We speak to veteran vegan comedian Carl Donnelly about his vegan lifestyle, staying vegan on the road and how he’s bringing veganism to new audiences with his comedy…
How long have you been living a vegan lifestyle?
I’ve been vegan now for just over five years.
What led to your initial decision to become vegan?
The truth despite it sounding like some new age funny business is that I had a shift in consciousness five years ago where I suddenly felt like I had to change how I impact the world around me. I had gone through a long period of quite destructive behaviour which then seemed to just bottom out leaving me in a position to really look at myself and my life. I decided to try and be a better person and have less of a negative impact on the world around me.
Veganism was a given as is such a simple way to lower your impact on harming the other inhabitants of the world and lowering your environmental footprint.
You once told Veganuary that going vegan was ‘the best decision you ever made’ – why is this?
It’s a very simple step to take that has a very profound impact on your sense of wellbeing (and the wellbeing of others). After I made the change to veganism I felt mentally and physically healthier so it gave me a good foundation to move in the right direction. I’m a much more thoughtful person these days as question my decisions more with regard to how they’ll impact others.
How has your daily life changed since becoming vegan?
I genuinely don’t think the actual specifics of daily life change much at all. I think people that are dubious about trying to move towards veganism like to think it will be difficult and your daily routine totally has to change. This is probably a way of them talking themselves out of it. The truth is that to become vegan you are removing certain things from your life which means you’re in fact simplifying things.
Do you ever face any criticism for your lifestyle choices? If so, how do you tend to deal with it?
I’m very laid back about it. I understand that some see it as an affront to their lifestyles or see the earth as something they’re entitled to. i disagree with that opinion but understand where the thinking comes from as wasn’t a vegan for the first 30 years of my life. I’m a believer in setting an example rather than trying to aggressively convert people. I’ve found that arguing with people tends to only make them dig their heels in. I’ve got a few friends who are currently trying to live the vegan lifestyle due to how easy they say i’ve made it look. One of them was one of the biggest meat eaters I know (he’d even done butchery classes!). He has been vegan for the last six months and is loving it. I think if i’d have spent my time arguing with him when he was still adamant about his meat eating and critical of my lifestyle, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Can you recommend a few of your favourite vegan meals?
I love South Indian food so if I need to make a quick healthy lunch or dinner, my go to dish is a dhal. Its so simple, only has a few recipes and you can make it as spicy as you choose. Other than that, i try and visit as many new vegan restaurants as possible to help support them but also to see what exciting foods are appearing. I had an amazing take on fish and chips recently at a place called Nourish in Bath. The fish substitute was a battered banana blossom which had been seasoned with seaweed etc before battering and frying it. It was so delicious and exciting to try something I’d never even heard of.
What is your favourite vegan restaurant?
As someone who spends a lot of the year on the road, I’m lucky that I have favourite vegan restaurants all over the world. In my hometown of London I like popping to Temple of Seitan now and again for a treat. If I had to pick a favourite from around the world though it would probably be Monk Bodhi Dharma (and their sister restaurant Admiral Cheng Ho) in Melbourne. It’s more of a breakfast and lunch place but every time I’ve been there I’ve eaten food that has made me tell people about it for weeks afterwards. They have managed to elevate breakfast to something I never knew it could be.
As you travel a lot for your comedy shows, what is it like trying to find good vegan food in new places?
In the five years I’ve been vegan I’ve watched it change from being quite tricky when you’re outside of major cities to now being no trouble at all. I was back visiting some family in the West of Ireland about eighteen months ago and assumed it would be a nightmare (they live in a tiny little town miles from civilisation). Driving into the town I saw a little health shop had opened so popped in to see shelves full of vegan cheeses etc. It felt like the moment I realised that veganism had finally caught a wave and was becoming fully mainstream (which it needed to for it not to seem like an ‘alternative’ lifestyle).
What have you found to be the biggest struggle about being vegan?
My main struggle is that whenever I visit a vegan cafe I feel almost obliged to try everything. I’ve got this childish fear that I’ll never get another chance to try it. Because of this, I end up overindulging too often.
What advice would you give to new vegans, or people considering becoming vegan?
Ask for advice from vegans you know (or if you don’t know any, ask vegans online. I’m always happy for people to ask me any questions on social media). It’s much easier to go vegan than people think but in the early days it’s still good to get some advice on foods and products that you may not have heard of. If you exercise a lot then maybe speak to some of the vegan athletes and bodybuilders that are well known on social media. As with anything it’s easier with a bit of guidance.
What do you love most about stand-up comedy?
There is a freedom to stand-up that you can’t get with any other medium. I can have an idea for a routine in the afternoon and be performing it to an audience that evening. That’s the most exciting part of stand-up. It’s great when you’ve honed a show and you are confident people will find it funny but nothing beats the rush of doing a new bit with no idea if it will work or not!
