Friday, June 5, 2009

Boston Comedy Interview: Tommy Tiernanof The Fellas

There’s an obvious difference between American and Irish comedians, says Tommy Tiernan, one of Ireland’s best. He says his fellow Irish comics tend to meander a bit more, in contract to the more precise, well-rehearsed Americans who cross the Atlantic to play the U.K. So it would follow that a conversation with Tiernan would meander just as much, and be just as enjoyable as his comedy.

I spoke with Tiernan this week about his shows tonight and tomorrow with Dylan Moran (interview coming soon) at the Comedy Connection Wilbur Theatre, called “The Fellas.” The show is part of a tour that will also feature Ardal O’Hanlon on other stops. Tiernan, Moran, and O’Hanlon are legendary in the U.K., but not known quite as well here. Americans would know Tiernan from last year’s Comedy Central special, Something Mental, Moran from his roles in films like Shaun of the Dead, and O’Hanlon from BBC America or PBS repeats of Father Ted.

Neither Tiernan nor Moran have been to Boston before, so the shows are a rare treat for Boston comedy fans.

How frequently have you played the States?

I started going over probably about three or four years ago. And it was more of a curiosity thing than any notion of a career move or anything like that. And I had gone over and started doing the comedy clubs in New York on Monday and Tuesday nights. I did that for a while, and then I got involved with Arnold [Engelman], the promoter who’s doing these shows. So we did runs in theaters, and did one in New York. A few in New York actually, and one in LA. And then started doing a little in comedy clubs in Nebraska and Washington, Texas. San Francisco.

How was that experience?

It was great, actually. I loved doing the comedy clubs. I thought they were fantastic. There’s an element of solitude when you’re doing theaters, one-man shows. There’s more life in the comedy clubs than there is when you’re in one theater for six weeks in New York. There’s more sort of peripheral action in the comedy clubs. I really enjoyed that. And I found the range of crowds across America fascinating.

I did Pittsburgh, and I found that they were up for anything. Didn’t matter what you were talking about, as long as it was funny. There was no holds barred in terms of political correctness or any of that kind of stuff. And then I found when I went to the clubs in San Francisco, I found those more conservative than places that you might have thought were more blue collar states. I found it really interesting that there was a kind of conservatism to the liberals that was a surprise for me. I found when I played in front of predominantly black audiences that they loved all the material about families and sex and children and all that type of stuff, but they weren’t prepared to tolerate any material about religion. They just weren’t interested in that at all.

I played a club in Washington where the owner of the club came up to me and told me not to curse as much onstage.

Do you not find that in clubs in England?

Oh god, no. I think the idea of a comedy performance in a club or in a theater is that, while that performance is happening, all rules are there to be broken. That’s the nature of the beast, that you’re there to be irresponsible. You’re there to be reckless. That’s the whole point of it. It’s kind of a sacred act of divilment, is a word we have in Ireland. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

It’s not a term I’m familiar with. Don’t know if it’s slang or…

No it’s slang. It’s the opposite of urban slang, it’s rural slang. So yes, all those experiences were interesting to me, that there was so much diversity over there. And they were all very enjoyable.

Have you ever been to Boston?

I took a holiday on Cape Cod once. We stopped in Boston for a night or two and the only thing I did of note was stand outside a bar called “Tiernan’s.” That’s the only thing I ever did there. I never played there. But I’m aware of its comic history and the great comics who have come out of there.

Who are the ones you’re familiar with?

People like Steven Wright and Denis Leary. I know there were people who worked there – there’s a DVD I have called When Standup Stood Out and it’s kind of a biography of Boston as an area that encouraged wildness, I suppose, in a sense. Or a particular kind of clever comedy, I suppose is the phrase.

It was definitely a great scene in the 80s. There was a point where there was a boom here, I’ve heard there was a similar sort of thing that happened across the U.K. with comedy.

