Television critics had two surprises this Christmas. First, the most-watched programme turned out to be the 9 o'clock news (how boring are we as a nation?), and second, Pat Shortt's much-maligned sketch show Killinaskully was the second-most-watched show, pulling in 757,000 viewers.
Critics probably didn't take this information well. Not only did it suggest we would we rather watch the news than a festive film on Christmas day, it also suggested we like Pat Shortt, the man the pundits love to hate. As Shortt embarks on a sell-out 19-date run in Vicar Street, Dublin, and prepares a brand new show for RTE in April, it looks like more bad news for the begrudgers.
Considering his success, both in comedy (first as one half of the duo the D'Unbelievables and then as a solo performer) and as an award-winning actor, it is surprising that Shortt never had ambitions to become either comic or thesp. He originally wanted to be a musician, and a jazz musician at that.
As a child in Thurles, he played in marching bands and there was a saxophone in the house (his grandmother, father and older brother all played the instrument). Leo Moran from The Saw Doctors, who Shortt once toured America with, said, "He's an amazing musician, one of the quickest. You could whistle a tune at him and he'd pick it up." Shortt says, "if I had been studying in school more than playing sax I probably would have got a better Leaving Cert and would have gone on to do computers or engineering. But I didn't."
Instead, he went to art school in Limerick and left after a year to double as a saxophone player and sound engineer for Jon Kenny, with whom he went on to form D'Unbelievables. "In the '80s you adapted," says Shortt. "You didn't say, 'I'm a saxophone player and that's all I'm going to do.' I never thought I was doing comedy; I was just having a bit of craic with Jon. The first time I found myself being called a comedian I found it very strange because we never even told jokes."
At first, the embryonic D'Unbelievables plied their trade in the pubs of Ireland, but they wanted to move into theatres. "This trendy comedy that we know now hadn't evolved and there was no scene," says Shortt. "I remember myself and Jon decided we wanted to do theatres and we rang various theatres in Dublin to see if we could get a slot and the notion of two fellas from the country doing comedy -- 'ye're off your f***in' heads! You're f***in' mad!' was the answer." But an appearance on the Late Late Show gave them the break they needed and they went on to become both television and live comedy favourites, including memorable cameos in Father Ted.
When Jon Kenny was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands in 2000, it put a stay on the double act. "I'd say if Jon and myself were to be brutally honest," says Shortt now, "if he hadn't got sick at that stage, we were working together 16 years and a transition was going to have to happen. When Jon got sick, I suppose that decided an awful lot for us without us having to make a decision."
The duo planned to regroup as soon as Kenny was well enough to do so, but eventually decided not to. After two years of not working, Shortt hit the road as a solo performer. He refers to that year as his 'chicken and chips' year, playing every hall in every town in the country, which amounted to an estimated 280 gigs in one year. It paid off. The gigs sold out and Shortt was approached by RTE to make Killinaskully.
In 2004, Kenny returned to the road with his own solo comedy tour but has also focused on straight acting and music, with roles in Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood and a tour with Sharon Shannon. Last year, he returned to form with a solo comedy show, Back To Front
Shortt is loved for his collection of characters from show band singers to oddball small town misfits, but his portrayal of 'culchie' Ireland has also brought its fair share of criticism. "I often think sometimes people try to intellectualise, and something has to be meaningful or deep and heavy. Look at Father Ted, it was daft, silly -- brilliantly written -- but absolutely daft."
Killinaskully's director Eugene O'Connor previously worked as a cameraman on Father Ted. The show is not solely Shortt's creation either. "People think everything is me, 'Pat Shortt f***in' writes it-directs it, paints it,' which is great, but the reality is it works like a film where the director is given a lot of leeway."
Shortt will write one or two episodes and then oversee the whole project and sometimes he has to go with ideas he does not like -- "That's what collaboration's all about."
He applies the same delegation to his business and says he tries not to let that side of things stress him out. "My job is to make people laugh. There is a very serious business side to the comedy business and that side of me is very straight and serious which is why I'm successful in what I do."
Besides, says Shortt, if he spent all his time worrying about the business, he wouldn't be very funny. "I do worry but I delegate, and I get on with what's making the business work, which is comedy and you can't do that if you're worried about things."
Garry Hynes, founder and artistic director of Druid Theatre, who directed Shortt and Jon Kenny in a production of The Lonesome West, said: "He's ambitious in the best possible sense of the word. I'm a huge admirer of the way he's built his career, the huge range of stuff he's done, and his ability to manage his career in such a really good fashion. He's serious about what he does, very talented and very funny."
While Shortt may be famous for his song The Jumbo Breakfast Roll or his latest single on the cash crisis, Where Did My Money Go?, he is becoming almost as well-known for his serious acting chops. Garry Hynes said she recognised an acting talent in Shortt: "It was clear to me when we did The Lonesome West that Pat was a proper actor."
His portrayal of Josie in Lenny Abrahamson's film Garage earned him a best actor award at the IFTAs. Abrahamson said he always had Shortt in mind for the role of Josie in Garage because he is 'a brilliant straight actor.' "Pat is able to let you have glimpses of the deeper inner life that Josie has. He moves seamlessly between almost high farce to very dark, truthful realistic performance."
The film also earned him the courtship of LA agents, who contacted him at his beautiful home in Ballyconnell, Co Limerick. "They wanted me to come out to LA, meet people, introduce me to directors and I just thought, 'f*** I don't really want to be doing this.' Killinaskully was in full flight, I had loads of work at home, and family and small kids [he has three children under 10 years of age], so the thoughts of going out to LA for six months didn't really appeal to me."
Now aged 41, Shortt takes the acting roles as they come, while continuing with his various television and live projects. "I'm really happy doing what I do. It's whatever makes you happy."
He has plenty on the go anyway, with a new television series coming to RTE in April, a new film, Souled Out, getting a release and a film script of his own in the works. His energy seems boundless. Leo Moran from The Sawdoctors says, "He's a ball of energy and imagination. He's like a whirlwind when he comes into a room. His energy is his greatest asset. He makes things happen."
It's not likely that energy will run out any time soon. Bad news for critics.
Pat Shortt's new live show 'The Hall' runs at Vicar Street, Dublin, until Sunday February 1st.