An edgy comic, or simply a poor class clown? After his latest bout of controversy, Ciarán Ó Braonáin examines the turbulent life and times of comedian Tommy Tiernan
“Deranged”, “demented”, “obnoxious”, “sickening”, “racist”, “anti-Semite”, “juvenile”, “talentless”, “on-the-slide, attention-seeking celebrity”, and “a complete fool”: just a handful of the labels being applied to Tommy Tiernan of late. How the Navan man must long for the simpler days when all he had to contend with was “evil blasphemer”. The recent controversy over a Holocaust joke made by Tiernan is not the first time the comedian has courted public derision, but the media furore that surrounds him currently seems to be the biggest threat to his career to date.
Tommy Tiernan has long been a comedian that divides public opinion. Many people find his comedy to be over-the-top, vulgar and childish. Others enjoy his energy and wildness, and applaud his disregard for the limits imposed by an increasingly politically correct society. His refusal to adhere to the conventional techniques and restraints of today’s gag merchants has won him a tremendously devout fan base in Ireland, but has no doubt played a role in his relative lack of trans-Atlantic success.
The comic’s latest controversy centres on an interview given to Hot Press magazine at this year’s Electric Picnic festival.
At the end of the interview, Tiernan was recalling a past occasion where he had been accused of being anti-Semitic. As the comedian recounted the incident in front of a small audience he diverged from the topic momentarily to give the listeners his sincere take on the limits of comedy saying, “It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful, it’s not about being careful…and mannered. It’s about…trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment, where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously.”
Suddenly, returning to the original anecdote in a way which was clearly intended to exemplify his previous take on comedy; “But these Jews… these f***ing Jew c**ts come up to me! F***ing Christ-killing bastards! F***ing six million? I would have got ten or twelve million out of that. No f***ing problem! F***ing two at a time, they would have gone! ‘Hold hands, get in, plough it in there. Leave us your teeth and your glasses.’”
In the black and white of print it is difficult to see how anybody could find these remarks anything other than offensive, let alone amusing. Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter, himself a Jew, has hit out strongly against the comedian’s rant, labelling it “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst.” Representatives from the Jewish community have called on the public to boycott “such racist ‘entertainment’ in future” while Irish director Louis Lentin has urged the United States to refuse Tiernan any future working visas, equating him with a Holocaust denier.
Whether the joke was funny or not at the time, in the context, it is fair to say that it has been, by now, blown so far out of context that anything other than utter condemnation is immediately denounced as thinly veiled anti-Semitism. It is quite probable that many people now calling for Tiernan’s head have only seen the interview in print, often in disjointed form and already heavily opinionated.
I for one do not believe that Tommy Tiernan or the audience he had in raptures are fanatical anti-Semites. All things taken into consideration, most impartial, level headed people should see this as, at worst, a tasteless and insensitive joke and not an intentionally cruel ridiculing of a horrific tragedy by a bitter anti-Semite.
Tiernan’s first brush with controversy came after his debut appearance on RTÉ’s Late Late Show in 1997. After a routine in which he mocked the crucifixion of Christ, RTÉ’s phone lines were jammed with hundreds of complaints. Tiernan himself was forced to remain inside the building for a number of hours before a large crowd of protestors were dispersed outside the Montrose studios. Many commentators predicted then that his career was over before it had begun, but Tiernan was to have the last laugh. The following year he won the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award for his Undivine Comedy show, which was largely a re-enactment of his Late Late Show appearance and the fall-out which ensued.
Since then the Meath joker has caused offence with material on the Travelling community, Madeleine McCann, and sufferers of Down Syndrome as well as countless remarks about priests. Despite all this; Tiernan has enjoyed tremendous success, especially in Ireland where he is considered by many as the uncrowned king of Irish comedy. The comic has demonstrated time and time again that he is more than capable of surmounting the obstacle of bad press.
Hopefully those seeking to blacklist the comic over his most recent controversy will accept his apology and understand the context in which Tiernan’s comments were made, illustrating the preface that went before them. On the other hand, though, perhaps Tiernan has finally fallen across the line along which he has danced for so long.