From Sesame Street to Jaws, Mario Rosenstock tells Ellie O’Byrne about some of his cultural touchstones
HE’S the many-voiced mimic who has been sending up the great and the good of Irish society on our airwaves for the past 20 years, but, Mario Rosenstock says, his talent for mimicry has darker origins than you might imagine.
As a child, he explains, his mimicry was a defensive mechanism, used to defuse the frequent pitched battles of his parents’ tempestuous marriage.
“I learned how to do an impression of my dad when I was about six,” Rosenstock says. “He had a sort of permanently perplexed, bamboozled look to him, with this Eastern European accent.” The comedian is instantly on his feet, reassembling his features into the paternal scowl.
Years later, when their marriage finally collapsed, the 14-year-old Rosenstock was sent to board at Ashton School in Cork. There, he discovered that mimicry was also a powerful counter-bullying tool.
“I wasn’t the class clown, but if anyone tried to bully you, you’d wait for the right time and place to send him up in front of an audience and then watch his face as he crumbled,” Rosenstock says with a wolfish grin. “Nothing hurts like humiliation, and you don’t have to lay a finger on him.”
Now, at 48, his childhood talents have been the tool with which he’s carved out an enduring career as the mainstay of mimicry on Irish radio, TV and on stage with his Gift Grub live comedy shows.
From Printergate to Swing-gate, 2019 brought no end of head-shaking political scandals in the corridors of power to act as grist to his satirical mill, the comedian acknowledges.
“I take an obvious story, like Printergate, and try to put an extra twist on it,” he says. “Is it my duty to be coruscatingly critical of government? If I’m angry, I could stand outside the Dáil with a placard saying ‘F*** you.’ Is that satire? Not in my view. I want to use my skills as writer and mimic to put together a three-minute sketch to show how inept they are, to encapsulate the whole thing. Satire doesn’t change things. It just helps people to retain a sense of perspective and sanity.”
“The film that had the most impact on me as a kid was ET, which is a spiritually, almost religiously moving experience. I was 11 or 12 when it came out and I went to see it in the cinema. I was bawling going home. There are two other Spielberg films from adulthood that I regard as superior. One is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is an outstanding film, but my favourite film of all time is Jaws.
“The story behind the making of Jaws is itself fascinating. It heralded the breakthrough of one of the greatest cinema voices of all time; this film made Spielberg. It was the first blockbuster of all time, and it’s beautifully cast, and it has a monster that you hardly ever see, largely because the monster didn’t work. They had to work without the shark and that led to the Hitchcockian suspense of the whole thing.
“But my favourite filmmaker of all time is probably Stanley Kubrick, and my favourite film of his is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was made in 1968, but when you look at it now, it still doesn’t look dated. It’s spellbinding. 50 years have passed, and this film still stands up.”
WHAT ARE YOU READING?
“Our attention spans nowadays are so shot that I can’t read fiction anymore, much to my shame. I’m reading a book called Sapiens by Yuval Noal Harari at the moment, an anthropological history of the world that’s brilliant.
I love essays so I’m reading a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. I loved Hitchens as a personality, a contrarian and an immense wit. He was very Wildean; there are people in the world with this incredible capacity to speak off the cuff and be incredibly loquacious, but not bullshit, not waffle, not Boris Johnson word salad.
Hitchens was like that and reading him is nearly as good as watching him speak.”
GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME?
“Sergeant Pepper for the achievement that it was, with Day in the Life being the stand-out song for me. That really was Lennon and McCartney at their peak.
But I’d have to also choose Abba Gold, which isn’t even really an album because it’s a compilation. I love Abba. You could find me on my Desert Island listening to that and weeping gently to Dancing Queen for its lost innocence. I love their melodic ability, but I also love the way they use the English language as a blunt instrument.
Their way of using words was quite unorthodox: ‘The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall?’ If you were English, you’d go, shit lyric. But there’s something bald and blunt about it, and there’s the Scandinavian melancholy to it too. Super Trooper is so upbeat, but it’s about a person who feels so lonely she could die.”
LIVE MUSIC MEMORIES?
“I hate gigs and festivals. I can’t do it. You can’t hear the music, you can’t get a drink without queuing, it all smells awful. Gigs are for when you’re really young. I remember seeing Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the RDS when I was 13 and that was visceral. I was wearing a Frankie T-shirt and I got hauled out by the Saint John’s ambulance for looking like I was going to get squashed.”
FAVOURITE TV SHOWS
“I adore TV. My favourite TV show is probably Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. Drama-wise, I’ve been watching The Crown and I think it’s one of the greatest dramas I’ve ever seen produced for television. It’s riveting.”
WHAT COMEDY HAS INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
“When I think of television as a kid, I think of Sesame Street, Spitting Image, the Muppet Show: a lot of comedy puppets. With Sesame Street, you were watching a children’s show, but you soon realised it was good humour too. They do influence my own work because they’re character-based.
I wrote a joke a few months ago about how I see Paschal Donohue, imagining that to become Minister for Finance he can’t be all nice and agreeable, he has to have a steely side.
I read up about him and realised he comes from Ballymun and so I came up with this idea that there’s a Ballymun Paschal too, and that when things get rough, he can change his accent. I love the idea of imagining how Miriam or Michael D would feel about something.
So I’m always writing for characters, and I think that comes from an early sympathy with things like Sesame Street.”
The Very Best of Gift Grub Live! with Mario Rosenstock is at Cork Opera House Feb 25-29, as well as touring to several other venues