From Buster Keaton to The Butcher Boy, Pat Shortt tellsabout some of his reference points.
When I was very young, RTÉ used to show Buster Keaton (below). My grandfather was a huge fan. It was his era. We used to watch them with him, roaring laughing. I even called my production company Gable End Media after one of his famous sketches — where he stood in a yard and the gable end of a house fell down around him, with him squeezing through a window frame.
It was an incredible scene. It was funny, but it also required mathematical genius — to calculate the angles for the way the side of a building came down, falling around him.
He could have died doing it, squashing him if he was one foot out left or right. I remember seeing it for the first time and going, ‘Oh, my God’.
That kind of comedy — Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd — influenced me from the physical point of view of performance. Lenny Abrahamson said it to me when he asked me to do Garage: “You’re a great physical actor.”
Aspiring to emulate The Chorus
There was one acting performance that has always stood out for me. It’s from a French film called The Chorus in 2004. I’m not the type of person who will go: “My favourite French film is…” I actually love Korean war movies as well, but that’s another day’s work!
But I absolutely love this particular movie. It’s a lovely story. It was directed by Christophe Barratier. It was about a school of kids at a boarding school for troubled boys after the war.
A teacher comes. He’s a failed musician who has given up on music, but he sees in the kids a way of winning them over and educating them through music so he sets up a choir. The lead actor was a guy called Gérard Jugnot. I remember seeing his performance and it blew me away. I thought if I could ever perform like it in a movie I’d do well.
Getting a saxophone to sound like a double martini
Musically, the biggest influence in my life has been Paul Desmond. He’s famous for ‘Take Five’, which is probably the best-known jazz tune of all time, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
When I started playing saxophone first at about 15 you had two main styles: Michael Brecker, East Coast, bop.
Then on the West Coast, which was more chilled, more laidback, you’d you the likes of Paul Desmond.
It was almost down to the weather — the West Coast sunshine whereas on the East Coast, you’d the cold, hardened city vibe with the hard-bob New York City scene. I was always a West Coast man.
I remember Paul Desmond was asked what sound did he get on his saxophone and he said: “I’d like my saxophone to sound like a double martini.”
Duke Ellington used to say: “That if you ever make a mistake, accentuate it.” You’d hear a bum note on a solo sometimes on his recordings — and he’d hit it again once or twice or three times. Make it look like you know what you’re doing — like you did it on purpose.
I used to laugh at that. I thought it was brilliant. Often it gave me the confidence to stand up and play with people who were much more accomplished than me.
The Butcher Boy and its Irishness
One of my favourite books would have to be Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. I remember my brother telling me about it. When I read it, I thought it was incredible — the cheekiness, the daftness and such Irishness. It made me feel like when I was a kid. I understood exactly the language where it was coming from.
It was a brilliant story and a great film — Neil Jordan made a great job of it. I got an audition for the movie and I got a part in it, but I couldn’t do it because I was on this other film and they wouldn’t release me.
I was gutted. I would have given my right arm to do any part in that film, to walk on even for a minute.
Niall Tóibín: an actor who does comedy
If there was one person I used to always watch on TV it was Niall Tóibín. He was just an incredible storyteller. His accents, his timing, and he was Irish. Everything about him was perfect.
I think the reason I really warmed to him as well was because he was in a similar vein to myself — I’d never call myself a comedian. I’d call myself an actor who does comedy.
There is a real craft of stand-up whereas I do characters. I do sketches. I tell comedy through stories. It’s still comedy — it’s just a different way of doing it.
Galway Arts Festival and theatre lighting
When I was around 15, about four of us would go camping during the Galway Arts Festival every summer, getting the train from Thurles up to Galway.
We’d go for four or five days, picking out shows to see. I used to busk on the side of the street with the saxophone, collecting money for us. Then we’d have a bite to eat and go to see a show.
One or two big outdoor productions stood out. There was one Romanian or Polish show and the lighting was incredible. It really got me into lighting. I programme my own shows on the light desk.
I love that side of putting a show together, creating imagery and trying to make something out of a black space.
Tricking the audience
I did a sketch where I played a mother and son a couple of years ago. It was kind of a piss take of Riders to the Sea by JM Synge. The son was a miserable f**ker and he was always looking to get the mother to do things for him and she was always glad to see the back of him.
I used to switch from one character to the other [with a costume change], jumping from one side of the stage to the other.
I had two Martin Mac 500 lamps. They snap off suddenly.
When a light snaps off like that it takes a few beats for the audience’s eyes to adjust. That was just enough time for me to get to the other point on stage and the other light would come up.
It was like: “How did he manage that? He just appeared there.” It was all an illusion! It was hilariously funny. I learnt that from an illusionist.