"I’m an Irish comedian; I’m not trying to be a global product. I’m not going to hide my Irishness and I’m not going to try and dilute it. I’m giving my experience from an Irish perspective rather than trying to be a kind of pan-national comedian."
– Tommy Tiernan
Guy MacPherson: Good morning, Tommy Tiernan.
Tommy Tiernan: Yes. Is that Guy?
GM: It is. Hi.
TT: How are you?
GM: Good, thanks. Are you in Adelaide?
GM: On tour, I assume.
TT: I gotta hope I am. (laughs) Yeah, yeah, I’m on tour down here. I’ve been on the road for two or three weeks now.
GM: Where are you based?
TT: In my life?
TT: I live in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland.
GM: You travel the whole world. Have you done Australia before?
TT: I’ve done Australia before. I can only perform in places with the western mindset so I couldn’t perform in India. Or Yemen.
GM: A lot of comics from the UK perform in India and the Middle East now, don’t they?
TT: Yeah, but they’re performing to ex-pats, though. They’re just performing to exiles. I often fantasize about walking into a village in Pakistan or something and being held hostage and they say, “What do you do?” And you say you’re a comedian. And they say, “Okay, do your show and we’ll decide if you live or die.” (laughs) I think our western minds operate along familiar tram lines: We all watch the same TV shows; our cities are more or less the same; government and structures... So they’re the places I work best.
GM: When you say these other comics are performing to ex-pat audiences...
TT: Exactly, they’re all sort of English people who are living in India or living in Hong Kong or whatever. You’re not really playing that country. It’s like doing a tour of embassies.
GM: Or military shows.
TT: Or something like that. Yeah, exactly. You wouldn’t say to a Canadian comic who plays a military base in Afghanistan that his stuff goes down very well in that part of the world. It’s the western heads that I attempt to undermine and understand.
GM: To help me understand, you’re not playing to those western heads in countries that aren’t western. Is that right?
TT: I’m not playing... I wouldn’t be able to.
GM: Why’s that?
TT: Why would I not be able to play to somebody who’s not from the west?
GM: No, no. What I mean is, these other comics are playing to ex-pats in places like India...
TT: Oh, I could do that. I could do that.
GM: I see. And do you do that? Or you don’t?
TT: Oh, I’ve done it before. I mean, I’ve done tours before. I remember doing shows in Bangkok and Hong Kong and Phuket and places like that. One of the most famous places in London is a place called The Comedy Store and they now have a franchise in Mumbai. But you know that’s just going to be full of westerners. And, you know, that’s fine. But those trips are more about what happens outside of the comedy club rather than what happens inside. They’re just a trip. You’re not crossing cultural borders. It’s like travelling around the world and only eating in McDonald’s wherever you go.
GM: That’s a great analogy. There are a lot of comics these days who are playing all over the world and they tend to make it seem like what you’re suggesting it isn’t. So it’s good to remember, yeah, they’re just playing to people like me. If I were over in India, I’d go to that club to see you or another western comic for sure.
TT: Absolutely, yeah. It’s kind of a nice reminder of home and stuff like that. It’s like a little breathing hole in the ice. I feel very privileged, really, that wherever I am in the world Irish people come to my shows. I don’t know if ‘proud of it’ is the right phrase but it means a lot to me. I’m an Irish comedian; I’m not trying to be a global product. To me, I love Jackie Mason and he gets thunderous strength from being Jewish. I made the decision a few years ago – it was actually before I performed a show in Canada – a friend said, “Okay, they won’t get this reference, they won’t get that reference.” Maybe I should choose another word for this. And then I thought, no. When I’m in Ireland and an American comedian comes to play, a guy like Rich Hall, the thing that makes it interesting to me is that he’s American and that he is using American phraseology, American terms for this, American terms for that. And I thought, well, I’m going to do the same when I go to Canada. I’m not going to hide my Irishness and I’m not going to try and dilute it. I’m giving my experience from an Irish perspective rather than trying to be a kind of pan-national comedian.
