Monday 16 July 2018

David McSavage on addiction, sex and why resentment fuels him

David McSavage is the comedian's comedian who has always bitten the hand that feeds. He spoke to us about addiction and sex - and why resentment fuels him

David McSavage, still looking around in horrified bafflement
David McSavage, still looking around in horrified bafflement
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Strolling through the centre of Dublin with David McSavage you realise that, despite his lifelong best efforts, the campaign trail touch has somehow been passed down the line to him. He would make a wonderful politician, a stellar addition to the family business.

People come forward to shake his hand or shout a greeting as he passes by and he feigns recognition amiably. He pauses to compliment the shoes of a beautiful young woman - he has her vote (he hopes). We settle on "chipper" as an acceptable response to all of the inquiries as to how he is.

Affection for him is everywhere; people seem nostalgic for him even though he's standing right in front of them. You wouldn't think he hadn't been on television in years. His stated nemeses may be RTE commissioning editors rather than planning tribunals but, like a country TD with a combover, McSavage can still bank on his constituency.

That's probably because in a landscape of cosy, clubbable Irish comedians jostling for parts in panto and Dancing with the Stars, he's one of the few with a genuine flair for seditious humour. He's the comedian's comedian, and regarded by most people as one of the few genuinely funny people working here right now. "I have to to be a c**t for professional reasons", he says. "They're called punchlines, not 'hey, let's do some yoga' lines. They're meant to be vicious. I don't know if I'm someone who can just 'access' that, I do actually have to build up real resentments."

The biggest resentment was always against people who didn't pay him enough attention. He explains that in his youth - he went to Willow Park and Blackrock College - he would panic slightly if people stopped looking at him in a group. He says that the only thing that really impressed him about his father's profession - David Andrews was a former Minister for Foreign Affairs - was that he got recognised everywhere he went. While his brother Barry followed their father into politics - he also became a TD - David Jr worked as an English teacher abroad and travelled around New York and Japan, busking and getting laid. Ambition seemed a bit nebulous and far off in those years.

"I think the thing that got me going, eventually, was people thinking I was s**t and no good and wanting to prove them wrong," he says.

The "them" was virtually everyone. He was an insider by birth who always acted like an outsider. There were no quick or easy inroads. While his cousin Ryan Tubridy all but rattled the gates of Montrose as a toddler, McSavage went the long way round, via a lot of life experience and a lot of live work.

He first came to public attention here by doing a sort of comedic version of speaker's corner in Temple Bar, ripping the piss out of passers- by, and he was well into middle age before he got his first break. His first fully fledged comedy show, Oh No It's McSavage, was, in his words "an appalling load of s***e" and earned him the venom of punters and fellow comedians ("When you make bad comedy it actually feels dangerous").

It was nearly another decade before he got his big break. During its four-year stint on RTE The Savage Eye took aim at Irish sacred cows with more inventiveness than any programme since Scrap Saturday, imagining Joe Duffy as a sadomasochistic ghoul, with a sketch imagining Hector O hEochagain ambushing his imaginary friend from childhood - "Stop imagining me!" Viewership increased with each series but then, suddenly, it was cancelled, soon to be replaced by more typically broad fare.

McSavage, by then regarded as a Dermot Morgan-like comedy prophet, couldn't resist biting the hand that fed, and infamously refused to pay his TV licence in protest at the national broadcaster's comedy output. This was fairly true to form for him. At times he seems to have made a career of making enemies. Feeling slighted by a prominent comedy booker, he once persuaded a group of strangers to descend on a venue where the booker had organised a comedy festival, shouting expletives. He was arrested in Edinburgh and banned from performing in parts of Sydney and Melbourne. When left out of the line-up for a recent comedy festival he thought "well f**k them and f**k it all and I'll do my own f*****g thing. I see a desperation in comedians to get on and it's quite creepy in some ways. At the same time it's a f****d way of thinking to believe that I have to create enemies and nemeses to fuel me, but it worked in the past. But then you're sitting at home with your integrity and you're thinking 'Well I've told him to f**k off and him to f**k off, but now I can't pay the rent'."

He lives in Portobello in Dublin, "like a solitary farmer in the city" and has based his forthcoming show, A Terrible Want, partly on the Patrick Kavanagh poem On Raglan Road. "There's a real sadness in On Raglan Road the song and the sense of this ugly farmer, an alcoholic, living in this bedsit or whatever but has this beautiful mind", he explains. "He sees this woman who just rocks his world. She shows him a glimpse of something he can't have access to. Rather than try to consummate the relationship he writes a poem about it which outlives them both. So that want, that emptiness, is in my mind a great motivation for writing and solving things."

McSavage's own wants have been fairly dogged and numerous. At various times he has wrestled with drink, drugs and sex and found solace and emptiness in all three. He was an alcoholic or "alcosexual" when he was younger because he found it gave him confidence with women, but gave up the booze twice - the second time following a terrible (but entertaining-sounding) relapse.

"I went to AA meetings every day for a year. When I started going to the meetings I hadn't drank for about eight or nine years and, after going to all the meetings, I went back drinking. I'd never talked about alcohol so much. It was like all the talk about booze made me want it more.

