Saturday 29 April 2017

Mario Rosenstock: Everything is a failure, but that's good

Comedy genius Mario Rosenstock tells Barry Egan about fatherhood, loving Abba, his past struggles, sexy Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho and how his wife taught him moderation and stoicism

Mario Rosenstock is as charming as he is nakedly honest, raw, complex and enjoyable to be around. Photo: David Conachy
Mario Rosenstock is as charming as he is nakedly honest, raw, complex and enjoyable to be around. Photo: David Conachy
Mario Rosenstock with his wife Blathnaid. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins

I'm going for a massage," says Mario Rosenstock. "An ego massage!" the king of Irish comedy laughs walking down Dawson Street after a thoroughly entertaining two hour tete-a-tete...

Socrates said the unexamined life isn't worth living. That goes double, perhaps, for Mario. "I would be a liar if I didn't say that it occupies some space in my mind what people think of me," he says over lunch in the Lemon & Duke. Quizzed about exactly how much space in his head, Mario says: "I'd say what I perceive as an average amount. I can't put a percentage on it. But I am not stupid enough to say that I don't have any preoccupation with it."

Would his wife say that Mario is more preoccupied with it than he lets on? "No, because I let on to her exactly the right amount that I am pre-occupied. So her estimation of my own interest in what other people think of me would be dead on."

Is he sitting around the house brooding beneath an impenetrable black cloud? "No - I'm not a tears-of-a-clown comic. I'm ebullient, fairly optimistic..."

Mario Rosenstock with his wife Blathnaid. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins
Mario Rosenstock with his wife Blathnaid. Photo: Arthur Carron/Collins

A clear indication of this emotional buoyancy is that on occasions Mario loves nothing more than to sit at home in the living room on his own of an evening and listen to Abba while enjoying a glass of wine. Later he texts me that on the DART home he listened to Abba's The Day Before You Came (Sample lyric: I must have left my house at eight, because I always do/My train, I'm certain, left the station just when it was due. Imagine Mario singing along in his head on the train home.

The 1970s Swedish foursome aside, Mario - who actually wanted to be Swedish tennis god Bjorn Borg as a kid before he ever wanted to be a comic - continues that he likes, "the idea, as you get older, of embracing failure, which is easier and happening more often. I think as you get older you realise that failure is really a part of growing as a person. So anything that goes wrong isn't really going wrong. It is another way of discovering something".

Isn't that Tony Robbins?

"That's not Tony Robbins. Tony Robbins is robbing it from me. That's why he's called Robbins."

I say that I don't recall - recent or otherwise - a significant Mario failure. "Everything fails. Everything is a success and everything is a failure. Every sketch that I do is never going to be perfect. Technically it is a failure but it is not for other people. It is a fact: everything is a failure." How did he rate his impersonation of Miriam O'Callaghan? "Me physically doing Miriam seems to be funny because - although she is beautiful - there is something quite masculine about her, and dominant. Well, pushing men around for a living, and for me to actually physically embody that, you know?" he says,

"And the other thing is, I have beautiful big blue eyes like hers. And when you put mascara on my eyes, they look like Miriam eyes. And I've got lips as well," he says positively pouting.

Does he try those Miriam lips out on his wife? "Are you asking me - do I get off with my wife as Miriam? No, I get off with her as Jose Mourinho," he says of Manchester United's formidable boss.

"We have a choice here: we've got Miriam, Mario or Jose? She goes for Jose. Or maybe not Jose so much now in the modern incarnation. He's a little bit wizened now.

"She's asking for Jurgen Klopp," he says of Liverpool FC's charismatic manager. "So I put on the glasses and I grow the stubble. Naked with just the glasses."

Does Mario ever protest to his wife, ''What about me?''

"Me?"

Would Mario Rosenstock's wife not like to get off with Mario Rosenstock? He shakes his head. "No. If she fancies Klopp that's fine. Everybody else does. And anyway, I can transform myself into anyone she wants to fancy. I'm a comedian, aren't I?"I ask him has he actually had sex with his wife as Klopp. "Not that I can remember. I don't think either of us can remember."

What about a bare-chested, oiled-up impersonation of Michael Flatley for his wife? "She doesn't like me doing Flatley. He's too needy. The bare-chest thing is a cry for affirmation, a cry for love. So, she would prefer not for me to do Flatley."

