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Jarlath Regan: ‘I just love being back in Ireland. I struggled being away’

The Irish comedian, who grew up in Kildare, made a career out of being an ‘Irishman Abroad’ with his hit podcast. Now, he’s moved back to Ireland

A few years ago the comedian Jarlath Regan interviewed me for his podcast, An Irishman Abroad. The Irish person abroad in that conversation was himself, in London. I was in Dublin. Now I’m interviewing him in Brooks Hotel in Dublin and he is, technically speaking, an Irishman at home, having moved back here last year. He has developed a sort of podcast empire since the early days, with a number of weekly podcasts including the running-themed An Irishman Running Abroad with Sonia O’Sullivan, An Irishman in America with US correspondent Marion McKeone, and a parenting podcast, Honey You’re Ruining Our Kid, which he co-hosts with his wife, Tina.

He has a lot of company now, on his podcasts and at his stand-up shows, but he says his creativity might be rooted in loneliness. “I grew up in Kildare, out in the Curragh, very much an outsider. I would come into town [Newbridge] on my bike, a three-mile cycle. It was a good preparation for being the outsider and the observer because comedy is a very solitary life. I got very good at being by myself ... I had different interests to everybody else.”

What were those interests? “Basketball. Art. And both of those could be explored totally by yourself. Basketball was so perfect for anyone who lived in the countryside with a hoop. You could get really good at it on your own.”

When did he realise he was funny? “I got laughs very early on in our house – impressions, stories from school, holding forth at the table. I knew early on I could get laughs and the power of them ... Particularly here in Ireland, ‘funny’ is so high in the hierarchy of aspirational things. ‘That guy is f**king hilarious’ is like saying ‘That guy is a bit of a genius’ ... The highest thing you could aspire to be was funny. I remember having a couple of conversations in my life where someone says, ‘Are you happy just to be a comedian?’ And I thought ‘What are you talking about? This is the best thing anybody could be.’ And I remember realising, ‘Oh, in the world, they don’t hold comedians up as highly as I do.’” He laughs. “They just thought: clown.”


After school he studied philosophy and politics in UCD, before doing a master’s in business. During that time he got involved with the debate-focused Literary and Historical Society in UCD. What was he like as a debater? “I wasn’t good at being ... right.” He laughs. “My skill was pointing out the absurdity, being funny. I had a debating partner, Leo Mulrooney. He’s now a barrister. He was brilliant at being right.”

It gave him the first taste of public comedy. “‘Record secretary’ was my job, so on Friday night at the debates, I’d stand up and do seven minutes of material about the week that was. That was the beginning ... It was like a light-bulb, love-at-first-sight moment. And I say this to new comics who ask, ‘What do I do?’ Get on stage, because you’ll know. I lived for those 10 minutes every week.”

So then, of course, he got a job as an account executive “for a graphic design consultancy ad agency type place”. What did he do there? He widens his eyes and shakes his head. “I don’t even know. I don’t really know what they wanted me to do. I spent a lot of the time going ‘What?’ ... There were large swathes of the days where I was doing nothing and thinking: Is this what everyone else is doing? But they seemed to be working. I didn’t know what was going on. It seemed like an eternity, but I think it was under two years.”

When they let him go, he says, it didn’t even occur to him to become a full-time comedian. “I started looking for another job, and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, said ‘What are you doing? You already have a job. You know what to do?’ And I’m so grateful to her for doing that because I probably wouldn’t have done it. I probably would have gone and found a similar job.”

Has he read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, a book about relatively well-paid jobs in big institutions that are completely meaningless? “Like RTÉ, right?” he says and shakes his head. “What do we even say about that?”

Everyone at RTÉ seemed to be thinking, ‘Don’t mess up. If you’re the one whose name is on this mess up, you’ll be out.’ Creativity can’t occur in that environment

He worked in RTÉ for a while. “I worked there the year my son was born, in 2010. I worked in ‘young people’s’ presenting a show. We did three episodes a week for a full year. It was an unbelievable experience and insight into the place ... It felt like everybody was operating with a gun to their head.”

In what way? He says everyone seemed to be thinking, “ ‘Don’t mess up. If you’re the one whose name is on this mess up, you’ll be out.’ Creativity can’t occur in that environment ... I took the job because we had a load of medical bills [due to extra care Tina needed during pregnancy]. At that time in my life it was exceptionally handy to be able to do this thing, pay my bills, and continue to be a stand-up comedian. I’m grateful to RTÉ for a lot of things. It was great insight into the broadcast side of things.”

