The Art of Character: An Interview with Farmer Michael

Cailean Coffey interviews comedian Stevo Timothy on his recent success and personal struggles.

It’s 2pm on a cold Tuesday afternoon. The phone rings, and with it comes the voice of one of Ireland’s most under-valued comics, Steve Timothy. It’s likely you’ve seen his work online, with his online videos garnering millions since he began releasing videos online. Filmed from his car, his videos have touched on topics such as homophobia, depression, alcoholism, and even his beloved Everton FC. As the views on his videos started to stack up, however, Steve began receiving death threats over his character’s comments. What had started out as a joke had become something far more serious, and for Steve, far more sinister.

 

Comedy was always important to Steve. Growing up in Galway, he remembers watching Who’s Line Is It Anyway? with his brother and sister, before realizing that there was comedy specifically for Irish people, in the form of D’Unbelievables. While his passion for comedy remains as strong as ever, he finds that comedians themselves have changed a lot in the past number of years. “A lot of comedians nowadays are well-rehearsed actors rather than getting up there,” Steve remarks, “I wonder how a lot of stand-ups today would react to having to get up and do a show on, for instance, a dog called John, I’d say very few could cope with it”. 

Steve’s comedy began to take off with the creation of the Farmer Michael character. “I always used to do rap songs in a boger-y accent and I thought it sounded really funny,” Steve recalls of his early beginnings. In March of 2015, he found his phone full of videos of him doing his farmer accent in his car, and posted one online. “ I just thought I’d throw them up to see what happens and they blew up,” Steve remembers. “The first video we posted got 10,000 views and then everyone started following my page and it grew from there – we started off with very west of Ireland stuff, farming and stuff, but then we moved onto more topical issues because people would comment ‘Ohh I wonder what Michael thinks of x,y and z, and we worked on them, gave Michael his take”. Five years later, his videos have been viewed over 45 million times on YouTube alone. 

 

The Art of Character:

While Farmer Michael has changed Steve’s life, he’s quick to point out the characters flaws. “He’s a horrible character but likeable at the same time, he’s a loveable rogue, what he says is horrible and obviously they are not my views.” Unfortunately, others weren’t as quick to get the joke. “I was doing a show in Athlone,” Steve recollects “and someone came to see us backstage after they show and they said to me “Awh, I hate the N-word too” and I was just shocked there thinking ‘You did not just say that.’ He actually thought I was telling the truth”. Similarly, some viewers began to presume Steve himself held these views, and it created a storm of backlash. He began getting hateful messages online and in the comments section of his videos. He even received death threats after one of his videos was mistakenly viewed as offensive. “The aim of the character,” according to Steve, is to be “anti-of what he’s saying.” “But some people,” Steve admits, “don’t want to hear it”. 

In 2005, Steve was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident in which he broke his back, his neck and his collarbones. Since then, he has been paralysed from the chest down. “There were times when I wanted to pack it in and didn’t want to be around,” Steve admits, bravely. “You never recover, I won’t ever be able to forget it because it’s always there”. Doctors predicted he would be wheelchair bound for life, but after months of physio he is able to walk aided by a pair of crutches. “Steps are my mortal enemy,” Steve laughs wholeheartedly, but it’s not only steps that prove an issue. 

 

Comedy is a very active profession. Comedians are expected to walk across the stage, acting out their material with the audience, and following his accident, that isn’t possible for Steve, so Farmer Michael live shows have him and his girlfriend Kathleen sitting on a couch instead. “You kinda have to make do with what you have and exaggerate what you can do,” Steve realised. “It’s all about me doing stupid gestures and going off on tangents. You’re limited but you have to overcome that”. 

Steve has also become an active member in the fight to de-stigmatise the use of antidepressants and an advocate for talking about mental health. After having a panic attack that lasted two hours on the way to a show in Waterford, Steve found he didn’t want to leave his house and was diagnosed with PTSD from the incident. Steve had been suffering with depression since the age of 16 and had been using antidepressants for a number of years, but after having to cancel the show in Waterford he decided to come out about the reason why. He made a video about his depression and posted it online. A few months later he released a song in order to raise money for Irish mental health charities. The track, ‘All in His Head’, was released in September of 2018 and reached the number one spot in the iTunes chart in the first week and raised thousands of euro for charities across the country.

As the conversation draws to its natural conclusion, conversation turns to the future of Irish comedy. When asked what advice he would give to young comedians, Steve pauses before replying, “Bypass the poisonous world of comedy clubs, you don’t need them. If you think you’re good enough and you’re confident enough, get someone to film it and put it online”. He pauses, before adding “You can build a career online, not in comedy clubs”. Who would we be to disagree? 

You can catch Farmer Michael and Kathleen live in the Cork Opera House on the 15th March.