Meet comedy's three-headed monster - Foil, Arms & Hog put the 'ho ho ho' in Christmas
One of Foil, Arms and Hog's favourite sketches has the self-explanatory title, Never Take an Irish Person Literally.
It features a German businessman who visits his company's Dublin office and is bewildered by comments such as, "I'm dying", "You know yourself" and "What's the story?" The one-liners come thick and fast, underlined by a serious point - as a race the Irish often use irony and sarcasm to make us seem more frivolous than we really are.
So perhaps Foil, Arms and Hog themselves should not be taken too literally when they say their motto is, "Funny first, think later."
"We just do whatever makes us laugh, that's really the only rule," is their stock answer when asked to analyse the routines that have made them Ireland's most popular and successful comedy sketch group. They clearly subscribe to the old EB White adage that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog - nobody is really interested and the frog ends up dead.
Spend a little time with Sean Finegan (Foil), Conor McKenna (Arms) and Sean Flanagan (Hog), however, and you realise that it's not quite so simple. They are all self-described "messers", but messers with a registered company and business premises where they record the weekly videos that have racked up over four million hits on YouTube. They still sound like college students just goofing around, but have spent almost a decade honing the act that earns them a good living - and don't deny that they are eager to complete their journey from minor cult to full-blown craze.
"We have worked very hard to get to this point," Finegan says. "Handing out flyers in the rain for hours on end, squeezing out a video en route to the airport, doing everything we can to make people come and see our show…"
"Being a 'natural' only accounts for so much in our business," McKenna agrees. "After that you need a lot of staying power, humility and the ability to learn from your mistakes."
"You never stop learning things when it comes to comedy because it's such an inexact science," Flanagan chimes in. "It's amazing to see someone who's been doing it for, say, 20-plus years. They have a presence that's impossible to emulate, it just comes from all those hours under the belt."
We are sitting in the spacious dressing room of a city-centre photographic studio, where Finegan (31), McKenna (31, born the same day as Finegan) and Flanagan (32) have spent the last hour posing with Christmas props for our photoshoot. "We'll sit in the right order just in case you forget which is which," says Finegan helpfully, as they all take their place on the sofa. "But when you're writing this up, don't worry about who said what - just think of us as one big, three-headed monster."
The first thing you notice about Foil, Arms and Hog is how incredibly tight-knit they are. They aim playful punches across the settee, often finish each other's sentences and at one point break into a rendition of their signature 'doom-dah' tune that makes them sound like a close-harmony singing outfit. This deep friendship is the main reason why they all express "zero desire" to do solo stand-up spots, even though McKenna (who you may also recognise from the McDonnells Curry Sauce ads) and Flanagan have both dabbled in the past. "Can you imagine what it's like driving home from a gig in Donegal after dying on your arse, thinking: 'They all hate me'?" McKenna asks rhetorically. "It's just such a lonely existence. At least if we have a bad show, we can talk it out and make ourselves feel better - you know: 'It was all the fault of that barman who broke a glass during our first sketch.'"
As individuals, Foil, Arms and Hog are not easy to pigeonhole. All speak with middle-class accents, but not quite at the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly level. All three come from Dublin but fully appreciate that Ireland does not stop at the Red Cow roundabout. All are highly photogenic but look like accessible boy-next-door types rather than international supermodels.
"We've never tried to push ourselves as strong personalities," McKenna agrees. "The show isn't about us as people, it's always about the characters we play. If we have a bit of an everyman quality, that's probably good because it allows us to slip easily into different kinds of roles."
Once you acclimatise yourself to the gang's company, however, some differences do become clear. Finegan is lively and cerebral, McKenna imposingly tall but laid-back, and curly-haired, rubber-faced Flanagan the closest thing they have to a natural clown. These character traits, it transpires, also combined to give the group its distinctive name.
"I'm a natural comic foil, always playing the straight man," Finegan explains. "Conor often has his limbs flying around like John Cleese's funny walk and Sean has a knack of grabbing all the limelight for himself. So, Foil, Arms and Hog - it sounds better than boring, clumsy and selfish."
