Making a long story shortt
With his catalogue of country gombeens, Pat Shortt endeared himself to a generation of fans and has now found fame and critical acclaim as an actor. But, as Donal Lynch discovers, he can't wait to get back to his comfort blanket
Pat Shortt has written whole odes to tea – "in the turmoil of markets and write-downs and haircuts, you can't beat a good cup of tea" – so it's perhaps no surprise to find this national treasure (as he was recently described) huddled over a pot of our national drink. Equally unsurprising is that he hardly has a second to enjoy it in peace. Between thoughtful sips, several people jostle their way into the conversation, muttering catchphrases of their favourite characters, inquiring about Jon Kenny's cancer (from which he is long since in remission) or reverentially approaching Shortt to remind of him of that time he spoke to them after a gig eight years ago.
Throughout all of this he's as patient as a small-town politician at a clinic, even if he registers mild disappointment that a comedy groupie is most likely to be "an oul fella with a fat belly".
Perhaps because he's so often conflated with his menagerie of country gombeens his own persona is conspicuously low-key and well spoken. These days, the 46-year-old talks of himself as a "product" (he frets that it sounds "cold and callous") and his raft of acting and comedy projects are run from an office in Limerick. He's just returned from a stint on the West End stage, where he starred opposite Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple Of Inishmaan, and the morning after we meet is due to fly to Romania to star in John Boorman's latest film, a follow up to Hope And Glory.
However, comedy remains Shortt's first love. He's due to start a new tour of his one-man show. Getting up on stage in Nenagh or Dundalk is "like coming home" he tells me. He's almost wistful about the few times he genuinely bombed – a transvestite guard sketch was met with stony silence in Listowel once – since his path to the top of Irish comedy has been so smooth. From the decade-long sell-out run of D'Unbelievables to the ratings supernova that was Killinaskully, everything he's touched has turned to gold.
Of course you don't get to be that successful without people finding a way to take offence. Though Shortt's comedy was always safe enough for his kids to watch there were those who accused him of perpetuating crude rural stereotypes. Jackie Mason once said that for the man on the street to find a joke truly funny the scenario described has to involve someone else other than the joke teller and his audience. Shortt gives a similar sort of explanation for his own gormless archetypes. "You could have someone in the audience who is exactly like the characters but they never ever see themselves in it," he tells me. "Someone came up to me once at a show and she was a big GAA type and she was exactly the type we were portraying. The reality might be funny but when you get up on stage to an audience you have to exaggerate it to get it across."
His urge to perform, he says, came from growing up in a large family. He was one of 11. "Even to be heard in a family discussion I needed (to perform)," he says. "I even see it with my own three (children) – they compete with their best story for attention – I'm sure I was like that too."
His mother, Mary, died of cervical cancer when she was 47 and he was eight. "She had been ill for a couple of years but we didn't talk about it," he says. "This was in the 1970s and 'the big C' wasn't mentioned. There was also an element of 'how much do you tell kids?'. I don't think it really upset me until years later. At the time you were just a kid and you got on with it. Later, when I went to my mate's house and realised that their mothers were big dominant parts of their households, it did strike me that we didn't have that at home."
His father, Christy, a primary school teacher, remarried when Pat was 15. He had one more child with his new wife, Marie. "You don't expect the same with (Marie) and she doesn't expect the same from you. I mean no disrespect but she'd be more like a sister or something like that. It doesn't replace anything at all."
As a boy, Shortt was a gifted saxophonist and his father didn't stand in the way of his artistic ambitions. "My Dad ... he had so many of them he didn't care at that point," he laughs. "'I'm on to number nine now ... do what you want ... I don't give a shite ... ' – there was a touch of that from him. But also you have to understand that the time I came out of school it was kind of similar to nowadays in that there were no guaranteed civil service jobs, or jobs of any kind. It was that kind of environment."
He ended up going to art school in Limerick and there he would meet both his future wife, Caroline (with whom he has three children) and another product of a lone parent family – Jon Kenny. He and Kenny quickly began writing and performing together. "I would jump up and play a tune with him which evolved over time into sketches. And we went out and had the craic too. It was messing like. We drove around the country in a van and made a living out of it."
The act eventually evolved into D'Unbelievables and became a runaway success. Shortt bypassed the normal work world entirely and tells me with a little pride that he's never had a "civilian" job. He and Kenny did everything themselves; wrote and performed the sketches, drove the van and acted as their own managers. Throughout the 1990s they were probably the biggest Irish comedy stage show. Their partnership was interrupted when Kenny developed cancer, from which he has now recovered.It sounded like they might have had a falling out. Shortt recently suggested in an interview that if he were in Kenny's shoes he would be "jealous" of the large audience he (Shortt) was playing for in London and of the other projects Shortt is pursuing. On the day we meet Shortt makes it sound more like it just didn't work again after Kenny came back from illness. Gradually the relationship began to curdle – nothing major, but there would be disagreements about things like scheduling. "I'd never say it got to the stage where we couldn't look at each other," Shortt says. "But there were differences." Shortt ended up not working for a year. "I had no confidence because I hadn't done it (performing solo)," he says. "I had gone up on stage and done segments on my own and written segments on my own, but going solo felt different. After a year I got a commercial with Eircom and then RTE approached me about a TV show." That show turned out to be Killinaskully. The critics again snorted in derision (a representative quote came from John Boland who wrote of "cartoon culchie villagers speaking in exaggerated mock accents") but the show was a massive hit for five years.
By the time it ended its run Shortt had already established himself as a serious dramatic actor, working with director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Mark O'Halloran on the award-winning Garage, where he played a man with learning difficulties. Shortt was hailed as a "revelation" in the central role and still doffs his cap to O'Halloran and Abrahamson for "taking a big chance on me".
Over the years he has continued to mix comedic and dramatic roles, including the Lance Daly-directed Life's A Breeze, which came out earlier this year and also starred Gerry McCann, the former Fair City actor, who went missing from John Of God's hospital in September. Shortt made a public appeal for information on McCann's whereabouts but the actor's remains were found on Dollymount Strand in early October.
His family publically thanked Shortt for his help. "I was in Korea when I heard they'd found him," he recalls. "It was a very, very sad story. The family had been in touch with me personally. I knew Gerry as a work colleague, we weren't best friends but he always seemed like a lovely man. My heart goes out to his family. I will be in touch with them when I get back."
As for tragedy in his own life, Shortt says there isn't any. "I don't believe in the whole tears of a clown thing," he tells me. "Most comics I know are hilarious bastards. The humour I do, it's positive, I don't go to a dark place with comedy. People have an expectation that you are going to be funny." His kids, he insists, find him funny "but also embarrassing".
Speaking about his turn opposite Harry Potter-star Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple Of Inishmaan, he says: "I was doing (the play) and I had a beard on me and my daughter, who is 13 now, was mortified. It was fine when I was in London. After I got back I'd threaten to pick them up from school and they'd be like, 'Don't! Let mum do it'.'"
The scruff is gone now but the hectic work schedule continues. When he's finished filming in Romania he's coming back to work with one of The Fast Show writers on a sitcom for English television. Meanwhile, he's gearing up for his nationwide tour. After the eclectic range-expanding projects of the past few years he's looking forward to going back to where he is most adored. "I love acting and I'm proud of myself for how far I've come," he tells me. "But when I get back on that stage and get the crowd going that's like my comfort blanket. I can't wait."
Pat Shortt is currently on a nationwide tour and plays Vicar Street in Dublin on November 29 and 30. See http://patshortt.com/gigListings.php or ticketmaster.ie for further information