Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Tommy Tiernan interview (2013)
This is it for this batch of long-forgotten interviews. It's with the great Irish comic Tommy Tiernan. In checking to see if I'd posted this one before (I hadn't), I noticed my first interview with him was two years to the day earlier. This one is from April 5, 2013; the previous one was from April 5, 2011. Maybe that's the day he sets aside for press every year. Each time I speak with him I come away impressed at how much thought he gives to questions.
April 5, 2013
"Hey, look, I just throw the stuff out there; other people decide if it’s controversial. I certainly don’t!"
– Tommy Tiernan
Tommy Tiernan: Hello.
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Thomas.
TT: Hi, how are you?
GM: I’m okay. Our power is out so I’m on my cell phone.
TT: Oh, my.
GM: Anyway, how are you?
TT: I’m more powered up than that. I’m fine.
GM: How are the Maritimes treating you?
TT: The Maritimes are great. I’m in Moncton today.
GM: Lucky you.
TT: Really? (laughs) No, Moncton is fine. I can cope with Moncton. It’s okay.
GM: I was talking to Brendan Grace, your countryman, a few weeks ago. He said when he plays in Newfoundland, it almost feels like a part of Ireland that has sailed away. Do you get that impression?
TT: There seems to be an appetite for things Irish there. Newfoundland is about the size of Ireland anyway. Yeah, I definitely get that sense. The show that I’m doing right now is very Irish. I spend most of my year touring rural Ireland. Forty weeks of the year, I’d say, I spend going around performing shows in places that normally wouldn’t have any stand-up comedy in them.
GM: In theatres?
TT: No, it’d be hotel function rooms, which, strangely, have turned out to be more enjoyable than performing in theatres. I’ve noticed that there’s an obedience with a theatre crowd. It’s a formal event, practically. Whereas in a hotel function room, the audience have been in that room for other things. The chairs aren’t permanent fixtures; there’s usually a bar in it. So it’s much more of a community hall feeling about it. And the energy is better in those rooms. People feel more confident and they’re more boisterous. There’s just better energy in them.
GM: But not to the point of disruption, I would imagine.
TT: Oh, verging on it sometimes, yeah. Absolutely, God, yeah. I mean, it’s not quite the Blues Brothers scene in that chicken shack with bottles being thrown at the chicken fencing in front of them, but they can be wild. I prefer them, to be honest with you. The shows I’m performing here are full of stories from that kind of touring and full of stories that appeal to people in those venues. There was a real genuinely fantastic response to the show in St. John’s. In Moncton tonight where the flavour is more French than Irish, I will be curious to see how well received the stories are. I’m ready for the adventure of tonight to see what happens.
GM: You do these tours throughout Ireland doing other material, but along the way you gather material about doing the tour. It’s kind of meta.
TT: The show is very much about being Irish. There’s stuff about family in it and there’s stuff about religion and all that, but a lot of the curiosities in the show are about being Irish and what that means to be Irish. And I’m not able to change it suddenly. Like, I’m not going to walk out in front of the French Canadians in Moncton tonight and spend an hour and a half talking about their lives. I guess maybe I’m turning into a folk act. If Buffy Saint-Marie can come to small-town Ireland and sing songs on the Native American modern Canadian experience, then there’s hope for me. I guess it’s turning more into folk comedy.
GM: Here’s some good trivia for you: New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada. Most people think of Quebec.
TT: Of course. Is New Brunswick therefore more French than Quebec?
GM: No. Their government uses both French and English. In Quebec it’s only French and in the other provinces it’s only English.
TT: Oh. I’d always pigeon-holed Quebec as the French epicenter of Canada. There you go.
GM: Oh, it is. It’s just that New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province. Anyway, is it because you came up in the clubs, which I assume you did, that you like this more raucous atmosphere than the staid theatre crowd?
TT: I think so, yeah. Those hotel venues have limitations as well. You can’t go all crazy jazz hands on them. They want it delivered to them in simplified, easy ways. They are predominantly small towns, big rural hinterlands, so there’s no meta with them. You’re there to make them laugh. You can talk about whatever you want as long as it’s funny. Whereas in the theatres, I think you’re allowed to be a little bit more theatrical. The audience are a bit more indulgent of you in the theatre.
GM: You can take your time.
