Back in the '90s it was fashionable to declare comedy to be the new rock'n'roll. By the end of the noughties it was clear that economics (and our economy in particular) was the new comedy. In Cleere's bar in Kilkenny, David McWilliams tells me that it seemed obvious to him and co-organiser Richard Cook that bringing economics and comedy together could be a good thing. As we talk, various luminaries of Irish comedy wander by (Colin Murphy, Pauline McLynn) and at one point he very politely breaks off conversation, rushes over to talk to someone and comes back again. "Sorry," he says apologetically. "Just saw an old friend, the former economy minister of Argentina".
That's the sort of event Kilkenomics is: the type where comedians rub shoulders with international financial experts.
This clash of cultures is played for laughs. At the first event of the evening (Jargon Busting), compère Colin Murphy makes his way through the tiny, packed venue to a newspaper-themed set, ready to introduce the panellists, only to find TCD economist Brian Lucey already sitting onstage sipping a pint. He turns to the audience in mock disgust. "One of the economist fellas is already on the stage because he doesn't know how to do a gig."
They're quickly joined by McWilliams and comedians Karl Spain and Colm O'Regan.
The economists are casually dressed (Lucey in a tee-shirt and McWilliams wearing a sort of hoody). The comedians are wearing rather business-like suits.
"You look like a guard on his way back from court," Murphy tells Spain. "On charges," he adds for clarification.
This event is simple enough. Murphy holds up a card with a jargonistic word or phrase on it and the economists and comedians gets two minutes to explain the term before Murphy rings a little bell. It's an evening in which concise and clear explanations of Nama, mark-to-market accounting and the IMF interact with bad/funny puns ('Leverage': "Everyone is leaving the country," says Spain. "It's the age of the leaver. It's the leaver-age.")
The quintet also make comic digs at one another throughout. At one point Lucey unwisely likens investment bankers to "blonde bimbos" and there's a disapproving intake of breath from the audience. "PricewaterhouseCoopers eat your heart out!" says a tutting McWilliams (who around this time last year was at the receiving end of a national intake of breath for similarly ill-conceived remarks). When McWilliams says he heard that the IMF only hired third-rate economists, Spain says: "Woooh... Guess who didn't give him a job!"
In general, the comedy is the spoon-ful-of-sugar to help the economic medicine go down. McWilliams and Lucey really want to educate and explain. The diverse audience (young and old, hip and square) applaud clear explanations as loudly as they laugh at good jokes, jump in with questions, and are often eager to make their own points.
By the end of the night we've learned what hedge funds are, the difference between John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, and that Ireland, thanks to a banana-ripening plant owned by Fyffes, is technically the biggest exporter of bananas in the world. "So we really are a banana republic," says Colm O'Regan.
The next event at Cleere's is more instructive than funny. The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, features Lucey and Murphy, Icelandic business professor Vilhalmur Bjarnason and former US bank regulator Bill Black, who explain how whole economies conspire to keep bank fraudsters in business. "But who are the criminals?" asks one confused audience member. "Who is to blame?" The answer given is depressingly complicated and sadly involves the phrase "all of us".
Over at the more salubrious Ormonde Hotel in front of a much bigger audience, US businessman Peter Schiff, journalist and author Philippe Legrain and former Argentinean finance minister Martin Lousteau explain How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes, while McWilliams hosts. Those who'd earlier learned the difference between Keynesian and Friedmanite economics at the Jargon Busting event now get to see this ideological divide in action, as Schiff and Legrain annoy one another with their very different worldviews. (Schiff – get rid of all regulation because markets are inherently stable; Legrain – we need regulation because markets are inherently unstable.)
"You don't understand capitalism," says Legrain, shaking his head.
"You're a... socialist," says Schiff, causing a slightly tipsy economist to my left at the bar to laugh out loud, and David McWilliams to intervene.
The most interesting speaker is, in the end, Martin Lousteau, ridiculously young looking given his former job, who essentially paraphrases The Life of Brian ("Recessions! I've seen a few in my time!"), before explaining his views on the IMF (idiots), real economic growth (don't chase pipe dreams), defaulting on the bond markets (it's an option) and the future (it will be okay).
To close the evening, David McWilliams asks what the panel would expect to see this time next year in the Irish economy.
"Cheaper ticket prices!" yells a wag from the audience before anyone else can answer. I suppose you have to laugh.
Jargon busters - Complicated economic terms made easy by comedians
Mark to Market
"Mark to Market is the name of the first little piggy," says Colm O'Regan
"It's one of the less popular Batman sound effects. 'Imf!'" says Karl Spain
"It's the first word of a baby economist," says Colm O'Regan. "Nama!" he adds, in a baby voice
Nominal interest rate
"Me and Brian were outside earlier checking out the hotties," says Karl Spain. "Their interest in us was nominal"