Sympathy for the devilment


After yet another controversy-arousing Late Late Show appearance, Tommy Tiernan tells Paul Fennessy that he can’t figure out why people seem to take his act so seriously.

At 39 years of age and having been on the Irish comedy circuit for well over a decade, you would imagine Tommy Tiernan would no longer possess the element of surprise and controversy which his humour would have evoked at one stage.

However, the Navan native’s recent appearance on the Late Late Show demonstrated how some things never change. Accompanied by the usual array of outraged viewer complaints and seething phone calls to the Joe Duffy radio show, the reaction produced all the hallmarks of a Groundhog Day scenario.

Tiernan’s actions even moved Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times, a previous supporter of his, to write an article castigating the comedian for his antics. O’Toole and others mostly seemed to take offense to jokes regarding the traveller community, along with his referral to Pat Kenny as “the robot”.

Tiernan concedes that he is “usually quite on edge on those kind of shows”. Yet despite the persistent waves of antagonism which his comedy tends to generate, he remains defiant as ever when defending himself against criticism. He vows that he would never alter his material as a result of such consternation, in spite of the immense pressure it brings on him.

“People sometimes think that my jokes don’t have a philosophy. They think, ‘he’s just anti this or he’s anti that’. But my joking does have a philosophy. The idea is that you take nothing seriously and you say the most inappropriate thing and that’s part of what I do and I really enjoy that. I find it funny and kind of liberating in a way. And I guess not everybody feels that way; I think people feel that you ought to be more responsible”.

Tiernan talks about the “depressing” and “repetitive” nature of this cycle whereby he is constantly being forced to explain himself. His first appearance on the Late Late provoked even greater controversy when he made light of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Nevertheless, he offers a riposte to those who label him as ‘insensitive’ by outlining how the supposed targets of the jokes themselves often take no offense to his allegedly inappropriate sentiments. “Last year [the controversy] was about people with Down Syndrome,” he recalls, (before pointing out how he has helped raise awareness about Down Syndrome on several occasions in the past). ‘‘Down Syndrome Ireland came out and supported the material as well, so it’s something that I’d be eager for people to know. My act is so full of inappropriateness that it’s easy to get offended if you want to,” he laughs.

The stuff that gets the most feedback in terms of criticism on the Late Late Show, is usually the stuff that gets the biggest laughs when you’re in a comedy club

While admitting that the recent behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand was unacceptable and “stupid”, he maintains that comedians are usually unjustly expected to censor their jokes. He argues that it’s illogical to differentiate between which types of people comedians can and cannot derive humour from and cites a recent example in an attempt to consolidate his view.

“One of the sections I do is a conversation between an Eastern European beggar and a Dublin junkie and people were saying the Eastern European thing was racist, but mentioned nothing about the Dublin junkie, so it’s very easy to look at my stuff and to get upset about something. But it’s all about taking nothing seriously and when you’re a comedian, I think, it’s about being irresponsible.”

He adds that there is no subject in the world which he would hesitate to put under his comedic gaze. “It’s all open for devilment,’’ he remarks. “It’s not that it’s a problem. I wonder how many people actually get bothered by it. If a hundred people listen to a joke and two people find it offensive and one of them happens to be a journalist and he writes an article about it, then people who weren’t at the gig think that something slightly more significant happened, even though just two per cent of the crowd found something unfunny.”

Time and again, Tiernan is at pains to justify his act and evidently, the torrent of fury which it conjures up among certain people affects him to some extent. Nonetheless, he sees this ongoing problem as being just one of the many downsides of being a comedian.

“The live work is physically very demanding. When I tour, I usually tour for quite a long period of time. It’s four nights a week for maybe a year, but that’s the only way to get good at it- to keep doing it over and over again.”

Having struggled with depression, Tiernan is not averse to the dark side of life and clearly, the physically demanding process which is intrinsic to a comedian’s lifestyle. However, he has found ways of tempering his darker impulses and preoccupying himself with activities outside of comedy. Tiernan is a keen poker and pool player and has also recently started up his own radio show with his childhood friend, Hector Ó hEochagáin.

“That’s going brilliantly and again the level of performance and the less preparation we do for that, the better. It’s easy in a way and it’s disposable. [For comedy] more thought goes into the stories, but radio is just me and Hector having a laugh and you hope that other people find it interesting and funny.’’

Astonishingly, both Tiernan and Ó hEochagáin, along with Dylan Moran, all grew up together, attending St Patrick’s Classical School in what was surely the funniest classroom in Ireland. What was the secret ingredient which enabled this relatively small school to produce two winners of the esteemed Perrier Comedy Award?

“It wasn’t a school that was physically tough, but it was definitely a school that treasured the word. Being funny was thought of as being as good as playing on the football team. And it was definitely viewed as a strength.”

“Our school entered lots of debating competitions and did lots of improvised drama, so it was very much that type of place,” he continues. “There was definitely a strong element [of performance] if you wanted to indulge in it. Like most people, I’d say I don’t think I ever laughed as much as I did when I was in school.”

It was in this unfashionable environment that Tiernan attained his surreal worldview along with his propensity to make hilariously outlandish statements (He once memorably described the Cork accent as being akin to “a knacker trying to speak French”). He further describes his skewered view of life. “There’s a great line from a song by An Emotional Fish: ‘that’s the trouble with reality, people take it far too seriously’. There’s an element of that that inspires it”.

However, despite his show occasionally containing moments of inspired, off-the cuff madness, Tiernan essentially perceives comedy as a long, arduous craft which requires no shortage of discipline or persistence.

“There’s a great line from a song by An Emotional Fish: ‘that’s the trouble with reality, people take it far too seriously’”

“It’s written onstage so it’s improvised over long periods of time, so I’d start a show in September and the previous August, I would have gone into a room which holds maybe 20 or 30 people and improvised a couple of ideas over and over again. Then you have enough to take your shows to bigger venues, so it’s a constant kind of conversation with the audience. The stuff that gets the most feedback in terms of criticism on the Late Late Show is usually the stuff that gets the biggest laughs when you’re in a comedy club”.

Whereas once Tiernan felt invincible, having buoyed crowds on both sides of the Irish Sea, his recent travails in America have merely reminded him where his priorities lie. Although he garnered a certain degree of Stateside success, playing to appreciative audiences and appearing twice on The Late Show with David Lettermen, Tiernan has now decided that home is where the heart is.

“I’ve gone off the whole idea of doing work in the States. It’s too demanding, it’s too many lonely days away from my children, too many hotel rooms on my own, it’s just not worth it. For me, the challenge is being funny and in a sense, it doesn’t matter where that is. It could be in a radio station in Galway, it could be in a venue in Dublin or London or something. All that sort of stuff is balanced as well and going over to America to play clubs is just too much of a ask. I’d prefer to be funny on a film set in Connemara where I can get back home each night, rather than be funny in Carnegie Hall and miss my kids.”

Although he may make claims to the contrary, it appears that this wily, effusive entertainer is finally ready to settle down in life. While comedians thrive on attention, Tiernan certainly still has his fair share of admirers (and detractors) in this country. Ultimately, regardless of what all those hyperbole-prone commentators may say, America’s loss is certainly Ireland’s gain.

Tommy Tiernan’s new DVD, Bovinity, is in shops now.