Mario Rosenstock: I hope dad is proud... maybe we could talk over a pint sometime
This week marks 20 years of Gift Grub - and Mario Rosenstock is taking time to reflect, writes Niamh Horan
A young curly- haired blonde boy stands in the kitchen impersonating family members for his granny. She's bent in two laughing. Wiping away the tears, she takes the boy by the shoulders and vigorously shakes him. "You've got it," she says, suddenly turning serious. "Don't ever forget this. You're going to be great."
Mario Rosenstock is recalling the first time that he made someone laugh. How did it make him feel? "Warm, loved. It felt like home," he muses.
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Following a "fractious" and "unstable" upbringing, he lived with his grandparents to escape his parents' constant rowing. They eventually split but even today Mario's relationship with his father remains broken. The pair haven't spoken in 10 years. "There is no fight, no war." Was his father physically abusive? "In fact the opposite," says Mario, "remoteness."
He believes Ireland needs to start a conversation.
"People have talked a lot in this country about mental health and it's the buzzword at the moment and that's all very well, but one of the things I think is going to be talked about in the future is the unspoken subject of people's relationships with their families. I think that we don't really like to talk in a small community like Ireland about the broken relationships we have with our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers. It's a bit like the miscarriage [stories]. We all think nobody knows about my little secret then you discover other people's families are riven with internal madness."
Sitting in Balfes cafe in the Dublin sunshine, Mario is celebrating 20 years of the phenomenally successful Gift Grub. That's on top of record-breaking tours, 500,000 comedy albums, 10 PPI Radio Awards, two smash-hit TV shows and a place in the radio hall of fame. And it doesn't take Freud to understand what he is still seeking.
With performance, he says he is "chasing love, warmth, approval, acceptance... you are on the market, looking for the main line through your veins. Hook me up to that drip and get it into me".
Does he still find himself wanting to make his father proud? "What boy doesn't? Now there is a secret for success," he laughs, "go chasing Daddy's love for the rest of your life. We know plenty of people like that."
Mario went to a Christian Brothers primary school where he saw bouts of cruelty. One boy who failed to answer a question was asked if he wanted to see the Tower of London. He was lifted off the ground "by his two ears and held up like a chalice". By boarding school, Mario was "on fire with hormones" and realised "the ability to chatter" among silent men was a hit with women. Comedy was the obvious outlet for his extroversion and talent but it wasn't until his 20s that Ian Dempsey and the big time came knocking.
"He taught me so much," says Mario, "about judgment, the importance of listening but most of all, tone. Everything you do in life is about tone. Whether you are asking your girlfriend to marry you or talking to a room full of people - if you can get that right, it's half the battle."
In the years that followed Mario's sketches dominated the morning airwaves - with his parodies of Bertie Ahern, Michael Flatley, Jose Mourinho and Roy Keane at times going global. "They were the greatest days, we used to party like nutcases," he recalls. His famous Ronan Keating sketch, where the singer attempts to break the record for holding the longest note, was performed while he was "half cut", but there was only one performance that ever landed the pair in serious trouble. "There was a problem with a sketch on Brian Cowen becoming a director of Topaz, which Denis [O'Brien] owned. I had it that Cowen has his cap on behind the glass in Topaz but he runs it into the ground after a month. Eventually it explodes and all you can hear is Cowen going 'I think it's positive going forward' while the whole thing is on fire," he laughs. The powers that be "went absolutely berserk", he says, "the shit hit the fan. But then later, we met Denis, and he said: 'I f**kin loved that Topaz sketch!'"
The height of Mario's success came during the crash when "people were coming out in droves wanting to laugh". One of his favourite characters, Johnny Ireland (based on the developer), whose catchphrase was "we're back", ironically led the satirist to become one of the first to call the economy's upturn. "I loved doing him because I got to wear cycling shorts and put five pairs of socks down my crotch to make him look like he had the biggest building ever. He was carrying a crane in his pants and he looked like a wild animal - this rapacious Scarlet Pimpernel."
Mario's own experience of the recession wasn't so funny. His tour promoter avoided jail after failing to pay him €250,000 he was owed from his sell-out tour. His Foxrock home also halved in value. Now he says: "I am basically crawling back from that particular bad end of it."
For such a gregarious character, it's surprising that he also speaks of the darkness that descends after the euphoria of a tour. "There's a feeling of nothingness. Everything is grey. There are no colours and you are asking yourself what is wrong with me? It only dawned on me after a few years that it was this exhilaration that was leaving me and while that happens you are just a damp squib lying on the ground."
Mario lives by the words of Japanese philosopher Shunryu Suzuki which he had pinned to the wall aged 12. It reads: "When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself." Mario advises: "Look at what you want to do, then throw everything you have into it, your heart, your stomach, your balls, everything. And then forget about you. Just see what you have created and that's you. You disappear and everybody goes 'isn't that a lovely piece of work?' and they all concentrate on what you did, rather than praising you."
With his career burning bright - a greatest hits tour coming this year and his new radio show, Sunday Roast, up 19,000 in the JNLR figures - his main priority these days is to be a good father to his two young children. So what about his own dad? Is he open to mending bridges? "Perhaps," he says.
If he could say anything to his father now, what would it be? "Well, I would say I hope he is proud of me and maybe we could talk about it over a pint some time." And for the first time in the interview Mario comes over all quiet.