PJ Gallagher’s relentless quest to make a joke of everything

Review: His wacky voices can be exhausting, but he can also be gut-bustingly funny

 

Living in contemporary Ireland can be a discombobulating experience at times, what with multiculturalism, metrosexuality and other such modern mores. Luckily for those who yearn for the certainties of the past, there’s some corner of a domestic station that is forever 1980s. That corner is Gareth O’Callaghan in the Afternoon (4FM, weekdays), a show where the presenter’s spiel is as smooth, slick and dated as the oldies he plays.

It’s not that O’Callaghan is some dinosaur out of step with touchy-feely modern life. Far from it: outside his radio career, he is a qualified psychotherapist who has spoken candidly about his depression and has made allegations about the existence of a paedophile ring in relation to the 1986 disappearance of Dublin schoolboy Philip Cairns.

Put him in front of a microphone, however, and he’s a throwback to the days when DJs were men (and they were always men) who spouted factoids in accents that rendered the word “little” as the name of a German budget supermarket chain. 

Hence, when O’Callaghan isn’t filling airtime by recounting stories he’s seen on the internet or previewing television highlights, he’s showing off his impressive arsenal of trivia. When a listener (incorrectly) guesses that the person featured in a mystery voice quiz is actor Cillian Murphy, the presenter goes off on an unnecessary tangent about the films that launched his career. O’Callaghan also displays the verbal tic, de rigueur in any self-respecting jock, of misplacing the stress in words for effect, so that “sufferer” is pronounced “suffer-RER”.

This kind of patter has been the subject of mockery for decades now, but in fairness, O’Callaghan is just being professional. After all, 4FM pitches itself as a “classic hits” station, a format that calls for reassuringly familiar voices, no matter how cliched the style. Then again, much of the station’s soundtrack of pop-rock oldies is a reminder that such overproduced chart fodder should be forgotten. Sometimes there’s a good reason for leaving the old school behind.

The chaos of PJ Gallagher

Elsewhere on the station schedule, the same generic soundtrack can be heard on PJ and Jim In the Morning (4FM, weekdays). But otherwise, a different atmosphere prevails as PJ Gallagher and Jim McCabe jape their way through their breakfast show. In its own way, their frenetic two-handed format is as anachronistic as O’Callaghan’s DJ stylings, the zany zoo radio formula being two decades old even in Ireland. Indeed, McCabe is at heart a traditional jock, as his occasional lapses into a mid-Atlantic twang attest. 

But thanks to the presence of Gallagher, none of this matters. A comedian who made his name with his improvised antics on the TV show Naked Camera, Gallagher brings the same spirit to the morning show, with suitably chaotic results.

A typical segment has him riffing on regional biases in weather forecasts, lampooning the defunct programme A Prayer at Bedtime and harking back to bygone toy products, before landing a surreal punchline about late-night television for Protestants. Gallagher’s relentless quest to make a joke of everything isn’t always successful and his array of wacky voices can be exhausting, but his comic flights of fancy are often gut-bustingly funny. Little wonder that McCabe is reduced to helpless interjections of “dear Lord”.

Occasionally one gets the feeling that Gallagher is using the programme to try out comic material, with McCabe acting as the straight man. But his enthusiastic demeanour is in welcome contrast to the snarky mood that pervades other ostensibly comedic breakfast shows. True, listening to an entire four-hour edition every morning probably requires the same amount of energy as Gallagher and McCabe expend presenting the programme. But those seeking to kick-start the day in joyous fashion should tune it.

This and that with Baz

A confused atmosphere runs through Baz Ashmawy’s new Wednesday-night show, part of RTÉ Radio 1’s revamped summer schedule. Billed as This Baz Thing in station listings, Ashmawy calls it “That Baz Thing” when on air. More pertinently, it’s hard to ascertain what Baz’s thing actually is, even after listening to it. 

According to Ashmawy’s introduction, the show will feature guests “hanging out” and discussing “cool and interesting topics”. But even this vague pitch has clarity of purpose compared to what goes out on air. The opening edition, the host says, “is about the power of change”, whatever that means. Sure enough, there are three guests whose lives have been changed, both by their own efforts or by external circumstances. 

Taken individually, these are compelling tales. There’s Gary Cunningham, an ex-con who has transformed himself since being released; Michael Downey, a stand-up whose promising career was shattered after a car crash; and Simone George, a high-achieving lawyer who has devoted herself to her partner, a blind rower left paraplegic after a catastrophic fall. Ashmawy gives his guests room to tell their stories, but there is little interaction between the participants, while the host doesn’t question too deeply. A buzzy raconteur by nature, he is less sure-footed as a subtle inquisitor.

It’s an uneven first edition, with the opening monologue proving the most striking element. Audibly uncomfortable, Ashmawy recalls being caught for drink-driving some years ago, resulting in tabloid scandal and 18 months in the professional wilderness. It’s a period he clearly doesn’t like revisiting but he says his experiences forced him “to look in the mirror and ask, ‘Do you like who you see?’ ” It’s a difficult but honest moment. If Ashmawy can bring these reflective qualities to bear more, he might be on to something.

RADIO MOMENT OF THE WEEK

Moncrieff’s angry jabs 

Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk) gets worked up after a discussion on Australian measures to encourage childhood vaccination prompt sceptical texts from listeners. He angrily explains to one texter that not vaccinating children “puts the community in danger”, adding that he assumes their level of medical information is “jack s***”. When another listener comments that vaccination programmes have “another agenda”, Moncrieff loses it. “It’s for your own good,” he says, “there’s no other agenda than that. You’re being stupid.” He’s normally irreverent, but Moncrieff’s passion is more bracing.

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