Unlike some comics, they did not get into this business to exorcise personal demons or make political statements. Much of their material comes from the Jerry Seinfeld school of observational humour, based on the unspoken question: "Have you ever noticed that…?" They can be surprisingly hilarious on such mundane topics as internet passwords, cooking for one and how to ignore people at parties without making it too obvious.
"We don't know enough about politics to comment on it," Finegan cheerfully admits. "I actually try to avoid driving when it's coming up to the hour because you can't find a radio station without the bloody news. We prefer doing silly jokes, they're just much more fun.
"But occasionally, some mini-messages will get through. We've done a sketch about the stupid questions you get asked at US immigration checkpoints. You know: 'Name the country's two major parties? The gun lobby and big tobacco.' There's also what we call the 'knob series', about pretentious people who drink craft beers no matter how horrible they are and go to music festivals just so they can say they've seen a load of unknown bands."
On stage, Foil, Arms and Hog usually take on a more surreal edge. They are justly proud of their skit about a giant sandcastle competition, performed without any visual aides and ending on a note of real pathos. This, they agree, is why seeing them live and watching their online videos are completely different experiences.
"Some people really love our internet stuff but won't come to a show because they assume they've seen it all already," Hog points out. "But in fact there's not much crossover at all. When we have a captive audience, we can ask them to use their imagination and take them to all sorts of wild and wonderful places. On YouTube you need to grab them immediately or they'll click on to something else."
Above all, Foil, Arms and Hog have made a name for themselves by writing sketches that are proudly and distinctly Irish. Their most popular piece of all is How to Speak Dublin, which involves a language teacher coaching immigrants in the delivery of lines such as, "I will in me bleedin' hole." In An Irish Intervention, a mother and father give their son a stern lecture because he appears to be a teetotaller. Other old favourites include Leaving Cert Study Nightmares, A Very Irish Film Trailer and A Kerryman Gives Directions.
"We have to be a little bit careful about that when we go abroad," Flanagan concedes. "In Kansas City, for example, they didn't get the Kerryman bit at all because all Irish accents sound the same to them. In Scotland it went down a storm because they have an equivalent, the Aberdonian. We like to think that most of our stuff is funny no matter where you're from, but occasionally we do get an online comment such as, 'What the hell is a Garda strike?'"
Foil, Arms and Hog all grew up within walking distance of each other in the Rathfarnam/Terenure area. They went to separate schools of varying degrees of poshness ("Hog is our working-class hero," the other two quip). Flanagan also experienced some low-level bullying, which he managed to ward off by using his natural comic talent. "Some kids have height or brawn or just general popularity," he notes. "My role was to be funny. There was definitely a sense of, 'Don't punch him - he can tell good jokes.'"
Flanagan and Finegan briefly met as teenagers when they worked on a television ad for Frosties, then promptly forgot about each other. Effectively the triumvirate was born in UCD, where its members studied Architecture, Engineering and Genetics respectively. "We all got involved in the Drama Society, then realised that none of us had the slightest interest in doing serious plays," Flanagan remembers.
Their first collaboration was a show based on Father Ted, the seminal Channel 4 sitcom which had made a profound impression on them all. Even when I bring it up now, reverential looks come over all three faces and they start comparing their favourite moments. Together they wrote a new Father Ted script, secured permission from the co-creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews and performed it to full houses in UCD. Foil, Arms and Hog was born from the ashes of that production. "Other people fell away," McKenna says, "and it became obvious that the three of us had a really good dynamic together."
They launched themselves in 2008, just as Ireland was heading for recession. "That was absolutely the best thing that could have happened," Finegan asserts. "If the Celtic Tiger had still been going and all our mates were making shedloads of cash, we would have been under pressure to get proper jobs. But instead, we had the perfect excuse to play around for a while and see what happened."
At first they struggled to get gigs, mainly because so many venue owners gave them the stock excuse, "We don't do sketch comedy." "Some of them told us, 'Oh, we tried that before and it didn't work'," Finegan says. "To us that was like saying they'd had a female comedian before and that didn't work."