GM: Canada’s right in the middle. We grew up watching TV from England and shows from the States. It’s like we’re trilingual. When American comics come up, or comics from the British Isles come over, they use their terminology. But when Canadian comics travel abroad, they’re constantly changing words to be understood. Stewart Francis is a good example. In one joke he changes the word ‘trunk’ to ‘boot’, and I always think, “Why don’t you just keep it?! They’ll understand.”
TT: It’s funny. In Ireland, we don’t get enough Canadian stuff for us to understand exactly where a Canadian might be coming from, in terms of cultural references. Even a cultural stereotype. It can be difficult for Irish people to embrace a Canadian stereotype because we’re not exactly sure what that is. But for me performing, America isn’t as welcoming or as comfortable a place to play as Canada is. I find the Canadian audiences are just a bit more like the Europeans than they are like the Americans. I don’t find Canada as hysterical in the freaked-out sense. It’s not as fundamentalist as America. It seems a lot more daring, in a lot of ways. Now, everything has its flip side. There’s a place in Ireland that I love: County Mayo. And the people there, when they’re in their good moods, they’re the softest, most open, easy-going people on the planet. But they can also be, not individually but as kind of as a tribe, they can also be the most pig-ignorant, boorish pugs you could ever walk into. So as sure as Canada has an educated, liberal, easy-going side, I know it also has the opposite of that. Every soul has its shadow. But in general terms I find Canada a much sweeter place to play.
GM: Is that something you notice from the stage? I’m wondering how it manifests itself. Is it a difference in the audience or just a difference in what you know about the two countries?
TT: It’s a difference in the audience. There’s more of a willingness to go along with ideas. Now, I’ve done a lot of shows in Montreal and maybe the audience there, because they’ve had so many comedy festivals, they’re quite well-educated in terms of stand-up. One thing that’s happening with stand-up now in England is that there are two or three very popular stand-up comedy shows on television and they’re mainstream. They’re on at the peak times at the weekend and they get huge audiences. But the stuff that works on those television shows is absolutely the middle of the road. It’s funny – and I’m not criticizing; I’m just noticing it – but it’s centre of the road stuff. It’s very well done and it’s very funny but that’s where it is. So you have the vast majority of people who are watching stand-up are being told this is what it is, this is what stand-up comedy is. So if you then play to those people and your stuff is left of centre, a lot of them don’t know how to cope with it because it’s not what they watched on television. So I imagine that there are parts of Canada that maybe are the same. But in general I find that Canadian audiences are a bit more educated when it comes to stand-up. I don’t mean educated that it’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. I just mean maybe they’re more experienced in different types of stand-up.
GM: That’s an interesting point. I don’t know if that’s true because I don’t know other places. Who knows? I don’t.
TT: But certainly it’s a place I look forward to playing. I find it’s a place where, if I try something different, I don’t have to explain to the audience what I’m doing. Whereas I’ve had some shows in New York where you’re on a bill with 15 or 20 other comedians. You get about 15 minutes and the show runs from 7 in the evening until 12 o’clock at night. And the audience aren’t expected to stay very long. They just come in for two or three drinks and then they go again. I remember one time doing a gig there and there was about eight or nine Latinos at the show and that was it. It was, you know, 7:15 on a Tuesday night and I was bewildering to them. My accent they couldn’t figure out, my references. Laughter is an earthquake. It’s supposed to undermine whatever concept you’re talking about. And they just didn’t understand what I was doing. So insular crowds can be found everywhere.
"There’s a few elements to Irish wit. Whimsy is the last refuge of the impotent. We were powerless for so long that the only way we could feel free was through liberating speech. So I think Irish people, over time, developed this ability not to take reality too seriously. We take a fierce delight in words and wordplay."
– Tommy Tiernan
GM: Who dubbed you the Bono of Irish comedy?
TT: My wife, I think.
GM: I was wondering how you feel about being compared to someone so humourless.
TT: Yeah. He’s okay, actually. He professionally obliged to be sincere all the time. Not only does a stand-up comedian have to undermine civilization or whatever he’s talking about, but he also has to undermine himself. I guess that I would aspire to being more Bobo than Bono.
