From Kavanagh country to a TV career, comedian Oliver Callan has found satire to be anything but stoney ground, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
OLIVER CALLAN grew up on a farm in Patrick Kavanagh country in Inniskeen, Co Monaghan. It was partly from summer holidays spent on his grandmother’s farm in Inch just outside Killeagh, Co Cork, however, that he got the bug for news and political satire. Mary ‘Molly’ Walsh was an insatiable newshound.
“She was a news fanatic,” he says. “She used to buy every local newspaper going from the bread van – The Killeagh People, which is gone; obviously, the Examiner. Even over as far as Waterford, she’d get the Dungarvan Observer. There were four breakfasts served up on the breakfast table every morning, somebody different — attending horses, cattle, sheep, holidaymakers and so on — was always coming in.
“The tablecloth would be strewn with half-eaten eggs and crumbs from toast and butterfly buns. My grandmother, no matter what time of day it was, would spread a newspaper across these crumbs and read every inch of it while RTÉ or Cork Local Radio would be blasting from the corner.
“She ran her own local newsroom in there as well of course, which was all the gossip of the area — who had died, who was about to die, who was going to inherit what land.”
They were the only ones in the extended family interested in the media. She passed away in 1997. It was a notable year for Callan, as it was the first Irish general election he properly followed. His constituency elected its first Sinn Féin TD since the 1981 Hunger Strikes. Bertie Ahern followed Tony Blair into office within a few weeks. The Clinton years were still rolling.
“There was a real rock ’n’ roll feel, as if things were about to kick off,” he says. He pored over old Scrap Saturday tapes and bought himself a Sony dictaphone, which he used to record his mimicked voices.
Callan’s star ascended quickly. While studying at Dublin City University, he got freelance work alongside Mario Rosenstock on Today FM’s Gift Grub. Within a few years, RTÉ snapped him up. His Nob Nation sketches drew huge listenership figures.
In 2007, while still in his mid-twenties, the show’s podcast recorded more hits than RTÉ 1’s Morning Ireland show.
They were heady days, working the Nob Nation slot along with Gerry Ryan. He marvelled at Ryan’s unique style of broadcasting. The odd Friday Callan used sit in the control area of the radio station and watch Ryan at work while Ryan playacted for his own mirth and to entertain Callan.
“He would be talking really sensitively to a caller about something like a ghost being in her house. She would be absolutely convinced. Gerry on air sounds like he’s taking it very seriously, but you could see him twirling the microphone beside his head to indicate, ‘This person is bonkers’.
“I’ve never seen a broadcaster do it since or before where he’d have a very thorough conversation with a member of the public on the phone. He would finish the phone call and wish them well and then go on this editorial.
He might say, ‘This person is barking mad’ or else that, ‘We need to make something happen in this country. This is absolutely a disgrace! Now here’s a bit of the Rolling Stones’.”
Callan says there’s usually a key to unlocking his characters. “It was only two years ago when I started doing Marty Morrissey. It was the summer of Clare winning the All-Ireland. ‘Holy Moses!’ was a catchphrase. Marty was having a big moment that summer. I was thinking I’m going to have to start doing this guy.”
Callan was flummoxed though. He couldn’t get Morrissey. “He has such an unusual voice,” he says, mentioning the broadcaster was brought up in New York and Co Clare and spent his university days in Cork.
“Also there is a touch of Mork & Mindy about Marty. Both his parents were only children. He was an only child. You’re talking about someone who has no aunts, uncles or cousins. He has been living like someone who was dropped onto the planet. But there was one word that caught Marty. It was: ‘Mighty!’ It catches at the back of the throat. It’s that showbiz word, a moment of excitement that captures him.
“With Enda Kenny, I’ve portrayed him as someone who is obsessed with his hair and drinks tins of Lilt. Enda Kenny has never said the words ‘tin of Lilt’ in his life, I imagine, but ‘tin of Lilt’ has those slender vowels that we all relate to Enda. It is also a very, uncool 1980s drink that captures Enda. He tries so hard to be relevant, to be Modern Man.”
Callan cuts close to the bone. He says the friendly texts he used receive from Nicky Byrne have dried up since he satirised him on Callan’s Kicks last year. Neither, says Callan, does he expect to ever be invited onto Ray D’Arcy’s show.
In 2011, Paul Galvin, the fashionista and Kerry Gaelic footballer, visited his displeasure at Callan’s satirical portrayal of him in Keogh’s, off Dublin’s Grafton St.
The pub was milling with media types, including a Labour Party senator, TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly and the editors of two national newspapers. Galvin confronted Callan, calling him an “effin’ c**t”.
“Everyone was laughing,” says Callan, “thinking he was having a bit of a barney. One guy spotted the red mist had descended in Galvin before any of us and realised this guy is seriously angry and you had better get a wall of people around you!
“He started roaring and he pressed his head against mine. We were like two bulls. When I say ‘two bulls’ I was very much a reluctant bull. I didn’t have anywhere to go. My back was pressed against the bar. It was a bit scary but surreal. I couldn’t fully process it as a proper threatening moment. He was eventually grabbed by the arm and left the premises fairly lively. Somebody rang the gardaí and the story was all over the papers.”
Callan says he doesn’t question himself when it comes to skewering these personalities.
“To me it’s all not very serious. I don’t take on subjects or people who are vulnerable.
“Paul Galvin had just done a documentary where he was walking down Times Square in a low-cut top with huge glasses that you’d only see Victoria Beckham wearing. He expects us to take him seriously.
“Sometimes a mimic will do that — you’re holding up an image that the world sees how you are which completely conflicts with your own view of yourself.”
Oliver Callan is undertaking a nationwide tour, including gigs at University Concert Hall, Limerick (Saturday, 24 October) and Cork Opera House (Sunday, 1 November).
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