"Sinatra used to introduce me to people like Roger Moore and Mel Torme and Steve and Edie Gormet – people that I never dreamed I would ever meet – and he used to introduce me as, ‘This is my man in Europe.’ It was a lovely encounter for me."
– Brendan Grace
Guy MacPherson: Hello, is this Brendan Grace?
Brendan Grace: This is he.
GM: Hello. This is Guy MacPherson in Vancouver.
BG: Ah, hello, Guy. We meet at last.
GM: Finally. Where are you now?
BG: I’m in County Mayo in Ireland.
GM: You’re doing some shows there?
BG: Yeah, we’re touring Ireland right now.
GM: How much time do you spend in Florida?
BG: The reception is shit. I’m not near a landline. I’m going to try and get outdoors in the next five minutes and it should be better.
GM: Should we keep trying or should I call you back?
BG: Keep trying, Guy. Let’s keep trying.
GM: Okay. You have a house in Florida. Do you spend most of the year there?
BG: Yes, our main home is in Florida, USA. And I still have my Irish home, which is near Shannon Airport in County Clare.
GM: How does an Irish national treasure like yourself end up in Florida?
BG: Because back in 1992 I entertained Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. while they were on tour in Ireland and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. [Author’s note: Sammy Davis, Jr. died in 1990. Other sources cite the meeting in 1989. One, curiously, cites it as 1991.]
GM: (laughs) Oh, that sounds dire. What was the offer?
BG: When you’re made an offer from Frank Sinatra, you don’t say he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; you say he made me an offer I daren’t refuse.
GM: Right! What was the offer?
BG: The offer was to come to America and work with their company.
GM: Do you work in America as well?
BG: I do, yes. I work in the United States and Australia, New Zealand and also Great Britain and Ireland.
GM: When you said he made an offer you couldn’t refuse, it sounded like it came from the Godfather. And of course we know Sinatra’s reputation. But it was nothing sinister like that, I take it.
BG: No, it wasn’t, but the good thing about it, Guy, is that Sinatra had a tremendously good sense of humour and he particularly liked me as an Irish comedian. And I got to say things to him that other people would have been kneecapped for saying.
GM: So you were a little cheeky, were you?
BG: I was cheeky because how I ended up winning his heart and that of Sammy Davis is because I do a drunk routine. The act I did was called Father of the Bride and it’s about a chain-smoking, drunken, bride’s father. And I was told by his minders prior to entertaining him and his entourage that I was not to do that. And I just said to myself, you know, I’ll take a chance. And I did it and the guys fell around because I was brave enough to do it. It was really a parody on them.
GM: It was a parody on the handlers?
BG: No, it was a parody on Sinatra and Sammy Davis as they were chain-smoking boozers. I got away with a lot of things with them. Sammy Davis was a small man in stature and I’m the opposite. And he tried to hug me and couldn’t. I ended up entertaining friends of his in the United States. He brought me over a couple of times before I ever moved there just to entertain his friends and I ended up roasting him. It was really fun but it was a nice relationship that we had. I told his friends that Sammy Davis only came to Ireland to meet his cousin in Ireland who was a window cleaner.
GM: (pause) Okay.
BG: And his name was Shammy Davis. He took it all very well. Sinatra used to introduce me to people like Roger Moore and Mel Torme and Steve and Edie Gormet – people that I never dreamed I would ever meet – and he used to introduce me as, ‘This is my man in Europe.’ It was a lovely encounter for me. Myself and my wife, Eileen, and our four children, had already been well-established in Florida because that’s where we took our vacations every year. So we ended up going there to live. That was twenty years ago. Of course, we commute a lot. Ireland is still very much my home. I just come back and forward. In fact, this very moment, I just arrived in today from the United States at the Shannon Airport and I’m already halfways up the country in a county called Mayo.
GM: I’ve never been. I’d love to go.
BG: It’s absolutely beautiful. It’ll freeze the balls off a brass monkey at this time of year but it’s beautiful.
GM: Well, I’m from Canada so it’s fine.
BG: Guy, you’re well used to it. On two different occasions, I was taking my wife over to see Niagara Falls and on both occasions the roads were closed with snow.
GM: That’s back east for you. Have you been to Vancouver?
BG: I have. I’ve been to Vancouver on two occasions. I’ve got cousins there in Vancouver. One of them is a doctor in an Indian reservation outside of Canada. It’s something-Lake. It’s a lake on an Indian reservation.
GM: You said the offer from Sinatra and Davis was to work in their company. I can’t imagine that company is still going.
BG: Yes, it is. Well, I believe it is. I don’t work with them now. But the influence of the Sinatra connection certainly opened all avenues and highways. Sinatra traditionally loved comedians.
GM: Was your poking fun of him largely a factor of your youth at the time?
BG: Yes, I believe so. Because one of his comedians that had worked with him for many, many years was a man called Pat Cooper – he was probably of Irish extraction. But he certainly loved my stuff and I’m grateful forever to him.
GM: Is he still around?
GM: No, no. Cooper.
BG: Oh, I don’t know. I doubt it. [Author’s note: He is.]
GM: When you’re walking around in Ireland, does everybody know you?
BG: Yeah. I’ve been 40 years, Guy. Forty years a comedian and an entertainer. And I’ve been on TV constantly. Yes, people know me no matter where I go. But it’s a nice ‘know’. I react to people like a duck reacts to water.
