DAVID McSavage’s latest trick is the meaning of life. The irreverent Irish comic, who performs live at Vicar St on Friday, is writing the fourth season of The Savage Eye.
The acclaimed satirical show has dismantled cosy notions about Irish identity and skewered several breeds of sacred cow, among them Mary Robinson, her supposedly mute husband Nick (“my house-bound”) and Famous Séamus Heaney (“he speaks like an enlightened being”). The upcoming series, which will broadcast on RTÉ at the back-end of the year, examines grander themes such as love, war and the universe.
“With the universe, it’s a hard one,” says McSavage. “It’s so vast, and the more we know about it, the less we know. All these people have theories, but they’re all wrapped up with people’s beliefs in a supreme being or a higher power. People take advantage of vulnerable people, offering them answers.
“People don’t really want to think about it that much. We mostly interact with the universe by watching documentaries by very nice astrophysicists like Brian Cox. But if you asked me what did he say after watching one of his documentaries, I’d draw a blank — I couldn’t remember anything.”
McSavage is enthralled by mankind’s predicament.
“The position of the Earth in our galaxy, and the fact that we’re in this Goldilocks zone, at exactly the right distance from the sun where the inner core creates magnetic fields around the Earth, which prevent us from the radiation of the sun, all these things which contribute to us being able to live, it is amazing. If either one of us died, it wouldn’t make a difference to the world, but if the atmosphere disappeared, we’d all be dead. We take for granted what we see around us, and are much more willing to believe in things that don’t exist; from fear, I suppose,” he says.
McSavage is part of a political dynasty. He was christened David Andrews, the name of his father, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. McSavage’s grandfather was Todd Andrews, one of Éamon de Valera’s inner circle, and his brother, Barry, was a junior minister in Fianna Fáil’s last coalition government. Ryan Tubridy is a first cousin.
Irish politics doesn’t interest McSavage. (He covered a dog in Fianna Fáil stickers during his first election canvass as a child.) He’s drawn to the high drama of British and American politics, and was enthused by Barack Obama’s ground-breaking 2008 presidential election. “I thought it was an amazing time. It’s great to see a black man elected president. It was needed in America and around the world. Although Obama has turned out to be very pro-military, which is quite strange, because early on he said, ‘we need to talk to our enemies’, which sent a clear signal around the world, one that was initially very positive,” he says.
McSavage isn’t too surprised by the grubby compromises Obama has made in office. It’s the nature of the game. He cites RTÉ economist George Lee’s ride on the political merry-go-round in 2009 as instructive. “When your man, George Lee, got elected to Dáil Éireann with this big, popular vote, and then when he went in and discovered the dirty way that they do business — all these backroom deals and networking — he couldn’t hack it. I think the people who want to be politicians shouldn’t be politicians. Why would anyone want to be a politician? It’s such a thankless job. You just worry what people’s motivations are. I think they should be appointed like a jury service.”
McSavage drifted early on. He was never enamoured with school, neither in Clongowes Wood nor in Blackrock College. He failed the Leaving Certificate, although he framed a letter sent home to his parents from Clongowes Wood: “I regret to inform you that your son, David, was seen today on the dual carriageway waving at cars and smoking a cigar when he should have been at PE.”
He taught English in Japan. Bored with the classroom, he began busking in Tokyo in 1990. As minstrel-comic-heckler, he has performed all over the world, including five years in Denmark, where he met Hannah, the Polish mother of his two sons. He returned to Ireland in 2001, and became the ultimate cornerboy — he was a conspicuous and provocative presence on Dublin’s streets, around Temple Bar and on Grafton Street, for a decade. He only gave up busking a few years ago.
He once, notoriously, got arrested in Edinburgh for saying the word “penis” in his act. The case brought against him was thrown out of court. He has also carried out some outrageous publicity gags, like the time during the women’s mini-marathon in Dublin when he wielded an ‘Iron my shirt’ banner.
McSavage also did a stint as a warm-up act on The Late Late Show (as “Pat Kenny’s fluffer”), but can’t recall any brushes with the show’s celebrity guests in the green room.
“It was when I was drinking,” he says. “I used to hang out in the green room and took advantage of the free bar. I was quite drunk. It’s all a bit of a blur. When I look back on it now, I’m embarrassed. I haven’t had a drink in nine years.”
He says: “By drinking alcohol, you’re sort of escaping yourself. I think it’s much more courageous to get better and to try and improve yourself. In some ways, drinking alcohol is a low-level search for spirituality, but you don’t learn from it. Since I’ve been sober, I’ve learnt much more in that nine years than I ever did when I was drinking.”
*David McSavage performs at Vicar Street, 58-59 Thomas Street, Dublin 2, Friday, Mar 22. Further information: www.vicarstreet.ie