'I would never turn to drugs or booze because that would destroy my job' - Jason Byrne on coping with stress of his marriage split
Jason Byrne said in 2012 he was at his happiest when he worked in an electrical warehouse in Dublin.
The Ballinteer boy wonder, who would become, in the words of The Times, the outright King of Live Comedy earned €60 a week wiring plugs. “I was, happy, yeah,” he says now. “That was zero responsibility. There was no children. No wives. No nothing. No mortgages. No pressure at all. In those days I was dabbling in comedy, just doing it for the laugh and getting a bit of cash and that was that.”
Is it more difficult when there is an expectation on him?
“It’s massive, massive stress.”
But thousands upon thousands of people come to your shows year in, year out, I say. Does that make him worry less?
“It makes me worry more.”
He worries that they are coming to see him be crap?
“No, what I teach other comics is that none of the audience are paying in to see them fail. They don’t want you to fail. I don’t worry about that. I know I sell thousands,” says Jason who plays Vicar Street next February 14, 15, 16. “I have often said in Edinburgh — because I sell so many tickets in Edinburgh all the time — is that I will keep coming as long as they want me to come and when they don’t want me to come any more, I just won’t come. I suppose the worry is about where it could all end. And in this business you are told that quite a lot. And I’ve been doing it 22 years.”
On this subject, Jason recently spoke to Nicholas Parsons, “who is 95 years of age and still hosts chat shows and radio shows”. Jason said to him, ‘Tell me I don’t have to work until I’m 95’. Nicholas replied, ‘My dear boy, you can stop if you want but if I stopped, I’d be dead in two weeks. I’d just let go and I’d die. It keeps me alive now’.
Jason was born on February 25, 1972. Or as he wrote in his 2016 book, Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy: The Short-Arse Years, his mother Eithne was told at the hospital upon her son’s arrival into the world: “You’ve a beautiful, very pale, ginger-haired baby boy with a wonky eye.” His new book The Adventures of Onion O’Brien is a brilliantly funny read. It has a quote to this effect by fellow comedian David O’Doherty on the dust-jacket: ‘Made me laugh so much, milk came out my nose.’
Another foremost funnyman David Walliams is a fan — and friend — of Jason’s. “He is so nice, so lovely,” he says of Mr Walliams who anchors Britain’s Got Talent, is a comic genius and writes bestselling children’s books while Mr Byrne anchors Ireland’s Got Talent, is a comic genius and writes bestselling children’s books. “He sent my son Daniel copies of all his books signed with letters for him as well. He is just lovely.”
Equally lovely is the intense wonky-eyed and warm-hearted existentialist that is Jason Byrne. Over lunch in House on Leeson Street last Tuesday, the 46-year-old laughs that when he started The Adventures of Onion O’Brien he “wanted to write the new Harry Potter. So I had magical lands and everything. And the editors were all like, ‘Woah!’”
What the book became is based, partly, on a tale inspired by Jason as a young teenager going to see a circus in Ballinteer. Jason and his pals went around the back of the tent after the show where all the animals were in cages, whereupon a man appeared just as Jason was about to put his hand in the lion’s cage. The man told the future global superstar of Irish comedy not to put his hand in the lion’s cage or “he’ll rip your f**king hand off”.
Jason responded that he was “only looking”. The man then showed Jason and his gang to another tent where a fully-grown female elephant was inside with its poor foot tied to a stake. Jason thought about freeing the poor elephant, but didn’t in the end.
In one draft of the book, Onion O’Brien frees an elephant out of the circus and hides it in the housing estate. As Jason was working through the draft of this idea, he told his friend in Belfast, who works for CBBC and he told an ashen-faced Jason, that they had just made a movie about a woman who took home a baby elephant in World War II to her garden. “That’s my story,” Jason realised. “So the elephant is now an orangutan. She has a baby and the whole story is trying to get the baby and the mother orangutan away from the circus owner. It is all the fun of a baby orangutan in their house,” Jason says, and that there are future books. How many?
“Four! They are going to be separate adventures. It is a very easy book to read. It is conflicting in my head because it took f**king ages to write.”
What is it like to be inside Jason Byrne’s head? “Oh — it’s awful,” he replies.
“Yeah,” he answers, “really bad. What it is is, I can’t get inside someone’s head of what I think is a normal life — someone doing nine to five and coming home and they can plan their weekends...”
Wouldn’t his two sons prefer to have their dad home and not away on tour all the time around the world?
“They have seen that since they were born. Obviously they would prefer if I was home all the time. So my brain — my brain! — goes a million miles an hour all the time. I would have the book in one part of my brain at any stage and my gigs, my writing, my children. The constant worry...”
I ask Jason what he worries about?
“Everything. I am a huge fan of Alan Watts. I’d love to have met him, just for a second,” Jason says of the late English philosopher. “Watts is brilliant. When I was first put on to him, I didn’t want to start listening to being told what to do, old school almost. Like my dad. If I told my dad I was reading philosophy he’d go, ‘Ah, for f**k’s sake!’ So I was a bit like that at first. My dad’s philosophy is, ‘Don’t be worrying. Why are you wasting your time worrying?’ That’s why my dad’s brain isn’t cooked like mine. With the last recession, he was like, ‘This is probably my fourth recession. And I didn’t worry then and I’m not going to worry now’.