TT: I think so, yeah. Physically there wouldn’t be alcohol in the room. The theatres have their plus sides and the hotel rooms have their limitations. I think the adventure for me is trying to make the hotel rooms work. It’s more of a marketplace kind of stand-up. It’s more like standing on a few fruit crates and trying to get the attention of passersby in downtown Marrakesh (laughs). And I think that’s better. I prefer that.
GM: When you do the larger towns in Ireland, it’s not still a hotel, is it?
TT: Oh no, it is, yeah. Yep, absolutely. In the larger towns you do a hotel room that might fit a thousand or 1500 people in it. And when you’re in the smaller towns, you’re probably talking about somewhere between 4- and 700. So that’s the only difference, really.
GM: Some comics of your stature might say, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that. That’s beneath me.’
TT: Oh, God, well if you can imagine a comic from St. John’s who spent his life touring Newfoundland, that’s where I’m at. My ambition is with the show really rather than with global domination. I know global domination is possible for some people and it’s financially rewarding and all that type of stuff. But I just enjoy that more. I find it demanding and challenging and lovely all at the same time. We do the show, we go for a few drinks at a local pub afterwards and then we drive the next day 20 or 30 miles to the next town. And we do that 40 weeks of the year. I just enjoy it. It means more to me. It seems more relevant to who I am and to my countrymen and –women. It’s ambitious but in a different kind of way. I’m ambitious for the material rather than for my profile, I guess.
GM: You mentioned you talk about what it means to be Irish. I know you have a whole show on that, but can you tell me in a nutshell what it means?
TT: Oh God, no, I couldn’t tell you in a nutshell. I might be able to show you a nutshell and say, ‘That’s what it means.’ (laughs) I guess one of the questions I have is I’m not sure that we’re European. There’s a huge history of pre-Celtic trade between north Africa and the west coast of Ireland. I have a theory that Irish people are part-Celt but that’s not the whole story. We’re also part anemic Algerian. So just throwing stuff like that out at an audience and seeing if it has resonance. We have stuff in common with other Catholic countries like Italy and Spain and Mexico, but we’re not really European in the sense of Belgians or French or Germans. I think the north African kind of laziness, wildness, slightly uncouth… That’s more who we are, really, than complicated, cosmopolitan Parisians, you know?
GM: You gotta be careful now. You don’t want to court more controversy, Tommy.
TT: Hey, look, I just throw the stuff out there; other people decide if it’s controversial. I certainly don’t! (laughs)
GM: “Tommy Tiernan says Africans are lazy and uncouth!”
TT: I know, but, see, that’s more misinterpretation. I meant north Africans! (laughs)
GM: And yourself, as well.
GM: And is this why you don’t seek out the trappings of superstardom? Because the Irish are more of a modest people?
TT: No, without any kind of intellectual rationalization for it; it just feels right. It just feels that this is the place I’m supposed to be, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. You can only call it in the moment. And it’s curious because I very much enjoy talking to Irish people when I’m abroad. And it’s more so in Australia than in Canada. When I tour Australia, it’s mainly Irish exiles that come to the show. I have a fierce sense of pride in talking to them. I’m glad to be a representative of Ireland for them, or something like that. So this tour in Canada, where I play mostly to Canadians, is kind of a stepping into the unknown slightly. Like I said, the show in St. John’s might have been kind of a cultural place to start because of the Irish connection there, but it’ll be really interesting going from Moncton now across to Victoria over the next two or three weeks. I suppose what will emerge, hopefully, is points of contact between Irish people and Canadian people. It’s more like I’m coming to this culture with stories of another culture and looking for places where we can shake hands, but laugh most importantly. I don’t want people leaving the show thinking that was very civil. Let’s meet in the wild places. Let’s meet laughing would be my aspiration for the show.
GM: When you were talking about your theory that Ireland isn’t really part of Europe, you were sounding serious. Is it that this is a serious thought of yours that you’re making funny, or is it a silly thought that you’re making funnier? You know what I mean?
TT: I know what you mean, yeah. No, a silly thought would be we’re the Inuits of Europe. That would be a silly thought. But maybe there’s truth in it, as well, you know? It sounds right. There’s some unchartered part of my own head and the heads of the people who come to see the show when I say it. They go, ‘Yeah. Yeah, we agree. We hadn’t thought of that.’ We know you don’t claim responsibility for thinking about it yourself, but it seems right. Like, if I had said, in terms of an Irish crowd, we are the Nigerians of Europe, they’d go, ‘No.’ There’s no resonance in that. So I don’t know if it’s a serious point made funny or a funny point told funny. I know it wouldn’t be in the show if it wasn’t making people laugh, but there seems to be more to it than that, though.
