'Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." As far as definitions of funny go, Mel Brooks' is about as good as it gets; it's the edge of steel, the admission that, often, what we laugh at is cruel, or inappropriate, or stupid. Sometimes all three.
It's a subtle game that Eleanor Tiernan understands very well; her analysis of her motivation for becoming a comedian is that this is her way of exploring badness, of trying on a persona that was completely alien to her while growing up. "When I was small, I was very good, annoyingly good. It was my identity. Then, when I got into adulthood, I said, 'what have I been doing all my life?'" Inspired by the possibilities of her own badness, Eleanor then decided to be a comedian. "Comedy allows me to explore the idea. I wasn't conscious of doing it at the time, it's taken two years of therapy for me to figure that out!" Being bad is clearly something she's good at. In the four-odd years since she started, Eleanor has appeared on The Panel, The Savage Eye, at the Edinburgh Festival, and every major comedy festival and venue in the country. Now, she's back at the Fringe, with Rogue, a show "about being bold and saying bold things, and the difference between what's going on inside for you, and what you portray outside".
Even for the sake of radically changing your image though, stand-up comedian is a pretty big -- and public -- leap; especially given that most people would probably rather be mauled by lions than entertain a crowd. The potential for self-exploration is what drives Eleanor. "It's a great forum to say and do bold things that you can't really be arrested for. You get up on stage and say something you've discovered about yourself, and the audience laugh. That's a validation." So really, it's all about getting to know yourself? "Yes, in a roundabout and very public way," she laughs. "Maybe a very needy way." But obviously, it's not quite that easy. You can't just go on a rambling voyage of self-discovery. "If you're funny, you get to be that self-indulgent," is Eleanor's rule. "You're not just going up there and blurting stuff out, you're crafting it. That's the deal with the audience."
For Eleanor, life soon imitated art -- the bad-girl persona spilled over into reality. Last year, in the middle of a dire recession, she did the unthinkable. Aged 33, she gave up a secure job, as an engineer, to chase her dream full-time. "I had taken a five-year career break, and studied performance and stand-up comedy in the Liberties College. Then last year I went back to work, and I lasted eight days! I actually stopped functioning as a human being in those eight days. Psychologically I could see it was really dangerous for me."
Not just psychologically, physically too. "My back went, everything started to go. One by one, the lights were going down ... I knew I had to get out, fast, before I got used to the money." And so she left, to follow a career that may be insecure, but that holds the rewards she wants.
Her parents, I venture, must have been appalled? "Oh yes," she hoots. "My parents are really thrilled with my life decisions, my lack of anything substantial or concrete. They ring up every morning to check I've achieved nothing, again ... " Then, more soberly, "They're very accepting actually." It's a good thing, because not only is Eleanor chucking up stable jobs, she's also using her hometown -- Athlone, where her parents still live (her mother is a social worker, her father the county manager. "My mother was looking after the psychological well-being of people, my dad was fixing their potholes") -- as fodder for her comedy. "The experience of growing up there wasn't wonderful," Eleanor says. "I had a wonderful family, but it wouldn't have been the most broad-minded of towns. Ah yes," she continues with satisfaction, "there's loads in the show that will make it hard for my parents to walk down the main street." Eleanor left Athlone as soon as she could, heading first for the more tolerant air of Galway, and then Dublin.
Eleanor's cousin is comedian Tommy Tiernan, with whom she has toured and written a play, Help, performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007 (Tommy's sister Niamh was involved too; in as much as Ireland has any comedy royalty, the Tiernans are clearly it). Has the connection helped or hindered? "It's a help not being the same gender, certainly. If Tommy was a woman and we had similar views on things, that would be difficult," she laughs, clearly struck with the notion. "We'd have to sit down and carve out what we could use -- 'you take Uncle John and I'll take Uncle Pat ... '"
Tommy has frequently sailed very close to the wind, managing to offend everyone from Travellers to Holocaust survivors. What does Eleanor think of the notion that some things just shouldn't be made a joke of? "Funny is what it boils down to. If you're going to make a joke about disability, for example, it had better be damn funny. If the joke is good enough, people will forgive." So she doesn't believe there are any sacred cows then? "There is a tendency for people to want to be controversial, to stand out. I don't think there are things you shouldn't make jokes about, but if you are making jokes about any minority who are disadvantaged, you have to do them the honour of making the joke really funny." In the end, as ever, it's not about good or bad taste, it's about talent.
Eleanor Tiernan, Rogue; Bewley's Cafe Theatre, September 19-24, 8pm. www.fringefest.com/ event/rogue