Monday 17 December 2018

'There's no need to worry about me' - Tommy Tiernan talks about THAT improv tour

An end to the cushy business of telling jokes: instead, Tommy Tiernan was doing something far more interesting - getting closer to the pure essence of what he does
An end to the cushy business of telling jokes: instead, Tommy Tiernan was doing something far more interesting - getting closer to the pure essence of what he does

Chris Wasser

It was toe-curling TV, but Tommy Tiernan’s improv tour around Europe was the most life-affirming, humbling thing he’s ever done, he tells Chris Wasser

Some of us watched it through our fingers. Most of us held our breath until the credits rolled.

Here was one of the greatest Irish stand-ups of all time, the superlative Tommy Tiernan, performing 12 consecutive shows in nine European countries, and all without a single scrap of material to his name. It didn’t end well.

The documentary, Tommy: To Tell You the Truth, aired on RTE last month and saw the renowned comic tackle the tricky art of improvisation.

As audiences across Europe were left scratching their heads over the silent comic with no jokes, TV viewers at home took to social media to express that puzzlement at the car crash TV.

So what was going on?

“There’s no need for anybody to be worried about me,” says Tommy, taking a seat in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street, “apart from the people who live with me. And the only reason that they have to worry about me is in case I’m being a tit that day, which is normal.

“It’s important as well that people know that it wasn’t my documentary,” the 45-year-old says of the feature, directed by Pat Collins.

“It was a story told about a tour, but I wasn’t the storyteller. It would be a bit like meeting Little Red Riding Hood and she goes, ‘Hey look, so much more happened that day!’,” he laughs.

Nicely put. Tommy read some of the reviews – there was no avoiding them.

“I thought some of it was over-the-top positive, and some of it was over-the-top negative. I’m too close to it to be able to know really what effect it had on people, but it definitely was confusing, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Probably because he enjoyed the experience. The fact of the matter is that after 19 years in the comedy business, Tommy Tiernan wanted a new challenge.

And what’s more challenging for a skillful, observational comic than stepping out on stage without the aid of a script?

He insists he’s getting better at it, and that the buzz makes him feel 25 again.

“I love it. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the most life-affirming thing I’ve done. It’s humbling, because you’ve nothing to be egotistical about. It’s embarrassing sometimes, but it’s also wonderful, and no-one else is doing it.”

A new live DVD, the excellent Stray Sod, is set for a November 21 release, the culmination of four years of touring around rural Ireland.

The show was entirely scripted and honed, but as he prepares a new venture for Vicar Street in January, he confesses that he isn’t yet sure where things might go.

“I’m very committed towards giving people a good night out, and that’s not a thing I have to suggest to myself as worth remembering. I’m a natural crowd pleaser, and I’m just trying to do it in a different way, but in a way that people will get more out of it.

“It’s worth doing,” he says of the improv, “and I know that, and I’m not suddenly about to start letting people down, that’s not in my DNA.

“It’s because I don’t want to let people down that I’m doing it.

“I remember when U2, after they released the third album, War, they were on stage, I think, in the Phoenix Park, and Bono said, ‘We’re gonna change direction’. The next album they came out with was The Unforgettable Fire, which is my favourite U2 album, and there was so much risk-taking in that, and so much wonderful music.

“It was the fact that they were prepared to take a risk that brought them to this new place.

“Now,” he says, laughing, “the difference between what I do and The Unforgettable Fire is they waited until the album was in some sort of coherent shape before they released it!

“If U2 had released their first-day rehearsals as the album, people would be going, ‘What is this sh*t?’.”

Another good point. The married father-of-six no longer wishes to repeat himself. It’s what comedians generally do, every night of the week, and he’s grown weary of it.

If it seems like he’s never off the road, it’s because he isn’t. And yet, it was during one of the busiest tours of his career that he decided to start drinking again (he’d been off the sauce for nearly eight years).

“Yvonne (Tommy’s wife/manager) asked me to start again, genuinely,” he chuckles. “Because I was so boring. I had turned into such a boring person. We were on holiday and she said, ‘Please have a drink’.

“My drinking was never a problem – it wasn’t like I was drinking every day or even every second day, but it was when I drank that I drank ‘til I was asleep, and it might take you a day or two to fall asleep!

“I can’t drink more than two or three pints now, or else I’m screwed the next day.”

Tommy is no stranger to controversy. Sometimes, a simple remark gets the Navan man into trouble. In 2009, a ‘joke’ about the Holocaust during a public interview with the comedian landed Tiernan bang, smack in the middle of a proper uproar. But he insists he is his own biggest critic.

“It happens a lot that I come off stage and I go, ‘I wish I hadn’t said that’,” he admits.

“Nobody has suffered more than me for the stuff that I’ve said. So you might say, ‘Well you’ve said this about this group and this about that group’, I guarantee you, I'm the person who’s had the most sleepless nights, I’m the person who has kind of felt the brunt of that more than anybody else, so it’s in my interest to be good to myself on stage and not do anything that offends me as a person.

“There’s a kind of bravado and energy on stage,” he continues, “and you’re kind of pulsing out all this kind of magnificence, you know, this kind of confidence, and you’re eight foot tall. The amount of people who say, ‘Jesus, you look bigger on stage!’

“There’s a swing back where all those confidences turn to insecurities, all that bravado turns to neurosis, and you know, the dogs of laughter were yelping all over Vicar Street, but they turn into bad ba****ds, growling at you when you’re on your own in your hotel room.”

But he soldiers on. As for the future, Tommy is in no mood to slow down. There are plans to tour the UK and Europe, and he also talks about giving America another shot. After all, comedy is still important to Tommy Tiernan.

“You’re also aware that, you know, it’s not really that important,” he says, smiling. “You’re just a fella telling stories…”

Stray Sod the DVD is out on November 21. Tommy plays Vicar Street in January. Visit www.vicarstreet.ie for a list of dates.

READ: Tommy Tiernan, quite simply the sanest man in Ireland

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