Fresh from their stint at the Dublin Tiger Fringe Festival, OTwo chats to Conor McKenna, from comedy-sketch troupe Foil, Arms and Hog.
Not many of our current readers may know that a number of years ago, from 2013-14, a relatively unknown sketch-comedy troupe managed to nab one of their first gigs by contributing a monthly column to this magazine. Granted, three years is not long period of time. Yet it is enough time for UCD to acquire a new lake and for Apple to release four generations of the iPhone. Most excitingly, however, it is the amount of time required for this comedy trio to transition from class clowns to the fully-fledged, viral internet sensations, Foil, Arms and Hog, that we know and love today.
While contributing to OTwo, the lads discussed such topics as “food bigots”, how to avoid death and just how attractive the Irish accent is to others while abroad. Today, they continue to tackle such important issues, capturing the Irish identity in the searingly honest and hilariously irreverent style which they have become so popular for.
At the time of writing, their YouTube channel boasts over four million views, while their Facebook page records over eighty-five thousand likes. It is ironic, then, that despite coming so far from their UCD beginnings, Conor McKenna (Arms), should end up so near again. While speaking on the phone, he laughs: “I should’ve just called into the office. I’m actually not too far from UCD. I live across the street.”
Foil, Arms and Hog are made up of Sean Finegan (Foil), Sean Flanagan (Hog) and the aforementioned McKenna. They met while enrolled in UCD, respectively studying engineering, architecture and genetics. McKenna is quick to admit that: “I don’t think that any of us really went to too many lectures. Back in those days, for the first three years anyway, you didn’t have to worry about your final result. It wasn’t continual assessment. All I had to do was pass each year.” As a result, the three lads would spend much of their days hanging out together in DramSoc where, inevitably, they, at the very least, began to test out their chemistry for working together and their style of performance.
We’ve been lucky — we haven’t had any terrible gigs — but we’ve had crowds that have just been absolutely bolloxed”
The transition from DramSoc performances to regular appearances across national TV and radio, however, was not an easy one. Reflecting on the amount of work each member had to put into the group, McKenna admits that: “We gigged an awful lot. You could be gigging four or five times a day at a festival for a month. We gigged in Dublin and we were always going over to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so whenever we came back to Ireland we always had a new hour of material.” Another bonus that comes with performing abroad, McKenna adds half-jokingly, half-seriously is that “you’re learning all of your mistakes abroad. In Ireland, they don’t see you on your horrible journey where you’re screwing up all the time. You just come back polished.”
These polished performances seem to have paid off, and Foil, Arms and Hog now occupy a unique position in the Irish comedy circuit. Sketch comedy is a notoriously difficult genre to break into. More difficult, still, is to achieve enduring success in the field. Oftentimes, the last sketch-comedy show credited with simultaneously capturing the public’s attention and garnering critical approval is the Matt Lucas- and David Walliams-led Little Britain.
Indeed, in the decade or so since the programme’s demise, it could be argued that very little in the way of sketch-based comedy has come close to matching the success or appeal of the show. McKenna holds similar views, and offers some reasons to explain the apparent difficulty. “A lot of sketch comedy is very hit-and-miss and it doesn’t connect with the audience in the way that stand-up might. When you do stand-up, you can stand on the stage and tell a personal story and people can get to know you. With sketch comedy, you’re always playing different characters, so I think sometimes people might not connect so easily.”
Foil, Arms and Hog combat this issue in what is appearing to become a common thread throughout our conversation — they do not take themselves too seriously. He muses: “I think, to be honest, we have a looser style. We do our sketches but we’re also not too worried about the lines. We use the audience a lot and we mess around a lot on stage. It makes it a lot more fun, for us anyway and I hope for the audience.”
Involving the audience is a key component in Foil, Arms and Hog’s performances. It is a symbiotic relationship, where both performers and the audience benefit and work from each other. Of course, this harmonious agreement does not always come to fruition. Thinking back, McKenna admits that: “We’ve had every different type of crowd at this stage. We’ve been lucky — we haven’t had any terrible gigs — but we’ve had crowds that have just been absolutely bolloxed, and they’re just shouting at each other and you can’t get their attention.”