What has been your overall favourite comedy appearance so far?
I don’t really have one particular favourite gig ever. I enjoy doing stand-up 99.9% of the time so most gigs are really fun. I love the Edinburgh Fringe (hence me going back each year) as sometimes up there you can have shows that are incredible. There’s something about the buzz of the city during the month that makes it feel special when people pick you to come and watch. You feel like they’ve chosen you over thousands of shows which is a nice feeling.
How did you find performing on a plane for Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Little Red Live’?
It was utterly terrifying. There is nothing worse than having a bad gig but even at the worst gig you can still get offstage and go home to rock back and forth in the foetal position. When I got asked to perform on a flight, my biggest fear was what if the gig goes terribly and I then have to just sit back down with everyone staring at me. I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous before a gig. Luckily the passengers enjoyed the weirdness of watching comedy on a plane so we had fun.
Are you looking forward to returning to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August? Can you tell us a bit about your performances there?
I can’t wait. I love going up and haven’t missed a fringe since I started comedy. I love the process of writing a new show each year and showing up with the belief that it’s funny enough to convince strangers to come and see it. Every year I try and do something in my show that I wouldn’t have done the year before and takes me slightly out of my comfort zone.
That way I feel like I’m developing up there as well. This years show may have a song at the end which gives me a panic attack every time I think about it. I genuinely am terrified at the thought of singing in front of strangers but currently have an idea for the end that I think is funny so I’m leaning towards it.
How often does veganism feature in your comedy?
It always pops up in some fashion. Some years more than others. It featured quite heavily in last years show as I talked about my ‘spiritual’ awakening that was part of becoming a vegan. I think its fun talking about it as it is still not that common in the sense that most of the audience won’t be vegans. I like discussing it in a way that might surprise them (ie, in a very laid back silly way where I can make myself the butt of the joke).
Congratulations on receiving a nomination for Best Comedy Podcast at the British Podcast Awards this year – can you tell us a bit about your podcast Babysitting Trevor?
Thanks. It was a lovely surprise to even be nominated. Babysitting Trevor is a very silly podcast that my podcast partner Chris Martin (not the guy from Coldplay) came up with because we have a very funny eccentric friend called Trevor Crook. He is an older, OCD suffering, lazy, cricket-obsessed comedian who is also a lovely guy and incredibly funny. He came on our normal podcast a few times and we had so much fun we thought we should do something together. The idea came out of how lazy Trevor is. We thought it would be fun to challenge him each week to do a couple of tasks that we could then discuss. The rest is history. Recording it is so much fun. It ends up with Trevor talking and me and Chris rolling around laughing.
How do you make time for yourself despite your busy schedule?
I’ve learned to meditate on the move which is really helpful if you’re someone who travels a lot. If I’m running around doing gigs then I’ll use the train journey to just relax. I’ll pop in some headphones and turn on some meditation type music and just stop everything. It’s really good to sometimes do it on a busy train as you can learn to totally block out the chaos around you. Other than that I sometimes play a bit of golf which I know makes me sound like an old man but I find it so relaxing. It’s a nice way of spending four hours walking around some nice well kept fields with a friend.
What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you on live television?
There’s very little live television nowadays. I think the networks are so scared of something controversial happening that they like the option of editing. I’ve had some funny things happen on live radio though. One of them was at a radio station called Fubar, I was hosting a show and Chris Martin was away so my friend Markus Birdman was sitting in with me. It was the day Justin Lee Collins was starting a radio show on the network and we were under strict instructions not to mention a court case he had recently been involved in regarding an ex-girlfriend of his. We kept trying to avoid the topic but accidentally alluding to it but then the playlist popped ‘No Woman No Cry’ on by Bob Marley and we just snapped and couldn’t stop laughing. We got a telling off from the producer.
What can we expect from your upcoming shows?
This years show is definitely a more straightforward stand-up show than last years which was basically two long stories. This years covers a bunch of thoughts on the last decade and how the world has changed (and how I’ve changed). I think the backbone of the show is that I’ve somehow managed to gentrify myself so when I often find myself moaning about the gentrification of the areas I grew up in (south west London), I then realise that I’ve become part of the problem.
What’s next for you? Any big plans for the immediate future?
Not really. A weird side-effect of my new ‘spiritual’ way of life is that I tend to try not to think too far beyond the present. As someone who has been prone to depression and anxiety in the past, I always used to fixate on bad things from the past and potential problems in the future. Nowadays I’ve learned that if I’m happy at the moment then there is no need to think on anytime outside that. That sounds like some self-help mumbo jumbo but it’s one of the most profound changes in my thinking that has made me so much happier than I used to be. Give it a try (you have to really commit to trying it too, over a period of years), it really helps.