“RELAX, put your feet up,” Ian Dempsey tells me. It’s 9.15am in the Today FM studios. Next door, through the glass partition, Ray D’arcy is wrapping up his daily review of the papers. Just 15 minutes off-air, the breakfast crew is already planning tomorrow’s show. And rating today’s.
The Gift Grub meeting comes first. It takes just three people to brainstorm the four-minute sketches that have captivated the nation for nearly 15 years: creators Mario Rosenstock and Ian Demspey; and former Breakfast Show-turned-Tony Fenton producer, Lia Murphy (“She just couldn’t stay away,” Mario jokes).
Today, though, there’s a fourth person on the team. Me.
Glasses propped on top of his head, feet on the desk, Ian sinks back into his chair and turns to Mario. “Today went well.”
And everyone nods enthusiastically. It’s the Wednesday before the Six Nations and today’s sketch featured “analysis” from George Hook, Eddie O’Sullivan, Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell — and Leo Varadkar.
I tell them how I stepped into the lifts at Marconi House this morning with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, en route to Newstalk, downstairs on level 4. Just 40 minutes earlier, the Gift Grub Varadkar was beamed live from Today FM. Mario laughs. It happens all the time with Newstalk so close. Once, he met then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the lift. And Varadkar came backstage last year after a live show. They all take it in good nature, Ian and Mario maintain. Even Ronan Keating has come around.
Ian rustles at the floor beneath his feet and hands me a handwritten sheet of A4 paper. There was detailed prep for the Six Nations sketch the day before, but on live links like these, Mario tries to hide the punchlines. That way, Ian is reacting, stifling laughter, the same time as the audience.
This morning, the Breakfast Show worked off the nine pre-prepared questions written on the sheet in front of me. Mario went next door to the adjoining studio and the sketch was done as if by phone. They like to ad lib where possible too on these live links, they tell me.
I spot a few additional handwritten notes. What does ‘STFU’ stand for after George Hook’s link? “Shut the fuck up. And let Mario talk,” Ian says, and bursts into laughter.
And the magic behind Today FM’s breakfast Show is revealed. Ian Dempsey is up for a laugh, his personality, his good-natured smile, are infectious. The on-air performance is not an act. It’s just Ian being Ian. And Mario and himself make quite the team.
Fifteen years working together, I watch them finish each other’s sentences as they brainstorm the following day’s sketch. Later Mario will compare them both to a married couple. “Sometimes I see him more than my wife,” he laughs. Their working relationship is bigger than Today FM — Ian also works with Mario on the live stage performances and the TV show.
Mario reads his ideas for tomorrow’s sketch from his iPhone. This will be a pre-record — and that is a very different beast. The four minutes will be scripted in full by Mario after this meeting (“it can take two hours, more”), and sent to Ian and Lia for review before it is recorded later in the morning.
Tomorrow features one of my favourites: Keith Duffy. Like so many other regulars — Paul O’Connell, Michael Flatley, Daniel O’Donnell, Joan Burton — the Gift Grub persona is almost bigger than the actual politican/singer/sportsperson/actor. Mario has decided it’s time for the return of Duffy’s news show, so they need four bite-sized sketches. These links are great, they tell me, because it uses material that may not be worth the full four minutes, or serve as a trial, to see if an idea has potential for more.
Mario outlines four ideas. He is a force of nature. He flows from character to character, a rush of energy; facial expressions dramatically changing from one to another (the transition to TV was easy, he explains, because the expressions are part and parcel of what he does anyway).
The quick succession of voices come easy to him (“it’s like finding a note”), but he admits it can take time — and a lot of it — to nail an impression. The first person he remembers copying was his dad. He was just five.
News item 1: Jeremy Irons has just been made an honorary Corkman. (“We have a lot of Cork content today,” Ian winks.) Mario’s idea will see Jeremy Irons’ refined English accent descend into a full Cork brogue after the award — and Ian wonders who will interview Irons (every last detail is planned in advance — Gift Grub is no easy task).
“Who else is there in Cork besides Paschal Sheehy?” I suggest Daithí O Sé from the Today show in the RTE Cork studios. My idea is written down — and I’m quietly thrilled. And then, as quickly as it’s snapped up, it’s crossed out again. No, better to let Keith Duffy do the interview by phone they decide. “Next time,” Ian says to me with a sympathetic nod. Back in my box, I watch the masters at work.