GM: I don’t now Bobo.
TT: Bobo’s just some kind of a fictional clown. I’m more that. I’m more of a clown than a messiah.
GM: Do you know Bono?
TT: I’ve met him a few times, yes. A nice guy.
GM: Musicians all have a good sense of humour so he’s probably just not showing it publicly.
TT: Absolutely. When you’re part of such a vast money-making machine as U2... When U2 come to town, do you know those alien movies where this incredibly huge UFO hovers above the city and drains all the resources before moving on? U2 are kind of like that with their big stage show – they hover above an unsuspecting metropolis (laughs) and then just take all the money and move on to the next phase. So he’s more Captain Kirk, really. Anyway, anyway...
GM: The Irish are famously known for their wit. When you got into comedy as a young man – how old were you when you started, by the way?
TT: About 25 or 26.
GM: Were you the funny guy amongst all your friends?
TT: There’s a few elements to Irish wit, really. One of them is, I think, whimsy is the last refuge of the impotent. We were powerless for so long that the only way we could feel free was through liberating speech. We became anarchic in our ideas because we couldn’t take up arms against our oppressor because they were too powerful, so we sought refuge in ideas and kind of crazy ideas. It’s like, you get a few guys who might be kidnapped by the militant group in the Middle East and they’ve all be chained to radiators in the room and the guards can’t understand how every now and again he hears them laughing. I think you kind of find freedom wherever you can get it. So I think Irish people, over time we’ve just developed this ability not to take reality too seriously. We take a fierce delight in words and wordplay. And I guess I moved around an awful lot as a child. I felt like a – I still feel like a refugee of sorts, kind of a constant exile. I find it very interesting. I’m in Adelaide in Australia today and I’ll spend the day walking around the city and I’m kind of invisible, in that nobody really sees me. If I disappeared, nobody would know. It’s a curious feeling of not counting. I’m not in any way tethered to this community. And I go from that experience of feeling invisible in the afternoon to the experience of being the centre of attention at night. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons I got into stand-up comedy, is that I needed that feeling at the end of the day to help me cope with the feeling of earlier on in the day. And I moved around a lot as a child so I was used to being the new boy. And also to undermine things – the world around me and myself. My brain works like that anyway so stand-up suits me. Stand-up suits my inclinations, really.
GM: Why did you move around a lot?
TT: My father was just in the witness protection program. (laughs) No, my dad had jobs with different kinds of farming organizations. We started off in Donegal in the north of Ireland, then we moved to Africa for three years, then we moved to London, England, for a while, then various towns around Ireland. Then at 16 I was sent off to a boarding school.
GM: Where was that?
TT: That was also in Ireland. I’m very used to moving around.
GM: Well, it suits your lifestyle now... Are you and Frankie Boyle in the same club?
TT: Not in the slightest, no.
GM: Now that you’ve both been in trouble for the Down Syndrome jokes.
TT: I think there’s a huge difference. We actually got support. It’s a slightly long-winded story, Guy, but I’ll tell it to you. I’m not a fan of the type of stand-up that sets out to be divisive, the type of stand-up that is all bricks and no flowers. I have no interest in that. I find it abrasive and without charm. But it’s very easy to come along to a show of mine as a journalist and hear a joke and decide that... I think in a way, I know the journalists that come to see me are intelligent so they understand what I mean, that I’m making a joke, but they can also understand how they can create a story out of it. They can go back to their editors the next day and go, “Do you think there’s a story in this?” And the editor goes, “Yeah, we’ll get three or four days out of that.” And then they contact loads of people who they feel ought to be shocked at something they haven’t heard. It’s all the work of journalists. All of it. Everybody’s just looking for a story. That’s all it is. Just the journalist is just, “I have an empty week ahead of me. How do I come up with a story?” The essence of comedy is to kind of rattle things up a little bit. Of course there’s going to be stories in there. With the Down Syndrome thing, after it made the papers and was deliberately misrepresented – it was intelligently misrepresented – we invited Down Syndrome Ireland along to the show so they could see the piece in context. And they came along and they issued a press statement afterwards saying that they fully support what I was doing but none of the newspapers carried that story because it wasn’t interesting. The interesting part of the story was “comedian attacks vulnerable group”. That’s interesting. Just as a headline: “I wonder what happened there?” But “vulnerable group say comedian’s material was not offensive”, that’s less interesting as a story. So the people who are at fault in the second story are the people who created the story. And the people who created the story mightn’t be likely to run that story. It’s happened to me lots of times on a load of different issues. I’m so familiar with it now, I know how it works.