In Ireland, it was different. The boom in the U.K. happened, and there was never really much of a scene in Ireland. And Irish comics would go over to London to gain recognition and to earn money and stuff like that. And from the early 90s, actually no, from the mid-90s, from ’95, ’96 onward, stages started opening all over Ireland. And that trend, a renaissance, not even a renaissance, because it didn’t exist beforeahand, that was when Irish stand-up comedy started to become a distinctive thing on its own, as opposed to just a branch of English comedy.

Was there a distinct influence coming from both American and English stand-up comedy?

No, I think the Irish sense of humor was very much… I think it was a kind of surrealism. When English comedy, like Monty Python, it has a kind of silliness to it. And the Irish stuff was more, it was kind of silly but with a bit of soul. It was kind of playing around with language looking for a beautiful phrase, rather than looking for the joke. It was less joke-based than English comedy. In comparison with American comedy, a lot of it is so precise. It’s so chiseled and Irish stuff is very meandering. It’s full of talk and it’s not the most precise thing in the world.

American acts come over here and are enjoyed because they’re a revelation to us. They’re so exact in everything and so well worked out and word-for-word and so sharp. There’s almost an aggression to a lot of it, you know. And the Irish stuff is more – I don’t know if this is a good or bad analogy – but if you imagine a man in a field shouting at cows... [laughs]

I’ve seen that. I grew up in a rural area. It’s easy for me to imagine.

In American comedy, the cows go exactly where the man wants them to, and they stand there for however long he wants them to stand there. In Irish comedy, they move slowly, they wander everywhere, but the man keeps shouting anyway. So I guess our stuff is a lot more meandering.

Have you ever read Mark Twain’s “How to Tell A Joke?” No, actually, I think it’s “How to Tell A Story.”

What’s his book, “How To Tell A Joke?”

It’s not a book, it’s an essay. He talks about how he prefers when somebody moves around the point and never quite gets to it and tells fifteen or twenty story before he gets to the point of the original story that he was going to tell.

The Mississippi must have originated in Ireland, because that would be very much what we’re like.

How did you, Dylan, and Ardal decide to make a your of the Three Fellas show?

I guess because we all come from in and around the same part of Ireland and we all have quite successful individual careers. And I’d say we’re about ten years from working with each other. You know when you’re starting off, you’re put on bills with other people. And because we’re successful on our own, we tend to work on our own. And so the opportunity to work together, almost as if we were starting out again is great. It’s as much a social thing, really, it’s the opportunity to spend some time with each other was the icing on the cake. I have great regard for them, personally and professionally. I think they’re good men and they’re fabulous comics.

Since the three of you have very high profiles in England and lower profiles in America, was that part of the consideration, that three of you might crack the American market together rather than alone.

I don’t think any of us are thinking of cracking the American market. It’s more of us thinking, well, we’re bound to get some people if the three of us go together. [laughs] Rather than a long term plan, it’s more of an immediate plan. If the three of us stick our heads above the parapet at the same time, maybe we won’t all get shot. If nobody comes to the shows, we won’t take it personally. There’s three of us there, so if nobody comes, at least we’ll have each other.

What was the six-week walking tour or Ireland mentioned in your bio? Were you playing smaller clubs?

In Ireland, the notion of clubs wouldn’t exist like it does in America. Each town doesn’t have a comedy club. There might be, in the whole country, there might be five or six comedy clubs. What happens is, there are a lot of small, little theaters where you could do a comedy show, but we wouldn’t have a regular thing of a club working two or three nights a week, ever week of the year. The walking tour was, I guess I was looking for a type of Huckleberry Finn experience of my own country.

So I spent six weeks, I plotted out a tour, and I spent six weeks walking the roads and across a few mountains, going from town to town and doing comedy. It most certainly did not live up to any expectations. I spent most of the time on roads that were far too busy for the size of them. I don’t know what you’d call them in America. There were barely, barely two lanes. And going in opposite directions. The notion of being able to walk around Ireland doesn’t exist anymore because there’s so much traffic. It actually became very stressful. But I did it anyway.

Who influenced you to start comedy?

I guess people like Lenny Bruce, would be the main guy, really. I would have got into him through being a Bob Dylan fan, and then from Bob Dylan, into the beats, and from the beats, into Lenny Bruce. So even before I had heard his material, I like the idea of him. I’d heard about this taboo-breaking, improvising genius.

