In February 2015 I spoke with comedian PJ Gallagher about his upcoming tour Concussion, overcoming his nerves and his new found love affair with radio.
Best known for his roles as the bizarre “Jake Stevens” and the lewd “Dirty Auld Wan” in “Naked Camera” and for being one of Ireland’s most successful stand-up comedians, PJ Gallagher has come a long way from working in a warehouse with fellow comic, Jason Byrne. Back then PJ Gallagher didn’t even know what a comedian was, crediting Byrne for his entrance into the wacky world of comedy.
“Jason Byrne got me into it”, begins PJ in his unmistakeable Dublin accent “Yeah I used to work in a warehouse with Jason and he always wanted to be a stand-up and to be honest with you I didn’t even know what stand-up was.
“I’d heard of Brendan Grace and all them, and I thought it was funny that he wanted to wear a suit and tell jokes, but I didn’t really understood it. And then he used to get me to do gigs, because he didn’t want to do them on his own and that’s how I started. After a while Jason’s career took off and I was left on me own, thinking ‘yeah I better write my own jokes’”
After years of slogging it out on the strenuous stand-up circuit across Ireland , PJ finally got his lucky break upon a chance encounter with director, Liam McGrath who pitched the idea of a hidden camera show to him.
“It was an accident really. Liam McGrath who was the director, was used to doing these Primetime under-cover documentaries on criminals and one night a guy put a knife to him. He said that he had a wife and family and couldn’t do it anymore! So he decided to do comedy”, says PJ
“He asked a whole load of comedians and nobody wanted to do it, they all thought it wouldn’t be any good. I was the last person he asked, the last person to say ok and the rest is history, the very first audition I did is the very first clip shown on Naked Camera. So it was the right time, right place really”
The show which also starred Corkonian comedienne, Maeve Higgins and former Father Ted star, Patrick McDonnell, was on many occasion compared to “The Live Mike”, a show fronted by Mike Murphy in the 1980’s. Both shows had a similar format- pranking and pestering people as they went about their daily lives. The format was obviously a winning one, as Naked Camera became the most successful programme in the history of RTE 2, while scooping a much deserved IFTA for “Best Entertainment Programme” in 2008. This came as a wonderful surprise to PJ and the gang who were hell bent on making a show that survived at least one season.
“When we were making it all we wanted was to make something that wasn’t rubbish. Let’s make something that’s not rubbish and that you can actually get away with. When it turned out to be the most watched show on RTE 2’s history we were like “What!”. “It blew our minds”, adds Pj after a brief pause as if to momentarily reflect on the show’s fortunes.
Like all good things though, they must come to an end, with PJ stating that the only drawback of a hidden camara show, is indeed a damning and fatal one.
“When you make a show like that you’re your own worst enemy because the day somebody knows your face is the day it’s over”, admits PJ “It was hard to break it up, but it had to come to a natural end, all things do as they say.
Having moved on from his memorable Naked Camera days, PJ is currently taking his unique comedic style around Ireland in his new tour, “Concussion”. The material is based on everyday experiences from his own life and sees him take to the intimate Everyman Stage in Cork this Valentines night.
“I haven’t been doing stand up for the last two years, so a lot of it is just stories and what’s going on. I’m lucky enough that I get myself into all sort of stupid scrapes and I can make a story out of it .I’ve got Joanne McNally touring with me, who is actually so good that I’m afraid to get up on the stage after her and Derek Lawlor who is just one of the most solid comics ever, I didn’t want to do it on my own anymore, so there’s a little bit more going on than there was before”
For PJ comedy is about “opening your eyes and paying as much attention as you can”. This is the oath he swears by when stitching together his stand-up material.
“It is daily experiences for me, stuff just has to happen, you have to go out and just listen and talk to people and if anything annoys you just write it down and the next day it might gradually feel funny to you”
Like many of Ireland’s top comedians, PJ remembers a time, not too far back, where the Irish comedy scene was a fairly compact one, but with the explosion of clubs and social media sites dedicated to making people laugh, the circuit has drastically changed and perhaps not for the better.