"When I say my style has matured, I hope, it hasn’t become less dangerous or less anarchic; it’s just that I whisper now as well as shout every now and again."
– Tommy Tiernan
GM: And you had the anti-Semitic charges.
TT: Absolutely the same thing. One-hundred percent the same thing. What happens, I think, with the Jewish community is that once you get tagged as saying something anti-Semitic, it’s a whole other world. It’s a world of huge hurt and often kind of irrational judgment. I met the Canadian Jewish Congress and I had a great dinner with him and we had a great conversation and got on very well. The whole thing was the work of journalism. But when it became a story, and you get called racist and anti-Semetic, it’s unbelievable. It’s like sticking your finger into a bee’s nest – you’re unlikely to escape with just honey. (laughs) It’s hard, it’s hard.
GM: When I read the quote out of context, it didn’t sound like you were joking.
TT: No, because there’s no joke in it. It was a rant done that made sense in the context of the whole interview. If you go see a comic and he does a characterization of an old person, the lines themselves aren’t funny but the context in which it was done... There’s an adage in comedy that in a ridiculous situation, the more normal the stuff you say, the funnier it is.
GM: So was that a character you were doing?
TT: Absolutely! The whole interview lasted for about 45 minutes and this took about, I dunno, 12 seconds. But the journalist knew what they were doing. It wasn’t a... em...
GM: … a mistake, a misunderstanding.
TT: No, it wasn’t. And the newspaper – which I’m delighted to say has gone into receivership since. It was a newspaper called the Sunday Tribune and their sales were going down. And they adopted a policy of trying to attract more readers through more salacious headlines for about six or nine months, and I was at the start of that. I had to bear the brunt of it but it was absolutely not my doing.
GM: When you’re in the middle of it, do you think, “Uh-oh, there goes my career”, like Michael Richards, or do you think it’s great because you get the publicity, or what do you think?
TT: It was a headache, to be honest with you. It was unpleasant. I never like to hear people being upset. When people come along to a show of mine, I want them to laugh; I don’t want them to be annoyed or feel hurt or anything like that. That’s not my job. I have no interest in that. What it did do was it happened at a period of time in my stand-up where I was frustrated with the way I was performing, and it made me kind of re-evaluate what I was doing and the style in which I was doing it. That, actually, then led to... I said I want to change my performance style. I thought the material was getting a bit too aggressive. I felt as if I was kind of trapped in a slightly too combative a persona on stage and I didn’t know how to get out of it. And I’d been feeling that for a few years. I felt that the playfulness had gone out of the stand-up. So what I did was I decided the best way to find my way out of it would be to talk my way out of it. So I did a 36-hour show. My reasoning was, the only way I’m going to evolve my style... I’ll go up on stage one night and I’ll stay there until I can’t be aggressive anymore, until I can’t be combative anymore and I’ll see where that ends up. And it worked. I think probably six or eight months later I found myself on stage being able to do things, knowing how to do things I’d wanted to do before but couldn’t find the door. When I say my style has matured, I hope, it hasn’t become less dangerous or less anarchic; it’s just that I whisper now as well as shout every now and again.
GM: When did you go through that change?
TT: I’d say, uh, 2009.
GM: Now are you overly sensitive to any potential misunderstanding? Do you find yourself holding back a bit because somebody might take something the wrong way?
TT: No, absolutely not. Not at all, no. When you’re on stage, whatever you’re thinking, you have to say it. So the brakes are still off but I’m just better at going around corners. (laughs) Do you know what I mean? I haven’t become more careful; I’m just not as thorny, maybe.
