‘It’s an amazing thing to inject fear and nerves into an audience’ - you’ll need your wits about you for Pat Shortt’s new show
Pat Shortt is struggling to describe his new stage show, Hey! He has a “style”, he says, a “schtick, as the lad would say”. He pauses, ‘So, it’s like every other show I’ve done!”
The Tipperary writer, comedian, and actor is no salesman, but he does manage to convey that it’s all new material, a series of sketches, with some audience participation (courtesy of the Tulip of Tipperary pageant), and one or two new characters.
“I come out with this opening character and someone asked me, ‘what’s he about?’ and I’m like, ‘Nothing really, he’s just a funny f***er!’” he guffaws. “I’m struggling to try and put a context on it, he’s just a character, an Irish character.” You have to experience it, he says.
Originally from Tipp but living in Limerick, Shortt (50) has made a career out of being a funny f***er, kicking off with Jon Kenny as D’Unbelievables in the late 80s, before going solo in the late 90s ahead of the duo parting ways in 2000.
Shortt will forever be immortalised as Tom in Father Ted (as will anyone who ever did a turn in the legendary Channel 4 series), and as the man responsible for the hilarious Jumbo Breakfast Roll Song, which spent a whopping six weeks at number one in Ireland in 2006 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.
However, it was his turn as the tragic Josie in Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage that proved Shortt had deeper dramatic depths to mine, as did his turn in Gerard Barrett's Smalltown among others.
The TV series Killinaskully, which he wrote and starred in, followed and proved to be a phenomenal success for RTE, regularly drawing around 750,000 viewers, and running for five seasons. He created another iconic character in slightly shorter lived series, Mattie.
More recently he has proven his mettle treading the boards in, among other theatrical productions, three Martin McDonagh plays. This summer he starred in A Skull in Connemara at the Olympia, a production which garnered rave reviews, including for Shortt himself.
He describes it as a “wonderful experience”, relishing the opportunity to work with director Andrew Flynn, and fellow stars Jarleth Tivnan, and Maria McDermottroe, with whom he spent several happy years on Killinaskully. And McDonagh’s work always seems to feature a character who could have been written specifically for Shortt.
“It works really well for me because I understand the characters and where he’s coming from and I understand Martin’s writing,” he says.
“I always think Martin runs a fine line of being Irish and Irish and if his work is in the wrong hands it can be disastrous, but if it’s in the right hands it can be the best theatre you’ll ever see because it is so dark. The characters are animated, and if that’s done wrong it can be awful."
He continues, “If you look at some of the more colourful productions done in America of his work by amateur groups you’re like, they just haven’t got it. They just have not got it. And then you look at what Druid has done, and Decadent Theatre Company and the National in London.”
He asks whether McDonagh is Irish or English and laughs, “Of course, we’ll claim him!”, adding , “He is one of the best contemporary playwrights around,” and says he’s “lucky to have a relationship with him,” one he hopes will bear more fruit in future.
As enjoyable as he found the experience, however, it was gruelling physically, not just because he didn’t leave the stage once, but because he also “got a hop off the motorbike the first day of rehearsals up in Galway”.
“The weather was beautiful and I thought, look Galway traffic is crap, and wouldn’t it be nice to have the scooter up there? I’ve a couple of motorbikes. The feckin' day I went it was torrential rain and I hit an oil patch coming into Galway and bang! The bike went one way and I went the other, so I hurt my neck which is still a bit sore. I had that all the way through the show, so I found that hard, because I was physically sore, and I am to this day, but it’s much improved.”
So, there he was, trying to get his head into a character... “and out of a Fiesta!” he roars with laughter.
Shortt is speaking to Independent.ie in the Olympia dressing room he inhabited during the run of A Skull in Connemara, and where he’ll return in January for three nights for Hey! He references McDonagh when he talks about his own approach to writing characters.
“Martin’s a great writer, the darkness of his characters, and I suppose in some ways I do a bit of that, because comedy’s at it’s best when you do a bit of that,” he says.
“This opening character is very ignorant, in a nice way. He’s oblivious to his own ignorance, no harm [in him] whatsoever, and I think that’s what makes him so daft and silly and a lot of my characters are like that. They can say awful things about people in wheelchairs and things like that but they don’t mean any badness in it and that’s what I find funny, and the darker you go with some of that stuff, the funnier it makes the character.”
