Tommy Tiernan: “There’s a Real Skill In It”

Ahead of his show at the Marquee this weekend, Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with comedy legend Tommy Tiernan about the process and new challenges.

It’s strange to look at Tommy Tiernan and see an elder statesman for Irish comedy. A product of the last golden age of the genre in the country, the Navan man’s routines, delivery and at-times unhinged stage demeanour made him one of the stars of stand-up as the nineties wended their way out to the new millennium. Constant touring, television appearances, radio and a string of best-selling DVDs placed Tiernan in the mainstream, but what’s kept him there has been his innate ability to tell stories, an inborn talent for communication, functioning as well before a crowd of thousands as in the country’s intimate venues.

It’s been a career marked by a steady supply of new challenges. Channel 4’s ‘Derry Girls’ came from out of nowhere earlier this year to become a ratings hit here in Ireland, and a cult sensation across the water. Set in the last years of the Troubles, the show sees a group of teenage girls overcome the challenges, heartbreak and hilarity of growing up amid border checks and social tension. In something of a full-circle moment, Tiernan found himself cast as a cranky but doting father. He gets into the challenges and upsides of the role.

“My big thing was, I knew it would be funny in the North, knew it would be funny in the South, but would it be funny in England? Did the English have any way of finding it funny, did they have any reference points? Mainland England can laugh at stuff from Newcastle, Liverpool, but I didn’t know would they laugh at something from Derry. The other thing for me was learning how to act (laughs). Learning how to be funny on the small-screen. You think of brilliant comic performers like Bill Murray, Will Ferrell… Leonard Rossiter, the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’, Basil Fawlty. This is all very old-school, but there’s a real skill in it. Just because you can be funny on-stage, doesn’t mean you can do that on telly. And with telly, sometimes you can be left without direction. Directors are concerned with the camera, and the performance is left up to you. But (director) Mike Lennox was always on hand, which was great”

‘Derry Girls’ comes along right as a few other new comedy challengers surface on telly on either side of the water. Much has been made over here of ‘The Young Offenders’, of course, while Alison Spittle’s midlands-based kidulthood treatise ‘Nowhere Fast’ placed the much-loved podcaster and comedienne on the prime-time telly map. It’s been an exciting year for sitcom in Ireland, and though they’ve achieved success, Tiernan is reluctant to use the ‘mainstream’ tag on any of them just yet. “Quality will always out. If it’s good people will come to it. Everybody liked ‘Derry Girls’, and I think for people who like indie, left-of-centre comedy, there’s plenty of it out there but I don’t know how much of it crosses over to the mainstream. Reeves and Mortimer had a sitcom on the BBC that only shot two series, but I swear it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but nobody watched it. There’s the problem of making something that is brilliant, but it doesn’t translate. I think ‘Derry Girls’ did. And you get stuff in the mainstream that indie, left-of-centre people will have no time for. I remember Ardal O’Hanlon did ‘My Hero’. Indie people mightn’t have liked that, but it had a huge audience in England. It’s an odd thing.”

Tiernan’s had his own turn in the television hotseat as of late also, with The Tommy Tiernan Show premiering last year on RTÉ One. An unscripted chat show, Tiernan is presented with a series of guests with whom to converse in usual talking-shop fashion. He’s just not told who any of them are in advance. “I got the idea in a hotel room in the North of England. I was on tour at the time, and the following morning, I ran it by my tour manager, I said ‘what do you think?’, she says, ‘yeah, that’s good’. So, I sat on it for ages. Then I brought it to a radio producer, an old friend of mine, and the first year of it went to radio. The idea is so simple. It’s one of those things. You’re not offering people something convoluted.”

As a journalist asking about Irish comedy on telly, you almost hate to ask anyone about ‘Father Ted’. As many careers as the show made in the mid-to-late nineties, it’s also cast a shadow of its own across Irish comedy over the years, as the yardstick to which all attempted comedic incursions on the mainstream are compared. Tiernan’s moment on the show came as it was wrapping up its final season, with final episode ‘Going to America’ proving to be a poignant passing of the torch. Portraying emotionally hard-pressed young priest Fr. Kevin, his interactions with Dermot Morgan’s tragicomic Fr. Ted etched themselves into the Irish lexicon. Tiernan gets into the nitty-gritty of working on the hallowed set. “It was bizarre to find myself in the sitting room of the house on Craggy Island. It’d be like finding yourself in the Rover’s Return, or the bar in Cheers. A very odd experience. The scene on the bus, where I find myself getting very sad listening to Radiohead, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews were on either side of the camera. And I say, ‘this is too much, it’s way over the top’. They say ‘no, this is great’. You have to give me some sort of guide as to when to increase the sadness, so they’re there alongside, going ‘more, more, more… more’. It was very practical. It wasn’t some sort of one-take wonder. ‘Sadder… even sadder’.”

Fast-forward to 2018, and Tiernan is touring new show ‘Under the Influence’, currently honing it in smaller venues around the country before going to big arenas and taking the new material international. Over the past decade or so, Tiernan’s show has dealt with getting older, social changes, his family changing and the maladies of middle age. How has his creative process changed, as his perspective has? “I write a weekly article now, and that’s been great for getting me to sit down and boil things down. The new show, now, I’ve had to sit down and write it, as opposed to coming at something with half the idea. So it’s just wrestling with those two things. The old approach of doing most of it onstage, and the rigorous building of a show word-by-word”.

In recent years, the tried-and-true stand-up model of touring, panels and a Christmas DVD that sustained many comedians for a long time, has given way to the likes of Netflix specials, as well as podcasts like Alison Spittle and Blindboy’s. Tiernan is of course no stranger to diversifying his output for different media, including stints with RTÉ Radio and a weekly column in a certain national broadsheet, so asking his opinion on what next for the model reveals an interesting insight to how Tiernan views the whole enterprise. “It all boils down to an audience and a performer. That was the way music was until they introduced vinyl, and it became possible for musicians to earn money without leaving the house. The album sells, they get the money, they tour. But the original contract was, the performer and the audience. And in stand-up, that’s the contract. Everything else… some people are attracted to podcasts, some people are attracted to sitcoms. The only thing you can justifiably demand as a stand-up, is an audience. That’s it. You’re not entitled to the rest of it. Microphone. Crowd. Room. Material. That’s it.”

Tiernan heads back to the Marquee this weekend, as part of the docklands’ annual summer offering, after a brace of small shows at West Cork music venues. He’s candid about the process of scaling up material to account for the difference between Connolly’s and the Marquee. “I didn’t know how to play them until last year, those big rooms. You end up over-extending, and forcing it. I decided that what I wanted was to have fun, and then figured out how to have fun with 4,000 people. A fantastic experience. I’m in Connolly’s of Leap (tonight) and DeBarra’s of Clonakilty (tomorrow), so going from 150 people then to 4,000 on Saturday. How do I have fun, how to give people a good night out? I wouldn’t like to play either venue all the time. The room totally affects the performance, but it’s staying in control of the fun element that makes it enjoyable.”

It’s a busy time for a reluctant statesman for Irish comedy, with the next stage in the ‘Derry Girls’ success story just over the horizon, and the unending tour continuing apace. “I’m working on the new show until October, ‘til we record the new series of ‘Derry Girls’. Then hopefully the new show will be good enough to take to the bigger rooms. We’ll keep going… keep talking (laughs).”