Still touring hard, Tommy Tiernan has a different kind of chat show starting in the New Year. He talks to Vicki Notaro about what viewers can expect.
When I call Tommy Tiernan on a Wednesday morning, he has an itch — albeit a performance-related metaphorical one. He tells me it’s been five nights since he’s been on stage doing standup, and he’s more than ready to get back out there.
“I get very bored not doing it,” he says of touring. “I was thinking last night that my life feels like it has more meaning when I’m doing shows. I feel as if I have a structure, and that suits me. I just find there’s a balance in me; I can often flounder when I don’t know what to do with myself. I need the build up and the release that performing gives.”
He says he enjoys the rhythm he’s developed of being at home with his family in Galway four days a week and on the road for three, something that’s evident when you look at the remaining dates on his latest tour.
He’ll play 14 shows at Dublin’s Vicar Street over the next few weeks, but spread out so as to allow a relatively normal life.
He’ll make it to Cork Opera House for two nights in a row on March 2.
He’s named this jaunt ‘Under The Influence’ — under the influence of what, exactly?
“Well, I’m not meself when I’m on stage, I’m not shy exactly the rest of the time, but I am a lot more serious.
“I don’t know what I’m under the influence of exactly, perhaps it’s the expectations of the crowd or maybe it’s that I’m trying to stay one step ahead.
“There’s a definite spirit involved in it all.”
Tiernan goes quiet for a moment, thinking, and when he speaks again it’s as if he’s worked it all out.
“There’s something that happens in front of the audience, something that’s formed that’s like an unholy trinity.
“The audience comes with their expectations, I come with my preparations, and this third thing is only created when the other two come together.
“It’s never the material I’ve written, which has always really been the way.
“What happens on stage is so much better than what I write, which is normally humourless and predictable,” he says with a sardonic laugh.
I ask jokingly if an alter ego emerges under the spotlight, like in the case of Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce or Mariah Carey’s Bianca. “Yeah, I think they got that from me.
“Sure the pair of them used to come to my shows in the early days.”
Tiernan speaks quite a lot of the early days during our chat. He’s now been performing standup for 21 years, and over that time has developed into perhaps the country’s most beloved anti-laconic comic. He is the type of funny man that spins a story, that develops a narrative that brings everyone along instead of punting for a punchline.
“I used to say this little prayer before I walked on stage years ago. I’d read a bit of Flann O’Brien to get me in to the headspace, and I’d say, ‘Please lord Jesus, let me do my work.’
“I had a sense back then that my work was to be mischievous and to undermine everything around me, myself included.”
He says that his comic persona is so far removed from himself that if he was starting standup again he’d use a different name entirely. “I’m really quite serious off stage, quite socially anxious, and a solitary creature.
“But then when you’re up there, there’s this pressure of being stared at by 800 drinkers, and it brings out something you cannot access on your own in a room with a notebook.”
As well as his tour, Tiernan has another iron in the fire in the form of a chat show on the national broadcaster.
However, this six-part series for RTÉ is quite different from the norm in that it’s entirely improvised.
Neither Tommy nor the studio audience know who the guests are until they walk out on stage.
“I got the idea for the show when I was touring around England. I really like off-the-cuff, funny chat show hosts, and I’ve been a big fan of David Letterman who was so easy going, just brilliant.
“I’ve always felt that the ability to be funny in the moment is more of an exhibition of talent than performing stuff you’ve done before. So I was in bed in Hull one night, and the idea came of a chat show where I didn’t know who I’d be interviewing until I had to have a conversation with them.”
The six shows have been pre-recorded, so he knows how it’s gone when we speak.
He tells me that he really enjoyed it.
“There are some good chat shows out there, ones that are lively and glamorous, but they’ve started to be predictable and there’s a sameness now to them. Like Graham Norton, it’s still funny and he’s a brilliant host, but it seems a bit like it’s been done before.”
I suggest this might be why beloved Norton is branching out in to wine and novels.
“Maybe, for sure. I don’t know if people are going to enjoy what I did, but I loved it.
“I would love a longer run. Some of the chats were very serious and very funny in the same interview. If I go on to Ray (D’Arcy) or Ryan (Tubridy), they have a list of questions for every guest so in a sense the interview is kind of managed. There are still brilliant moments; I watched the Late Late Show recently and it was interesting.
“But I’m trying to do something different, something a bit more soulful.”
Tiernan admits that he didn’t know who a couple of his guests were when they came out. “They had to tell me. Because there are some people out there that are famous for things I’m just not aware of. One of the women on the show is well-known mostly because of being married to someone, and I just didn’t know that.
“But the key to it all was listening. You have to really listen to the person, and then go along with the first thing that comes in to your head, follow the conversation, and see where it naturally leads — whether they want to talk about that particular thing or not, I don’t know.”
If the show sounds quite revolutionary, that’s perhaps because it is — for RTÉ, anyway. Going out on Thursday nights, it’s an hour long with three guests per show as well as a sketch, some standup, and music. I can tell just from talking to Tiernan that the experience of it all has thrilled him. “I feel like it’s very old school,” he says.
I ask him if he’s glad to see the back of 2016. “I don’t think the year was particularly bad. There were certain stories that didn’t go the way we wanted them to; the whole Trump thing to me was a bit like watching Dallas.
“But the world has always been a scary place. There’s a dog down the road that can bite you, you know? I don’t think the world is safer or scarier, there are horrors everywhere. But part of our duty as humans is to help others.”
It’s here that another side of Tiernan I’m familiar with rears its head. For all his humour and comedy, he certainly has a deep, darker side. “The horror of war and famine have always been around, ever present. There has always been the horror of dictators. So there’s always been evil in the world, and there always will be. 2016 doesn’t have a monopoly on that.”
Having googled recent Tiernan news before our chat, I tell him that I read he’s been cleared of blasphemy by the broadcasting authority, after an interview in which he allegedly referred to the eucharist as “that fucking thing.”
“I absolutely didn’t say ‘oh the eucharist, that fucking thing’, so it was taken entirely out of context. My defence is a quote from Leonard Cohen which is, ‘You say I took the name in vain, I don’t even know the name…’” He goes on to finish the entire verse of ‘Hallelujah’. Clearly a fan, I point out that 2016 did rob us of some creative icons; Bowie, Prince, Cohen.
“I wept when I heard Cohen has died. I was driving from Cork City to Bantry when I heard the news and I did have a good old weep in the car. I had the opportunity to go and see him once a few years ago in Dublin, and I declined because I thought I would get too emotional.”
Tiernan says he’s not raging he didn’t get to see his idol live, and that he has a treasured book that a friend had signed for him that says ‘Dear Tommy, Love Leonard’.
There’s no doubt Tiernan is a strange fella, and that there’s something otherworldly about him. His intelligence, wit, and depth seem somewhat out of kilter with the very nature of celebrity these days; after all, we live in a world when his comical peer Des Bishop is doing Dancing with the Stars. But perhaps that’s what is so very special about Tommy Tiernan, and so charming. I’m excited to see his show, to be part of the unholy trinity, and I get the sense that the unpredictability is what keeps us all coming back for more.
For ticket information, see ticketmaster.ie
The Tommy Tiernan Show starts on RTÉ One on January 5 at 10.15pm
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