Thursday 22 February 2018

Welcome to the house of fun... with Jason Byrne

Jason Byrne tells Barry Egan about being born with a bad eye, his friend Frankie who had cancer, his dad's attitude to death and how his wife at first didn't fall for him, funnily enough

Comedian Jason Byrne
Comedian Jason Byrne

It was not an auspicious start in the world. February 25, 1972, Mrs Byrne was told the immortal words: "You've a beautiful, very pale, ginger-haired baby boy with a wonky eye." (Jason Byrne perhaps made up for it in later life - going on to become, in the words of The Times, the outright King of Live Comedy.) It got even more inauspicious from there.

Jason writes in his new - and very funny - book, Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy: The Short-Arse Years that as his poor, unfortunate mother was 'handed me by the midwife, my mother wept for all the wrong reasons. She could have shagged a platypus and I still would have come out better than this.'

He also reveals in chapter 1, titled Our Hero Arrives, that his innovative mother Eithne would later attempt to 'tilt newborn me slightly, like one of those hand games we had as kids with the small steel ball [steelie] you had to get around a maze and into the hole at the end.' Mrs Byrne, it transpired, 'basically tried to roll my wonky eye back into the middle. . .'

All the joking aside, I wonder did he think whether his early youth with "a wonky eye" had a profound psychological effect on him? Did it hurt him emotionally in ways he didn't reveal or wasn't fully aware of?

"It didn't really bother me," Jason, now a grown-up of 44 years, answers. "I had great mates that would never slag it, a couple of idiots in school might call me gunner eye, specky or the worst was 'Nessels' where I would then say I think you mean to say 'Nestle', then I would get a couple of dead arms. It was connected to The Milky Bar Kid, as he had glasses, so 'Nessels' would be shouted at me. But it never bothered me. I had a good mouth on me and would give back worse than I got - most of those kids would end up crying or gobsmacked."

One of the most genuinely heart-rending tales in the book is when Jason was 10 or 11 years old and went into Crumlin's Children's Hospital to have an operation to "correct my squint. Squint surgery I think it was called".

In the bed opposite him was a young boy called Frank who had lost his leg through cancer. "He was a fun-loving guy, that was the bravest little kid I ever met. He never moaned about having cancer, or losing his leg. He was a big messer, always joking, too," Jason says.

Indeed he writes in the book: 'I loved Frank. I wished I could have taken him home with me.' Sadly, that was not to happen. "I never heard from him again," Jason says. "That's what is nice about that piece - we're not sure if he survived or not."

What does Jason think his 15-year -old self would make of him now - a superstar of some note with shows on Sky 1 (Wild Things) and BBC Radio 2 (The Jason Byrne Show) to say nothing of sell-out shows from Hong Kong to New York to Singapore and further afield (he was just flown in from a few gigs in India)?

"He wouldn't believe what I do for a living now. But he would get very excited about it all. He'd think it was cool, then I'd have to sit down with him, as he'd make me tell him what it's like to be a stand-up and he'd especially lose the plot over the places I've gigged in."

I think Jason would forgive me for saying that the real star of his book is not him. It is his father, Paddy.

"Everybody wants to meet my father," Jason says proudly. (I ask to talk to the Dundrum demi-deity, Paddy Byrne, on the phone for a few quotes. Jason declines and says his father would have a mini stroke at the thought of it).

Did he ever - like his dad in the book - tell a priest to "p**s off"?

"Er…no! That's my dad!" he roars with laughter.

Did he ever tell a taxi man "they're robbing bastards"?

"Er - yeah! I definitely would have said that."

Did he ever tell a guard to get his "eyesight tested - that it was a green light"? "No. I never said that."

Did he ever tell the desk sergeant to "p**s off"? "No."

Did he ever tell the whole station to "p**s off"? "No! I've never done that either!"

I ask Jason did his father actually do all of this mad stuff.

"Yeah! He's a f**king loony! 'Go ask me b*ll*cks!'" Jason believes his father should have a T-shirt made with that phrase imprinted on it because he says it so often.

And did he really tell the Chinese restaurant the food tastes like "bleedin' peanuts"? Jason nods his head. "I took all the f**ks out of this book. And they're were literally hundreds of them. We were in [a famous Chinese restaurant.] That's what happened. 'They're like fucking peanuts!' My ma was like, 'Jesus Christ Paddy will you stop!'"

Has Jason ever said to his wife - 'I'd give that fish a bit more time on the pan'?

"No. But my dad would do that every day to my mother!" Jason laughs, adding that he dubs him the most laid-back father in history. He would be happy to just sit there in the shed in his back garden in Ballinteer, Dublin, and "not be bothered all day". (Make of this what you will, but not-so-long-ago, Jason built a shed in his back garden in Oldtown.)

"I think if I was with my dad and he keeled over [to die] he would definitely say something funny. God," says Jason suddenly remembering, "I remember when he had a stroke, a minor stroke. He is a jammy bastard."

You're so sympathetic, I joke.

"Well, he is. He is a jammy fecker. He had a minor stroke and he just couldn't read half sentences. The eyesight went. His face didn't drop. Nothing happened to his body. And he recovered from it really quick. But he was in the car when I went up to collect him - because he wouldn't get an ambulance and my sister rang me."