I managed to find a tape, which was his live at Carnegie Hall show, and I just listened to that over and over and over again for years. I didn’t understand a lot of the references and his style of comedy wouldn’t, it’s just me, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I’m a lot more energetic, sort of wilder onstage. But I think I fell in love with the idea of stand-up comedy because of him, and how serious it could be, and how dramatic it could be, as well as how funny.

And once I actually started doing it, it was all the usual suspects. I would be a big fan of Bill Cosby, Bill Hicks, Denis Leary would have been doing it, all of them were heroes of mine starting our. And a lot of American comedy now that I really, really like. People like Patton Oswalt and Dave Attell and Demetri Martin. They’re all guys that I really like.

How was the recent David Letterman appearance?

I’d done it about two or three weeks ago. It was fine. I’ve been doing stand-up now about thirteen years, and I’m going to be forty in a couple of weeks. So I know no one individual thing really makes that much of a difference. So it was just another night to me.

One of the curious things was, that was the third time I’d done it, and it was a learning experience, first of all, in terms of what you’re able to do as a comedian. I had just, two weeks prior to that, I had just done a show that was thirty-six hours long. I did continuous stand-up comedy for thirty-six hours. And at the end of that thirty-six hours, I realized that I probably only had about four minutes that was suitable for American television. So that was what I performed.

You know, you can kind of get into a comfort zone. Especially, I would be very well-known in Ireland, I would be very well-liked. So in a sense a lot of the work is done before I come onstage. And people are already on my side before I start to speak. And that can seduce you a little bit, I think. And maybe you can get a bit lazy, or maybe you aren’t as sharp as when you were starting out. And you might think, oh, I can do this. Look at how they’re reacting. And to go from that and then to put yourself in a situation where you’ve only got four minutes in front of people who don’t know who you are in a highly pressurized situation, it’s fantastic to see how you react to that. You actually get very, very nervous again. I actually don’t know that much at all, really. I’m not the expert that I thought I was. And from that point of view, it’s fantastic to do.

But it’s always a learning thing as well in terms of language. I had a line in a piece about, I talked about once where I shaved my sideburns off, and I shaved them that inch too far and I had crossed the thin line between punk and psychiatric patient, was the lines I had. And they told me I can’t say “psychiatric patient” on American network television because people will complain and write in. The second time I was on I had a line about fat lesbians. I wasn’t talking about women in particular, it was an image that I had, I said, “outside the house there were a bunch of fat lesbians with machine guns” was the line. And they told me that the lesbians can’t be fat. It’s always curious to encounter that.

On Irish television, you can curse. You can say “fuck” on Irish television and it’s okay. And then to go over to America and experience those types of things, it’s always interesting.

What were the circumstances under which you were doing thirty-six hours of straight stand-up?

I wanted to mark Easter. So the show started at three o’clock on Good Friday and went until dawn on Easter Sunday.

Where was this show?

It was a show in Galway, where I live in a theater called Nuns Island. It’s the world’s longest solo stand-up comedy show.

Since Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle were battling here over seven hours versus eight hours, I’m sure they’re both going to be severely disappointed.

Let’s put those guys to bed right now. Yeah, thirty-six hours.

How did you manage to do that? Were there breaks?

I set the gig up, and we were looking for a structure for it. How were we going to do it? So we said, why don’t we contact the Guinness Book of World Records and see what kind of rules they might impose. And they said for every hour of an endurance event, you’re entitled to a five-minute break. That’s what I did, I did an hour an took a five-minute break.

Was there somebody from Guinness there?

Absolutely, yeah. They were making sure the breaks were only five minutes long, they were making sure there were always ten people in the audience at any one time, none of whom could be connected to the show or asleep. We had a huge team of people working on the show to make sure we had crowds coming in at three, four, five o’clock in the morning. It was a community event, and I had a lot of people helping. It was a good thing to have done. I’m glad I did it.

Did anybody stay for the whole –

No. If anybody had stayed for the entire thirty-six hours, they would have held the endurance record, not me.

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