He laughs, and you can audibly hear him cringe, as he remembers one particular gig. “There was one pub we did,” he explains, “and we were performing on stage. All the pub was watching the Eurovision and they just turned it off. It was on a projector; the projection screen was rolled up and then someone got up on the stage and said, ‘And now, comedy.’ Everyone turned from the Eurovision, that they were watching, and over to the stage.” He pauses. “It was a disaster.”
We gigged an awful lot… so whenever we came back to Ireland we always had a new hour of material.”
As well as touring up and down the country, the trio maintain a highly popular and successful YouTube channel. Managing to upload a new, original sketch every Thursday, some of their most popular episodes include, ‘How To Speak Dublin’, ‘A Kerryman Gives Directions’ and, more recently, ‘WTF is Brexit?’. Coming up with such weekly content is a challenging task. Indeed, McKenna admits that most of their sketches do not come without disciplined writing and the thrashing around of ideas. Unsurprisingly though, they do manage to have a bit of fun while working together. “Yesterday,” McKenna jokes, “we were working on our new material in our office for our new show. We were roaring and shouting at each other, having a great time. I went out into the corridor as I was leaving, and one of the accountants who works across the corridor passed by me. I went to say, ‘Oh, see you later!’ and he just looked at me. I got the impression that the previous three hours hadn’t been as productive work at his end!”
Again, having fun and not taking themselves too seriously seems to be key to their formula. It has been well-documented that many of the most-successful groups from across show-business have struggled to always get along and remain close. McKenna, though, is quick to confirm that the three guys are about as close as one can get. He admits that: “We’re very close mates. I know that Hog’s girlfriend, when she started going out with him, didn’t believe that we were such good friends. She thought it was an act. Three months later, she still thought it was an act and only last weekend — they’ve been going out a year now — she says, ‘Okay, fair enough. It’s not an act. You actually are obviously really good mates.’ We are great friends and we all love coming into work everyday and that’s good, I suppose.”
A common, and oftentimes career-wise, step for a performer who has found success in Ireland is to make the transition and move to across the pond. Some of the best-loved, UK-based entertainers include Irish-exports such as Graham Norton and Dara Ó Briain, who have found great success in their own respective fields of comedy. McKenna, however, instantly dismisses the idea that the group would be moving permanently to the UK any time soon, stating that: “I can’t really see that happening. The flights are so cheap now that you don’t need to be living over there. The cost of living over there is huge and we still do most of our gigging here in Ireland.” (Perhaps he really just can’t bear to move any further from UCD than he already has.) While a move may not be planned for the near future, McKenna still has his sights set high. He admits that: “We want to keep doing our YouTube and get a bit more adventurous with them. We’d also like a television show, but they’re very hard to come by.”
We’re very close mates. I know that Hog’s girlfriend, when she started going out with him, didn’t believe that we were such good friends.”
Success like that is, indeed, hard to come by, and the journey there will not be easy, but Foil, Arms and Hog look to be in a strong position. They have already made the transition from campus jesters to nationally recognised and respected fixtures of the Irish entertainment circuit. McKenna’s, along with his friends’, attitudes and easy-going personalities certainly seem to be key. They’re refreshingly laid-back, open and just good fun. Indeed, this telephone call has seemed more like a good catch-up with a friend than an interview. There is nothing to say that, with their natural comedic talent, their friendly and relaxed attitude, and their dedication and commitment to their craft, these three lads couldn’t make it all the way; and, for lack of a better phrase, go the whole hog.
You can catch Foil, Arms and Hog for a limited number of performances during the Dublin Tiger Fringe Festival and in Vicar Street November 18th. For more information on gig dates or sketches go to www.foilarmsandhog.ie
Written by Seán Hayes
Interviewed by Gráinne Loughran