“It’s going backwards a little” comments the funnyman “It’s getting more conservative again, people seem to want clean jokes, whereas beforehand we literally just got up and said whatever the hell we wanted and whoever wanted to listen to it, listened to it. It’s not a bad thing, it makes it more mainstream. The amount of people trying to get into comedy is enormous nowadays. When we were getting into it, there was 12 full-time comedians working in Ireland and now I would say there’s probably 1000”
One thing that PJ has always had to battle against, at least until recently, is the frantic bouts of stage fright he used to suffer from in the days leading up to a gig. While in conversation today PJ talks about the experience in jest, it’s clear that it was a cycle that drained him both mentally and physically.
“It never affected the performance, that’s the annoying thing about it, it just ruined the whole day before. I wouldn’t be able to eat, I’d be shaking, I couldn’t hold proper conversations, I’d get nothing done on those days, and it was just real over-powering dread.
“It was just so stupid and irrational”, continues PJ “And then you’d get onstage and it’s fine and literally the minute you touch the microphone it’s gone. It was just a bad habit that I got into and that I needed to break”
Th shattering of this vicious cycle of nerves and nausea was no easy feat for PJ, but he eventually turned a corner upon filming a show for RTE’s Reality Bites series, in which he documents the daily struggles of people living with anxiety and learns methods to overcome his own fears.
While at first PJ admits he was apprehensive about filming the show, it was a huge eye-opener for him.
“It really made a huge difference. When I started the show, I was worried that the cameras would freak me out, but it has ended up being one of the best things I’ve done because I don’t get stage fright any more. I get nervous, but I don’t get ridiculously over-powering fears like I used to get. Now this year I know without a shadow of a doubt it’s just gonna be one of the most enjoyable tours I’ve done”
By reacting better to situations instead of constantly fearing the worst, PJ urges those suffering from stage fright, panic attacks or any type of anxiety to speak out.
“It’s all habit, like when you think about phobias, they’re just habits. You just have to train yourself to react better and break the cycle and one day I just realised that all the fear was just not worth it. You just have to move onto your next gig, what’s the worst that can happen? You should talk about it because when you don’t talk about it, you let it fester
To those in his own industry plagued with phobia-like dread, the Dubliner advises them to “ Do smaller gigs and just think about it and picture yourself on stage and honestly it’s not that hard a cycle to break, it just feels like it’s impossible to break, but it isn’t”
PJ goes on to say that the only time his audience might be less than jovial “is maybe at a corporate gig and sure then if you’ve ruined the dinner of 200 accountants, where’s the harm?”
Learning how to cope with his irrational fears and fits of anxiety, has surely been the mainspring behind the success of his early morning breakfast show which he co-hosts with Damien Farrelly every weekday from 6am on Classic Hits 4FM. While conversing with PJ about his recent entry into the world of the wireless, it’s clear to see that he’s found himself a treasured passion.
“It’s different, but it’s better than stand-up, to be honest it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done. I love it, like, it’s the dream job, I hope I can stay there forever”, laughs PJ “I enjoy it so much and being there with Damian, who is such a pro. The two of us have a great laugh in the morning. We’re up before the weather, we’re finished work when most people are only going to lunch, I really enjoy it. Who knew after years of doing night shifts that I’m actually a morning person?”
Having been charmed by Gallagher’s giggle inducing personality and positive attitude, the advice he gives at the end of our conversation to those looking to break into the busy entertainment industry is simple and straight-forward much like the man himself: “Book as many gigs as you can, try everything that comes into your head, and don’t start bitching about anybody”. A truer word was never said!
PJ will perform at Mitchelstown’s Indiependence Music and Arts Festival this August
PJ and Damian in the Morning is live on Classic Hits 4FM weekdays from 6-10am