All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy: An Interview with Tommy Tiernan

Features Editor Killian Down talks to, and waxes lyrical over Ireland’s most successful comic and chat show host debutant, Tommy Tiernan.

It is a challenging ask to use the phrase je ne sais quoi without appearing like you have a subscription to The Guardian, regard Morrissey as the second coming of (the new-and-improved) Jesus Christ, and graduated from Trinity College. The word is in equal measures cliché as describing something as cliché. And while I do rate Morrissey as being up there at the same demi-God-ish level as the Buddha and St. Peter, it is with a pang of shame that I use those four little French words in an attempt to describe what so attracts me to Tommy Tiernan. It’s just… They’re so very apt.

Having wracked my brain for any analogy which avoids the realm of obscure nonsense and failed, the best I can come up with is that of an atom to describe those enigmatic component parts of his which so enthral me. To begin, there is that which first greeted me years ago through old YouTube videos, that outer cloud of electrons – whizzing about with manic energy, darting, unpredictable. This is the entertainer, the Tommy more often seen in his younger days as a stand-up, a speedball of comedy.

Delve deeper, and the core beckons – the protons, still alive with an energy, but a different energy to that of the electrons, an opposite energy; the purring, whispering seanchaí Tommy which has emerged in recent years.

And then, the neutrality of the neutrons – the side of the comic which intrigues me most, who pops up in interviews and during the more serious segments of The Tommy Tiernan Show – no conscious display of energy or performance, but a more profound, philosophising character, one which seems so congruent with the solitude of his home in Connemara.

‘Ruminating poet’ seems almost hammy and yet begins to approach the truth; just listen to his appearance on the An Irishman Abroad podcast. There’s something of the mystic in this side of the man, a side which mirrors aspects of the personality of his late friend, the philosopher and writer, John Moriarty – a mystic in equal measure.

At Play 

An analogy of energy seems appropriate as I listen back to the interview recording – energy and play are concepts which crop up again and again. These intangibles are his bread and butter, they seem to decide the success of each of his gigs: “You have to find a way to play in each space. It’d be easier in the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle than it would be in the Marquee, but there is a key – you just have to find it… If you don’t find a way to play then it makes it a less enjoyable experience for everyone. You’re a professional so that’s your job, to find out – how do I unlock each space so that it’s fun.”

Acoustics, plus mischief, could be the formula.

The idea of play, and of “unlocking spaces” can seem, at first, New Age-y, fluffy concepts with nothing concrete supporting them. Tiernan himself admits that play is “wordless, actually – it’s an instinct more than a theory”. But these concepts seem to make sense coming from his mouth; more profundity than bolloxology. They’re more than buzz-words thrown around without any prior thought put in; in fact, despite his comedic style being one which relies so much on improvisation and following a story to where it takes you, everything the comic says during our conversation is measured. It has thought behind it. Sentences are punctuated by “emm…”’s and followed by silences, as he contemplates the rest of his response. He is a man fond of the ellipsis.

Deeper analysis of ‘play’ bears more tangible fruit: “It’s to do with acoustics and being able to hear yourself properly; for me, it is, anyway… The degree to which I hear my own voice can be the degree to which I can play, which sounds odd.”

“So, for example, if I was talking and I couldn’t hear my voice at all, it would be incredibly hard to work with that… Acoustics, plus mischief, could be the formula.”

You quickly get the feel listening to Tiernan speak about the art of the gig that each performance is just that, a performance. It’s not a homogenous, streamlined hour of comedy that falls from a comic’s mouth without conscious thought, as if he were displaying his party trick of reciting the alphabet backwards. This is a bespoke comedy.

Having recently completed three nights in Cork, I wonder, then, how different a show would I have seen had I attended all three: “What I found was there a huge difference in the energy of the crowd each night… The Friday crowd were excited because it was the start of the weekend and that room was buzzing with energy before I even came on.”