Spending an afternoon with super Mario is an exhilarating experience. A 'manic impressive', he is as charming as he is nakedly honest, raw, complex and enjoyable to be around. What is he like, deep down, away from the spotlight? "I'd say the same as everyone else," the huge talent says.

"A peculiar mixture of a lot of different feelings. One day you feel top of the game. The next day you could feel a little bit more grey. Moody." Mario adds that there were moments in his life, like everybody else, when he looks back and thinks: ''That wasn't a great time.''

How did he deal with it?

"I struggled. I struggled, as much as anyone would have struggled. I can't claim to have dealt with them in any particularly brilliant way." The New Yorker magazine's pre-eminent wit James Thurber of old wasn't being funny when he said: ''Humour is a serious thing. I like to think of it as one of our greatest earliest natural resources, which must be preserved at all cost.'' You sense that Ireland's king of comedy Mario has the same sense of dedication and resolve, even zeal, about his comic craft, and the manner in which he has so effectively taken over the bodies of everyone from Francis Brennan to Miriam O'Callaghan to Enda Kenny to Louis Walsh, among many others, so entertainingly on stage, radio and TV over the years. The transformative effect of inhabiting other people was first instilled in him as a young child impersonating his father for his mother at the dinner table (as well as taking-off relatives for aunts and uncles). It became fully part of his DNA when Mario made his first stage appearance as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman in 1985 in Cork (Mario went to Ashton School in Cork as a boarder - with his little brother Rene.) On the last night of Death Of A Salesman, Mario recalled he cried his eyes out. He can remember saying to himself at that point in his mid teens: ''I'm going to be an actor. I'm going to enter somebody else's experience and play them.

"That's what I do really. I think I'm an actor who does characterisations of people," Mario told me the last time I met him in 2014. "In fact, sometimes I believe my impressions aren't even that good. I just love projecting and heightening the character that I see in people and pushing it out there and bringing some of myself into it, if possible, and letting both work at the same time. I am also putting my own character into it."

As to what, precisely, is Mario's own character, he says by way of an answer that his wife is "a genius at moderation, and that is a really hard thing to learn, and it is something that she has helped to teach me as I have got older".

How did she teach her husband moderation?

"By example. Drinking too much, which we've all done," he says of his pre-moderation days. "I do the same as anyone else. Learning how to have just as much fun by choosing your times and not having to tear the arse out of it all the time." She has also taught Mario "stoicism" - "which again I found hard, because I would have been an all-or-nothing, make-or-break take-a-chance, be devastated-if-it-doesn't-work [kind of man]. I didn't understand failure and I thought I was too great if I had success; and thinking I am a complete disaster when I have a failure. She would have taught Mario how to inhabit the space somewhere in the middle".

Would there be a fear that if she balanced him out too much he might lose the creative spark? "I think that's a complete f**king lie that creative people are headbangers!"

Was that his excuse before he discovered unflappability and forbearance? That he had to be a bit mad to be creative? "Yeah! I used to think I had to smoke 30 a day. So I smoked 30 a day! I used to think I had to have a cutting word to a stranger because I saw myself as a bit of a wit. Bullshit. I didn't need to do that at all. That was completely immature. It is nothing to do with your creativity - smoking, drinking, taking drugs, being an asshole, nothing."

How long was he an asshole for?

"I didn't stop being an asshole. It's a vocation. I think everybody is an asshole. It is just if we allow the darker sides of ourselves to become apparent.

"It's like having asthma. There are symptoms. For example, I suffer from asthma. But I don't have asthma. The asthma is latent. I don't suffer from any symptoms of asthma but I used to.''

So did Mario used to suffer from symptoms of being an asshole but he doesn't any more? "I used to be asthm-ahole!'' he roars. "Like a lot of people who grow older, the asshole symptoms thankfully were learned and lessened a little bit." (Mario says that a corner of his psyche is part of his innate desire to be liked.)

