Last November I had the immense pleasure to speak with Irish funnyman, Tommy Tiernan about the risk and controversy that comes with comedy
“You’ve only one spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it”. This was undoubtedly one of the late Robin Williams’ greatest lines and is one of the reasons as to why he will be remembered for generations to come. I’m quoting this line because it resonated a lot with me while interviewing the undisputed king of Irish comedy, Tommy Tiernan. Like Williams, Tiernan’s comedic style has been deemed as off the wall over the years, but it is this madness in Tiernan’s material that makes him simply magic.
Having been in the business for nearly twenty years, Tommy is quick to brush off the idea that he ever viewed comedy as a potential career path. In fact for Tommy, a self-confessed loather of the word career, he believes it couldn’t be further away from the definition of comedy for him.
“I never really thought about comedy as a career. I used to do this joke where the word career means when a car veers off the road and ends up in a field”, laughs the Navan man.
For Tommy it is evident that comedy is as natural to him as blinking an eye or even taking a breath. It is a talent he was born with and is part of his personality. “To be able to earn a living from it was like being rewarded for walking it came that naturally to me. It felt ordinary to be up on stage throwing ideas at people and for that to end up as a way of making a living was remarkable and certainly was a surprise and a delightful one at that”
Like most comedians, Tommy enjoyed acting in his teenage years and early 20’s. Famous for his role as depressed priest Father Kevin, in hit Irish sitcom, Father Ted, where Irish comedians such as Jason Byrne and Pat Shortt earned their salt, Tommy felt acting provided him with a buzz, but was nothing compared with the exhilarating feeling that stand-up injected him with.
“As a teenager and in my early 20’s I flirted with acting, but I never really felt I had anything special”, explains Tommy. “Whereas when I stood on stage, almost irrespective of what other people thought about it, it felt to me as if something highly charged was happening and I got a great energy from that. My desire to keep doing it was almost separate from the audience’s response. But when they did laugh, whatever was charged became triply charged. It was a wonder to me”
While stage fright has been the plight of many comedians and actors out there, I ask Tommy were nerves anything he suffered from while performing at these early gigs and am surprised to find out that even after all these years and the copious awards, the comic still gets nervous before appearing on stage.
“Oh I still get nervous. I get really nervous nowadays when I’m doing television, amazingly nervous”, admits the 45 year old, who first appeared on the Late Late Show in 1997. “In the beginning, I always came offstage having forgotten all of the bad bits and only remembering when people laughed. One of my first gigs was about 45 minutes long and I’d say I came offstage intoxicated by the two or three times that I’d made people laugh. It was completely dubious in my memory to the bits that hadn’t worked. So I had that myopia from the beginning, not through any effort or mind training, to automatically cut out the negativity”
This method of Tommy’s to block out all the bad feedback he had received while on stage was surely the reason for his immediate success as a stand-up comedian. Collecting his material from everyday situations and societal issues in Ireland, Tommy remarks that inspiration for his jokes comes from anywhere and everywhere.
“It comes from everywhere. Even this morning I’m just thinking about tiredness and why everyone is so tired all the time and what’s wrong culturally that we’ve become a tired tribe. We seek energy through stimulants and exercise and I’m wondering what energy we cut ourselves off from that makes us so tired. So things that aren’t necessarily comedic, but when you go onstage you try and make jokes out of the ideas. The pressure of the comedic environment and the pressure of the situation can make those ideas funny. So I don’t write in the normal sense, I just collect ideas”
Another thing critics have deemed far from normal about Tommy’s gigs in the past were his sketches regarding the Catholic Church and Downs Syndrome. While Tommy himself admits that material in shows can be somewhat sensitive, he believes this is a very small percentage.
“The stuff I do that can be called controversial is so small. I don’t think anybody ever comes to my show thinking it was a controversial show. They might think he was a bit mental there, but that’s not really controversy” says the funnyman
Asking him has he ever had to change his stage routine due to audience discomfort, the Meath man reflects for a moment upon diving into a story about a conversation he had with a man at a petrol station last year. “I was talking to a fellow in Carlow who started telling me that material I did on television was disgraceful and I wasn’t disagreeing with him, but I said something to him and in his answering to me he was more prejudiced about Downs syndrome than I was. It was a really odd situation. So I started telling that story onstage and a woman with a child who had Down Syndrome came up to me after the show and said she could see the point that I was making and that this guy’s reaction was prejudiced and how my material wasn’t prejudiced, but she still felt really uncomfortable with it”
So I decided I was going to drop it from the show”, continues Tommy. “Even when you talk about someone else’s bigotry it’s still uncomfortable for some people. So I said it is too confusing and left it”
However, while Tommy may have changed his material on this one occasion, his shows which have included “Bovinity” and “Crooked Man”, remain as vibrant and as hilarious as ever. For Tommy comedy has always been about taking chances and risk is probably the prime factor for his involvement in the RTE Documentary, Tommy: To Tell You the Truth”, recently. The show saw Tommy complete a series of 12 consecutive gigs across Europe with little or no material. Tommy fallen out of love with the regular stand-up format?