GM: Do you come up with these theories and bits when you go for drinks after the show?
TT: Sometimes, yeah. Bob Dylan had an album a few years ago called, Love and Theft. It was full of references to stuff that he’d read. He even lifted a couple of lines from a Japanese crime writer. I magpie stuff. I come across an idea somewhere in a conversation or in a book and I say wow, that resonates with something I’ve been feeling and then I try and spin it into something that’s useful on stage. The prime quality something needs on stage is that it’s funny. If it’s not funny then no matter how clever it might be, it doesn’t belong in the show. I have offices full of that kind of material (laughs), stuff that’s just not funny. The comparison of stuff that I come up with that’s funny compared to not funny, it’s even more extreme than an iceberg, where one-tenth of it is above the water. It’s huge. So I have tons of unfunny material.
GM: And you just know it or is it tested unfunny?
TT: No, I don’t know it. I come up with the idea on my own or whatever and then I go on stage that night with the ideas that I’ve collected during the day and I just know without even saying the words which of them are funny and which of them are not. I think it’s the pressure of the performance. It gives me a perspective on the material that I don’t have just walking around during the day, unless I was cornered by hoodlums with baseball bats saying, ‘Make us laugh or get pumped.’ Then that might produce a necessary perspective. But no, during the day just by collecting ideas, as many of them as I can. It’s rare that more than 10 percent of them actually work on stage.
GM: I heard Eddie Pepitone on Marc Maron’s recently.
TT: I love Eddie.
GM: He was raving about you.
GM: He thinks you’re the best he’s ever seen.
TT: Oh, my God, well he’s not in his right mind, though, either, is he? (laughs) That’s a great compliment. He’s a great comic.
GM: You might not consider yourself a celebrity, but you are, right?
TT: Uh, not really. There’s nothing in my life that would back that up.
TT: Well, not really. I travel with four grumpy men in a van around Ireland and I work three or four days a week and I’m home three or four days a week. There’s nothing in my life that would suggest that word. And Ireland is a great place, as well. I’m well-known in Ireland. But being well-known in Ireland just means being available to people if they see you in the street. I would say Irish people like Colin Farrell or the guys from U2, Liam Neeson, they’re celebrities and they work that world. I certainly don’t.
GM: You don’t live in a castle?
TT: Uh, no. (laughs) I don’t live in a castle, no! And even if I did, I would still be just down in the shops at 9 o’clock looking for carrots. (laughs) It’s something I’m very grateful for. That kind of life is the kind of life you imagine somebody like Colin Farrell might live. That’s a great adventure. Stories about that type of life and the awfulness about it as well are stories that I’d like to hear but it’s certainly not the life I’m… There are people that are well-known in Ireland and not too well known outside of Ireland. Once you become a global phenomenon, even in Ireland stuff changes for you. But I’m just well-known in Ireland and am able to work in other countries. I’m not anywhere near those guys in terms of experiences they’ve had to go through. Nor would I want to be. I’m challenged enough by my life as it is.
GM: You’re still a man of the people.
TT: Oh, I wouldn’t even qualify it like that. I’m still struggling. I’m still shuffling from day to day trying to cope with my own head. One of things about my stuff being shown on Canadian TV and people liking it is an opportunity to come and work here, which is amazing. I’m very grateful for that.
GM: How long have you been doing stand-up?
TT: Since about 1996. So what’s that? About, good God, 17 years, is it? Good Lord.
GM: Does it get easier or harder as you go along? I would imagine the easier part is you’re more experienced, know how to deliver jokes and have a good feeling about what will get a laugh. And on the other hand you might wonder if you’ve said everything you can say.
