Interview: Oliver Callan! The boy who wanted more
He is one of Ireland's leading comics. Oliver Callan talks to Barry Egan about the depression that hit him and how discovering love with his first boyfriend two years ago took him out of the darkness.
Oliver Callan's late grandmother Tina was, he explains, "unusually for a Monaghan farmer, a huge fan of opera, which she discovered as a child-minder for a family in the 1930s." Jokingly, I ask the satirical impressionist - who came out to Brendan O'Connor on RTE's Saturday Night Show on October 29, 2011 - did his granny's love of the camp splendour of all things opera turn him gay. "Yes, she did," Oliver laughs, adding with an even bigger chortle, "and when my father found out, he screamed on the steps of the opera house like that Al Pacino scene in Godfather III when he sees his daughter gunned down." Boom boom.
Oliver (whose hilarious new show Callan's Kicks goes out at 9.35pm on RTE 1 on July 11 for six weeks) rhapsodises about his father Tony as his hero in life. "He was expelled from school," he laughs, before telling the story - with his father's permission, because I made Oliver check with him. He had fallen out with one of the religious teachers. Tony practised writing f**k off backwards in a mirror at home. Then, one evening, when the Brother had boarded his bus home, Tony wrote those words on the bus window from the outside. So that the Brother could get the message when the bus pulled off.
"The next day, Tony was summoned out of class by the Brother, who insisted on an apology," Oliver takes up the story. "Tony refused. He went back to class to finish a science test, went home that day and never returned. The school issued a letter of expulsion but Tony intercepted the letter and his parents never found out."
Typically, as befits the comic genius that is Oliver Callan, he adds that he went to the same school himself. "And when I went to pick up my Leaving Cert results in 1999, I did so in a tractor which I had to park at the edge of town on account of having no licence, tax or insurance. I was a pure culchie!" he laughs in the sedate lounge of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin last weekend.
This purest of culchies was born on December 27, 1980, in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda. He adds that he was two days late and delivered by the "notorious Dr Michael Neary - notorious", Oliver explains, "because he was suspended after 24 years in 1998 as an obstetrician because of the inordinate number of hysterectomies he performed on women in the hospital."
Oliver was the youngest of three siblings (Shane, the oldest, and Aoife) until his little sister Aine (now 22 and working in House on Leeson Street and saving up to go to art college) was born when he was 11. "So I had the joy of being the youngest and then I became the middle child. That was kind of traumatic! So I had to do something to get attention and that's when I turned to voices," the Monaghan master-mimic jokes with vaudeville timing.
He says that his father Tony was an only child who was orphaned at the age of 26. Tony's mother Tina died when he was 21 of lung cancer, his father Barney of the same disease five years later. Oliver's mother - Mary Walsh, the second oldest of a family of ten in Killeagh in East Cork - was, he says, very maternal because she came from a big farm. "Her mother was basically pregnant for most of her childhood. My mother assumed the role of running the house and minding the kids. So she was already very maternal when she comes to meet my dad - some of the attraction might have been that he is an only child." Mary Walsh met Tony Callan not long before his father Barney died of cancer. "My mother is a real carer. She is full of love."
Oliver has perhaps similar feelings towards his boyfriend. John was hugely instrumental, he says, "in rescuing me from the darkest period of my life." What follows is an enraptured encomium about John and about the redemptive power of love. "When I met him, he prised me away from the abyss." Oliver says of a short time in his life once upon a time that, understandably, he doesn't want to go into. "It's still a raw memory but I've never been so happy and I've accepted that egregious things happen in life. You cannot let the darkness dictate the period after the escape. This TV series is both my launch and my comeback. I have recovered so rapidly from something which came close to my ruin."
Oliver suffered from a darkening depression. "I felt I was to blame for everything that befell me. I was isolated from family and friends and there was no hope of a relationship." Until meeting John, Oliver accepted, he says, " that misery was going to be my life and I fell into a deep depression." Oliver says that John and his family convinced him to go into therapy. "The psychologist eventually taught me, despite my cynicism of his practice, that I wasn't, in fact, to blame. I endured. I learned that I had to make decisions based on what I wanted rather than endlessly trying to please others, often to the detriment of myself. We cannot help others if we can't help ourselves. It's important to love yourself without veering into egomania."
