Tommy Tiernan: ‘I had to keep working to pay off my mortgage debts’

As his chatshow returns for a third season, the comedian talks about the need to keep going, the value of being unpredictable, and the stresses and strains of the stand-up life 

Years ago, Tommy Tiernan started seeing a Jungian psychiatrist. After a handful of sessions, he recalls that the psychiatrist turned to him and said, “You’re quite a serious person, aren’t you?”

It might surprise some who only know Tiernan from his frenzied onstage persona, but the psychiatrist was correct. In person, he is thoughtful and engaged, often taking long pauses to gather his thoughts and offer considered responses. It’s a quality that has served him well as the host of his own chatshow, which is set to return for a third series.

“It gives me an opportunity to do something serious,” he says of being a chatshow host. “I love the creativity of conversation.”

Public conversation now can sometimes appear a bit limited. Maybe one of the reasons people seem to like the chatshow is that it’s not a one-track conversation

You’re likely familiar with the conceit of The Tommy Tiernan Show. Neither Tiernan nor the live audience know who the guests are until they come out on stage. Free from the shackles of teleprompters and notes, the conversation is freer flowing than the type audiences are accustomed to seeing on chatshows.

The first two seasons were rapturously received; the new season will air in the Saturday-evening slot previously occupied by The Ray D’Arcy Show. It’s quite the vote of confidence from RTÉ.

“Public conversation now can sometimes appear a bit limited,” says Tiernan. “Maybe one of the reasons people seem to like the chatshow is that it’s not a one-track conversation. If somebody goes on the Late Late, they’ve already in a sense got the narrative of the chat established, and you get some great interviews that way.

“With this, maybe because it’s so unpredictable, it just feels like there’s more space around the conversation. Maybe that’s why people like it.”

Tommy Tiernan: ‘It’s so unpredictable, there’s more space around the conversation. Maybe that’s why people like it,’ the comedian says of his RTÉ chatshow. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Tommy Tiernan: ‘It’s so unpredictable,’ the comedian says of his RTÉ chatshow. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

If Tiernan’s assessment of what everyone agrees is a hit television show seems a little clogged with maybes and seem tos, it’s because he knows that success can be fickle. After all, he has endured his own fair share of rejection throughout his career.

“You offer things to the public and the public decide if you do more of them or not. So I offered myself as a stand-up and the public said, ‘We want to listen to you.’ I offered myself as an actor and they said, ‘You’re grand.’ I tried to write a novel one time and they said, ‘No.’

“I tried doing the full length improvised stand-up comedy shows and people said, ‘It’s too stressful. As a psychological experiment, it’s interesting. As a night out, it’s too hard.’ You offer yourself as a chatshow host with this particular format and the public go, ‘Yes.’

“You’re never really deciding everything. You’re just trying and the public go, ‘Yes.’ Very few of us have the autonomy. It’s probably a good thing that it’s a dialogue with an audience rather than one-way traffic.”

I had to keep working in order to make repayments on a debt that I wasn’t aware could happen. Like thousands and thousands of other people

Over the last few years, it seems that audiences have started to say yes to much more of Tiernan. From starring in Channel 4’s Derry Girls to treading the boards of the Gaiety Theatre in a production of John B Keane’s Sive, he has been afforded the opportunity to flex different creative muscles.

Nonetheless, stand-up has remained his bread and butter. By his own estimation, he has spent 15 years gigging three or four nights a week, partly for the love of it and partly out of financial necessity.

During the Celtic Tiger, Tiernan earned a lot of money from the sales of his comedy DVDs. Living in Galway at the time, he decided to buy a second house in Dublin as he was doing so much work in the capital. All of a sudden, the recession hit and both homes were plunged into negative equity.

“I kind of bought a house thinking, ‘If I don’t use it or like it, I’ll just sell it,’” he explains. “And then all of a sudden, like thousands and thousands of other people in the country, you’re in the situation where, ‘I’m kind of trapped here actually and I have to keep working.’”

“I had to keep working in order to make repayments on a debt that I wasn’t aware could happen. Like thousands and thousands of other people.

“I remember being on a plane one time coming back from England and meeting this woman who flew to Newcastle every Monday morning and flew home every Friday night in order to pay bills.

“I remember meeting a guy in Edmonton in Canada who was working on the buildings over there and was flying home to meet his six-week-old daughter.

“While my experience wasn’t as extreme as that, I definitely have an awareness that – because of the type of work I do, which I can’t do at home – the recession robbed me of time with my children.”

He sees a danger in society prioritising work over family.

“We allow an institution like a bank to dictate our working lives for the sake of a spreadsheet,” he says. “And the loss of that for people is too high. I feel in the 10 years of my life where I was working so hard to maintain mortgage repayments that I lost out on an awful lot.”

