Comedian Carl Donnelly talks to Vegan Life about how his journey into veganism had offal beginnings
“There’s an incredibly stylish homeless guy in London somewhere, wearing my old Cuban-heeled leather boots. They were the last things to go when I became vegan, and I didn’t really know what to do with them. In the end, I donated old leather clothes and shoes to a homeless charity, it was what I felt most comfortable with.”
Comedian Carl Donnelly is best-known for his television appearances on shows like Mock the Week, Dave’s One Night Stand, and Russell Howard’s Good News, as well as his many gigs on the national comedy circuit. A former double-nominee for the Edinburgh Comedy Award, and the winner of a fistful of other prizes, he has been described by one broadsheets as an ‘observational genius’ – taking everyday tales and turning them into brilliant anecdotes.
His evolution into veganism followed a fairly unusual route. “I had this guilt about eating animals,” he explains. “I come from working class roots, veganism wasn’t something around me, I didn’t know any vegans. But I had a gut feeling that what I was doing was wrong, which I supressed for a long time. The last 10 years I was eating meat, I ended up just eating offal– I kind of felt if animals were being killed, we should eat every part of them. So I would always choose liver or kidney. I was doing that because I felt guilty. It felt like the more ethical way to eat meat, but finally I decided to just stop eating it at all.”
Adjusting his diet was minor compared to rebuilding a cruelty-free wardrobe. “It took me a while to replace everything,” Carl says. “You don’t want to look like that stereotypical type, you know, the hemp ponchos and stuff. In the north, I think the vegans have pinned down dressing – you go into a café in Manchester and everyone looks like an individual – cool. Sometimes you can go into places in London, and you think, ‘Yeah, everyone in here looks vegan’.”
“Some of the biggest arguments I have had is when friends have said they have more to worry about than animals. I don’t just care about animal welfare – there are many terrible things going on, and being vegan doesn’t stop me from caring about them. Most of the people who berate you for being vegan when there are humans suffering are doing nothing – or very little – themselves to help those people.”
“There are different types of vegans – you see the real militants. That’s not me – I think it’s almost a pr thing, how to present veganism. I want to encourage people in it by showing them how great it is, and not scare them off. But then there’s room for everyone. I think it’s almost a good cop, bad cop situation. Maybe people need a certain amount of someone in their face telling them what they’re doing is wrong, and then the gentle approach showing them what I’m doing and how easy it is. Loads of people who eat meat are open to lessening their intake, but they need an amount of encouragement.
“Every little helps, but sometimes you hear people say things like, ‘I’m vegan three days a week’, and you know, that’s not a thing! You kind of have to do it full time. This is the problem, when people confuse it with a diet, it becomes something they have to stick to. It’s much easier when you’re doing it because of that moral driver, and because you care about the animal welfare aspect. If it’s for health, and not a whole lifestyle thing, that’s something a bit different.
“There needs to be some shouting at the beginning of a movement though. There needs to be those militants: every great idea started as something people found insane – as blasphemy.”
His opinions on animal rights has been infiltrating his work for some time now. He says: “There was a big chunk about veganism in my 2013 Edinburgh show – that year I was nominated for the comedy award. About 20 minutes of my show was about turning vegan. There is a danger of sounding like you are preaching – I want to say things that adhere to what I believe in, but is still funny. Next year I am going to be more militant – see how far I can push it, talking about veganism in a room of essentially animal murderers, see what the reaction is.”
Carl is no stranger to people offering their reaction. Alongside the positive reviews, there has of course been criticism from some people. “I never read about myself, ever. It makes me feel uncomfortable. I feel like the reviews, good or bad, aren’t for me. They are for people who might be thinking about coming to see the show. So I never read articles like that, or the comments on Youtube. I find people do get in touch, but that will always be people who have had a strong reaction, people who think the show’s amazing , or totally rubbish. I’ve had people write to me saying I should die. I usually respond to those ones, if people write to say they hate me, I thank them for their openness. Sometimes they realise you’re a real person, and by the end say they are sorry.”
“I can’t watch myself either – I have a fear of it, even the big things I’ve done, it makes me feel like I’ve lost the plot, and I know some really good comics who feel the same.”
A big part of the comedy circuit lifestyle is travel – something Carl is seasoned in. “Being vegan has definitely made visiting new places more interesting,” he says. Before, he wouldn’t need to explore the whole town or city. Now, he will look round everywhere trying to find interesting places to eat. “The good thing is, I’ve found the other comedians I’ll be with will be happy to go out somewhere I can eat – and you end up in these great restaurants and cafes, little hidden gems.”
As a foodie, he is constantly looking for new places to eat, as well as new ingredients and recipes. “I visited Jamaica recently, which has given me loads of new ideas. At the moment, I’m really enjoying ackee (a tropical fruit often used in savoury dishes). It’s really good in curries, or in place of scrambled egg. I love recreating dishes using various fruit and vegetables, rather than ‘fake meat’ type replacements.
“It all comes down to making veganism easy and tasty. I read this quote by Ghandi, ‘You have to live the change you want to see in the world.’ That sums it up perfectly.”