Stevo Timothy treading a fine line

Stevo Timothy’s Farmer Michael is a popular character, but he also sparks snobbery from the comedy community, and praise from those who don’t ‘get’ that his views might not be real, writes Ed Power

Sinead McGrath and Stevo Timothy, aka Sinead and Farmer Michael.
Sinead McGrath and Stevo Timothy, aka Sinead and Farmer Michael.

Stevo Timothy was participating in a soup run for the homeless in Galway a few months ago when he was recognised by a group of exuberant young men fresh from the pub.

“One of them got into my car with his phone and goes, ‘here, say something funny’. The rest had me surrounded,” he recalls. “The only thing I could do is pick up my crutches and tell him to leave.”

The crutches are a consequence of a motorcycle accident over a decade ago that left 37-year-old Timothy temporarily paralysed from the waist down and required him to use a wheelchair for many years.

Over-enthusiastic fans meanwhile are a fact of life for the Galway native since he became one of Ireland’s viral comedy sensations via his alter ego ‘Farmer Michael’.

“I didn’t have a clue it was going to become so big,” says Timothy, who this year embarks on his largest tour yet, including a headline date at Cork Opera House on March 15. “I made some videos for the craic in my car. I had them on my phone for ages.

I was actually apprehensive about even putting the videos up. And then I did and it exploded.

Michael is a fond but not uncritical caricature of an certain sort of Irish person: flustered by everyday life, overwhelmed by modernity, not too bothered about political correctness.

In the videos he engages in baffled and increasingly frenzied back-and-forths with his wife, Kathleen portrayed by Timothy’s girlfriend Sinead McGrath (25).

“Stevo was always a joker and a messer,” says McGrath, whose background is in horse training. “I was always quiet and shy, never able to break out of that. This new career has brought me into my true self.”

Michael and Kathleen are a comedy phenomenon. A video in which Michael challenged Conor McGregor to a fight received an endorsement from McGregor’s father, Tony. Later, McGregor himself sought out the comedian to profess his fandom. The boxer Tyson Fury is another convert. He went to so far as release a video proclaiming his admiration.

Even more extraordinary than their celebrity fanbase is they sheer popularity of their videos on social media.

A skit entitled ‘There’s no gays in Ireland Kathleen’ has notched up 1.8 million views. Another, ‘Irish people can’t cope with black people’, has nearly a quarter of a million.

And just to be clear these pieces are meant as satire: they aren’t intended as serious commentary about minority rights or racism.

FOREIGN APPEAL

The duo aren’t simply beloved in Ireland. The majority of their audience is in the UK and America and they have toured to sold out venues across England and Scotland.

“I always thought of myself as a comedian but I hadn’t pursued it,” says Timothy. “I did a master of ethics [at NUIG] but I didn’t want to end up studying philosophy all my life. So I was studying accountancy. I didn’t like it. Then the videos came along and I dropped out.”

Bringing viral comedy to the stage is challenging. Timothy and McGrath frame their live show as an extended version of the conversations they shoot in the car.

They sit opposite one another and engage in banter, just as in the videos. Initially they avoided doing skits they had already put out online. It was quickly made clear that their audience expected the ‘hits’.

One if their big break out moments was a piece recorded on the fly as the Beast from the East winter storm approached in 2018.

Michael sits in his car, surrounded by loaves of bread. He spirals deeper and deeper into panic as Kathleen attempts to calm him.

“It works for people in Ireland in that they recognise he is a very West of Ireland character,” says McGrath.

But people all over Ireland, the UK and America can relate because they all know a farmer Michael in real life.

“We all know an uncle or dad who is inherently racist or homophobic,” nods Timothy. “He thinks he’s entirely in the right.”

TOO BLIND TO SEE

Farmer Michael obviously isn’t what you would call ‘woke’. Timothy intended him as a satire of a strain of small town backwardness we might think of as Irish but is in fact universal. He is surprised and distressed to discover not everyone gets the joke.

“Sometime they think Michael’s views are my personal views,” he says, shaking his head.

“A fella came up to me at a meet and great and said, ‘I love your videos — I hate the [ethnic slur] too’. And I was thinking, ‘oh my f***ing god’. And then there are people who think that I’m racist against the Irish because I don’t support the far right.”

“People can be a bit miffed when they find out he isn’t like Michael in real life,” agrees McGrath.

“They’re going, ‘How come you talk normally?”

One person they have touched on only briefly is Donald Trump, because of the feelings it provokes in their audience.

“You have all these Trump supporters going, ‘Well said Michael’, not realising I’m pulling the piss,” he sighs. “You see all the comments underneath and people are arguing about Trump all over again.’

That said, the majority of their audience understand that the pair are lampooning prejudice rather than stoking it.

If there is any real negativity it is usually from the comedy community. Many comics look down on Michael and Kathleen as pandering and lowest denominator.

And they feel that in real life the duo simply haven’t paid their duos.

“We get a lot of snobbery,” says Timothy. “Some comedians wouldn’t see value in what we do. They think, ‘sure he just sits there in the car shouting at his wife’. They don’t watch the videos, don’t see the little throwaway comedy.

“What’s funny is that a lot of the comedians that have looked down on us have are now doing their own videos online.”

“We didn’t come from a stand-up background,” adds McGrath.

Within three years we were doing our first Vicar Street show and selling out all over Ireland.

“Perhaps people are a bit bitter about it when they’ve been doing 10 years of open mics. We always appreciate that those people work very hard. We never want to tear anyone down.”

- Michael and Kathleen are at Cork Opera House on Sunday, March 15

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