To judge by conventional talk show standards, Tommy Tiernan makes for an awful interviewer.
The host of The Tommy Tiernan Show (RTÉ One, Saturday, 9.35pm) shows up unprepared, sometimes failing to recognise his guests as they are announced, feeling his way through a conversation with little context and no apparent structure.
All this, of course, is what makes him such a great interviewer. The rules of the talk show were made to be broken.
In an age of polish, Tiernan’s panic is brilliantly subversive.
“You’re probably all wondering – the hat, like,” he says by way of introduction, before talking us through his bald spots. Good luck concealing anything in a show where even the host’s ego must be punctured.
Now in its third series, the idea is as simple and as terrifying as what I assume to be Ryan Tubridy’s recurring anxiety dream: flying blind before a live audience, through a series of one-on-one interviews.
The effect is electric, not because it is a masterclass in improvisation, but for the same reason a tightrope walker becomes more riveting without a safety net. More to the point, this is how people reveal themselves; not in prepared confessions but by gradually discarding their carapaces, not in straight lines but circles.
For the first episode Tiernan gets three very different people to work with. “You have some stories to tell,” he says to Paul McGrath, hoping to prompt them. Perhaps he can afford to speak so hesitantly to someone so familiar: Ooh … ah … Paul McGrath.
“Yeah,” McGrath says finally, when more baited hooks yield no bites.
But McGrath, the orphan turned soccer star, legend turned alcoholic, wounded survivor, cuts a vulnerable figure these days and Tiernan is wise to approach cautiously. “You seem very gentle,” he says. “It depends on what someone’s doing with me,” says McGrath.
But even a gentle interview, given time, will solicit bruising truths.
“You’re drinking by yourself,” Tiernan clarifies at one point, without judgment.
“I close the curtains, sit there and just drink,” says McGrath. “Lately I’ve started to talk to myself. I’m a bit worried about that.”
If confidence is the root of McGrath’s problems, as he describes it, Tiernan’s next guest Ciara Beth Ní Griofa, a 19-year-old with autism, has found her own way to build it. The developer of an app that coaches autistic people to become comfortable with eye contact, it’s probably not surprising that she should also take control of the interview.
Unfamiliar with her, Tiernan’s face is a frown of concentration and befuddlement, struggling to make a connection. But, one dumb joke notwithstanding, he lets her lead, and the artlessness of his questions allow for illuminating answers.
To be autistic, Ni Griofa tells him, is not a loss: “Every person has a challenge, it just happens that mine has a name.” Indeed, when she explains of her autism, “people are not predictable and this bothers me greatly”, you can appreciate the challenge here for both of them.
If the amiable golf star Shane Lowry is a little easier to anticipate ("It just seems there's no craic in it," Tiernan jokes of golf's discipline), we also get candid responses to Tiernan's more brazen questions. He asks frequently, and unembarrassed, about money ("It's almost like bad manners to talk about it") with a comedian's licence to broach private subjects.
Lowry, who recently took more than €1m at a tournament in Abu Dhabi, seems genuinely indifferent to fortune, though, and more fascinating on misfortune. "You end up being miserable at home," he says of missing out on the top spot. "You're not nice. Little things piss you off."
In Tiernan, they all find someone who seems a rare breed in contemporary talk shows - a genuine listener. What does it say about the format, that this refreshing approach seems like the riskiest strategy of all?