"I had stopped doing the weekly radio show on RTE in May 2012 and didn't go back on air until May, 2013, when Callan's Kicks started on Radio 1 on Fridays," he says, explaining that the TV show of that name is a spin-off of the radio series. "But it has a feeling of comeback because it's the most high-profile thing I've done since Nob Nation on the Gerry Ryan Show," Oliver says of the show he started in early 2007 after leaving Today FM in November 2006.
Gerry, he says, was very proud of Nob Nation - he deserves eternal commendation because "he came up with great ideas for me for characters like Michael Flatley, who I played as a Paddywhackery figure". Oliver says that it was "both the oddest and most fitting tribute to do a sketch dedicated to Gerry on his radio show the week of his funeral."
All the characters of the time - Biffo, Joe, Pat Kenny, Michael D, Joan Burton, Enda - paid tribute to the late broadcaster, with Oliver doing an impression of Gerry opening the Ryanline in Heaven. "It was," he says, "horribly inappropriate but given it was Gerry, it was also the right note. His family told me at the funeral that it meant a lot to send him off so irreverently."
Oliver smiles that his mother was giving out to him recently about his Marty Morrissey impersonation on the radio being too strong on poor Marty. You can see where he gets the lacerating, even wicked wit from. He recollects fondly that his father had the most amazing way of swearing. "He can construct entire sentences without saying any word that wasn't a swear word. F**king hooring bastarding bollocking c**ting. It was a country version of Joycean or Beckett words," he theorises. (On Nob Nation, Callan's character 'C*nteehooks McArdle' was based on his father.) "My father is a real character because he has a real thick Monaghan accent and he has all these different phrases. If he is having a bad day he'll go, 'Jaysus, I'd be better off at the bottom of a lake!' Or: 'I'm that hungry I'd drink the cross of an ass.'"
Growing up on a 28-acre farm in Inniskeen made for an idyllic childhood for Oliver, "even if it was hard work. Now you look so fondly on it. You go, 'Oh, it would be lovely to be waking up now at 7.30 in the morning and going to get the cows.' Because that feeling in the summer was so fresh and nice, as it was just empty countryside and there was a heavy dew on the ground. Instead of facing, roaring traffic. And then you remember: 'On no, f**k, that was hard work. I don't want to do that again - coming home every day smelling of cow shite and only going for a bath once a week.'"
Young Callan milked and drove the cows with his mother - "walking behind them, shooing them on. At this time of the year you're cutting silage. You'd have to physically use a pitchfork to put the grass up and cover the pit with every kind of shite. It was the worst job in the world," he says, before adding cutely, "when you are a tiny little person."
"My dad is 6-foot two. My mother is small. You can tell what side I came from!" he laughs.
Is Callan's meanness towards President Higgins on his show a revenge on the world for making Oliver Callan not exactly tall? "I am the same height as Tom Cruise," he protests. "That will do for me." Asked what he wanted to do with his life when he was younger, Oliver says he wasn't sure until he had an epiphany when he was 15: he wanted to do comedy. He had a rich plethora of stimuli to react to, and draw upon for future comedy, in his youth. (He is working on a comedy project loosely based on, or about, a diesel smuggler on the Border.)
He bought a little Dictaphone and started doing impressions after listening to all the old tapes in school of Scrap Saturday. He says it was listening to Dermot Morgan on that show that lit the fuse for him in terms of wanting to be a funny-man and make people's rib cages rattle with laughter. "A lot of my comedy comes from real anger with the hypocrisy and incompetence of the establishment, but comedy can't be all darkness." His sketches on the GAA and music figures like Christy Moore and Imelda May, he says are "playful" and "less ferocious."
At school, Oliver had an innate talent for impersonating teachers. "There was a small teacher who was probably the start of all my Michael D small-man jokes," he says. "Maybe it was middle-child syndrome because I definitely felt like a spectator in life because I was able to sit back as the quietest person in the room and watch everything that was going on."
While at DCU in Dublin, Oliver got a job doing sketches on Gift Grub with Mario Rosenstock on Today FM. "It was kind of clear that you couldn't have a dual act with Mario. It is just him and a supporting cast. We never had a falling out. We just never had a conversation again after I left the building," he laughs.
In 2011, Oliver did appear to have a somewhat public falling out with GAA personality and broadcaster Paul Galvin in a Dublin pub. A clash of personalities, or even heads, that resulted in the guards being notified. "The problem, you had four different newspaper editors in the room at the time as well as Mick Wallace and Clare Daly and Senators and TDs in the other corner," he says. "It was like this perfect storm. If one was going to kick off a very high-profile row, this was the place to do it in. I never met the man again," he says, meaning Galvin. "Let bygones be bygones."
