Monday 19 March 2018

Jarleth Regan: 'As soon as I can make it funny, it stops bothering me'

Jarlath Regan's riotous new comedy show explores the life-changing experience of making the decision to donate one of his kidneys to his brother

Generation gap: 'There is a dividing line in the generations,' insists Jarlath O'Regan, 'and I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing - but it's a divide.' Photo: Boris Conte
Generation gap: 'There is a dividing line in the generations,' insists Jarlath O'Regan, 'and I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing - but it's a divide.' Photo: Boris Conte

Julia Molony

Jarlath Regan suggests we meet on the concourse of King's Cross station, which is where his train arrives from the suburbs. I've seen pictures of him online, and YouTube videos of his stand up, yet have a moment of anxiety when I arrive at the appointed time. Will I be able to pick him out of the crowd?

I needn't have worried. He is tall, which helps. But it's his rockabilly quiff, leather jacket and unhurried, loping gait which draw the eye. In the busy station, people rush around him like mechanical bunnies at a greyhound track, but Regan's stately pace places him in a world of his own.

It matches, too, the way he speaks. He is not a firecracker humorist who spits out jokes at a rate of 10 a second. His voice is low, languorous. He takes his time. It's perfectly matched to the style of his An Irishman Abroad podcasts - meandering, in-depth long-form interviews with the great and good among Irish exports; men and women who have achieved great things in every discipline.

The podcast, which launched three years ago, has grown into an iTunes sensation, drawing in over a million listeners from all over the globe. He's scored a veritable Who's Who of Irish society as his guests - recent interviewees include Sharon Horgan, Bob Geldof, Lenny Abrahamson and Chris O'Dowd.

But its success seems to have taken Jarlath himself rather by surprise. The series began as an experiment after he moved to London. He was doing the comedy circuits, while also looking for a new idea by which he could expand his repertoire. His first-ever interviewee was comedy guru Graham Linehan.

"I'd lost my notebook on a flight from Norway after some gigs," he says, starting at the beginning. "It had everything in it, my Edinburgh show in it. All my notes. And the airline said that somebody had taken it, it wasn't on the plane."

In desperation, he turned to Twitter, making an appeal for its safe return, which Linehan retweeted.

"I didn't even know he followed me. But then it got a few thousand retweets, and [his voice rises here into disbelief] I got it back!"

With the ice thus broken via social media, Jarlath approached Linehan for another favour. And so it was that he agreed to be the subject of a launch episode podcast by a comedian little known outside of Ireland. "He's an incredibly generous man. He's so supportive of new talent and new Irish talent."

Jarlath recorded the interview, packaged it up and released it online, without any real "plan for an episode two" in mind.

"I thought, 'Let's put this one out and see what happens'. And then it went to No.1 in the Irish charts and was carried on the cover of The Irish Times, so he and his producer figured they'd "better make another one".

Since then, he's been cracking them out at a rate of one a week - no mean feat when you consider the amount of work involved in scoring an interview of an hour or more with a household name, recording and then editing it. He has, it seems, significant powers of persuasion. The key has been not taking no for an answer. There are no limits to his ambition, it seems. He's currently in dogged pursuit of Daniel Day-Lewis as a future guest.

"Sometimes they do baulk at the hour- long nature of it, or the personal nature of the show," he says, of how he persuades stars to take part. "I think one of the attractions of the show to a lot of them is that I'm not an investigative journalist. I'm a man with an unusual job, with an interest and a passion for these things that you do. I'm not trying to get you. And I always give them the choice to cut it all, or not put it out at all."

Still, the hardest part remains pulling in the guests. "I'm not going to lie to you, it's been extremely stressful," he says. But the effort has paid off. Jarlath's profile has sky-rocketed and the podcast has won him a whole new audience. Crucially, he has succeeded where many like him have failed, successfully monetising the format - and bagging a sponsor along the way.

Regan grew up in Co Kildare, the youngest of four children. His father worked as a horse trainer in the racing industry. The seeds of his interest in comedy were born around the family dinner table. He recognised early the power of being "the person who held the attention of the table with a story at the evening meal. I knew that was a really special thing."

His was, he says "an extremely happy" childhood. "My Dad was a horse trainer on the Curragh, so he was always around. And so was my Mum. Lots of kids don't have that."

He's tried to replicate the same sort of family life now that he has a seven-year-old of his own. "My son is lucky to have that too, and I think it's probably why I couldn't have settled down to office life. Just the notion that 'oh, this is what we do - we all arrive at seven in the evening, get one hour together and then we go to bed'. It kind of freaked me out because I know I loved my own upbringing so much, being outside all the time on the farm.

"We didn't have massive amounts of cash flow, but the family was so happy and never really wanted for too much. Even though we probably weren't what people would assume people in the horse racing industry would have."

After school, he went off to UCD where he read philosophy and politics. But it was at the Literary and Historical Society that he found his metier via debating, which led him to comedy. He was elected president and spent his time "running around from one event to another, standing up and making people laugh in debates. I did quite well competitively, but would usually be scuppered by trying to squeeze in more laughs than facts into cogent arguments..."