How does the payments scandal make him feel? “I feel a lot of what everyone else is feeling. Which is, ‘But you said you’d no money? You shut down children’s programming. And you watched it being shut down. And you were not even clear how much you were being paid!’ ... I think about how my friends went to them with great ideas with great energy and passion and were told, ‘No, there is no money here for you.’ And they either quit, and a lot of them did, or they left the country or they made their own thing. And I kind of did all three at different points. I had to quit ideas that I thought could have been great, leave the country and build my own thing.”

He started going over to London in 2012, initially sleeping on the couches and floors of his friend, English comedian Joe Wilkinson, and his cousin, cancer researcher Joseph Regan. His family joined him in 2013, the same year he started his podcast. Where did the idea come from?

“I was alone a lot,” he says. “It’s a very lonely existence when you’re trying to move your family to England and prepare the soil and go up and down the country establishing places that would allow you to play. So in the car, on the plane, sleeping on the airport floor, podcasts kept me company. WTF [Marc Maron’s podcast]. You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes – I really had intimate conversations with these people in my head. I fell in love with it. And I knew that there was nothing like that for Irish people.”

He felt a bit vulnerable at the time, he says. “I was lost. I knew loads of people like me felt lost, being in this big place with nothing out there for us. I missed home like a lump in my throat most days, a homesickness I never expected to feel. I feel emotional when I think about it. I had pitched shows. Again, I was told there’s no money for it. I remember [Newstalk presenter] Ger Gilroy going, ‘Make it yourself. Just make a podcast.’ And I was like, ‘That’s a great idea. I have no clue how to do that.’”

The first episode was a product of happenstance. He lost his notebook and tweeted about it. Graham Linehan retweeted him. “I did not know the man. He helped me find it and that’s how we got in touch and that resulted in me being able to [interview] him ... I had no idea what I was doing. I basically got some help and managed to get it uploaded. It took probably three months to get from recording that to the iTunes chart. But it went in at No 1 and was on the cover of The Irish Times. And I was blown away at the response and was like, ‘I guess we’ve got to do another episode.’”

Seinfeld’s always talking about the rhythm of comics. They’re good drummers, because they read rhythm. The two are similar

He’s a very good interviewer – relaxed, well-briefed, genuinely inquisitive. I ask him if being a stand-up involves very different skills to being an interviewer. “I think the two are so similar,” he says. “It’s all listening. You’re responding all the time, to everything that you’re hearing. Your ear is so tuned to every change that’s taking place in front of you. You have to be listening to everything and responding, changing the pace of things, going in another direction when that’s not working, or it is working, you just need to do it quicker. Seinfeld’s always talking about the rhythm of comics. They’re good drummers, because they read rhythm. The two are similar. Your best gig is the same as your best interview because you’re really present.”

The podcast struck a chord with a lot of people including many other Irish people abroad. “There were so many of us. The emails. My gosh. We’re so proud of it. The body of hundreds of episodes. And for loads of people, they got a taste of home from it.”

He interviewed hundreds of people, including Paul Mescal, Steve Coogan, Boy George and Sharon Horgan, but also lesser-known Irish folk with interesting things to say. In a recent podcast he recalled his most difficult interviewee: Dylan Moran. He laughs. “At one point he asked me, “What is this? How to get gainful employment despite being Irish? And I think he actually just wanted to spar ... ‘So tell me about the books you were reading at the time?’ ‘Why? Why do you want to know that?’”

He laughs. Did he find that difficult? “Very much at the time. But I’ve changed so much in that 10 years. I was so low on confidence at the time. I was quite a shy person. I didn’t really believe in myself.’”

When did his confidence improve? “Probably when I donated the kidney to my brother in 2017.”

That’s a mic drop of an answer. If you’ve been following Regan’s career, you’ll know the story from his podcast and possibly one of his previous stand-up shows, the wonderfully titled Organ Freeman. In 2017 Jarlath’s brother needed a kidney transplant. Jarlath travelled to the Mayo Clinic and gave him his.

The statistics say people who donate kidneys live longer than people that don’t, because they just grow in their self-esteem in every part of who they are

“Anyone who tells you donating a kidney is easy is a liar,” he says. “It takes a lot to do it. And you have to toughen the f**k up. I’m immensely proud that I did it. There’s not a moment I regret it. But I had to work through stuff before, during and after. It throws a huge magnifying glass on your whole life ... And I think you stop giving a damn about what people think of you. I’ve now got definitive proof, a scar and a certificate to say I’m a sound man.” He laughs. “A lot of Irish men are chasing this legacy of soundness. I wanted everyone to think I was sound. Now I don’t need to buy anybody any pints. I pull the certificate out. I freed myself from a lot of those concerns about myself and I did something you can’t argue with.”

