'I didn't realise how seriously Paul Galvin takes his life' - Oliver Callan talks rage, RTE and kicking people where it hurts
Meeting Oliver Callan is a bizarre experience. You are never quite sure which of his characters from Enda Kenny and Imelda May to Pat Kenny and Des Cahill, might appear at any moment. As we settle in for our chat in the Merrion Hotel, however, the man behind the hilarious mask begins to emerge.
In September, Oliver kicks off his first ever live, nationwide tour. It has been a busy few years for the comedy star, whose exit from Today FM’s Gift Grub in 2006 set the groundwork for his now hugely successful solo career.
Oliver grew up in Monaghan on a farm before moving to Dublin to study Journalism in DCU.
“I was always interested in current affairs — there are no journalists in the family — it’s long lines of farmers in Monaghan on my father’s side and in Cork on my mother’s side and then, suddenly, I appear, this media enthusiast out of the blue,” Oliver laughs.
“So that’s the way I went into it. I did dabble in comedy when I was about 15 and ended up on the Kenny Live Show believe it or not and won a £1,000.”
Oliver began his career as a newsreader for Today FM, a profession which he describes as ‘very constrained’ and one which he was relieved to break free from.
“You can’t do a degree in comedy, so journalism looked like the closest thing at the time, so I did that,” he flashes a cheeky grin.
“So out of that I suppose grew my need to show my impressions, which is what I approached Ian Dempsey with on a mini disc and he listened to them and said ‘Oh you know, you should do some stuff with Mario Rosenstock on Gift Grub.’”
Oliver worked alongside Mario for the next three years.
“I left in 2006,” Oliver explains. “It was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to be a comedy duo, it was no Morecambe and Wise,” he laughs. “There was a 10 year age difference, which obviously impacted it as well and the fact that Mario’s success was really taking off at that stage. So I went off to RTE to forge my own comedy career, which was a slow build.”
Oliver began with a slot on Marty in The Morning, which lasted just three months. He was then ‘adopted’ by the late Gerry Ryan for three years.
“When Ryan Tubridy took over that slot, it just didn’t really suit his style of presenting — it was just too risqué,” Oliver says.
“The host of The Late Late Show was never meant to start taking lumps out of people on a sketch show, so we kind of messed around for a bit on Radio One for a while and then finally when things settled, Callan’s Kicks came about and this will be our sixth season now in the Autumn.”
Callan’s Kicks, which airs every Friday on Radio One, has become something of a station stalwart, bringing in large listenership figures, while the debut TV series last year also received critical acclaim.
But does Oliver ever feel bad when the subjects of his impressions fail to see the humour in his portrayal of them?
“It doesn’t really matter if they have a sense of humour about it or not because my job is to rattle cages and to say unpopular things about very popular people,” he smiles.
“I think people watching the media sometimes get a bit sick of the buddies interviewing each other — we have a bit of a chummy climate and everybody is rubbing each other up the right way.
“Of course you bump into people and think ‘Oh god’. I was a bit hard on Des Cahill there with the whole slurping thing, which he doesn’t do, but he just looks like he does,” Oliver says.
“I don’t hang out with Rachel Allen and her family,” Oliver adds. “She’s probably not best pleased with it either, but I don’t worry too much about that kind of thing to be honest.
“I know it’s a very small country and sometimes you should, but if you did it would just turn into one of these weak pantomime comedies and there are plenty of other impressionists out there doing lovely, friendly, cosy impressions of their celeb friends, but that just doesn’t interest me.”
One of Oliver’s most controversial sketches on last year’s TV series portrayed TV chef Rachel Allen. “The point of that sketch was not to attack Rachel Allen, which is I think how many people read it afterwards, but it was actually a satire of the media and celebrity more generally and how we seem to forget about huge scandals involving brands and businesses in Ireland, and the media goes along and helps them to reconstruct themselves in the public limelight,” Oliver explains.
“The fact Tim Allen was convicted of possession of child porn would make me think twice.”
Perhaps the worst reaction to Oliver’s work has come from Kerry GAA star Paul Galvin, who notably took Callan to task during a heated altercation in a Dublin bar in 2011.
“That little cyclone started with me not realising how seriously he takes life,” Oliver explains. “It became a nice old rumble in the jungle, media tiff. I texted him afterwards because I had his number from a previous meeting where he was fine and I told him it was all nonsense and the guards should never have been called and I certainly didn’t call them or give a statement, that I was sorry it all happened,” Oliver stifles a giggle.
The spat with Galvin led to Oliver appearing on TV the following week and coming out live on air.
“People were saying that my portrayal of Galvin was homophobic and that I was trying to out him, so the only way I saw of proving otherwise was to come out and say ‘Oh, I thought everyone knew, I am gay myself’. “So that’s what I did. Unfortunately my timing was off because as it turns out, if I had waited four years I would have got massive publicity because everyone was coming out there six months ago ahead of the referendum,” he laughs.
“But it was right at the time for me. So I did it and I left the country for a couple of days, went to England and switched off phones and everything.”
Oliver came out to his family just days before that TV interview.
“It was one of those instances where I was going ‘well I am going to say this and sure you know already!’ and they were like ‘well, actually no, what are you talking about?’ It was all over very fast, which was nice, it was like a coming out nuke,” he says.
Oliver has been in a committed relationship for the last three years, but laughs that he is not about to divulge his intentions to me and the rest of the world. Safe to say, he is very happy.
Despite his jovial take on life, Oliver is intensely interested in current affairs and often uses his work to make statements about society and politics, which others may find uncomfortable.
“Comedy begins with rage in the first place,” he explains.
“For example I was surprised Mary Harney’s appearance in the Banking Inquiry got such little coverage and how little coverage she gets generally because she was the Minister for Health for seven years.
“The year she left she got a €750,000 pension and lump sum payout and she continues to make €130,000 a year ever since.
“You look back at her track record — she used to fly to a huge number of junkets, there was a St Patrick’s Day when she was three weeks in New Zealand, the hairdos in Florida, she took a helicopter one time to open her friend’s off-licence in Sligo while she was Minister for Health,” Oliver laughs, clearly exasperated.
“It also shows how useless the Banking Inquiry is because Mary Harney as Minister for Enterprise actually set up the financial regulator, so she has a huge responsibility for the crash and for the mess of a health service, and yet she gets to sail off into the sunset with €130,000 in her back pocket. So there is a fury there.
“Then you have the current posse; the controversy about the pensions of former minister has come up, yet Enda Kenny is saying they should not take the increase when he himself is standing to inherit a teacher’s pension, a TD’s pension and a Taoiseach’s pension.
“For the people who make the laws to say there is nothing they can do about that is utter bullshit,” Oliver says.
“Barack Obama, when they said he couldn’t remove the banker’s bonuses in America, he said ‘well I can bring in a 99pc tax on it’. There is always a way around it, but politicians, particularly those heading for pension age, who will get huge pensions, obviously don’t want to tackle that pension issue.”
Oliver chooses to laugh at the situation Ireland is in: it is, he agrees, one of those scenarios at which you either laugh or cry.
“I am not completely depressed, though I don’t think we live in a dystopian Ireland,” he moves to qualify. “Mick Wallace for example, someone we slagged relentlessly because it turned out his company had withheld a lot of VAT and was a huge tax defaulter — but since then he has actually become a TD with quite a national outlook, so some do redeem themselves as they go along.”
Oliver will kick off his live tour at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, Friday, September 18. For information and more dates around Ireland, check out: http://olivercallan.com