GM: And in Florida are you treated just like a regular bloke?
BG: I certainly am. I can walk down the beach in Florida in my bathing gear and I don’t get any wolf whistles.
GM: (laughs) At times, don’t you want to shout out, ‘Don’t you know who I am?!’
BG: You know, it’s such a joy to be there and not be known, I have to say. It’s great.
GM: Unless you’re not treated well, then maybe.
BG: It means that I can do things that we like to do. Because we get lots of friends and family visit us in Florida and they’d be quite amazed that I can walk into a restaurant and nobody knows me.
GM: I read you started out as a musician.
BG: Yes. I would say I was only dabbling at comedy when I began. I did start out as a folk singer.
GM: That’s how the Smothers Brothers started.
BG: The Smothers Brothers were part of my growing up. I loved the Smothers Brothers.
GM: I think they started out seriously and realized they were getting a better reaction with the banter.
BG: That’s exactly right. They started out like that. A few acts started out like that. Billy Connolly started out as a folk singer.
GM: That’s right! Yes, a lot of people did. Back then it wasn’t as common to be a comedian. Now it seems every other person is a comic.
BG: Yeah, well there’s a lot of comedy nowadays. When I came on the scene it was different. And I work clean where a lot of comedy is filth.
GM: You always worked clean?
BG: Yes, I did. Even for stag or all-men stuff I work clean. It’s very popular.
GM: Do you appreciate the other styles of the newer generation?
BG: I certainly do, yes. Everybody that makes a living out of comedy, it’s like driving a semi with the handbrake on all the time. It’s a difficult business. It works for me and I admire people who do it, regardless.
GM: The Irish are known as a funny people. That’s a gross generalization, I realize.
BG: Yes, it is. The Irish are witty and funny people but I do believe they appreciate comedy for the same reason.
GM: You don’t get them yelling out funnier lines at you?
BG: No. Actually I’m very lucky: I don’t get heckled and I don’t get interruptions. I’m just lucky, I guess. I love to work in the Canadian maritimes and in particular St. John’s, and Newfoundland in general. They’re wonderful people. I call Newfoundland the 33rd county of Ireland.
GM: Right! And they kind of sound like you, too.
BG: They sound as if they’re from a place called Westport in Ireland. I repeatedly say to people when I’m there, ‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ And they say, ‘We’re not from, we’re Canadian.’ They’re from Newfoundland. It’s like as if a little part of the southeast corner of Ireland broke off centuries ago and floated across the Atlantic.
GM: What does it mean to you to be a family entertainer?
BG: It means a great deal to me I was fortunate enough to be in the comedy profession while my late mother and my grandmother were still living and it’s great to see a very, very large aged demographic come to my shows from very, very young to a hundred plus. I often get people in their 90s and their hundreds celebrate their birthdays. It makes me feel very good.
GM: You’re a storyteller, you use some street jokes but you personalize them and make them your own. How would you describe your act?
BG: I’d describe it exactly as you have. I am a great believer that something that was funny 100 years ago can be funny today if you do it properly.
GM: That’s the key, isn’t it: if you do it properly.
BG: If you do it properly. There was a great comedian in Ireland who passed away last year. In fact, two great Irish comedians passed away last year. One of them was a guy called Hal Roach, who was a friend of mine. And the other was Frank Carson, from Belfast. And he passed away also. And his phrase was, ‘It’s the way I tell it.’
GM: Right. Because all of us can tell jokes and completely butcher them.
BG: Yeah, well it’s taken me a long time to get it right. It works for me but it’s taken a long time to get it right.
GM: As a kid I grew up watching Dave Allen at Large.
BG: That was great.
GM: A sit-down comedian.
BG: A sit-down comedian. He was great. He was one of my favourites.
GM: Tell me about the Bottler character. I’m not familiar with him.
BG: Bottler is a schoolboy character that I came up with based on my own school days 40 years ago and he just became my alter ego. He’s become a national icon in Ireland.
GM: You invented him for the stage?
BG: I invented him for the stage but I didn’t think he’d last this long. It’s funny to see a 60-year-old schoolboy with a beard and short trousers. It was particularly difficult for my children to have a father who wears short trousers and football socks and a school cap on stage. I would threaten to pick them up on a Honda 50 outside the school dressed up as Bottler.
GM: So that kept them in line.
BG: That kept them in line. I embarrassed the shit out of them.
GM: How old are your kids now?
BG: My youngest girl is 37 and my youngest boy is 27. I’ve four: two boys and two girls and I’ve got three grandchildren, aged 5, 4 and 3.
GM: You started young.
BG: Yes. One of my grandsons – his name is James – is actually on YouTube. Just look up ‘Brendan Grace + grandson’. And I’ve had him on national television.
GM: I’ll check it out. How old is he?
BG: He’s five now but I had him on TV with me when he was three and he stole the hearts of everyone in Ireland.
GM: One of your sons is in a rock band, right?
BG: Yeah, he’s not in the band now but was in a band called Poison the Well. All my kinds have a talent. They take after me for that and they take after their mom for good looks.
GM: You must be amazed and thankful for the length of your career when so many come and go in show business.
BG: I never fail to be thankful to God that I’ve lasted for this long.
GM: To what do you attribute it?
BG: I don’t know. Even though it’s comedy, I take it seriously.