Comedian and impersonator Al Foran has gone from aping movie-star accents in his living room to social media success and involvement in McGregormania. As his new stage show heads for the Opera House, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats with Foran about his rise and the effects of socials on stand-up in 2018.
Social media has changed comedy utterly in the past decade or so, with the methods of delivery and writing for sketches and observations changing to fit multiple platforms with distinct audiences. While the Rubberbandits’ wanton acts of Dadaism were a natural fit for YouTube and early watercooler-talk virality, and Alison Spittle has found her footing via a joyous series of podcasts for Irish network Headstuff, the Irish tradition of impersonations seemed lost, or at least committed to old media. Enter Dubliner Al Foran. With a following of over 310,000 Facebook users, regular appearances on RTÉ’s Funny Friday, and his status as a staple for visual contributions to Joe.ie as well as the banter-industrial complex of ‘lad’ pages on social media, Foran seems ideally positioned to ruffle feathers. With over a hundred separate voices in his repertoire of comedic impressions, his storytelling relies on sitcom premises such as crossovers and farce to add new context to the appearances of regular targets like Conor McGregor, Roy Keane and Éamon Dunphy.
For all this pop-cultural literacy and social media savvy, though, the foundations of Foran’s career were laid early on in life, in a household where the markers of a growing and globalising pop and sporting culture were a constant amid the bustle. Sat in the Opera House’s quayside Elbow Room, he recounts his earliest comedic ventures. “Every impersonator will tell you this, they would mimic their family, the aunties and uncles at the family weddings. The parties, the 40ths, the 30ths, the 21sts. That’s what I did, as a young kid. At my parents’ wedding in 2002, at the top table, I got up and did maybe a 15-minute set impersonating my uncles, my mam, my dad, my older brother. It started with that. I had a knack for it. As for famous people, I was maybe in my teens, but I watched a lot of movies, a lot of television, and I would pick up on the voices. I watched a lot of football, and I started impersonating Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, and all those characters.”
Fast-forward a few years, and suddenly the media of television and film were robbed of their ubiquity and command over household entertainment – social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were accessible across everything from phones to videogame machines, and freed of the constraints of network broadcasting and its standards & practices, Foran set about getting to work on refining his craft and reaching people. “Eight years ago, I started putting up my videos on YouTube. I did my first gig when I was eighteen, in my local community centre, and I started sending videos from there, to 98FM, TodayFM, 2FM: they’d get nowhere, obviously. While social media did have a presence, there weren’t many ‘content creators’, so, for a few years, I did film production in college, and in 2014 I set my Facebook page and it was there that I had my opportunity to show off my repertoire of impressions. See, there was Mario Rosenstock and Oliver Callan for a long time, and they were on the two biggest stations on the country. So it was hard to get my own work out there. People will say, ‘oh, it’s a talent’, but you have to work at it and improve it”.
For the democratising effect that social media has had in allowing talent to reach a wider audience, the relative security for high-performing stand-ups is all but gone for a new generation in Ireland – the club shows mightn’t always lead to the tours, which, in turn, effectively no longer lead to chart-topping DVDs, panel shows, and the attendant trappings, advances and royalties. Foran assesses a changed working environment. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s given guys that are so talented – Enya Martin, Rory Stories – they’re doing all these relatable sketches and putting them out to thousands of people. It’s changing everywhere, the US, the UK, but it’s a lot more prevalent in Ireland. Social media comedians are getting a lot more traction. The guys in the UK have millions of followers, but they’re all still online, no-one’s made the move to stand-up yet. And looking at it overall, there’s maybe one show and the soccer that people are watching on television, the rest are streaming on Netflix, and (the likes of) Facebook are going to introduce streaming services.”
Foran’s international star turn came last year, amid the hype and hustle of the eventual boxing match between former WBA champion Floyd Mayweather and Irish UFC icon Conor McGregor. Turning up at a spoken word show of Mayweather’s in London, initially as a support act, Foran’s ‘McGregor’ later surfaced during the Q&A at the end of the show, issuing a ‘challenge’ for the later-confirmed and subsequently much-ballyhooed contest. It sent Foran stratospheric in the days after, with footage from the event making its way around the world. “I was invited over to perform, to warm up with a few little impressions, and he got told that there was a lad that impersonated Conor at the event. He didn’t see me at all, when I performed. But he said to the organiser, ‘let that guy come on stage to me at the end of the Q&A, let him ask questions.’ Lo and behold, I got asked all this, and it was just, (gasps audibly) Jesus Christ. The only interaction we had was on-stage. I’m critical of the video – I didn’t like my Trump impression, but the Mike Tyson, he was very happy with. I got a little fist-bump off him for that!”
Foran’s new show, ‘Impersonate This!’ sees him arm himself with the full arsenal of celebrity impersonations at his disposal for a full stage show. In addition to his Irish pop-culture references, the voices of international political figures, movie stars and sporting heroes are plucked from their lives of luxury and slammed together in unusual or unfortunate situations, and Foran is ready to make it happen. “When people see me on social media, they see, at the click of a finger, impression after impression after impression. We’re gonna make that longer, with more sketches and a lot of VT. We’re going to make use of the video wall (we have), as it’s effective and as a one-man show, I do need a bit of help from the screen. I’ll be nervous, but if you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”
The Opera House might present its own challenges for solo artists, but so too does it represent something of an arrival Leeside for Foran – and a homecoming for his family on the night of March 30th. “Sentiment. My grandparents on my mam’s side are from Cork, and my grandmother was a soprano, and performed at the Opera House. Many years ago, she sang here. It’s a big thing for my family, especially that side. So that will be a nice touch. And I love Corkonians. They’re just straight in their views and their opinions, no bullsh*t. I love it. I look forward to it.”