COMEDIAN Jason Byrne is surprised by people’s surprise that he ran the New York City marathon last November. He did it to raise money for Temple Street Children’s Hospital.
“What’s amazing,” he says, “is that is the tone that Irish people always use: ‘Did you actually do the marathon?’ It sounds to Irish people like the most stupid thing to do. It is insane, but my advice to people is that if you’re going to do a marathon, and you’re only ever going to do it once, do New York. It’s one of the most amazing days ever.
“New York is so cool. You start off in Staten Island. Then, you run down through Brooklyn. Then, you hit Queens, the Bronx and into Manhattan. You’re going through the coolest parts of New York every second, and all along there are six-people deep, thousands and thousands, screaming at you all the way to the finish line.
“There are loads of different bands, people rapping, singing, cheerleaders. The army is there.
“And, afterwards, when you’ve finished, the New Yorkers treat you like a hero. You can spot the marathon runners the next day, because some of them wear medals — I didn’t — and because they can’t walk properly, so people walk up to you and go: ‘Well done, man!’”
The 42-year-old comic clocked in at the four-hour mark, which was good, considering his training coincided with a British tour and with hopping back and forth across the Irish Sea to film his upcoming TV3 series, Jason Byrne’s Snaptastic Show.
Jogging around the roads of Britain’s cities was problematic: “When I got to a city, I didn’t know the city, so I kept stopping, going: ‘Which way do I go’?”
Byrne grew up in Ballinteer, on Dublin’s south side. After finishing school, he worked for Lighting Dimensions, a Dublin theatre-and- concert lighting business, with, among others, fellow comic PJ Gallagher. Byrne worked there for four years.
He and Gallagher, having overdosed on The Magnificent Seven western, would often greet customers by speaking in pidgin Mexican.
There were plenty more high jinks. “Myself and PJ used to electrocute each other quite a lot,” he says in a classic tale of ‘Don’t try this at home, folks’. “We’d plug a cable into a wall, but we’d leave one end of it bare and then stick it into each other — into an arm or a leg — when the other person was trying to work. Right now, I can easily fix electrical stuff.”
In one of Irish television’s oddest examples of guerrilla comedy, Byrne materialised in the audience of Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show one night in the mid-1990s. It was shortly after his first gig at Kilkenny’s Cat Laughs Festival.
Byrne wore his father’s shirt and tie, and interjected to ask Gay Byrne’s guest, Bill Murray, a question. He also told Murray that the film had inspired him and his friends to set up an Irish Ghostbusters — “possessed pigs and sheep and stuff”.
“Nobody knew I was in the audience,” he says. “My mother didn’t even know I was there — she was watching it live, and my mates were watching it live, going, ‘What is Jason doing with his hair parted?’ I don’t know why I did it. I’d be terrified to do it now — to ask Bill Murray a stupid question about Ghostbusters.
“I said, in those days, that his response was pretty funny, but it wasn’t really. I asked him had he ever seen any ghosts and had he been frightened. He said, ‘I was in Roly’s Bistro and the waiter came over, took our order and disappeared.’ The audience in The Late Late Show all started clapping. You’ll see me clapping as well on the footage, like a fool, but now that I’m a comic, I know he could have done better.”
Byrne has since carved a significant niche on the UK and Irish comedy circuits. He’s sold more tickets at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival than any other comic.
His work with the BBC garnered a Sony Radio Award in 2011, and the BBC also broadcast his TV sitcom, Father Figure, in 2013.
Jason Byrne’s Snaptastic Show will broadcast later in the year on TV3. Part of the show — which involves sketches and games — asks celebrity guests, such as fellow comics John Bishop and Johnny Vegas, to bring in pictures of them as children.
“George Hook had these pictures of himself with his dad on Patrick Street in Cork,” Byrne says. “I was slagging him off, ‘Is that like the 1900s?’ They were ancient pictures. There’s another one, a picture of PJ Gallagher, and he’s in a white jumpsuit, and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, that was a picture of me when I was a girl in Marino’.”
Byrne grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watching a golden age of British comedy on television, including shows such as Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em and Only Fools and Horses. He worked collecting drinks glasses in the Braemor Rooms, in Churchtown, where he saw old-school comics, like Hal Roche and Al Banim, do by-the-numbers live comedy shows, but it was the British TV comics whose influence lingered.
Byrne cites Kenny Everett and Tommy Cooper as masters of their craft.
“Comedy is kind of going backwards again. People are liking comics in suits and they’re liking clean material. You’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, he swears a lot.’ Where does that come from? Years ago, Kenny Everett, the whole lot of them, were all doing mad, racy stuff; you’re not allowed do that now. They were more dangerous than we will ever be today.
“Mrs Brown’s Boys does really well, and it has loads of swearing and mad stuff in it, but it only did well because the public demanded it. Years ago, the way they got around it was with double entendres and innuendoes.
“In a show like Are You Being Served? it was all talk about ‘measuring knockers and dongers, and dongers and knockers, and knockers and dongers’. With The Two Ronnies, it was all, ‘How’s your father?’”
- Jason Byrne’s ‘You Name The Show’ is at Cork Opera House on January 22