Sunday 22 October 2017

Getting under the skin - how Mario Rosenstock nails those famous impressions

Eoin Butler

Well, he was never one to melt into a crowd. Mario Rosenstock cuts an incongruous figure among the lunchtime suits in the Pig & Heifer deli on City Quay. He jumps up from the table when I arrive and shakes my hand enthusiastically.

For a man best known as a radio personality, the 'Gift Grub' mimic is a very physical communicator. His eyes are large and expressive, his hand gestures demonstrative. With his face still caked in make-up from the morning's shoot, it's like breaking bread with a star of the silent screen.

The comedian's hit TV vehicle 'The Mario Rosenstock Show' returns for a second series on RTE2 on September 16, and the 42-year-old clearly relishes being back on our screens. Like a hyperactive teenager, he excitedly reels off the names of those who can expect to be lampooned this coming season.

"Davy Fitz – he's great. Francis Brennan – love him. And do you know this new guy Donal Skehan?"

The boyband singer-turned-celebrity chef?

"Is he really all that he seems? Is anyone really that wholesome? And if he's not, what's he really like? That's what I'm interested in," he says.

Between his work on the 'Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show', his own TV show, numerous ad campaigns and a football-themed YouTube web series, Rosenstock is an extraordinarily prolific comedian. Of course, along with his more quixotic turns – Joseph O'Connor at the Electric Picnic was a recent gem – it helps to have a stable of long-established characters upon which he can draw at any time.

His current favourite is Clare hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald. "He's like a smurf version of Roy Keane," laughs Rosenstock, referencing another of the radio show's long time mainstays. Unlike Keano, however, Davy Fitz is thought not to appreciate being lampooned.

The secret to a durable impersonation is locating the essence of the character. It's a trick he rarely fails to pull off. "Oh, I do all the time," he insists modestly. "Obama, for example, I can never do." Then he challenges me. What do I think would be the key to impersonating Vincent Browne?

His gruffness maybe? His impatience? "No, no, no," replies Rosenstock. "The key is mischief. He always wants to find mischief in a given situation. He always wants to cause trouble."

It's that easy familiarity with his own characters that allows Rosenstock to go back to the well again and again. One morning last June, when a radio sketch about the economy was superseded by publication of the Anglo Tapes, Rosenstock was even able to improvise a replacement sketch live on-air.

What was the new sketch, I ask? He shrugs. "Daniel O'Donnell on 'Fair City'." He says it nonchalantly, as if he burned the dinner and whipped up a plate of beans on toast instead.

A short stroll away, in Setanta Studios, shooting on 'The Mario Rosenstock Show' is about to recommence. We bound up the stairs into Rosenstock's tiny dressing room. I assume I'm getting a quick tour of the place. Instead, he strips down to his underwear while an assistant applies make-up.

"Talk avay," he says in a mock German accent. "I vill answer your qvestions."

I ask about his relationship with RTE. 'Gift Grub' has been a success for a decade and a half now. And it's no secret he believes the national broadcaster resisted giving him a television show for many years because of his association with a rival radio station. What changed their minds, does he think?

"I believe," he says, "that they would have preferred to develop their own in-house talent for a show like this."

Meaning Oliver Callan?

"Yes. But that idea was brought to the board and they rejected it. They said they'd prefer to go with me. Personally, I just regret that this didn't happen sooner."

But he insists his working relationship with RTE is good.

"I gave them my ideas for the show. What feedback they gave me was all constructive and helpful. Our relationship is good. I didn't expect that. I expected it to be adversarial."

"The wig is on," he shouts through to the production team waiting in the studio next door. "She's coming in."

The next sketch is titled 'Miriam Thanks'. In it, at the end of her 'Saturday Night' show, Miriam O'Callaghan – played by Rosentock, naturally – becomes so carried away thanking all of the guests and the show's entire staff that she ends up – "in a semi-hysterical frenzy", as Rosenstock puts it – travelling to Kenya to thank the farmers who produced the coffee she drank.

It's a funny idea. But in order to work, the rhythm of the scene needs to be perfect. And for that to happen, her progress around the studio has to be seamless.

We're in a tiny windowless room the size of a student bedsit. There is a desk, four enormous cameras, miles and miles of cable, about a dozen crew – as well as three extras posing as crew for 'Miriam' to thank. On top of that lot, Setanta need the studio back for rugby coverage in 45 minutes and Rosenstock's wig is coming off.

Getting the scene, then, looks a tall order. As Rosenstock goes over his marks, producer Ian Dempsey sits close by fine-tuning Miriam's (non-existent) guest list. "I'd like to thank Brendan Gleeson, Rachel Allen and, of course, Ruby Walsh..."

No.

"...Brendan Gleeson, Rachel Allen and, of course, the wonderful Imelda May."

No.

"...And, of course, Senator Feargal Quinn."

I'm impressed. Only someone with a keen ear for comedy would even appreciate that such tiny details make a difference.

In the end, and against the odds, Rosenstock nails the scene. His impersonation of O'Callaghan is pitch-perfect. His ad libs are surreal and hilarious. The only criticism you might make is that, as satire, especially in this difficult time for the country, Rosenstock's brand of satire lacks bite.

One of the show's best-received moments last year was a sketch that made fun of the fact that the stars of 'Love/Hate' are middle class in real life and very different to the characters they portray on TV. Well, it is called acting, isn't it?

Here, the joke seems to be that O'Callaghan is appreciative of the efforts of the people who work for her. Again, hardly a damning indictment.

Rosenstock does feel that he crossed the line once last year, in a 'Big Brother'-inspired sketch about families being evicted from their homes. "It was very dark. A lot of people complained about it and maybe it didn't fit the tone of what we were trying to do."

In the wake of that controversy, he talked to the media about his own travails on the property market.

"I bought a house at the top of the market," he admits here, "and it's worth less than half that today. So I'm struggling like everyone else, working every hour God gives me to feel my family.

"I'd hate for people to think I was some comfortable media type laughing about the less fortunate."

Before I go, I ask him about some of the old 'Gift Grub' staples. Jose Mourinho is back. Could his Bertie character ever make a similar comeback?

"No," he says. "It's too soon. People aren't ready to laugh just yet."

What about Roy Keane? How much must the real Keano despise being reduced – in his eyes – to working as a mere pundit? Rosenstock leans forward. He has it on very good authority, he claims, that the former Man United skipper wants to be the next Ireland manager.

From a fan's perspective there are 101 reasons why that sounds like the worst idea in the world. But after a few hours in Rosenstock's company, I've started to see things as he must.

Keano for Ireland, I gasp? Jesus Christ, that would put the kids through college.

Irish Independent

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