Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tommy Tiernan, comedian. Record breaker. Seanchaí?

"His father had long talked of the travelling storytellers. He said they possessed brilliant powers; they brought the long-gone past to life vividly... In his father's view, a tale with the feeling taken out of it had 'no blood and was worth very little.'" Frank Delaney, Ireland

Image from here.

There is a roar of approval when Tommy Tiernan takes to the stage at the Cat Laughs in Kilkenny. The room is packed with ticketholders and comedians who have come to see him in action. Stewart Francis, Andy Parsons and Maeve Higgins have been on before but the reaction from the audience to the man from Navan taking the stage shows how eagerly anticipated he is. It's his second show of the night, with one more to go.

"The Irish" he says, "We don't really know if we're racist, or just having the craic." So begins a routine born of an indepth knowledge of the country and its people. He's done his research, he knows the reaction. Where to place each word and how. We're watching a master at work. Seeing him up close is one of the main reasons I'm volunteering here at all.

Like so many others, I got to know of Tommy through the Late Late Show. I remember vividly that crucifixion sketch and as religious as I was, laughing heartily about it, because at its base was that element of truth that all good comedy is based on. His infectious and quick wit, his "proud to be from N-y-avan" stance and his cheekiness were all things I liked.

For years though that was the only view I had of him. I didn't go to comedy shows so the controversy with uncle Gaybo was all I'd hear about. I saw him once at Vicar Street at a company night out and either I wasn't in the mood or I just didn't get it - he was amusing but not amazingly funny. I thought his crowd interaction ("Did anyone lose a geography teacher?" he asked as one man made his way to the toilets) was spot on, but that was it. That changed though when I moved to London and a(n Irish) flatmate introduced me to Tiernan's first DVD, Live.

The first time I watched the DVD I was transfixed. To say Tiernan was funny is such an understatement. He takes simple stories, every day occurrences and a quintessential Irishness and creates a spellbinding tapestry of words and laughter. His sketch about Irish music in a pub is one of my favourites and I often watch it just to remind myself how storytelling should be done. I love the Declan Moffat marathon sketch as well.

I can almost quote the DVD verbatim ('oranges from London') and have since bought all of his live DVDs, the Jokerman series and have seen him live twice. I take great delight in telling people about his sketches - Irish infestation, African priests, laughing at a funeral, the Cork accent all spring to mind - and would probably be termed an ambassador. Kilkenny though was a pinnacle.

"If there's one thing I'm genuinely racist - KKK racist - about", he booms from the stage, "it's the English accents on car sat navs. Feck you I want to say, I'll turn off wherever I want. I'm not that happy with you knowing where I'm going anyways!"

The audience love it. He's doing what all good storytellers do, evoking images from every day life to make them laugh. Like Delaney's seanchaí in his novel Ireland, Tiernan takes the audience on a familiar, comfortable journey through the words he uses, just looking at things from a different perspective.

"An Irish sat nav though", he says "would be different. You'd have a yearly update and the immortal phrases 'Straight on, you can't miss it' and 'Jaysis I told you that already'. Though really you'd probably just get all the directions in one go at the start".

His show continues through scenes of Irish suicide bombers (a bale of briquettes and a zip firelighter) through a new child in his life all the way to a graphic scene describing why women prefer to be on top during sex (so they can see the curtains that need changing).

His preparation is evident - he knows the material and like all good comedians probably lets it evolve, tweaks it every so often into something new. Even though he knows the story intimately with impeccable timing, he manages to inject something into the performance to make the audience believe it's spontaneous, off the cuff, just for them. In his own words:

“The show is like a conversation. You’d never sit at home and plan what you are going to say to your friend. It’s a bit like that but the audience’s only response is laughter.

“If I have an idea I try it out on stage. Then when you are trying out that idea another one comes to you on stage and you just try and lengthen them so that over the course of a run the show grows and develops and the stuff that develops is very organic.”

At next day's comedy football match, Tiernan shows no signs of running away from whatever controversy he's caused the night before with a remark about Madeline McCann. He tears around the pitch with the rest of his team, never afraid to tackle the ball or a player, and happily poses for photos with the team at the end. He is just one of the lads.

His fitness seems good. He doesn't do drink or drugs any more and in a recent interview, Tommy talks about his physicality on stage: the jumps, leaps and bounds he does:

"I think in Ireland we have a different style that is a more discursive or rambling style. We’re all influenced by different things but I think to get a true, muscular response from the audience, to get them rocking back and forth in their seats, it has to come from somewhere authentic inside you, you can’t fake it.

You should see me afterward, I’m like a deflated balloon afterward, totally punctured, spent, I’m over, I’m yesterday. It’s not premeditated though, it’s instinctive, I’m not being clever."

He's not everyone's cup of tea, as recent remarks about down syndrome come back again as a reason "he's lost it". But his job isn't to be safe, or to be universally liked, it's to make his audience laugh, to entertain them. That takes a lot of work.

