Tara Flynn appears to have an ‘issue’ with Ivan Yates. The petite comedian is dragging him across the floor. She is grunting. Her eyes blaze with homicidal determination as she reaches down and rips Yates’s tongue out of his mouth. She holds it up to her ear, like a psychotic Hamlet with Yorick’s noggin.
“Blah, blah, blah,” she mimics the NewsTalk presenter. “The People of Cork have had enough…”
Flynn’s furious ‘Mad Corkwoman’ is one of the more terrifying grotesques from Irish Pictorial Weekly’s comedic pandemonium. And that’s saying something, considering she’s competing with White Van Man — a Barry Murphy character who enjoys torturing politicians.
We are sitting in the Mespil Hotel in Dublin and it is hard to equate the pretty, soft-spoken woman before me with the raving lunatic she plays on-screen. It’s part of her allure as a performer. Her humour is a razor blade hidden in a sponge cake. Beneath the reassuring, comforting, non-threatening exterior, there’s a wickedly sharp wit.
“The ‘People of Cork’ woman came out of the depths of my soul. To me, it’s about the anger of people up and down the country. I find hitting things with a hurley is cathartic: I get a lot out of it.
“Satire is great when it’s angry — and there’s real anger on Pictorial Weekly. That said, we’re taking on issues with a sidelong glance, rather than on the nose.”
Flynn (45), like many successful comedians, has strong convictions. She won international praise last year for a YouTube sketch lampooning casual racism. She tackles sexism later in this interview. Let’s call it the Women in Comedy Question.
She is also the Face of Irish Poo. (Last year, Dublin Regional Authority made her ambassador for its anti-dog-fouling campaign.)
Did she spend her childhood reading Marxist tracts and planning the overthrow of the Haughey government?
“No. I grew up in Kinsale. My mother was a stay-at-home mum and dad was MD of a bottling company. We had a mad, hippy lifestyle on the one hand, and an almost corporate one on the other. It was a bit like The Good Life: we had homemade clothes and kept chickens. It was eclectic. As a kid, I loved watching comedy on TV, although I was never into ’70s sitcoms: they were boring. Monty Python was a real revelation. I enjoyed its left-of-field, surreal humour. There was a joy to it. You could say the kind of comedy I liked was ‘intelligent silly’.
“I always wanted to act, but back in the late ’80s, with the recession, there was no question of going to drama college in England. So I did English and French in UCC. We studied European drama as a part of the course and got to stage plays. I loved it.”
Flynn is now one of Ireland’s leading comedy actresses and voice artists. She has worked on host of popular TV programmes and plays in Ireland and the UK. She is also an improviser, columnist and author. With so many gifts, what prompted her to get into comedy?
“I fell into it kind of by accident. I was living in Dublin in 1995, taking acting classes, and hanging out at the International Bar’s ‘improv’ night. One night, I was at a party with Sue Collins and Anne Gildea and we started messing around on guitar, making up songs. We decided to meet the following week and the Nualas was born. We did our first gig at the International. I was with them a year before returning to acting.
“A few years passed before I was coerced into doing improv. I had been going to the International so often that I ended up doing the door. Everyone else was at Edinburgh and I was asked to stand in. I had always said ‘I’m never going to do that, it’s too scary’, but I enjoy a challenge. I loved it straight away. It was all about teamwork and creating characters — just like acting.” How much of the improv is pre-rehearsed? “None of it. Where’s the fun in that? The adrenaline surge comes from seeing the whites of the others person’s eyes and thinking ‘I’ve no idea where this is going, do you?’ They throw something at you and you lob something back. It’s like tennis.”
Flynn — who performs at the Sky Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny later this month — no longer does straight stand-up, concentrating on improv and acting. Ireland is a small town. Are there enough comedy gigs to go around? “There are more gigs now than ever before. Unfortunately, many of them are free. I don’t believe comedians should be asked to work for nothing. You wouldn’t ask anyone else to do it.
“There’s loads of work, but it’s become almost a step up above a hobby. Some new comedians gig for free to cut their teeth. Promoters will tell you that it’s ‘great exposure’. If I want exposure I’ll streak down O’Connell Street. There are plenty of stadium gigs for big acts, but we’re losing the middle-ground paying gigs that allow people to give up their ties and make a living out of comedy. The middle-ground is where comedy thrives. People should realise that comedy is a bloody art form!”
Comedy is an art form that nobody takes seriously — it’s in the job description. It’s the only artistic endeavour where the artist can be filleted in milliseconds for misjudging an audience. Has Flynn ever died on stage? “You die periodically, especially when you’re coming up. It’s part of the learning process. I’ve never been booed. There’s just been silence or shuffling indifference. It’s horrible and you just have to learn from it. Usually the gig after the death is a great one.
“Some comedians hate their rhythm being interrupted by hecklers, especially those who do one-liners. I enjoy them.”
Flynn may have a benign attitude towards drunken idiots while she is performing. Off-stage, however, she can be sweetly devastating when dealing with low-life loudmouths. Last year, her African American husband was subjected to racist abuse while walking through Kinsale. Tara decided to make a point. She recorded ‘Racist B&B’ — a comedy YouTube video highlighting the casual racism that still prevails in our multi-cultural society.
The owner of the B&B, played by Flynn, is homespun, ‘nice’ … and unashamedly racist. “If they sound a bit tanned [on the phone], we tell them there’s a festival on — that we’re full.”
It made international headlines. “I wanted to grab some power back from these racist morons by pillorying their attitude. I wanted to use laughter to get my message across, because it beats hate every time. The reaction was an eye-opener. I now realise that the casual racism I was trying to highlight is a lot worse than I’d naively thought. People emailed me screaming about how bad I am at comedy, and how disgusting interracial marriage is. Insults ranged from the size of my vagina, to the murderous assertion that I’m likely to end up in a shallow grave. In general, Ireland is a brilliant place to live in or visit, with a small, but vocal, minority of idiots we shouldn’t tolerate.”
And then we finally come to the ‘Women in Comedy Question’. Journalists love to ask “Are women as funny as men?” when interviewing female comedians. It’s a lazy question, designed to “highlight” the “plight” of women as they “struggle” to make it to the top in a male-dominated profession. Flynn makes it clear that the subject of “women in comedy” is a not up for discussion.
“I’m often asked what it was like starting out as a woman in comedy. I’ve never been a man starting off so I don’t know how to compare. I imagine it’s very tough: you have to write your own material and deal with audiences…”
But you have to do the same.
She has me. So where does the perception that women are not as funny as men come from? “It’s because the question ‘Are women as funny as men?’ keeps getting asked. Even putting it in an article is perpetuating it. I generally tell journalists that I’m not going to talk about ‘women in comedy’. It’s sexist. Ask me what comedy I like. That’s more important to me than my gender.”
What comedy do you like?
“The Pythons, Tommy Tiernan, Tina Fey, Alison Spittle, Mindy Kaling, Dave Hill, Tig Notaro, Stewart Lee, Tony Law, and everyone at Dublin Comedy Improv.”
So, apart from Kilkenny, what’s next on the agenda?
“I’m writing a book, which is taking up a lot of headspace. It’s exciting but nerve-wracking.”
No-one can ever accuse of her doing any less. We say goodbye as she is led away to have her photo taken. She’s been an entertaining interviewee: funny, intelligent and charming. The People of Cork may have had enough… but you could never have too much of Tara Flynn.
The Sky Cat Laughs Comedy Festival, Kilkenny, May 29-June 2. www.skycatlaughs.com