'You might not make a lot of money but you’ll be happy... that’s more important' - Pat Shortt on what his struggles taught him about life
Pat Shortt is in huge demand. TV3’s acclaimed, three-part familial drama, Smalltown - in which Shortt starred as a struggling farmer, father and husband - proved a massive hit with audiences last month. Declan Recks’ big-screen, comedy caper, The Flag (again, starring Shortt in the lead role) is due in cinemas this Friday. They are both, to an extent, about emigration – albeit, in very different ways.
It is, quite simply, a coincidence, says Shortt, when we meet at Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. But I do wonder if the 48-year-old entertainer from Thurles ever considered packing his suitcase and leaving the old country behind for good?
“No, never really,” answers a bearded and bespectacled Shortt, as we take a seat. “I loved working in comedy. I started working with Jon Kenny many, many years ago, and always kind of cut a living for myself, even when we were making virtually no money. But you made enough to get by, and money wasn’t what you were thinking about - it didn’t drive you when you were younger.
“When you’re in your early 20s, you couldn’t give a shite,” he smiles, “once you get a beer, you know what I mean? On to the next night out, as such. But even though I came out of the 80s - and everybody emigrated back in those days - it never once entered my mind to leave the country.”
In The Flag, Shortt assumes the role of one Harry Hambridge, a down-on-his-luck expat in the UK, who loses his dad, his hamster and his construction job in the one day and, later, learns that it was his grandfather who placed a tricolour atop the GPO in 1916. So, Harry decides to reclaim said flag from a heavily secured British army barracks, with a little help from his mates (Moe Dunford and Brian Gleeson included). You know, to prove a point. Or something. It’s Carry On Rising, basically, and poor Harry is a bit of a mess. Shortt can, of course, relate. He’s had his fair share of bad days, too.
“I certainly have, but I’m not gonna tell you about it!” he laughs. “Best left forgotten, to be honest with you. Everybody has days where everything goes dreadfully wrong for you, but you think positively and you pick yourself up and get on with it, and that’s what you do.”
Thankfully, these are good times for Shortt. Busy times, too. This is a man who creates his own luck and, indeed, his own comedy work (a new stage show, How’s Tings, premieres later this month). Which probably explains why the comedian and actor doesn’t worry about whether the phone might stop ringing.
“With me, [the worry is] I’m not going to be funny anymore!” he laughs. “When you’re writing a new show, and you’re putting it out there, yeah, of course you doubt yourself, of course you wake up in the middle of the night, going, ‘What am I thinking?’ A great director said to me once, ‘If you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again’. You have to keep telling yourself that”.
The sleepless nights have already started. There’s no room for laziness. “No, but I think that’s in every walk of life, in every job”, he nods. “People say to me, ‘God, you’re mad busy, you’ve so much going on,’ and I think, ‘Well, you probably have as much going on as I have’. I do work all year round. A lot of actors will have breaks between jobs. I don’t, I just roll from one project to the next, and I take my two, three weeks holidays with the kids and the family, same as everybody else, so I don’t actually see myself as working too much.”
He’s always thinking ahead; always planning his next move. His London agent will send Shortt scripts to consider in between comedy jobs. Sometimes, they’re too good to pass up on (Lenny Abrahamson’s award-winning, Garage, or a stint on Broadway in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, for instance). Sometimes, he might be busy (lest we forget, Shortt’s rapturously-received rural sitcom, Killinaskully, ran for a solid five years). It’s all about timing, and knowing what’s right – what will resonate with audiences. Which reminds me, does Pat Shortt ever read reviews?
“You do read them, yeah”, he nods, “and when it’s a great review, it’s great. When it’s a bad review, they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about!” Shortt lets out another infectious chuckle. “You never set out to do shite, but sometimes, things don’t work and that’s it. You learn, and I think [bad reviews] used to be a lot more devastating years ago, but nowadays, I just go, ‘Ah well, that’s not gonna stop me working’.”
Recently, Shortt started to play music again - just a few small gigs with a blues band in his adopted city of Limerick. Nothing major. An accomplished saxophonist, Shortt’s original plan was, of course, to join a band and make a living as a musician. But, you know, he kind of enrolled in Art College. And then he met Jon Kenny. The rest is history.
Kenny and Shortt formed D’Unbelievables, one of Ireland’s most successful comedy duos, and boy, did they have a phenomenal run, touring the country several times over, lampooning every corner of rural Ireland with their unique brand of character-based sketches, skits and surreal get-ups. In 2000, after more than a decade on the road, the D’Unbelievables train came to a screeching halt when Kenny was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The partnership was, effectively, over.
“We had no plan, whatsoever,” recalls Shortt. “And when I look back on it, I’d say we probably wouldn’t have gone on forever. We were probably starting to get tired of each other - I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, like I was tired of Jon, you know, it’s just you need a change.”
“We didn’t have a choice, anyway, the way it was, where Jon had to get the treatment, so there was a gap there. I didn’t work for two years because I thought we’ll get back together. I hadn’t really thought about it, and then, when it came to going out on my own, it made absolute sense. When I looked back, I kind of thought there was a spark gone out of it a little bit.”
“We could have been overworked, I don’t know what the reason for it was,” he continues, “but certainly, the same attraction to working with D’Unbelievables wasn’t there anymore and it didn’t really dawn on me till after [the break]. Gigging on my own I realised I probably should have moved on even a year earlier.”
In 2010, Shortt and Kenny reconvened for a lengthy – and hugely successful – reunion tour. They enjoyed it, too. But Shortt wasn’t interested in keeping the show on the road. “I had been working, at that stage, for 12 years on my own and I found it hard to go back to committee again. See, if a film comes in for me, it’s my choice to do it. Whereas, if you’re working with Jon - or anybody for that matter - you’d have to say, ‘Well, if I take this, he’s out of work for a while’, and that’s not really fair.
“I remember the first few weeks [of the reunion], going, ‘Aw this is great, back working with Jon again’, but then, when a couple of other projects started popping their heads up, it became a bit awkward, and I thought, ‘Ah here, this is the very reason why I like working on my own. And it’s no disrespect to Jon; it’s not a personal thing at all. It’s purely, I had just got into a style of working that I was very happy with and found that I didn’t want to go back to the other way”.
The door is always open. Next year, Shortt turns 50. Growing old doesn’t bother him. Instead, he enjoys it (“sure I’m only 25 at heart”). His three kids (daughters Fay and Lily Rose, and son Ludaigh) are now starting to think about what they want to do with their lives. What happens if they want to follow in their dad’s footsteps?
“I’d say ‘Brilliant, go for it’,” smiles Shortt. “I mean, it’s been good to me. If you can work as hard as me and enjoy it, you’ll have a f**king great life. You might not make a lot of money but you’ll be happy, and I think that’s more important.”
“I think that’s one thing that came out of the Celtic Tiger, and all that craziness. Money became the centre for everybody and when the crash happened and people didn’t have a lot of money, they suddenly started to realise happiness and contentment in your work, whatever you do, is actually much, much more holistically important. So, if my eldest daughter wants to be an actress - which I think she does - I would absolutely tell her to go for it…”
The Flag is released in cinemas this Friday.