An unscripted show is risky business for Tommy Tiernan

Tommy Tiernan is performing his unscripted show around Co Cork, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

NOT everyone might realise there’s a formula at the heart of the live stand-up comedy circuit. Comedians tour with the same show for about a year. The material they use doesn’t change from night to night. There are original bits around the edges, usually a bit of banter with a few members of the front row or if the comedian plays ball with a heckler, but in the large, comedians work to a script, like an actor reciting a long monologue from a play.

Tommy Tiernan, however, has been doing without for the last year. Mixed in among his regular stand-up gigs on tour, which has him careering around the halls of Co Cork for a couple of weeks this month, are nights of pure invention — improvised affairs which he advertises as “open mouth” shows.

On these nights, he improvises straight through, taking a refreshing leap into the unknown. Some of the early days of his adventure were captured in a recent RTÉ television documentary, To Tell You the Truth, which filmed him improvising on a 12-date European tour.

“The idea came from a realisation over the last couple of years that the bits of the show that were improvised each night were often the funniest bits,” says Tiernan. “Then I started listening to this piano player called Keith Jarrett who does full-length improvised concerts. I asked myself: Is that possible in stand-up?

“I was also very inspired by a line I heard when a writer was giving another writer advice and he said, ‘What you have to do is walk blindfolded off a cliff every day.’ Those three things were going around in my head. If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, you’re just re-producing. You’re not being creative.”

There were moments of To Tell You the Truth that made for “uncomfortable” viewing, in the words of RTÉ’s radio presenter John Murray, but Tiernan says he’s “gotten better” at the format since the European tour, and has figured out how to cut out the troubling, Pinteresque pauses in the action.

“If I couldn’t think of anything to say, I just stayed quiet,” he says. “The show was punctuated by these huge silences, which was nerve-racking for me and for the audience. Now I know how to negotiate all of those so I’m talking all the time.

“I feel there’s real creativity and wonder and hilarity in the improvised shows. I’m very committed to giving people a good night out — that they’re not coming to see me staring at my shoes, that there is some drama afoot. What the documentary caught — and it’s no harm to do this either — is failure. A lot of the time in Europe I got it wrong. I didn’t know what to do and I said nothing and it was a bit desperate, but there’s no harm in doing that. There’s a lot of hagiography out there. It might be a documentary about somebody but really it’s a PR thing, whereas this was absolutely risky television, and it showed me failing.

“Of course, it’s uncomfortable when it’s about you. I would love to see a documentary about somebody else failing! I’d watch that — I’d get great comfort from that, but I’m very committed to improvisation. When it works, it’s better than stand-up.”

Even when it doesn’t work, Tiernan believes it’s more compelling.” It’s the feeling of aliveness,” he explains. “And once that happens in a theatre that’s where the magic is – where performer and audience know that this is a once-off. It’s never gonna happen again. It’s beyond commercialisation.”

Tiernan explains the difference in his frame of mind before going on stage to do a regular stand-up gig – especially the old days when he greeted an audience with that infectious, mad glee in his eyes — and an improvised show.

“I used to have this mantra, ‘Ride them’. I’d describe it as going out to ride the audience. I would often get into a very pumped-up, elevated state before I went out, as if it was the start of a football match. Now it’s more seduction, like a date.

“If you’re on a first date, and your thought, particularly if you’re a bloke, was to go into the restaurant and ride her, she’d run a mile from you. But if your motivation is to seduce her — and a seduction could take a couple of years — I think that’s much more enjoyable.”

Tiernan burst into our consciousness in 1996 with a spot on the Late Late Show. “Little Tommy Tiernan”, as Gay Byrne used to call him, caused a ruckus with a routine about a child looking up at Jesus on the cross. Three hundred people phoned the show to complain while an irate mob hightailed it to RTÉ’s studios hoping to collar him in person. Tiernan was left to ride out the storm in RTÉ’s hospitality suite until one o’clock in the morning.

There’s always a crackle when he does a chat show, although he has to endure some odd staging set-ups on some. While appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman several years ago, Tiernan was briefed by the show’s production staff about his arrival on screen. He had to walk out, stop at the top of some steps, and wave over at the host.

“You get told to come out and wave at Dave,” he says. “In your naivety, you think Dave will be there waving back at you. It’s to make the audience at home feel like you’re one, big happy family, but he was tying his shoelaces or something. You’re nervous enough, as it is, and you wave over at the host and he couldn’t look less interested. That whole television world is one I hope I never get professional at. With TV appearances, once you get very good at it, it gets a bit boring. It’s when you go out, and the audience is going, ‘Oh my God, he’s not very good at this; this could go anywhere’, that’s when it’s exciting.

“You get it, say, when film stars are promoting a movie. They’re going from Jonathan Ross to Graham Norton, to this, to that. They’re so brilliant at it, but there’s a kind of death in their smoothness. There’s lifelessness to their professionalism.

“You’ll never get magic when things fit perfectly together. It’s like a relationship. One of the things I’m doing in the show at the moment is advising people to never marry their soul mate. They’ll get bored. It’s the distance between people that keeps them together.”

Tommy Tiernan’s Out of the Whirlwind tour across Co Cork begins on Thursday in Midleton and continues until November 19. www.tommytiernan.com


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