“What seems to be the priority in the culture now is individual achievement, working hard and you’re almost made feel . . . It’s almost like that hard truth of missing your family isn’t really given enough space.”

Tommy Tiernan: the comedian in the Channel 4 hit Derry Girls
Tommy Tiernan: the comedian in the Channel 4 hit Derry Girls

The comedian is the father of six children, who range in age from seven to 25. The guilt of spending long periods away from them has dogged him throughout his career. He recalls gigging in the UK as a young comic and being joined by his two-year-old son for a few days.

“He’d come over to London with his mother,” he explains. “We spent a couple of days together and they flew back and I had a gig to do in Coventry. I remember taking the train from London to Coventry and arriving in the hotel room and just bursting into tears and feeling like I was in the wrong place. What was I doing?

“I’ve always struggled with that in stand-up. It’s never something that has settled with me.”

Far from getting over it, he has simply learned to live with the tensions and contradictions of his life and career.

“I love my work. I love talking. I love performing. I love trying to be funny. I love travelling as well. You have that and you also live with the fact that I desperately miss my children when I’m away from home. I sometimes feel under too much pressure to be funny. I have bills to pay. You live with these things that seem like . . .  how can both be sure at the same time? But they just are.”

What makes Tiernan tick outside of work and family? Well, there’s Liverpool Football Club for one. “It sounds awful but they’re almost as important as a relative,” he says. There is his €60-a-week cigar habit. “Jesus, I love it,” he says. “I really love smoking cigars.” Then there is his nightly glass of whiskey. “I drink every day and I have a glass of whiskey about the time Newsnight is starting.”

Tommy Tiernan: ‘Public conversation now can sometimes appear a bit limited.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
Tommy Tiernan. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Like many, Tiernan is grimly fascinated by Brexit.

“From a purely dramatic point of view I’m very excited by it,” he says. “I’m removed from the reality of it so in a sense for me it’s pure theory. The more dramatic it is the better.”

Noting an anti-Brexit bias in certain quarters of the British media, he laments the “oppressive opinionising” that informs much of today’s political discourse.

“I don’t think referendums are won or lost. I think people decide. And the reason that we have a referendum is because it’s okay to have both sets of opinions. It’s okay for people to not be in favour of abortion . . . It’s okay for people to vote for Trump . . . It’s okay to be pro-Brexit. Sometimes public debate can become very heightened and divisive.”

Is that divisiveness apparent in Ireland?

“I do sometimes think that I notice it in Dublin media, that it can be very reactive, very judgmental, bordering on . . . There’s a right way to think and a wrong way to think.”

I would have found myself thinking about dying a lot in the past five or six years. Thinking about the futility of ambition. Thinking about time, hair loss, physical fitness, sexual appetite

By comparison, Tiernan sees rural Ireland as a “very forgiving place” largely unconcerned with what he sees as as agendas driven by the media.

“Sometimes those issues don’t seem to be as headline-worthy in rural Ireland or something,” he says. “I noticed this many years ago when I did a tour of the States and going to places like Pittsburgh and Omaha - towns that would have reputations for voting Republican and being blue collar. And I remember them being almost more enjoyable to play because people really didn’t care. They weren’t as drawn into political opinion so they laughed at anything. If it was funny they laughed. They gave you that benefit of the doubt.”

As an entertainer, Tiernan has been part of the furniture for nearly 25 years. This summer, he turns 50. How does that milestone sit with him?

“I don’t have any sense of it being an achievement like reaching the top of Croagh Patrick or coming to the end of a triathlon,” he says. “I just seem to have slid into it effortlessly.”

The past few years has seen him grapple with existential angst.

“I would have found myself thinking about dying a lot in the past five or six years. Thinking about the futility of ambition. Thinking about time, hair loss, physical fitness, sexual appetite. You definitely float like smoke into places. ‘What is the point in anything? What is the point in trying too hard at anything?’ The sense that death is a reality. The kind of stupidity of plans. What you’ve done with your life.”

Now, however, he has adopted a more positive outlook.

“[Carl Jung] said the best way to do it is to imagine you’re going to live until you’re about 300 or 400 years of age,” he says. “So even in your 70s, be making plans.”

“There’s a moment for a lot of people when their death reveals itself. It comes into the room and it says, ‘This is how you are going to die and it’s going to be in a week.’ Then turn your attention to it. But up until that moment, carry on regardless.

“Imagine you’re going to live until you’re 300. Get excited thinking about what you might do and make plans.”

The Tommy Tiernan Show is on RTÉ One at 9.30pm today. Tommy Tiernan is performing at Kilkenny Cat Laughs comedy festival (May 30th-June 3rd) and Live at the Marquee (July 4th-5th), in Cork