GM: So are you taking some responsibility or are you saying it was all on the journalist? It seems like you were thinking you should also ease up a bit.
TT: No, not ease up. It happened around the same time. I’d been frustrated with my style of stand-up for about a year, maybe even two years. So it just contributed, it was an ingredient of lots of other things. I felt myself as if the shows were too kind of one-dimensional. And when a crisis like that happens, the amount of trouble I had gotten into with that, it just all adds up. I just said, Okay, what is it that you do? What is it that you want to do? One of my favourite quotes is from a guy called D.T. Suzuki and he might have been a Buddhist monk. He said one of the characteristics of Zen is a walking away from respectability. And that still inspires me. To be, not disrespectful, but to be irresponsible on stage, I get great joy out of that. The full quote is probably available online somewhere. I can’t remember it but his name is D.T. Suzuki and one of the lines is, “One of the characteristics of Zen is a walking away from respectability.” And that still inspires me, you know? The thing of, when I walk out on stage, of undermining myself, of undermining society, civilization, of being unpredictable, but all in a kind of a joyous way. That you’re joyfully disrespectful as opposed to angrily disrespectful. I wanted more joy and less anger.
GM: And that’s in your personal life as well?
TT: There’s another Zen quote, I think, or maybe it’s Oscar Wilde, that says, “Every artist must choose.” Maybe it’s William Butler Yeats. “Every artist must choose perfection of the life or the work.” (laughs)
GM: So you go for the work.
TT: Sometimes. (laughs) Sometimes.
GM: When did you move to the lavalier mic? Does it give it a more theatrical feel?
TT: I’ve gone back, actually. I’ve gone back to the traditional handheld now.
GM: Oh, good. That’s my preference. I don’t know why. It’s a silly thing.
TT: It’s much more stylish, I think. For about a year-and-a-half now I’ve been back using the handheld. I won’t even use a radio mic. I love the cord coming out of the mic as well, you know?
GM: It’s a bit of a dance, moving it around, stepping over it.
TT: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe it’s a bit like if you’re an electric guitar player. There are archetypal images in your mind of a rock guitarist. And for me there are archetypal images of performers. I get a great kick out of watching people like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and the shapes and body movement they would have on stage and how they can twist and contort themselves, and it’s always with a handheld mic with a cord coming out of it. So I use that, as well. I use that kind of imagery in my head to adopt a pose.
GM: It’s funny none of those are comedians, those images you have.
TT: No, they’re still funny, though! I mean, Leonard Cohen is hilarious. Tom Waits is hilarious. They’re almost like refugees, as well. They’re kind of in constant exile. You know, it’s the Clint Eastwood gunslinger thing of a man on his own on stage. I’m drawn to that as well.
GM: Do you have comedic heroes?
TT: Absolutely. Lenny Bruce.
GM: You’re younger than I am, I think. How did you come to appreciate Lenny Bruce?
TT: I think I got into Lenny Bruce through Dylan. I went from Bob Dylan to people like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. And all these people are kind of linked. And from Ginsberg and Burroughs I got into Lenny Bruce. These are counter-culture heroes of the sixties. There’s an album, Live at Carnegie Hall, which I used to listen to. Actually, just before you called I was listening to one of his albums. I just listen to them over and over again. A lot of the references are lost on me because they’re very much time- and country-specific, but there’s something magnetic about his style that I’m drawn to. And I don’t fully understand what it is. So, yeah, I really like Lenny Bruce. He wouldn’t be someone who makes me laugh a lot because I think our humour is a bit more... Like, we would find Will Ferrell a lot funnier than Bob Hope because Will Ferrell is the comedian of our times. So I really love Lenny Bruce but he doesn’t make me laugh as much as, say, somebody like Steven Wright or even contemporary comics like Maria Bamford, Doug Benson, Arj Barker, Greg Proops. You know, I have an endless list of comics that make me laugh a lot. But in terms of a kind of style and persona, I’m very attracted to Lenny Bruce.