The beautiful provider of Mario's new-found imperturbability is Blathnaid O'Neill, whom he met in 1995 "across a crowded dance floor" in Bono's one-time nightclub The Kitchen in The Clarence Hotel, Dublin. The first thing they did, without as much as a word to each other uttered, was kiss. Not long after, Blaithnaid took herself off to Minnesota on a student visa for three months ("there were no mobile phones, then.") Upon her return to these shores, he took Ms O'Neill to see The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Gate Theatre; a date that was doubtless enlivened by Mario announcing somewhat too loudly to his future wife that "Yer man is crap!" His angst was fuelled by the fact that he had auditioned for the part and didn't get it. Blathnaid got over their date being almost wrecked because they were engaged in Amsterdam in 2000 and married the following year. They have two kids, nine-year-old Dashiell and four-year-old Bellamie. "I adore them. People think that I'm away on tour all the time. I'm not. I'm always around. I get home at about 3.30pm when they get home from school." Mario can feel his son Dashiell "trying to figure himself out, whether there is something of the performer in him".

And is there? "I'm not sure. Because he has a lovely mix. He loves science and he loves thinking. And when he gets into a safe place he loves doing a little performance. I think he is trying to figure out if he has got this bug. I think Bellamie has [got it]."

At four? "Oh yeah. You can see it a mile off. It is not encouraged at all. It is unspoken that we wouldn't encourage it. And yet she is completely a performer. A performer. She has that thing where she can come in and dominate a space. The only thing you can look at is her."

So is her brother sitting there pondering Galileo Galilei while she's putting on a show?

"A little bit. He is the first to watch her. He is her biggest fan. He adores watching her little performances. Bellamie has a lot of me and I have a lot of her." For the record, Bellamie doesn't do impersonations. She "dramatises." She "takes on roles". She "enforces". She "pleads". She "demands". She "mollifies".

She sounds like a normal woman. Four going on 40? "That's fair to say. But Bellamie is great." What's her mother like? Does she enforce and plead and demand and mollify?

"No. She's not like that at all. Blathnaid adores being a mother. Jesus, I don't know if I want to get into this, because no matter what I say she'll be raging," he laughs.

"We've been together 20 years. We met when she was in Trinity. She was studying European Studies and English and French. I was a couple of years out of college when we met. We got married in Trinity, in the chapel there. She is different to me. I have learned an awful lot from her. I am extremely trusting. Or used to be. Naively trusting. Totally naively trusting. Whereas she would be a bit more level-headed, balanced. I'd be more flighty. I have all of the bad points and some of the good points. And I have an obviously bigger ego - and an obviously thinner skin than my wife."

His other 'wife' is the thick-skinned master of the wireless, Ian Dempsey. "At times we spend so much time together we're like a married couple," he says of Dame Dempsey.

"Which one is the wife and husband becomes interchangeable!" Mario adds with a laugh. "Metaphorically though we're both capable of 'taking the bins out'. Singing Amhrán na bhFiann live on Today FM with Ian standing on a couple of milk crates with 10,000 Irish fans outside the Ibaraki stadium in Japan, 2002, is a memory that will stay with me." (As will many of his Gift Grub sketches on his wife's programme on Today FM, the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show, which started in May 1999, stay with many of us.) Born August 31, 1970, in London, Mario has been making an impression on the Irish cultural landscape for nearly two decades now.

He will be making a big impression next weekend. Mario is one of the stars (alongside Riverdance, Patrick Bergin, Kila, Roisin O, Brian Kennedy et al with hosts Miriam O'Callaghan and Brendan O'Connor) at next Saturday's A Gala Concert In Aid Of Haiti at the Convention Centre in Dublin for the Irish charity Haven, put together on behalf of Irish charity Haven by the great impresario himself John McColgan. "I'm just happy to help out,'' he said. "It's almost impossible to say no to John McColgan especially when he starts off with, 'My darling beautiful Mario, I have a little scheme'.

What will Mario be doing at A Gala Concert In Aid Of Haiti? "We're heading into a massive St Paddy's weekend, so 'Rog', 'Rob Kearney' and 'Joe Schmidt' may preview," he teases. "I know Riverdance are performing on the night. So I'd love to reunite Riverdance with 'Michael Flatley'. And Miriam is presenting," he says with his blue eyes flashing with mischievousness, "so I can't think what I could possibly do there?"

It will be a genuinely great night, then.

A Gala Concert In Aid Of Haiti at the Convention Centre on March 11, presented by John McColgan on behalf of Haven, features Mario Rosenstock, Riverdance, Patrick Bergin, Brian Kennedy, Eleanor Shanley, Kila, Vladimir & Anton, Roisin O, and is hosted by Brendan O'Connor & Miriam O'Callaghan. Tickets from €25. Ticketmaster: 0818 719 300 www.ticketmaster.ie

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