The hook of the show is a beauty pageant, the aforementioned Tipperary Tulip, and three finalists are chosen from the audience.
“I don’t embarrass anybody,” he assures. “The joke is not on them, it’s on me. You really have to see it. It’s great fun. I love playing with audiences, is probably a better way to describe it. It’s like that energy you get in an audience when you put fear into them, and the whole room comes alive, and the dynamic of the room changes, and the whole gig changes, and it’s great and the craic is mighty and it’s including everybody in a way and it’s just brilliant.”
He’s the most animated when he speaks about his stage show. It’s clear he still gets a kick out of it.
“I do, because there is that dynamic,” he says. “Any comedian or musician will tell you when you play with an audience or you get reaction from an audience that’s amazing. It’s an amazing thing to inject fear and nerves into an audience like that.”
Shortt is an old school performer, traversing stand-up, theatre, TV and film. At this point in his career there are no gaps in his schedule, no lean times. But he works hard for his success, touring each show around Ireland from the INEC in Killarney to Mitchellstown, Limerick, Newry, Omagh and beyond. In a climate where competition on the comedy circuit is fierce, he says he never rests on his laurels.
“In the last couple of years a lot of English comedians come over and do that circuit,” he says. “There’s so many tickets on sale now for Christmas with massive concerts, with the Spice Girls and whatever. There’s so much happening at the moment, it is hard. There’s only so much money out there. People only have so much money to spend. It’s much more competitive than it ever was, and much more challenging for everybody. So to sell out gigs nowadays is definitely a challenge.
“You just don’t know what to do. You advertise, you do as much as you can, but you’ve got to be sharp and come up with new shows and new material all the time. From my point of view I’ve never sat back on my laurels and run a show into the ground.”
Back when he started touring with Jon in D’Unbelievables, things were different, to the point where they almost (but not quite) became complacent about their phenomenal success.
“Just selling out everywhere,” he says reflecting on that time. “You could have done six nights in Galway, six nights in Sligo. Nobody does that anymore. I don’t even do that anymore, that kind of touring, and the country was in a different place. I have great memories of it, I had a great time doing it, and working with Jon, it was fantastic.”
D’Unbelievables, however, will not return, even though he is constantly asked about a reunion.
“I think it’s probably lived its life out,” he says, adding that he feels for Jon when he’s asked the same question in interviews, but while they’ve both often said, ‘never say never’, and he acknowledges there’s “great affection” for it, he seems pretty definite now, “It’s not going to happen.”
Apart from anything else, his schedule is crammed for the next two years. While he tours he also slots in the odd TV show and film. Next up we'll see him in The Belly of the Whale and he has another film, possibly two, in the offing. TV-wise he's also currently presenting Pat Shortt’s Music from D’Telly for RTE (there’s a second series coming next year) and he's in talks with RTE for a new entertainment project, possibly something character led.
“I think with the figures being so strong [Music from D’Telly is averaging around 290,000 an episode], and people tuning in to watch it and watch me that [RTE] can’t ignore it. I shouldn’t really be saying that,” he grins, adding, “Well, it’s true!”
That popularity can make a quiet pint a little difficult, however. He says the attention he gets is always "positive" but like many people known for being funny, the public at large expect him to be that way all the time.
“I think when you’re on TV all the time and in people’s sitting rooms and as long as I have been – I seem to have been around forever, because I was young starting out, I was only 18 starting in this game – so they think they know you. So you get, ‘Ah now Shortt is here, up for the craic’ and they pull up beside you in a restaurant or a bar and they think the craic now is going to kick off. And I’m like, ‘I’ve no script here!’”
He’s left alone in his Limerick local, however. “They’re sick of me and that’s great, because I can go in there and talk about Brexit and talk shite and not have to talk about myself and who I’ve worked with and who I’ve met and is Daniel Radcliffe really that small and all those silly questions!”
Hey! runs at The Olympia Theatre, Dublin on Thursday 10, Friday 11, and Saturday 12 January, 2019. Tickets on sale from Ticketmaster now.