Being natural-born optimists, the group decided to treat this as a challenge. They reminisce cheerfully about the clubs that grudgingly offered them a two-minute slot and then went on to hire them as regular headliners. "Once we broke through the glass ceiling, promoters were happy to put us on a bill with stand-ups just to mix things up," Flanagan says. "And now we get on really well with other comedians because they don't see us as a threat."
At this stage Foil, Arms and Hog claim to have played almost every room in Ireland with a microphone - they've just enjoyed several nights at Dublin's Vicar Street. They build up their loyal fanbase by constantly freshening up the material. "We write a completely new hour every year," Finegan explains. "Then we do a two-hour show, where the first half is all new and the second is our best sketches from the back catalogue." They see themselves as halfway between stand-up (where the audience doesn't want to hear old jokes) and pop music (where the audience doesn't want to hear new songs) - but also estimate that at least 10pc of every performance is improvised and the funniest moments of all come from things going wrong.
Despite the group's intrinsic Irishness, they are determined to keep expanding their horizons. They have toured America, won an award in Australia and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe eight years running. The Scottish capital is traditionally a graveyard for aspiring comedians, but they managed to stand out from the crowd with some imaginative marketing from their manager Duck ("You'd have to know him really well to call him James.")
"Duck would hand out flyers with the line, 'If you don't laugh, I'll buy you a pint'" Flanagan recalls. "When people asked how many pints he'd ever bought, he said 'one' just to make it more believable." One visitor certainly not in need of liquid refreshment was the Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson, who shook the lads' hands afterwards and gave them an approving quote that promptly went on their posters.
By now, in fact, the one thing Foil, Arms and Hog have not achieved is their own television programme. Despite a few appearances with David McSavage on RTÉ's The Savage Eye and some script developments meetings with the BBC, they regularly get told that their kind of sketch-based comedy is currently out of fashion. This, you sense, is something of a sore point. "We would like to be on television, but mainly because that would help us to sell tickets for our live shows," Flanagan insists. "It would also be nice to have a bit of extra budget for filming the sketches. But we're not actively pursuing it any more - it'll happen when somebody grows a pair of balls."
Fortunately for them, as McKenna points out, "You can basically make your own television show on the internet now." They post a new sketch online every Thursday without fail, most of them filmed at their own office space in Kimmage. "If one person doesn't like a joke, we probably won't do it but we might," Flanagan says. "With three, there's always a natural majority."
Foil, Arms and Hog claim to have never had a serious fight. This would sound deeply suspect coming from most comedy outfits, but in their case it is surprisingly easy to believe. When I ask whether the act could survive if anyone left, they all break into spontaneous laughter. "Groups usually break up because one member thinks they could do better on their own," Finegan suggests. "I really don't think any of us feels that."
In short, it is hard to hang out with Foil, Arms and Hog for any length of time without feeling envious of how much they are clearly enjoying themselves. "We constantly mess from morning to night," Finegan cheerfully concurs. "If we are getting an early morning flight, there will be messing. If we are stuck driving back from a gig at 4am to be home to film in the morning, there will be messing too. It's what keeps us motivated, I think, reminding us that this is very much a fun job."
Christmas is generally a quiet time for Foil, Arms and Hog ("We refuse to gig because it's mostly office parties and people are just too hammered.") With an extensive Irish tour coming up, however, they seem quietly confident that 2017 can be their biggest year yet. In an email sent to me shortly after this interview, signed by all three, they attempt that old Irish balancing act once again - describing their ambitions without committing the terrible sin of taking themselves too seriously.
"When we started out, it was costing us thousands a year. Now we have clothes that jokes paid for and are paying our rent with ridiculous characters.
"This is such a crazy business, you never really know what you'll be doing next year. Will people keep coming to the shows? Will the videos start tanking? Will we still be funny? But if we can make a living for the rest of our lives just by making people laugh, we reckon that's a major success."
Foil, Arms and Hog will begin a 22-date tour of Ireland in February. foilarmsandhog.ie
Photographs by Kip Carroll