Jason doesn't say which sister: he has a younger sister, Rachel (skills: "being nice all the time, crying at sad things - dead birds, squirrels in a sling"), a baby sister Eithne (skills: "being cute, having curls, vomiting and then laughing straight afterwards") and an older brother, Eric (skills: "being the eldest, art, battering me").

"...And Da," Jason continues with his father's near-death experience, "didn't want an ambulance coming to the house because he didn't want all the neighbours thinking; 'What the f**k is going on in the Byrne household?' I mean, how Irish is that! So he sits in the front of the car!" Jason laughs. "Look, when you're told you're having a stroke, the majority of the time what happens, especially if you have the health of my dad, you'll have loads of mini strokes. And then you can die - with a massive one. Boom. Or you get loads of mini ones and you're f**ked for ages."

And Paddy Byrne?

"My da sat in the front and he lit a cigarette and he just went: 'Ah, well, I've had a great life.' That was his reaction to nearly dying!" exclaims Jason, practically expiring with laughter. Jason says he has never used that incident for his own comedy. "But when I started out doing comedy I used to play my da. I used to do one-liners. My da had typical dad jokes. If he is on the plane and the drinks trolley comes along he'll go: 'Well, you can leave that there.' Or if the airplane is taking ages to take off, he'll say: 'Are we f**king driving to Spain?' He is all that.

"But, I mean, how laid-back do you have to be in your life to think you're dying and just go, 'Ah, well, I've had a great life'? He was 70. He's 75 now and he is fine again. My ma is 71. She is like a little humming bird. She just hums around him. She is the one who brought us everywhere while he had to work. All das had to do is that."

Asked what is he like with his own kids - he and wife Brenda have two boys - Jason says he is away a lot for work. His wife is trying to discipline the kids all day and give them a routine - "and I'll come in like a bowling ball and knock it all over".

"I have great fun with them. The three of us could be on the bed upstairs, having a laugh, and my wife will go: 'The three of you - stop it!' The three of us! We'll all look at each-other and go, 'Woaaah!'"

Jason gets further merriment out of the house of fun in which all this goes on. "We live in Oldtown. I can see from my bathroom - this is no word of a lie - the line of Tree Rock that comes right down into Ballinteer. From my f**king bathroom! It's like I started there and I ended up on the other side of Dublin."

Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy: The Short-Arse Years, he says, has been so much fun to write. "It has turned out like an Irish Simpsons. I think that there are legs to continue this family now. Roddy Doyle obviously wrote the really rough end of Dublin. This way hasn't been done. [Chris O'Dowd's] Moone Boy is the countryside. The way I would do is I wouldn't do it as a sitcom. I would do it as a drama. It is way funnier to do it like that. But the book is about our lives. So you have to be very careful about how you do it. You want to get it right." And it seems that his parents felt Jason did indeed get it right.

"My ma has been crying laughing when she reads it," Jason says."My da goes, 'That's Jesus, so brilliant, that's exactly how it was. . .'"

Is he going to write the next book? 15-25: The Not-So-Short-Arse Years?

"We're in chats with which direction to go, but this book is only the beginning."

Going back to the beginning of his relationship with Brenda, Jason didn't woo her with his award- winning wit, funnily enough. "She wanted nothing to do with me when she first met me," he says, recalling that fateful meeting in The Laughter Lounge on Eden Quay in 1998. "So my wife went with some fella. It was like her bit of a boyfriend. Then she went back with her mate the second time. I didn't talk to her either time. She sat in the front. I didn't see her."

That was a great start, I joke. "Well, listen, in those days, I didn't really see anybody. I was f**king concentrating so much. So I went to the foyer and a friend of mine Woodsy, from my school, he was in this company and my wife was with him and her mate Carol. I spotted her."

Like Jason's start in life, the conversation between him and Brenda didn't start too auspiciously, probably because, he "was quite a cocky little f**ker, even when I was a kid. I was, like, 'Oh hiya. Did you enjoy the show?' She said, 'Yeah, it was alright.' 'We're going to The Globe, if you want to come?' 'Nah, you're alright. I'm not going.' 'I'll see you up there.' 'I don't want to go.'"

Jason went to The Globe on South Great George's Street with his mates, and Brenda - despite her earlier protestations of seemingly zero interest - arrived in with her mates and sat ceremoniously at the bar. Jason to his future wife: "So, you came? Why don't you come over and talk to us?" She didn't appear overwhelmed at his presence. To make her possible escape problematic, Jason took Brenda and her pals' stools - "and put them with my stools. So she had to come over and join us and sat with me".

"And that," smiles Jason, "was it."

"The poor woman has been with me ever since." They got engaged in 2003 on the Charles Bridge in Prague, were married the following year and are - gigs in India notwithstanding - inseparable. Jason's beloved parents are so inseparable for so long that he says, that "they are just going to die together now. They are just the one person. As my dad tells a story, my mother always butts in. He'll go: 'I was in…' And she'll butt in: 'Tell them Paddy when you were in the …' And he'll go: 'I'm f**king about to tell them I was in the…' And that's all they do for the whole story."

Is that the way Jason is with his wife? "One of the first times my wife came up to the house, my dad is sitting there talking and my ma is butting in. Then my wife goes to say something and I didn't even think - and I talked over her! And then my dad just looks at my wife and went: 'Well, you know where he f**king gets it from! Jesus!' So my dad and my wife get on really well. They love each other, because they are the tortured souls of the relationships."

Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy: The Short-Arse Years by Jason Byrne is published by Gill Books, priced £14.99/€16.99

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