The comedian is taking a seven-month break from stand-up to write and shoot a new television sitcom, Father Figure, for BBC One. It will be the longest sabbatical he’s taken from the stage in 17 years.
His show will resurface in August for the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Byrne holds the remarkable distinction of having sold more tickets at the famous comedy jamboree than any other comedian, including the likes of Eddie Izzard, Jimmy Carr or Dara Ó Briain.
The show is entitled The People’s Puppeteer, a nod to the way he likes to work a crowd. His performances are a riot of unpredictable banter with his audience. Anything might happen, although he says he has a few rules he tries to uphold.
“Don’t ever let anybody up on stage who wants to get up. They’ll turn out to be mad. I don’t ever ask anybody up who’s looking at their knees or their chest. You want people in between that. I broke one of my cardinal rules once — don’t let anybody up on stage who’s waving too much at you.
“I was in Melbourne at Christmas doing a Nativity play, looking for volunteers. There was a guy jumping up and down, going, ‘Me! Me! Me!’ And the crowd were all pointing at him, going, ‘Him!’ I couldn’t do anything but pick him. His name was Dmitri. He was Russian-Australian. He was as mad as a box of cats.
“I did the nativity play with Australian characters, like Steve Irwin and Mel Gibson. I had ‘Mel Gibson’ as Mary. This guy, Dmitri, was playing Mary/Mel Gibson. There was something odd about him, but we had a great laugh.
“The funniest line he got out — but the crowd didn’t really hear him — was when the Baby Jesus was born, he picked it up and threw it across the stage and went, ‘Uugh, a dirty Jew!’ He was ‘Mel Gibson’, who, of course, had done this rant about the Jews.
“He was some open-spot comic, I found out afterwards. First of all people looked at him thinking, ‘Oh my God, is there something wrong with him?’ Then they realised there was something wrong with him, but something very slight, like OCD or something, but he turned out to be the star of the thing.”
Born in 1972, Byrne grew up in Ballinteer, Dublin, and like many kids from his time he feasted on British TV comics growing up — Kenny Everett, Morecambe and Wise, and Tommy Cooper. Byrne, like the great Cooper, who was more clown than comedian, has a knack for doing physical comedy. Much of his charm comes from his infectious energy, and the uncertainty of where things will lead during his performances.
In an era when most comedians work their way assiduously through scripted material, a large chunk of a Byrne show is freeform and original. Audiences surrender themselves to his madcap world. He tends to rely on visual ideas, and props, as much as the spoken word.
“The stories comedians tell, we’re animating them with our faces and body movements,” he says. “That’s what an audience is looking at, like funny walks. That’s what Billy Connolly did for years. If you told a Billy Connolly story to somebody, they’d just go, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s alright’. It’s because you’re not acting it out that the humour is missing. Comedians act out our material. And adults love silly humour.”
Byrne describes a gag he has using different windows. “I’m knocking through the venetian blinds, as if I’m a mammy knocking on a window.
“Do you remember when your mammy’s fist would come through the blinds and all you would see was her fist? She’d be pointing at you because you’d be messing in the garden. That worked really well so I thought I’ll bring in more windows. For the next gag, later on in the show, I go, ‘Do you know when you’re in Japan and you’re in the garden playing with your brother?’ And I take out a Japanese window and knock through that like a Japanese mother.
“I take out another window later on which is a Buckingham Palace one, with a velvet curtain and put on the white gloves like the queen. Finally I take out a big bush and I say, ‘Do you know when you’re a baby gorilla and you’re playing with your baby gorilla sister and your mother knocks on the window?’ And I take out a big, hairy glove and come out through the bushes knocking. I never thought that would work at all, but the crowd loved it.”
For his next gig, Byrne goes back to the hallowed halls of the BBC. For the last few years, he’s fronted a successful radio series, The Jason Byrne Show, which scooped a Sony Radio Award in 2011 for best comedy. Byrne’s new sitcom for television, Father Figure, has been commissioned on the back of it.
“I’m so excited about doing this sitcom that it’s not a chore at all. I’m sitting here writing a sitcom that’s going to be on the BBC. The only worry is to make sure that it’s going to be very funny. Being a huge comedy fan, my standards are very high, but for a BBC family sitcom it doesn’t have to be full-on hilarious all the time. It just has to be family friendly.”
Byrne has enjoyed working with actors on his radio show, who have included Pauline McLynn, immortalised for her role as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, and Dermot Crowley from Cork.
“Just from watching them acting, I realised — because I can improv quite a lot — that actors can’t improvise; they kinda need their lines, but they’re very good at putting their own spin on things. It’s really weird — when I look at a sentence and they say it, I’d go, ‘I’d never have said it that way’. That’s fantastic.”
At the moment, Byrne retreats to his office — where his kids “aren’t allowed” — whenever he can to knock out the script for Father Figure. Distractions, something he’s genetically wired to meander after, are a bane.
“When you leave the writing for too long, you can’t be bothered going back to it — ‘Oh, I’ll start again tomorrow’.” he says.
The scourge of procrastination, I offer. “Procrastination — I’ve only heard that word being used since I started writing. ‘What’s procrastination?’ I kept asking. I never went to college. I learned all my English through life. Somebody explained to me a couple of years ago what it was and I said, ‘That word should be stamped upon my head’.”
* Jason Byrne performs his show, The People’s Puppeteer, at Cork Opera House, Thursday, Jan 24; and at Vicar Street, Dublin, Feb 1-2