‘My greatest fear is failure. What we do is so public’
In Conversation: Karl Spain and Bernard O’Shea on life, death and phone books
Bernard O’Shea and Karl Spain
To what do you owe a parent?
Karl: Developing comedy muscles. My mum passed away 15 years ago. She was a very determined woman. I got my intelligence and drive from her. She had Parkinson’s and we all looked after her at home. I’d tell her jokes, become characters, sit with her and pretend to be Fr Michael, the local priest, and make up horrendous stories about the neighbours. I’d make her laugh, and then we could talk. The need to entertain probably came from that.
Bernard: My father died this year. I played music since I was 12 with my da. What he gave me from a very early age was the idea of how difficult it was to make money out of entertainment. We would literally do six gigs a week, get very little money for it, packing up equipment, coming home at two o’clock in the morning, getting up and going into school. I did more gigs between 12 and 17 than I did between 17 and now. I played the guitar, a bit of bouzouki, banjo, the accordion. We played for set dancers, which was really big then. What my parents gave me was a huge amount of independence.
What was the last gift that you bought?
Karl: I bought a holiday to Amsterdam but I went with my girlfriend, so technically I shared the gift. But it was her birthday.
Bernard: I bought a little teddy bear for my new baby. We bought presents for the other kids from the baby.
Karl: Where’s he getting all the money?
What book do you keep returning to?
Karl: The phone book.
Bernard: When I was growing up, there was so little to do in my house, I used to read the phone book and the Yellow Pages. The day we’d get the new one I’d be so excited. I still to this day know what ads are where. 167A was electrical suppliers.
Karl: Well, I had a happy childhood.
What was your favourite item of clothing when you were a teenager?
Karl: I had a pair of Levi’s 501s my girlfriend bought for me for about 80p in a charity shop. She bought me loads of clothes; a leather blazer jacket, a green Christian Dior shirt for about two quid, which was really stylish, except when you looked at the Dior label, there was another label underneath.
Bernard: I had a black denim jacket I got consistently slagged over through secondary school and I wore that until it literally fell apart.
Where is your favourite place to visit?
Bernard: My dad and all my family is from Kerry, so I love going down there.
Karl: That’s kind of where you’re from though, isn’t it?
Bernard: My wife is from Limerick, I like going to Limerick as well.
Karl: You can’t claim Limerick! I like to go to Bernard’s house when he’s not there. I like travelling with comedy. I went to Azerbaijan this year; it was a great trip.
What is your greatest fear?
Bernard: Failure. What we do is so public, you’re doing telly, radio, stand-up…
Karl: Well you’re beyond failure now, you’re 18 years in.
Bernard: Well the old phrase “You’re only as good as your last gig” – that is wrong. You’re only as good as your next one. If I fail at radio, fail at telly, fail at stand-up, then I don’t earn money, then I don’t have money for my kids, I don’t have money for a mortgage. Then again, I’m not a proud person. I will do anything for money. And I mean anything! I think what you thrive on is other people.
Karl: I’m happy on my own as well. But yeah, I feed off the energy of people.
Bernard: I’ve learned that from you as well. I wouldn’t have the confidence that you would have to talk to strangers.
Karl: I got that from my father. He was a sales rep. He used to bring home hitchhikers the whole time.
What is your go-to dessert?
When were you closest to death?
Karl: I nearly drowned twice when I was in Tenerife as a seven-year-old.
Bernard: I was three months premature. I was in an incubator. So the nearest I’ve been to death was at that moment of life.
What do you wish you studied more in school?
Karl: Everything. I remember being totally bored in school. I was in my own head a lot. That’s maybe where the comedy came from as well. I had no interest in applying myself. It’s an attitude that hasn’t really changed.
Is there anything you want to achieve that you’ve never said out loud?
Karl: I think I’m open enough. There’s a weird thing with stand-up where you can share intimate moments of your life with strangers a lot easier than with one or two people. I’m very relaxed about things, probably too relaxed.
Bernard: I’ve never told anyone this, but my ambition would be to genuinely become a brilliant piano player.
What do you think is your most dominant personality trait?
Bernard: Stupidity? Arrogance, maybe, sometimes.
Karl: I think my most dominant thing is to go for the joke, always. I can keep the powder dry at times.
Bernard: You’re never off. There is no off switch.
Karl: Even in the most dark times, I can see a joke.