It was a hobby which, crucially "put me into contact with comics, because I started bringing in comedians rather than politicians for the debates. And they were lovely people and we got on well. I got laughs and they encouraged me to go for it."

It was at UCD that he met Tina, the woman who is now his wife. "Nearly in the first term, she was still a teenager and I had only just turned 20," he says. "Everybody probably remembers in university that there was one person that you saw everywhere... I keep seeing that person - and you obviously thought that person was cool and beautiful and funny. You rarely think that you're going to marry them. I did."

It wasn't a typical tortured university courtship. "We both knew straight away," he says. "In that way, it's always been easy."

Which is not to say that their resilience has not been tested. They've endured some fairly hefty obstacles in their time together. Tina suffers from a chronic kidney condition, "She's had really tough times... we have fought our own health battle," he says.

It was a struggle that was thrown into even sharper relief when, throughout late 2016 and early 2017, Jarlath came to the enormous decision that he would donate one of his own kidneys to his older brother, who has also suffered with kidney disease since childhood. A year ago last month, he discovered he was a match. And on February 2 this year, he underwent the complex and invasive procedure at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, USA, near to where his brother lives.

It has been, to say the least, a life-changing experience. But the physical challenge he undertook isn't the half of it. "It will take a year for me to be 100pc myself again," he explains. "But that said, my strength is back. I'm back in the gym. I feel great. I was back on stage two weeks later. The only difference in my life is that my energy occasionally tails off. But that's happening less and less.

"If anything, the surprising part of it for me was how little it affected me. Psychologically, it's harder."

Perhaps the person it's been hardest on, though, is Tina. "It wasn't like she said I forbid you," Jarlath explains. "She understood why I had to do it. She just wished it didn't have to be that way. She was there by my side the whole way. But she 100pc supported me if I decided not to do it."

He reckons it was "incredible of her to get on board in the way she did, when really she has such significant health issues herself," and considering "that the selfish thing to say was, 'No you can't do that. Sure I might be in trouble and we definitely need you to be alive. And you're going into this situation where you could potentially die, or have your life expectancy shortened.'"

He went through a process of counselling beforehand, to wrap his head around the magnitude of losing an organ, and helping him prepare for the risk involved.

"It's so invasive, and it's such a big ask. There are side-effects to it. But I'm so lucky in that I can make comedy from it. Genuinely, I feel better about the whole thing every time I can find the humour in it.

"When me and my wife sit down and talk about it, that maybe you are thinking about the whole thing, the second I can make it funny, it stops bothering me. It's the same in all of my life, really. People ask me sometimes, if you're going through a difficult time, are you thinking, this is going to be really funny, I can't wait to make material out of this?

"And usually, you don't think that in the moment, unless it's someone being really rude to you in an hilarious way. And in that case, you've nearly got the pen in your hand. But certainly in this one, comedy certainly got me through.

"There's this slight risk that it won't work, and a slight risk that you can die," he says. There was a huge amount for him to reflect on because "at no point in my life" did he ever think he was courageous.

"Have I ever genuinely thought I was a good man? A lot of men walk around trying to convince the world that they are decent guys. I did it first and foremost to help my brother, but it is a silver bullet for any doubt you have in yourself or your generosity. But then, does that make me a selfish person - that I don't worry about that stuff as much any more?"

Alongside the positive outcome for his brother, whose life, to make no bones about it, Jarlath saved, there have been collateral advantages for Jarlath too. There's the show he wrote about the experience, Organ Freeman, which he is taking to Edinburgh this year. And then there's "the elation and the high that comes off it, in terms of yourself and your contribution to life. I can't imagine there being anything better. That feeling - I rode that wave. Sometimes I'll take myself back there and it's still there - that sense of joy."

He's rather more equivocal, however, on the issue of whether giving his brother one of his kidneys changed their relationship.

"He's a lot funnier now," he quips, before tackling the delicate issue more seriously. "I'm the artist in our family. He is an older generation horse racing guy. He grew up in yards - show no weakness. So I get to express, emote and explain and let's talk about things...I don't expect him to talk about it in the way that I do or as freely as I do, or get as in touch with his emotions as I am, because that's not his business. That is my job, to reflect on it all. I think I've probably had to make peace with that because I'd love to talk about it all the time and know what's happening inside (him). Whereas, he's a guy who..." he trails off, saying "it's his way of dealing with things''.

"What we're talking about here is two things," he goes on. "When you give, you do it with a full heart and you do it for the right reasons. And we're talking about the two Irish men. The guy who is a reflection of his dad. And then the kind of new generation of Irish men who listens to podcasts and gets in touch with his failings and wants to improve them - meditates a bit, has been to a yoga class...

"There is a dividing line in the generations, and I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing, but it's a divide between us. Yeah, our relationship has changed. But it's peculiar, because how does he say thank you?"

He never really can, we agree. But then, as Jarlath acknowledges with typical dark wit, perhaps in some ways he had less of a choice than it might seem. "I never would have heard the f****** end of it if he died."

'Organ Freeman' runs at the Edinburgh Fringe until August 27, and debuts at Vicar Street on January 12, 2018.

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