THE ONLINE COMEDIAN FROM NAVAN TALKS ABOUT CHANGING HIS NAME, AND HOW PERFORMATING WAS NEVER ON HIS RADAR
The online comedian and musical parodist Matthew Dinneen changed his name to Michael Fry for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the username @bigdirtyfry was available for use on Twitter and that was obviously irresistible. Secondly, "Michael" was the most generic name he could think of. "In my own family tree everyone's called Patrick, John or Michael. It's the most generic name there is." He sighs. "Now, I often kind of wish I'd picked something more exciting."
Matthew Dinneen has recently become internet famous as Michael Fry due to a series of videos in which he has documented online viral moments to the fey stylings of a fictional indie band. Twink's "zip up your mickey" phone outburst, the aggressive voice messages of dog groomer and Conor McGregor sibling Aoife McGregor and the off-the rails Handforth Parish Council zoom meeting have all been rendered afresh by Fry in this deadpan musical style.
Fry is very funny though he hadn't intended becoming a professional comedian. In 2018 he got involved in a Tourism Ireland graduate programme in Coleraine and was very, very bored. "Usually with that you do one year in one place and one year another place," he says. "I thought I might get Copenhagen or Vancouver or somewhere cool like that. They said, 'There's a place for you Coleraine'. The promise was that if I stayed in Coleraine for a year, I would then get to go to New York... I did it for nine months… I was just completely isolated and ended up trying to entertain myself."
He talks me through the history of his video creation. "I did a series called Moving up North… it was just stupid stuff, stuff I'd heard people say," he says. "It wasn't particularly funny. It wasn't particularly clever. Then I started doing the Newstalk stuff [radio parodies] and that kind of snowballed. I was like 'Okay, I don't want to be known as the radio guy,' so I added impressions... Filters were a big thing for a while, so I might have a lion's head on and then I was 'Rar-lene Foster.'…. I did Aidan Gillen and Michael D. Higgins."
Why didn’t he use his real name? “Tourism Ireland [where he was working] has a very strict social media policy,” he says. “I didn’t want to be found by my colleagues but then it just happened anyway. I got a call on a Friday from this woman who wasn’t on my team. ‘Can I just ask you a question?’ ‘Is it about the video?’ ‘Yeah, is that you?’”
Comedy and performing were just never on my radar, whatsoever.
Why had he not considered comedy as a career when he was younger? "I never thought it was possible," he says. "I'm from Navan in County Meath which is the same place as Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran and people like that which is odd because, I don't know if you've ever been here, but it's not a particularly funny town. I went to the same school as them but it's a football school. So comedy and performing were just never on my radar, whatsoever."
While in school he studied acting at the Gaiety School of Acting where he learned about improv and, as a consequence, how to write, but “over the course of the five years in secondary school I was just kind of discouraged from any creative path whatsoever. I signed up to do a business degree in NUIG and dropped out because I was just far too young. Then I went back to do French [and Spanish in Trinity] and thought ‘Okay. I’ll try and sneak into the creative bit by doing marketing or tourism after this.’… I did set up a kind of sketch troupe because we didn’t have a Cambridge Footlights type organisation…. I wrote for that, but I didn’t actually perform in it.”
Why not? “I had stage fright,” he says. “I’ve never done live stuff ever. It absolutely terrifies me. The idea of being heckled, I think, scares me more than anything else.”
Has the internet enabled a new breed of shy comedian, who wouldn't necessarily flourish in the world of live stand-up comedy? He thinks possibly so. "There are certain people on Facebook who are personalities, and they are bright brash and wonderful. But I do characters, and I hide behind them. I'm never really myself in most of my stuff. It's a way of being somebody else."
My humour is very referential. Lots of the stuff I talk about is based on something else… I will use the format and the structure of that to make something new.
Though Fry loved Little Britain ("probably not the best thing to say right now"), Catherine Tate and Family Guy growing up, he's clearly a product of the social media age. He mentions other Irish Twitter comics like Sean Burke and Tony Cantwell. "Twitter itself, just textually, is very, very funny. So there's Dril or Sad Tiger, Cool as Heck Turtle, Rad Milk and Rob Delaney. I really loved that kind of stuff because it was just this bizarre world of humour that doesn't work anywhere else." He calls it "pure internet irony poisoning… My humour is very referential. Lots of the stuff I talk about is based on something else… I will use the format and the structure of that to make something new."
