translator for US troops who faced increased danger because he was gay. “He has all this drama attached to him,” Higgins said. “But at the same he just loves his cat. He’s got this really cute Maine Coon….there seems to be this weird othering when people talk about immigrants, but immigrants are people.” Another episode chronicles the history of Annie Moore, a-17-year-old Irish girl who left Cobh at the turn of the century to live in the US. She was the first passenger registered in Ellis Island. “In January of 2014, a girl who had left from Cobh and journeyed across the Atlantic, skipped rosy-cheeked off an airplane at JFK airport to start her new life,” Higgins says during the episode. “That was me, compensating for my indoor ghost face with too much blush in a shade aspirationally entitled ‘orgasm.’” She then transports the listener back a century with a nearly identical introduction:

In January of 1892, a girl who had left from Cobh and journeyed across the Atlantic skipped rosy-cheeked off a boat at Ellis Island to start her new life. That was Annie Moore, flushed with embarrassment at the unexpected fuss being made of her by the officials on the island.

Both seasons of the podcast are entertaining, funny, and educational. And if you haven’t heard it yet, please give it a listen.

The Brooklyn-based comedian is currently writing a book for Penguin set for 2018 publication. She still hosts I’m New Here–Can You Show Me Around? but it’s now called I’m New Here with Jon Ronson and Maeve Higgins. She performs regularly around New York City. Also please follow her on Instagram if you can. Her stories are fantastic.

On the Verge: Maeve Higgins