Tommy Tiernan may draw his fair share of controversy but it’s not something he enjoys, writes Ed Power.
Tommy Tiernan doesn’t revel in his reputation as Irish comedy’s enfant terrible. In fact, he flinches from it. Controversy saps his spirit.
“It drains me,” he says, in the kitchen of his house in Galway. “I get very drained. People who criticise… that’s their business, not mine. But it does affect me, for sure. I find it very wearying — even though it comes from someone else. It drags at my spirit.”
There has been a lot to drag him down. Tiernan has been criticised for jokes about Down Syndrome kids, and comments about the Holocaust (the latter which he correctly pointed out were taken wildly out of context at the time).
On the week we speak, meanwhile, the internet is in a tizzy about an impression he did DUP leader Arlene Foster during a Northern Ireland radio interview. Tiernan (47) just wasn’t made for these easily outraged times.
“I don’t enjoy it at all. It feels like stuff I have to put up with,” he says. “For the moment that’s the way it is — it has its own energy.”
Tiernan is a strange sort of phenomenon. He is a superstar of Irish comedy and will this summer perform to an attendance of more than 4,000 at Cork’s Live at the Marquee. Yet he has never quite embraced the A-list career that was his for the claiming and appears to be drawn constantly to obscurity.
He’s headlined arenas — but has also spent much of the past decade touring rural Ireland, unleashing his dark and verbose humour upon unsuspecting parish halls and community centres.
“I’m not a superstar,” he says. “I can play a community centre without people wondering ‘What’s gone wrong with his career?’ On the other hand, I’ve enough of a profile to be offered big gigs too. For instance, I’m intrigued by the Marquee.
“That’s a big show — and all my creative energy will go into figuring out how to make that work. I won’t be tremendously close to the audience — how do I give each of those people a good time?”
He admits to sometimes switching off on stage. Twenty years into his career, Tiernan typically performs three shows a week, 45 weeks a year. With familiarity comes ennui. It’s something he is constantly on guard against.
“You go through phases,” he says. “I have had purple patches where it feels very creative and you are coming up with new stuff all the time. It is as if you are showing the audience something they haven’t seen before. At other times, the pendulum swings the other way — you wonder, is this boring them as much as it is boring me?”
Tiernan’s low-point, it is generally agreed, was his 2014 “improvised” tour of Europe, for which he went on stage without having prepared any material. Some of the gigs soared. Many were horrific flops.
“It is very hard to know what your impulses are at any one time,” he reflects. “What music was I listening to, who was I talking to… it’s always been my nature to take chances. Sometimes you perform better when the ground beneath your feet is unsteady — when the earth is rumbling.”
However, he is inclined to see an upside — making it up as he went on stage led him to pitching an improvised chat show to RTÉ, in which the guests were not known in advance to Tiernan.
“The improvised tour paved the way for the improvised chat show. One thing invariably leads to another. Your inspirations are never as obvious in the moment as they are when looking back.”
Superstardom was never Tiernan’s cup of chai. A break-out appearance in Father Ted — in which he played a priest who overcomes depression only to be dragged down again by Radiohead — led to him receiving his own Channel 4 series, Small Potatoes in 1999.
Yet, unlike many Irish comedians, conquering the UK wasn’t a priority (though he will soon be appearing in another Channel 4 sitcom from Father Ted producers Hat Trick, set during the Troubles in Derry).
“At the start of the Noughties, I was doing stuff in England and stuff in Ireland at the same time,” he says. “The stuff in Ireland seemed more interesting. It wasn’t like a chess move — it was just the way I went.”
“It’s about what you find inspiring,” he continues. “I was talking to some of those fellas who do the massive venues — the big arenas — in the UK. Once you are playing rooms that size you can earn nearly five million for a tour. A few of the comedians I was talking to told me those rooms are awful to play — absolutely soul destroying. So why did they do it? For the bank balance. I couldn’t do that.”
For Tiernan it’s all about remaining engaged. He accepts or turns down gigs according to what tickles him at a particular moment. He is, in the best sense, making it up as he goes.
“I said no to a tour of Canada recently because I’ve toured there loads of times. It wasn’t interesting to me. I turned down a tour of Australia for the same reason. If I get offered a tour of Cape Clear in front of 80 people I’ll do that. I was offered a tour in Iceland last week. I took that for the same reason.”
I laugh when he says he takes inspiration from everywhere — even “from Ed Sheeeran”. But he’s being sincere. He recently appeared in the promotional film for the singer’s ‘Galway Girl’ single — and seems to have genuinely relished every moment.
“Hector phoned me,” he says, referring to presenter (and fellow Navan native) Hector Ó hEochagáin. “He’d been contacted by a guy who owned a garage and wondered if we wanted to be in an Ed Sheeran video. That’s pure Galway. This wasn’t Los Angeles or a production company meeting in London. You get a call from a guy in a garage and the next thing you know you find yourself in an Ed Sheeran video.”
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