People are still unsure how to harness this new wave of comedic energy. For a while Fry worked with social media publisher Joe.ie but he thinks they didn’t really know what to do with him. “I wouldn’t even know how to use myself to be very honest with you, because [this is] a new brand of comedy… I ended up doing lots of ads. was essentially an influencer in-house kind of person… The commercial nature of it meant having to kind of sell your soul all the time. It kind of got to me after a while.”
When the pandemic began, Fry was working in London as a social editor for the Mirror but he moved back to Navan to live with his family and pursue a masters in digital media in the University of Stirling. Otherwise he works full-time on his videos. He is savvy enough to note what’s popular and to takes requests. His most popular indie band video was requested. It involves a meme from Come Dine with Me in which a bitter contestant berates a dining companion (“Dear Lord what a sad little life, Jane….”). He does sponsored work but, unlike with Joe.ie, he can pick and choose the brands he works with. He also has a ko-fi.com account which allows fans to send him money directly. “It’s essentially busking, hat on the ground type stuff.”
Does his family understand what he’s doing? “At the beginning it was very new to them,” he says. “I called my dad and said, ‘So, I’ve gone viral’. I came out as a comedian. Because I was very shy, even in my early 20s, I think they were kind of puzzled by it... There are certain things that they’re okay with, and certain things, like swearing, that they’re not cool with and certain elements of my humour they don’t click with. But I think they understand now, because I’m making money out of it and because I’m doing interviews with The Irish Times, that it is actually a legitimate thing.”
In fairness to his parents, the work for which he’s best known isn’t designed for those who aren’t already swamped in social media. There are two layers of referentiality going on his indie band videos. There’s a meme of the moment, a pop cultural phenomenon taken out of context, and then there’s the fact the music in which Fry embeds this harks definitively to a period around ten years ago when many social media obsessives were in their teens. He lists bands he liked like Alt J, the XX, Hot Chip and the Horrors. “Dolly Alderton had a piece on ‘landfill indie’ about that genre of music. People were celebrating that [era of music] because it was about everyone in our late twenties looking back on our teens going ‘that was really stupid but it was brilliant’.”
The characters in the band, each played by Fry, have also developed over time. "It's like Gorillaz but without the budget for animation," he says. "I went to see [Bloc Party] in the Olympia and I remember the bassist just looked miserable and angry… He had a keyboard for a while and he was just glaring into the audience. I was like 'This is brilliant. I mean, this is your job and you are so upset with it.'… Irish bands always have a guitarist who is a bit scruffy with a jersey and a hat. And the lead singer is this classic Morriseyesque person… I try to make myself laugh by pretending to be sexy, which I think is really funny. There's one [video] where I kind of wink to the camera and I hope people feel sick in their mouths at that bit."
Does he think he would be ready to appear on front of an audience now? “I’d love to explore it…. I think the indie band stuff makes a lot more sense as a live show.” He laughs. “And nobody can hear you heckle over music.”
He has been talking to people about doing television work but, “recently I’ve thought traditional television isn’t the be all and end all… When I make stuff, I am the writer, the director, the performer, I am in charge of distribution. I have complete control over everything I do.” Later he says, “What social media in general has done is democratise filmmaking. I can make something without needing €2000 of camera equipment or a whole crew to do sound.”
He's fascinated with new forms and technical innovations. He references the greenscreen techniques currently popular with TikTok creators before adding, "Even I'm too old for TikTok now." His videos take a long time to create and plan. We discuss comic timing and how in live performance, this is in the vocal delivery, while in online sketches it's all about how it's edited. I ask why so many online videos seem to end mid-sentence or in the middle of an action. He likens this to how good short stories imply that the story continues beyond what the reader can see. And shorter is often funnier, he says. "I get two minutes twenty [of video] on Twitter, only a minute on Tik Tok, 15 seconds for [an] Instagram story... It's also about limited attention spans. I definitely can't watch long videos on social media. I expect to kind of tune out." He laughs. "I remember when Vine was a thing, seeing someone saying, 'Oh, wait till the end.' I was like 'Wait to the end of a six second clip? Are you serious?'"