"I have to say that first drink after having not drunk for eight or nine years was the most awesome. I went to the Camden Court Hotel and just went to the bar and said (adopts low conspiratorial tone) 'double vodka and coke' and it was seriously the most amazing thing ever; the sun shone, Jesus came down and [shot] holy goodness into my mouth. I'm just trying to make it relatable here. Even if you're not religious you'd surely ride Jesus. I thought I could just have one but then two months later I was walking around the canal at two in the afternoon, f****d out of my mind. And of course I was having sex with lots of inappropriate people. Even now I get little memories of some of them. I've explored every avenue. I thought maybe I can get p****d once a year, but no. It doesn't work like that for me."

Fantasy and intimacy are still things he struggles with, and he sees porn as a modern malaise. "A nice looking woman walks by and I can't help looking at her bum. And I know I shouldn't, but… mmmm… can't help it. Some guys are more chilled about the whole thing, are more emotionally integrated, and when they're with one woman they can give all their attention to that woman and they're not leaky.

"All the sex scandals recently do give me pause and make me wonder how I am around women. Why do I have to check them out when they walk by? Is it just from years of pornographic material? I know I can go home at any time and see big nipples, small tits, a black guy f*****g a white woman and then you're out in the real world and you pay a price for absorbing it all. I was with a woman once and after we'd had sex she said, 'do you watch a lot of porn?', and I said 'why' she said 'I can just tell by the way you had sex'. But yeah. Porn is the McDonald's of the genitals. We prefer it to getting to know someone."

Codeine was another addiction; at one point he was taking 24 tablets a day and pharmacy shopping. "I would get codeine through Solpadeine. I used to also take it through Codenix - like a cough syrup. This girl I was seeing introduced me to it. I stopped because of concerns for my health and also because I thought 'Is this what I would want my kids to be doing', and the answer was no! I mean, is life not enough for us?

"We should feel like we are enough but I don't feel like I am enough. I feel ugly and disgusting and like my face is not symmetrical and all that stuff."

In truth he has a wonderfully craggy face which wouldn't work at all if it were symmetrical - there are tufts of glue coming out of his eyebrows from a Bull Mick sketch which he had to run off and do mid-interview. It's almost jarring to hear him mention kids but he has two grown-up sons, Jack and Daniel, ("the names probably were a subliminal alcohol thing") and says that being a Dad is "scary, because you're always wondering at some level if they're OK".

I wonder if there's the same generation gap between him and his sons as there was between David Andrews and him. "My own father came from that generation he was dealing with the cards that he had. They weren't great talkers but maybe that's a good thing." He agrees that there is something a little teenager-y about his own angst at times. "Sketch comedy is not a thing that grown-up men generally do, so there is a juvenileness to it and so I do have a bit of that to me. Within AA, they say that you have to understand your inability to form a truly loving partnership with another human being. I haven't been with Hannah (the mother of his boys) for 10 to 12 years but I still think that's the closest relationship I really have to companionship. Now I'm single and I see people in relationships and it looks awful. I'm so used to being on my own. There's a sort of settledness and compromise and it doesn't work for me. I've resigned myself to that for the time being."

Part of the brilliance of The Savage Eye and his stand-up generally is that he never stoops to affectionately ripping the piss. Even after all these years, he is still looking around in horrified bafflement at the country he lives in and, like a teenager, is perennially dying to get away from it. "Things like the Rose of Tralee or the ploughing championships, they are where Ireland meets itself", he tells me.

"I think in Dublin a lot of country people have to stay in the closet, the way gay people used to have to be. But at the ploughing championships they can just let it out, the s**t jumpers and and bad haircuts, a parade of culchieness.

"Garth Brooks selling out Croke Park all those times was a real wake-up call to me. It made me realise I'm not Irish. It was like these mud zombies just rose up from the fields and started walking toward Dublin to see this bucket of pig vomit."

He wearies of Irish people's desperation to be considered 'good craic'. "In social interactions in Ireland, people always have to end with a bit of an oul joke. 'I won't be late the next time!' or something chipper like that. Whereas in England people just say 'goodbye'. They aren't worried if you think they're funny or not."

He's pitching to English television stations at the moment and says on a level he feeds on the adrenaline of not knowing where the next job is coming from but at other times he wouldn't mind being a smidge less Bohemian. "I was in a play a few years ago and got a regular pay cheque and it was so nice and so unusual and it sort of struck me that, 'Oh, this how most people live - they can make plans and go on holidays and things based on money coming in.' I'm 52 now and by the time I'm 60 or 70 maybe I could get something on TV or radio. Y'know, some travelogue where I'm looking at walls in Connemara or something."

What are his own terrible wants?

"I'd love to have a house, I'd love to have a garden. I look at houses now with the same desire that I used to look at women. I have a fear of ending up in some old-age home being brutalised by some damaged nurse. I'm always just a few weeks away from financial oblivion. The wolf is at the door and it keeps me awake, but that might be a good thing. If I had plenty of money it would be quite dangerous."

David McSavage's new show A Terrible Want will play at The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on March 2. Tickets from €26 are available from www.ticketmaster.ie

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