“But what I wanted to finish about Alan Watts is: Alan said a worrier will always get rid of a worry but will find a worry to replace a worry. It’s impossible for me to not worry, because that’s my make-up, that’s my chemistry.”
Where does that come from? Not his father, clearly. Is his mother a worrier?
“Yeah. She’s a professional.”
Maybe she’s worried that he’s worrying all the time?
“Oh Jesus, where are you now?” he laughs impersonating his mother. “I’d ring and she’d go, ‘You’re in what? You’re in Portsmouth?’ All I can hear is her shouting at me dad. ‘He’s in Portsmouth, Paddy!’”
I ask Jason, half in jest, has he been to a shrink for his worrying. Is it diagnosable?
“Like depression? Diagnosable worrying? What’s that? Yeah, I go to therapy and I have done stuff like that. That’s great use. I’ll do everything. I’ll do exercise. I’ll listen to the philosophers. Going to therapy is good when you’re gigging constantly. Just nip into the odd therapist and straighten your brain out a little bit.”
Has he had to straighten his brain out because of recent events?
“Yeah. I have had to do all sorts of stuff. I separated from my missus at the start of the year. So that was another thing on top of that.”
How did Jason cope with that?
“Well, you’ve got to keep quite private. Do you know what I mean? Even though I am doing an interview with you now, but I never talk about it really, because it is between me and my missus,” Jason says of Brenda, whom he met in The Laughter Lounge on Dublin’s Eden Quay in 1998 (they got engaged in 2003 on the Charles Bridge in Prague and were married the following year.)
“We just deal with it, with each other. The way I mainly dealt with it [the break-up] was, yeah, you go into therapy and maybe they’ll help you. You have to do that. You can’t deal with it on your own. Because the Irish are brilliant at burying stuff. So you can’t do that.
“I would never turn to drugs or booze because that would destroy my job,” he continues. “So what I do is I turn to mindfulness stuff. I started doing a lot of that. Loads of meditation. Meditation is f**king amazing. So the therapy I went to was teaching me mindfulness. So no drugs at all. And no pills.”
Did the marriage break-up increase his sense of being a worrier?
“Funnily enough, no,” he says.
“You know, because I am such a heightened worrier that is just another worry. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t go, ‘What the f**k! My life is over’. I went: ‘Here we go. Here is another thing I have to deal with now’. And because I am used to high stress levels... it’s hard to explain it.
“Let’s say: I’m writing a book, I’m on tour, I’m doing a radio show, I’m doing Ireland’s Got Talent... now I’m separated from my wife. So it just goes in like that. It’s another thing in there. It is another thing I have to deal with. And that’s how I dealt with it: as another worry.”
I say that when I saw him help launch the new Virgin Media Television brand onstage at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre in June, he seemed so full of the joys, so happy. You’d never have known what he was going through.
“This is the thing,” Jason says. “With our business, there is a high demand for you to stay happy and focused. That can snap your brain, you see. That is very dangerous.
“So,” he goes on, “you either sit at home and look into the end of a bottle, or go off on loads of drugs, or whatever the f**k you do — or you deal with it; you need loads of help from other people, to help you through it.
“If you ever go through anything like this, it is really bad to isolate yourself, because you will go mad, because your brain is so amazing that it will take you off into all sorts of madness. So you need people around you; my family and friends were great.”
He says what was also key to his healing process was breathing and meditation. “I have a trainer who specialises in breathing exercises and then we exercise and then we breathe at the end. It is all linked to helping your brain, all this s**t that I researched into, especially when this happened. Because I didn’t want to go to a doctor and they say: ‘Well — you need anti-depressants’. Because, for me, I was never going to do that. I looked up side effects of them,” Jason says.
“And look, there are people who have to take them that they are so bad with depression that they can’t seem to get over that bit. But for me it was Wim Hof, an amazing Dutch dude.
“He is the called The Ice Man, that’s his nickname. He was in a squat in Amsterdam and he would cut a hole in the ice in a lake and get under the water with no oxygen. He swims under the ice and he has perfected breathing.
“He has a breathing technique, which is f**king fantastic for your brain. It is amazing. It is all about getting loads of oxygen into your body — loads and loads and loads and loads of oxygen — and eventually you just get high on it, and you eventually meditate and you can stop breathing. So that’s what has helped me through it,” he says referring to the end of his marriage.
“It’s mad with the mindfulness thing I was studying. They say if you are feeling really bad, or really down, force yourself to smile, because whatever gets released in your head makes you feel happy, even if you are looking at a dead body; just smile! It seems to work!”
Jason smiles, his technique for dealing with modern life is clearly working.
‘The Adventures of Onion O’Brien: The Great Ape Escape’ is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99.