Indeed, even before his show when he arrives at the hotel, you can see he needs the time to prepare. I approach him to tell him I'm a fan, that his music sketch continues to inspire my method of storytelling online

"Oh really?" he says, genuinely interested. "How did that happen? What are you doing with it?"
and I have time for the quick photo before the crowds see who I'm talking to and he's forced to retreat from the autograph hunters, the camera holders and other passionate fans. Later though he introduces me to his girlfriend and says thanks for the chat. Obviously, I'm delighted.

Last week Tommy broke a ticket selling record as all 12,000 tickets sold out for his three "Bovinity" Marquee shows in Cork. No other artist, Irish or International, has ever managed to sell out three shows at the Marquee to date, apparently. It's an astounding amount of seats to sell and a testament to both his talent and to the Irish hunger for stories, for something we can pass on, quote to our friends and strangers, to both explain ourselves and get a deeper understanding of who we are.

Following the Wikipedia definition of how seanchaí:

made use of a range of storytelling conventions, styles of speech and gestures that were peculiar to the Irish folk tradition and characterized them as practitioners of their art.
it would be hard pressed not to admit that Tiernan now does the same. With America at his feet (he recently got 10 minutes on Letterman, the same as Bill Cosby the week before) and his shows in Ireland continuing to sell out, Tiernan's is one story that continues to be told.

Tommy's last dates at Vicar Street for Bovinity are July 17 to 20 and he's joining Hector for the Tommy and Hector show at the Carlsberg Comedy Festival on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 July. Tommy's website is at tommytiernan.com

What do you think? Tommy Tiernan - following the best traditions of seanchaí or just another comedian? Are you a fan?


  1. I think Tommy Tiernan was once absolutely amazing, he has tons of material from before the first dvd that is probably his best stuff("foxs glacier mints" being my favourite).

    Like most comedians, as time goes on he declined slightly, but I feel that his adventures in the US and attempts to change his style for there have hugely damaged his great delivery.

    I think we have a huge return to form due at some point in the future if he were to turn extremely bitter... most people dont like that though.

  2. Damn he's good. Has the finger on the pulse of Irish life since he began. I'd love to see him do some political satire. In the meanwhile, he is now doing a show with Hector on i102-104, it's well worth checking out.

  3. B, I agree with you in many ways - the irishness of what he used to do was possibly one of the funniest things about him. Almost like he emerged from Newgrange and survived on bacon, guinness and monster munch.

    His delivery didn't seem that bad in Kilkenny anyways. And apparently he's been getting standing ovations from the 4,000 in the Marquee in Cork...

    As for most people - well, they're fickle about what they like, but easily distracted too. It all depends on who the flavour of the day is.

    I look forward to seeing the reaction to Chris Rock this year!

  4. @ciara - hello there :) Agreed on the satire though I don't know if he's interested enough.

    I always thought he'd have made a great priest though. Completely unconventional and mad as a badger but he'd have known how to communicate the story!

    Looking forward to checking out that show! :)

  5. How could Chris Rock get anything but a brilliant response, he's pretty flawless... like a far better Eddie Murphy that's actually likable!

  6. I saw Tommy live a couple of years ago, and he was grand, I'd watch him again happily. But a couple of months later I saw Lenny Henry live, and there was just no comparison, Lenny was top notch. Tommy's good, but not mystically good or anything.

  7. Really Thrifty? Is Lenny still good? I had seen him on new shows and thought maybe he was getting stale. Delighted to hear he's back on track! I love Tommy, his Declan Moffat skit is something that gets quoted over and over again at various events in my little life... "OOWHAAAAAT has happened to Declan?! Ah don't know, Aah don't know..." and the running...I love to immitate the running during sporting event warm-ups - everyone recognises it! That, and the Pheobe run of course, from Friends. Oh Comedy. Where would we be without it!?

  8. Lenny Henry's funniest moment is his appearance on Keith Chegwin's "blacks aren't funny" scene from extras.

  9. Lenny ruled, the live show was fantastic. More character driven than gag driven, but brilliant. And twice the length of any other stand up show I've seen.

  10. Hi Darragh.

    I just rediscovered your blog and have it on Google reader so I'll not loose it again.

    I like that clip of Tiernan. I know he joked about Down syndrome last year, supposedly mocking the way people with DS speak, but I never saw the thing for myself. I don't think I'd like it, but it might be a fantastic and provocative look at perceptions, challenging the audience and how they think of DS. If so, grand, go for it.

  11. Lose it not loose it!

    Bah, I was reading another post and my error was blaring out from your side-bar.

  12. I thought the Down's Syndrome material was respectful and inclusive.. and hyped-to-hell out of all proportions. The DS characters referred to in that section came across as the coolest people in those stories.