"It was a crazy time. A week later I came out on live television," he says, meaning The Saturday Night Show, "so it was quite a week to remember." He doesn't regret so publicly revealing his sexuality for "one second." He says that some people were surprised. He told them: "I'm 30 years of age! Hello! Have you ever seen me hanging out with girls!"
"I just assumed everyone knew." He says he thought his parents knew he was gay, "but they didn't and there was a little bit of 'What? Are you serious?' I told them that week [of The Saturday Night Show]. I suppose it was a shock to them but they got over it very fast." When Oliver was growing up, he knew he was gay from "an early age. But I'd say even when I knew I didn't have a word for it, because it wasn't in the media that I was consuming. There was no one talking about being gay or gay rights."
How did he know? "You know because you are attracted to other men!" he laughs. "Your friends are going 'Heeee' [like Neanderthals with their fists scrapping off the ground] after girls and you are thinking 'No'. So, I suppose from being that sort of spectator and being able to do impressions, it's probably a very easy defence mechanism to shield it away. It was very easy for me to cover it."
I ask him how did he do it. "Act like them. Copy them. They'd go: 'Look at that girl over there!' And they all run over. And then," Oliver laughs, "no one notices me not running!"
But you weren't posing around Monaghan at 15 reading Baudelaire in the original French? I joke.
"No, but I would have been reading the RTE Guide. People in Monaghan would have thought: 'F**king high falutin' bastard! Who does he think he is!'"
Unlike some gay men, Oliver didn't have any girlfriends growing up. "I didn't have a beard, no," he laughs. "And the girls weren't running after me either! And all the way through college - which is supposed to be your coming of age, when you are free of the place you grew up in - I didn't have any relationships: gay, straight or indifferent."
Did Oliver ever feel like monk-like singer Morrissey in that sense of inhabiting an almost aesthete-asexuality? "Yes, definitely. In my life it was something that I just shut away and said: it was for another time, if ever."
If ever? I gasp. "I was more chaste than a priest!" he belly-laughs.
I ask Oliver what age he was when he had his first boyfriend."Sure, I only have my first boyfriend now," he answers. "We are going out just over two years. I would be very shy, yeah." So strong was Oliver's sense of shyness that it is hard to imagine him dropping his guard, let alone intimate articles of clothing. "There was the odd fling here and there but not very many and not for any length of time," he laughs. "I was a late bloomer." He says all this with his impish face of an angel painted by Michelangelo.
"John would have to make the first move," he says of the night he meet his beloved. Obviously! I tease. Or you'd still be single, sitting at home. "Yeah!" laughs Oliver, "and me going - 'I really enjoy my alone time!'"
"But it wasn't like I was pining away in the corner crying about lost love. I just didn't really care."
That all changed when he met John in Charlie's Chinese restaurant on George's Street a few nights before St Patrick's Day in 2012. "I was with another friend who had gone off. He was actually giving out to me, saying you are never going to find a date if you continue talking to me all night about politics."
Be that as it may, John approached Oliver and they went on their first date to The Bailey for a drink two nights later. Their next date was a movie at Oliver's apartment on Raglan Road. They watched, inexplicably, an Australian horror movie together. "John lied. He said he liked horror movies and it turned out he didn't," Oliver recalls. "I went out and got the roughest horror movie I could find - can you imagine! But you do weird things in the early stages of a romance to try to ingratiate yourself slowly and then you start demolishing it." Like horror, John had very little interest in politics when he met him, laughs Oliver (whose comedy DNA is political satire), "but unfortunately he has been forced into it a little bit now."
For the time being, Oliver lives on his own-some in Blackrock. Love's Young Dream, I say, don't live together. "That step is coming," Oliver hints. "We're still thinking about it. He doesn't want to be in the media because of me."
I ask the star when did he realise that this could be something? And when did it become something?
"I think it was really quickly. It was kind of instant, to be honest. We have been seeing each other as much as we possibly can, ever since then," he says. "And he gets on great with the family up in Monaghan, which I presume is very exotic to him, and I get on very well with his family. Which is very rare in gay life, unfortunately."
Callan's Kicks starts on RTE 1 at 9.35pm next Friday, and runs until August 15.
Sunday Indo Living