Edel Coffey manages to calm a fired-up David McSavage long enough to find out what he really thinks about Ireland, our excessive drinking, and why we’re all so miserable
David McSavage is wound up. That's normal. He is a man who gets exercised about things -- Irish politics, paedophile priests, vacuous television presenters, oddball publicans.
The second series of his comedy sketch show The Savage Eye has made him one of the most popular and controversial comedians on television, but he is almost as well known from his days as a street performer, where to walk past him was to run the risk of being publicly flayed by a sharp comment.
That's how McSavage rolls. His humour is uncomfortably close to the bone, from his take on Mary Robinson and her husband 'Housebound' who sits impotently with his head in a birdcage, to mercilessly mocking the vapid content of daytime television. Now he is gearing up to bring his live stand-up show I'm So Happy to Vicar Street tomorrow night.
McSavage is anything but happy, not in a miserable way, more in an existential angsty way. He's a bundle of nervous energy and swear words. He is ranting about a scene from The Savage Eye that is not quite coming together. "I'm in an inflatable going up the Liffey. It's supposed to be a pastiche of Apocalypse Now where he goes into the heart of darkness and I go to Central bank, Anglo Irish Bank and the Dail and I take out all the people responsible for ruining the country ... "
It's easy to see why this might be a problematic sketch. The show is collaborative. He writes with three other comedians, and the show is directed by East Is East director Damien O'Donnell, but the creative process can be difficult.
"Working with people is a fucking nightmare, okay? If I'm a painter, I've got my paint and palette and you can imagine somebody going in and saying, 'no, don't use purple there', and you go, 'what the fuck are you talking about? It's my painting you son of a bitch'. And then you've got your painting and RTE is the gallery and they say, 'no, you have to change this and this before you hang it in our gallery'. It's very tough, especially for me because I'm so oppositional."
The show is entirely focused on Irish society, from the pub to the priest, the politician to the drunk, but McSavage claims he couldn't care less about Ireland. "I do care in that, say, if we got invaded I'd be out there defending the people, but other than that I couldn't give a shite. To be quite honest, I thought the only way I could get commissioned was to do something about fucking Ireland because everyone is so fucking, excuse me, everyone is so insular. The whole political thing is a big, stupid soap opera. I'm fed up with talking about Ireland. I think being Irish is an actual mental illness."
It's hard to believe that McSavage is really as apathetic about Irish society as he says. He is acutely irritated by incompetence and injustice and comes from a veritable political dynasty (David Andrews is his father, Barry Andrews is his brother and Chris Andrews is his cousin).
He splutters. "A political dynasty? We're talking about fucking Dun Laoghaire. I think dynastic and Dun Laoghaire don't mix. There's nothing dynastic about Ireland and there never was."
There was never any danger of McSavage following his father and brother into the family business. "I wanted to get as far away from Ireland as possible." He is the black sheep of the family, a comedian and alcoholic with a sense of mischievous curiosity that verges into self-sabotage (he once decided to be the very worst he could be at the Edinburgh festival because there was an important critic in the house).
He was never academic, the school curriculum didn't suit him and as a result he felt a bit of a disappointment when he was growing up. "I just loved playing around, school was lost completely. I have that side of me which is more developed, that oppositional side."
The last time he had a drink was a pint of Guinness in the Leeson Lounge on December 8, 2003. What prompted the decision? "It was a slow, steady, incremental, full-on realisation. I was hungover, having panic attacks and having this fucking complete nervous fucking breakdown. I stopped drinking for a while and then sort of went back on it."
The trigger to finally stop, he says, was "too many nights in Renards sitting like a fucking eejit drunk at 3 o'clock in the morning with a big ratty head on you, drunk. And your body's going look, mate, just sort your shit out, we're tired of this drunk-sober-drunk-sober, it's enough, you've explored it, you're going nowhere, it's getting nowhere, you're sinning against your talent. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough."
He sounds exhausted just thinking about it.
As with everything else in McSavage's world, he has a shrewd take on the particular brand of alcoholism that is Irish alcoholism. "I think we've got it all back to front here. When you're fucking drinking and you're an arsehole and you've no ability to socialise because you've no self-esteem and the only way you can talk to women is by collapsing on top of them everybody knows you're an alcoholic and it's in public.
"Then, when you finally start challenging yourself and dealing with life sober, you keep quiet about it and go underground and meet other people and you're all anonymous. It should be the other way around."
McSavage is married with two sons, Jack, 11, and Daniel, 17. "He's [Daniel] very similar to me and that's worrying because I know all the shit I went through and all the mistakes I made. But he's very talented, he's a very good actor. I think I've got a mouth ulcer," he says, absent-mindedly.
It's hard not to know whether McSavage is being serious or playing the part of a man with his head in a birdcage. "I'm just going through lots of stuff at the moment," he says. "And I feel like I actually do need to see a shrink, but I don't know, I've never been to a therapist ... I'll talk about fucking everything, I want to lay myself bare, I want to show people my arse, I couldn't care less.
"I'll tell you another fucking thing about this place nobody talks about fucking anything! Behind closed doors everybody's dysfunctional, everybody's got an alcoholic uncle or an abusive whatever and it's that climate of silence that allows criminals to operate. You can't call out public figures in this country on TV because it's so litigious! This blasphemy law bullshit that you can't make fun or point out the sheer discrepancies of a religion that has been a virus on our hard drive for so long ... if you look into it you get angry. People don't want to think about it, which is understandable, and they just watch X Factor."
Despite his claim that he couldn't care less about any of it, it's obvious he does. How else could he be so impassioned? In fact, he sounds like nothing more than a radicalised politician himself, campaigning furiously against the apathy he claims to be afflicted with.
"We're now in a situation where paedophile priests are on a par with Fungi the Dingle dolphin and the cliffs of Moher; it's a feature of Irish society and it's dreadful. These people are still walking around and they're worse than war criminals.
"And why are you unhappy? Because enough of these things are in your subconscious. That's why people fucking watch X Factor!"
Apathetic? Hardly. Happy? Most definitely not.
David McSavage's I'm So Happy is at Vicar St, Dublin, on March 5
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