“The Wednesday crowd, they were like ‘in all fairness, Tom, it’s the middle of the week, we can’t afford to get too excited’… So, you sign up to that, you don’t sign up to the same experience all the time, you sign up to a rollercoaster of sorts. It keeps me excited, anyway.”

The Sensitive Student Soul 

A discussion of how an audience interacts with a performance seems a fitting juncture to turn towards student audiences, and in particular whether Tommy has noticed a shift in their reactions in recent times amidst the suggestion that students have undergone a sort of hyper-liberalisation. The prognosis of his UCC gig is blunt – “I shocked them. I shocked them because I wasn’t playing by their rules”.

The reaction, at times, of the UCC audience brought to mind a US tour from a number of years ago, where reactions from ostensibly liberal and conservative audiences seemed to be upside-down, ideologically speaking. “I played Omaha, Nebraska, a blue-collar, conservative town. They didn’t care what you talked about at all… At the end of the tour I did a gig in San Francisco and I found them to be so judgemental and reactionary, even though they would call themselves liberal… they were so much more easily offended and shocked than the working-class Nebraskans were”.

“And I found that in the college the other day as well, there’s a huge fear of being seen to be out of line with the consensus thinking, and the consensus thinking in college is to be ultra-careful about what you say, almost to the point of being clamped. There’s a huge fear of free speech on campuses now”.

The day before Tommy and I chatted, I had listened to an interview with Noel Gallagher in which he voiced his astoundment at the sight of fans at his solo concerts in tears at Oasis songs released before they were even born; I put it to Tommy that the fact students and schoolkids were still fans of his seemed analogous in its unlikelihood – the comedian has been gigging since 1992, before most undergrad students were even born.

It surely must be a strange sensation to not have your audience age alongside you? Although surprised, he seems unmoved: “Yeah, but I haven’t tried to be commercial in that sense, there isn’t a demographic that I’m trying to please… It’s funny, the chat show I did on RTÉ recently [The Tommy Tiernan Show] has a lot of older people coming up to me saying they like [it]. But yeah, you just notice things, you don’t lean on them”.

[t]hat’s an energy in the mix, of ‘don’t abuse your relationship with the public’…

His recognition of the fact that these incidences of praise from the elderly generally occur during the day when they can “afford to wander”, unlike most people his own age, is followed by a flash of his mischievous laugh, a rasping cackle; it’s a laugh that invites the laughter of others, intentionally or not. And an interjection of this laughter is never far away.

The Fears of a Clown

This is rather telling as we dip into conversation about The Tommy Tiernan Show – his funny nature seemed to weigh upon him at times in a peculiar way. “The contract with the public to me seems to be one based on laughter. I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact of being serious so when the chat show went into serious places, I’m [sic] very wary of the ‘clown who wants to be Hamlet syndrome’.”

Part of the reason that the show was such a success, a show which saw Tiernan chat with guests whose identity he wasn’t aware of until they had walked on stage, came down to the fluid, organic way he had when interacting with guests. This was chat straight from the high stool – no gloss, no robotic hand gestures towards cookbooks produced from behind desks, no rictus smiles. It comes as something of a surprise that the host was so self-aware, then – “[t]hat’s an energy in the mix, of ‘don’t abuse your relationship with the public’… You make them forget their troubles for a moment, they don’t want to hear your poetry”.

Much of the acclaim lavished on the show latched onto one point – that Tiernan could and should be the future of Irish chat shows. An elixir to rid our screen of that most noxious infection: Tubriditis. I suspected, incorrectly as it turns out, that any semi-full-time job as a chat show host would quickly become stale and formulaic for him. His answer offered a lovely circularity to proceedings – it was back to play we went. “It comes back to that notion of play – where are you playing? And I get as much of a kick making someone laugh in an interview or in a conversation as I do making them laugh on stage, it’s the same buzz for me.”

“I know I’ve used the word a lot now, but if I had the same sense of play with the chat show as I do with the stand-up then, yeah, it doesn’t matter to me where it happens. I just get such a thrill from making people laugh.”

And laughed, we have.