In advance of his Cork gig, Tommy Tiernan tells Ellie O’Byrne about his comedy influences, his obscure taste in film, and his love of Chris De Burgh.
Comedy king Tommy Tiernan may be back on the road with his new stand-up show, but in recent years the funnyman has branched out in ways that are showing him to be something of a renaissance TV man.
As well as enjoying boosted ratings for the third series of his improvised RTÉ chat show and penning a regular newspaper column, Tiernan, who recently turned 50, has been returning to his roots in acting with screen appearances as Da Gerry in Derry Girls and the Irish feature film Dark Lies The Island, written by novelist Kevin Barry, which premiered at Dublin International Film Festival. His cultural influences are as wide-ranging and unexpected as his creative output.
“My memories of comedy are quite tame: there was no edge, it was mainstream and there was nothing counter-cultural or wild about it. I had no comedy schooling in that sense. It was Bob Monkhouse, Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses, The Goodies. I wasn’t allowed stay up to watch Not The Nine O’Clock News.
“I do remember watching Only Fools and Horses when I was twelve and recognising the set-up line to a joke and wondering if I could come up with the punch-line before the actors did, and never coming close to being as funny as they were. We went through a phase of anti-humour in school in Navan. We’d tell each other these non-sequitur jokes: ‘Why did the elephant cross the road? Because his name was Frank.’ We’d be in tears.”
“I’d worked as an actor for a little while in Galway, and there was this American monologist called Spalding Gray. He was the first person I saw where I thought maybe a one-man show would suit me. But stand-up didn’t seem like an option.
“Then a comedy club opened in Galway and I started going. It wasn’t that I wanted to emulate someone, I just thought I could do it. I was overwhelmed by the feeling I got doing stand-up. I remember every fibre in my body pulsing the first time I got a laugh on stage. I was seduced by all the details attached to it: getting paid 30 quid, being able to wear a leather jacket on stage, being in control of what I said, taking the train to Dublin for a gig.
“All the details really pleased me, as well as the physicality of the whole experience. You’re taking a drug that you don’t have to share with anyone else.”
“Anything by Flann O’Brien. There’s a book called Flann O’Brien At War, which is articles he wrote from 1939 to 1945, and it’s the funniest stuff I’ve ever read. He was a phenomenal writer; the language is so intricate, and it has an amazing rhythm to it but that construction can’t work on stage. It’s too written.
“So in one way, I might be influenced by the ideas of Flann O’Brien but the writing is too dense and elaborate; the language on stage has to be easy out of the mouth and easy into the ear. You can spot the comedians who sit down and write their material and it doesn’t ring true. I read a lot of boring theology books about Christianity and Buddhism: the theory of living rather than the practice of it. There’s an American poet who I really love called Billy Collins and I’m very fond of Paul Durcan. I read a lot of plays too.”
“I’m always on the lookout for new stand-up that makes me laugh. Chris Kent from Cork and my cousin Eleanor Tiernan are both great, and Julie Jay from Dingle is up and coming and brilliantly funny.”
“The Very Best of Chris De Burgh. ‘Patricia the Stripper’, ‘Spanish Train’. This was all pre-‘Lady In Red’ stuff; I was 11. I f**king loved it. When I was 13, I was the biggest Status Quo fan in Navan. Then Status Quo actually came to Navan and I wasn’t allowed to go to the gig. I was into early ’80s indie bands: Big Country, Echo and the Bunnymen, A Flock of Seagulls.
“When I was 16, I got into Bob Dylan. It’s impossible to say what influences you because you don’t know, but you can say what you’re drawn to. And I’m drawn to Leonard Cohen, I’m drawn to Tom Waits, U2, trad. I don’t know if those things come out in my work and I think that’s good because if you’re consciously imitating, that’s not good: it all has to be slightly out of control.
“For sheer enjoyment, when I get into the car after a show, it’s essential that I know the words to the songs because I’m high after the gig and I want to sing. And the songs you know the words to are never really cool. It’s ‘Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart,’ or ‘Boooorn In The USAAAA.’ There’s no coolness attached to it.”
“I’m very attracted to sad, melancholic films. I really like (Russian director) Andrei Tarkovsky. There’s a couple of Turkish directors I really like and Iranian cinema is beautiful. What I love about world cinema is that it gives you permission to behave in a way that you don’t get from Irish culture.
“I did a gig in Moscow two years ago. An Irish guy was showing me around the city. I said, ‘I feel so great here,’ and he said ‘why?’ and I said, ‘I think it’s because everyone’s so depressed.’ The whole thing there is that it’s ok to be in public and to be utterly miserable.”
“I bought a book about acting for film before I did Derry Girls and the only bit of advice I remember was never, ever, under any circumstances, move your eyebrows. No matter what’s happened, don’t move them, it said.
“I don’t watch myself in films. The main feeling is, have I done enough not to mortify myself? The work of performing is the same for screen acting and stand-up, but the effect is very different. The effect of stand-up is very euphoric and physical; 1,000 people laughing really hits you.
“I prefer the stand-up, definitely. Acting is a lot more subtle and you get to do things you don’t get to do in stand-up. Acting is a lot more intricate and precise and it’s an adventure. I do love doing take after take. At the moment, the acting is a bit more like heading into the unknown, and I don’t find it as pleasurable.”
Tommy Tiernan – Paddy Crazy Horse is at Live at the Marquee in Cork next Thursday and Friday. www.tommedian.com