Was it a hard decision to do it? “It was a no-brainer on one level,” he says. “Obviously you do this for your brother ... But then there’s all this other stuff that’s challenging ... You need to be tough as nails. You have to deal with all of the emotions that come during and afterwards and all of the weird responses that people have ... As a result of doing it, I grew and changed. I’m so much healthier mentally and physically. I’m running marathons now ... The statistics say people who donate kidneys live longer than people that don’t, because they just grow in their self-esteem in every part of who they are.”

Was he always comfortable talking about personal things publicly? “My stand-up has always gone into personal stories. I told the story of nearly losing my son at birth in a show at Edinburgh. That’s my life. That was what I was observing that year. I wrote Organ Freeman because there was something to be taken from this. I still get messages about people that downloaded it, who were going through the process, and it helped ... If you live through something like that, and you’re capable of making it funny and entertaining, I think you nearly have a responsibility to do it.”

During lockdown he put out a special podcast with his wife Tina, who has chronic health condition that made her more vulnerable, about the difficulties people with hidden illnesses faced during pandemic. “The pandemic outed loads of people in the vulnerable category who had no intention of telling anyone about their hidden illness. And it was horrendous for a lot of those people ... People were seeing people still wearing masks and saying, ‘The pandemic’s over mate.’ For you ... The response to [the podcast] was great. And her ability on the microphone was really obvious.” He sighs. “She is just so ridiculously inspiring.”

When did they meet? “We’ve known each other since we were 19. I met her in UCD in the student bar.”

How did she feel about him talking about their life onstage? “She’s been very, very kind and understanding on that. She’s always been like, ‘Say what you like. I married a comedian.’”

They now co-present a funny, practical parenting podcast called Honey You’re Ruining Our Kid. “Parents would come to her when she was teaching at Mikey’s school and ask, ‘Why are the kids doing what you tell them in school and not when we go home?’ And one of them said ‘You should have your own podcast.’ And that is literally how Honey You’re Ruining Our Kid came about ... [it’s] the two of us talking about our home life and her life working with kids with severe behaviours. I think we’re both getting a lot better at being open about stuff.”

A lot of the emails they receive from worried parents, he says, again touch on loneliness. “Tina replies to every single email. There’s always one where somebody thinks ‘Is this just me?’, and you go, ‘F**k no, I’ve seen it 100 times.’”

In recent years, he says, his stand-up audience has grown hugely (he’s playing three back-to-back Olympia shows in January) and he largely puts that down to both increased confidence and the “algorithm” sending people towards his comedy material online. “Comedy is the craft of explaining to people what you think is funny and have people agree. And I have spent a lot of the last 20 years wondering, ‘Am I wrong on this?’ I’ve always had my audience but now there’s a lot more of them thanks to the algorithm ... YouTube is the new Edinburgh Festival. You have to get on YouTube ... You’re a comedian and you’re not on Instagram? That’s like being rapper who doesn’t make mixtapes.”

He’s performing his show Jarzilla at the upcoming Paddy Power Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, and then his new show, Yer Man, kicks off in September with shows across Ireland and the UK. Are Irish audiences different from British ones? “I do think all Irish people have a natural comedic instinct. People always ask, what’s the difference between an English and Irish audience ... I think there’s a lot more people in an Irish audience who are thinking, ‘I’ve a funnier story than that.’ ”

Regan and his family returned to Ireland last year after more than a decade abroad. “[That’s] always the plan for a lot of people who are away. Part of my story is the immigrant story. I was working to get home. I don’t think that people who stay here get what a success it is to get to move home and how much it takes to [make it] viable to live in such an expensive country. I never thought I’d be this happy to be home ... But there is a sensation of home that is familiar to everyone in the world regardless of where they come from. The feeling of breathing out when we’d get back each time, the fresh air, the craic, the sense of common references. I just love being back. I struggled being away.”

At one point, he refers to loneliness as a “throughline” running through his childhood, his experience as an emigrant and his life as a touring comedian. Does he experience loneliness these days? “I’m not as alone any more. I mean, I created a human being. I forced him to like all the stuff I like. Now he will watch The Simpsons all day with me and play basketball. That’s a good cure for loneliness, having a mini you to hang around all the time. And I now work with my wife every single day.”

He struggles a bit more when he’s out on the road, he says, but that’s leavened by gratitude. “I’m really, really excited to be finally able to take my stand-up to places and have people come and see it. It’s such an exciting feeling to go, ‘People agree that this is funny’ ... It’s an amazing feeling that I’ve spent an awful long time chasing. The podcast was me chasing that. Just as Marc Maron’s podcast began with him asking people ‘How the f**k are you successful and I’m not?’ Mine was definitely, ‘Can you help me? Can you help other Irish people like me? Fix me.’” He laughs and says it again: “Fix me!” But, to be honest, I think he’s fixed.

The Paddy Power Comedy Festival takes place in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin July 27th-30th. Jarlath Regan performs on Saturday 29th.