TT: Yep, yep. It’s both of those things. And that’s why I think if you keep going, in a sense you should get more adventurous because you’ve already explored one type of thing. You have to keep exploring so what will I do next? If your commitment is to the work rather than to maintaining your profile, then I think that’s easier because you’re in a better position to take chances. You can say, ‘Here are the stories I want to tell now I don’t care how many people want to come and see the show but these are the stories I want to tell.’ I absolutely would not be free from maintaining my profile desires, but the way we kind of sometimes think: the way Picasso was able to change his style, his commitment was to the work rather than, say, a boy band whose commitment seems to be for staying famous and keeping people dancing. It goes back to the hotel room thing: If I’m going to stand in front of a thousand people in the hotel room who’ve had two or three drinks on them and are moving freely around from seat to seat and there’s great energy and excitement, I’m obliged to make them laugh. That’s the deal. There’s a contradiction there, or there’s a tension there, between you don’t want to be repeating yourself, you don’t want to feel staid, you don’t want to feel as if the stuff that you’re doing has been done by other people, you want to keep taking chances with your stories, you want to keep yourself interested in your own material, keep developing. But you also have to try and make the thousand drunk people laugh.
GM: You want to stay true to yourself and not pander, so you’re walking that line.
TT: Yeah, and that kind of tension means you’re neither completely pandering nor are you completely self-indulgent. And maybe that tension is demanding but this is where you walk so you’ve no choice, really.
GM: Comedy is so popular now and there are so many comedians that of course we see some who are competent but their material doesn’t seem true to them. They’re saying only what will get a laugh.
TT: I have sympathy for them. I don’t particularly want to watch them but I have sympathy for them. (laughs) And the vast majority of stuff we see on television isn’t interesting anyway. It’s kind of generic. I guess the hope when you go to see a live show is that you get a bit more than you will on the telly. Success can be a bad thing for a comic, as well. It’s been a curse for a lot of comics. Their material just seems to get worse and worse and worse. Maybe it’s that thing where you start doing stand-up and you get good at it, then you’re rewarded and you’re hugely famous but you’ve said everything you’ve wanted to say. And then the promoter says you should really go on tour again; you’ll make $12 million on your next tour, so get a show together. Deep down you know you’ve said it all already so you say it again but in a … Randy Newman has this great line: He said, “Each album I make is like one I’ve made before, except not as good.” (laughs)
GM: I interviewed Russell Peters years ago (2007) and he said his next tour back then would be his last using racial humour. Then I spoke to him a year or so ago and asked how that went. He said he couldn’t stop! They wouldn’t let him.
TT: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s Russell’s cross (laughs). He carries it well.
GM: You have five kids?
GM: Your website says five. Is there a new one?
TT: There’s a new one, yeah, but he’s a year old so I don’t know why he hasn’t made it onto the website yet. Maybe he’s too young.
GM: What’s the age range?
TT: Nineteen down as far as one.
GM: Wow. So this is why you like to go on the road?
TT: I’ve come up with the idea of endless touring, yeah. (laughs) At the moment it’s half and half. It’s three or four days on, three or four days off.
GM: The kids are all at home with you?
TT: They’re all in the same town. The 19-year-old lives by himself and the next two live with their mother but they’re all over at our house two or three days a week, as well.
GM: Is the 19-year-old interested in show biz?
TT: No, he comes on the road with me, though, in Ireland. He’s kind of apprentice tour manager and he’s getting an education in sound engineering or sound technician or something. But he’s getting sort of an apprenticeship in both those things. I’m delighted to have him on the road with me. It’s great.
GM: Stray Sod is the title of the tour. Do you come up with the title after the show or do you develop a show around an idea of a title?
TT: The show is constantly developing so it changes all the time. So I just needed a title for this one and I like a phrase that seems symbolic of the show rather than has a literal meaning. So Stray Sod is a notion that exists in parts of Ireland that part of the Earth is enchanted, and not necessarily in a good way. You can stand on a stray sod and become confused and lost and unable to find your way home. And what you need to do in order to unwork the curse of the stray sod – ‘curse’ is probably too strong a word; unweave its power – is put your jacket on inside out and then you’ll be able to find your way home. I just liked the idea of Ireland being the stray sod of Europe, that the whole country is enchanted. And again, not necessarily in a good way. That there’s an opportunity in Ireland to perceive things differently and not just via alcohol! (laughs) I like that idea, that notion. It’s not one that’s too literal or too pin-downable. It maintains an energy so I like it.
GM: As you were describing it, I was thinking it probably was made up by a drunk Irishman to his gullible wife.
TT: Well, there you go. That may well have been where it came from or that may just be one of its other purposes.
GM: Tommy, it’s always nice talking to you. Thank you very much.
TT: My pleasure.
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