“Not really”, says Tommy earnestly “I was doing improvisation shows in Galway that were going well and I was very excited by the total creativity in it. So I decided to do something that was very risky. I’d never done improv at night, they were always lunchtime shows. Or I’d never done it where people had been drinking or when the ticket price had been quite high or never on consecutive nights. I wanted to be part of a documentary about risk and to demystify risk and to show something that wasn’t necessarily guaranteed work out. This would ultimately be interesting for people to see. It wasn’t just PR material, going ‘Oh look at this guy, he’s fantastic’ It was an odd one.
So after this experience does Tommy feel that improvisation shows are more organic and essentially funnier than your standard stand-up gig?
“I’m committed to the improvisation way of working”, adds Tommy philosophically. “It’s something you can improve on. The improv shows are better than the material shows, but are much more different to perfom. They’re very hard, but worth it. You’re making it up on the spot so you are automatically on the same wave length as to whatever audience you are talking to. You could do an improv show in a prison or an old folk’s home or a convent and you’re automatically in the same mind frame as your audience. Like if I did a gig in Mexico and tried to talk about Henry Sheflin that would be difficult”, laughs Tommy
“But all the signposts I’m getting is that improvisation is the way to go. It’s much riskier, but it’s much better”, adds Tommy
While Tiernan is now completing his Whirlwind tours in Ireland and the UK, the title of his new DVD, Stray Sod, is based on the Celtic Myth of a man being disorientated by his surroundings.
“Stray Sod is mainly stories collected from touring Ireland for five years. The DVD Crooked Man and Stray Sod are similar in a sense in that they draw inspiration from those travels. The Whirlwind shows I’m doing at the moment are heavily improvised, not totally, but there is a fierce amount in it”
Performing his first proper stand-up gig in Cork in 1995, Tommy will once more take to the rebel stage in February, as he graces the Cork Opera House .Having achieved so much in his comedic “career”, does Tommy feel there is still more he can give to comedy or even comedy can give to him?
“I’m keen to keep going”, says Tommy enthusiastically “I’m doing a lot more work in England and I’m keen to do a lot of European work. I’m always trying to find where the energy and sense of adventure is and if you’ve the privilege of being able to direct your own work then I think you should exercise that privilege. I’m in a position now where I feel if I’m getting more energy from doing stand-up in Slovenia than Sligo, that’s what I’ll do!”
The Irish scene has of course become more crowded since Tommy first donned the stage back in the mid-nineties, with television and social media it’s easier to get noticed, but it’s also harder.
“There’s such a fierce amount of stand-up on English TV that it’s easier to surprise people, but at the same time stuff on TV is very formulated and similar”, says Tommy “I’m doing stand-up almost 20 years and I don’t think acts now are much different to acts then. There isn’t a fierce mount of stand up on Irish TV. It’s still bohemian, it hasn’t been neutered. It’s still fairly wild out there”
Since Tommy is the hero of many up and coming comedians out there, is there anybody’s comedic style that Mr Tiernan was inspired by starting out?
“I really liked Dylan Moran”, muses Tommy, “but you can be inspired by anything”. “You can be inspired by a tree or a book you read or by musicians and the feelings they create on stage. Inspirations come from everywhere and are not confined”
As our conversation is coming to a close, I ask Tommy what advice he would give to burgeoning stand-up artists out there, a question which answer with considerable conviction.
“I’d give the same advice as I’d give to someone doing it 40 years”, says Tommy in his honest tone “You should use the stuff that makes you laugh. You can get into a thing in comedy when you know what works. It might not necessarily make you laugh, but you know it works and that is a creative cul-de-sac”
“The open road, the trip that’s full of surprises is what makes you laugh”, concludes Tommy “It’s harder going, but much more rewarding”
And as we both say our goodbyes I feel as if I’ve been at a one-to-one stand-up gig aswell as a therapy session. Perhaps that’s what makes Tommy’s humour so hilarious and thought provoking; his ability to hack into the human persona while making us howl for laughter in the process
Tommy’s new DVD, Stray Sod, is out now