“What about Flatley?” Lia asks. She quietly observes for much of the meeting I attend, so used to Mario’s rush of impersonations and banter she seems utterly unfazed by it all. But she takes everything in. Lia is like the audience, Mario and Ian maintain. She stops the jokes from becoming too “in”. “We don’t want to be a club,” Mario explains, adding, “she’s like an umpire in a match.” She’s younger too, Ian says, so they are tapping into a bigger demographic. (Gift Grub is as big with kids and teens as it is with adults.) Sometimes they’ll suggest something and Lia will look at them blankly, but they’ll know to go with it — the more ‘mature’ listeners will get it.
Today’s papers are full of the Flatley story — how a rhino horn was stolen from his home while he and his son were in the house. The topic is debated at length, the Gift Grub decision is well thought out. They will not cover it. It would be easy to mock, a cheap shot, but it is decided it would be in bad taste. His son was in the house at the time of the burglary. It’s a sensitive issue, best to stay away.
Ian Dempsey knows his listeners, he cares about them and is intuitive to what they want. That, of course, doesn’t mean to say he is a slave to the likes of Twitter (“we watch the reaction but it is like a room full of people in a bar really”).
Mario admits there have been a handful of times where they took a sketch too far. And they work hard to stop that from happening again.
On this Wednesday in January, crowds are already queuing, sleeping on the streets for tickets for Garth Brooks. It’s decided Duffy’s next news item will play on that. But again, there’s a deep discussion. The joke can’t make a mockery of homelessness. There has to be respect for a serious issue.
It’s one of the reasons why Gift Grub has been so successful. There are no cheap shots in Mario’s scripts — that kind of writing comes too easy. And it’s in poor taste.
Next on the bulletin, it’s sport. And Yuri Geller is in town. It’s time for a bit of Roy Keane — one of Mario’s favourite characters. One of his career highlights was meeting the real Keane on air when “Roy” interviewed Roy (it’s worth a listen on You Tube). John Delaney bumped into Mario at the Today FM studios just after Keane’s appointment and said, “That’s another four years of sketches for you”.
Gift has followed Keane on a long and varied career path — and Mario admits his return was like all his Christmases coming at once.
For this sketch, the ball will move around the pitch of its own accord. Keane will cry it’s down to bad equipment and declare it’s the return of Saipan.
The players will explain it’s Yuri Geller. Ian and Mario both agree this has potential for a longer sketch. The meeting wraps, another sketch decided.
But there’s plenty more writing to be done. The live shows return this summer. Mario plays Cork in May — a city he admits is close to his heart, he spent his secondary school years boarding at Ashton.
It’s where he discovered his love of acting, thanks to his English teacher — a man he compares to Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. He studied at Trinity — to act with the Trinity Players — and went on to secure a spot on Glenroe.
Two Kiwi flatmates overheard his impersonations and one of them, a radio producer, convinced him to try it on air. Enter Ian Dempsey and the rest, as they say, is history. The live shows began on Gift Grub’s 10th anniversary, the RTE show followed.
Mario says the live shows are his favourite medium. Of his three career highpoints, just one is radio (the day he met Roy).
The others are all stage — when Ian and himself turned around a live pre-Christmas show in a matter of weeks when Lindsey Buckingham pulled out of the Olympia (all the proceeds went to St Vincent De Paul).
The other was the night his live show coincided with the Thierry Henry Ireland-France match. After the show the game was beamed on the big screen — and everyone stayed to watch it, Mario included. Only in Ireland.
With such a passion for the stage, it’s no surprise his intention is to bring that live audience feel to his TV show, as he did for his Christmas special.
Daily morning radio, a TV show and the live stage — it’s a lot to juggle. Especially when you have a wife and children. Mario’s family means everything to him — and already he sees his talents emerging in his son. He also happens to be old enough to ‘get’ Gift now, something Mario visibly gets a kick out of.
January was quiet, thankfully, he says. Some days, if there’s a live link, he can be home by lunch time. But those early finishes are a luxury by now with script writing underway for the live shows.
He recalls one day finishing on Today FM, driving to Sligo to perform live, and returning to Dublin that night, ready for more Gift at 6am.
The next morning I listen to Keith Duffy’s news. Perfectly timed, astutely and knowingly written, it’s classic Gift Grub. Like so many others, because of Mario and Ian, I begin my day with a smile on my face.
But just for the record guys. I still think Daithí should have done that Jeremy Irons link from Cork.
Gift Grub Live 3 begins April 24 in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, moving to Limerick May 1 and Cork Opera House May 21 for five nights. Full tour dates and tickets are available from www.ticketmaster.ie