Testament according to Tommy
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: ‘THE THEATRE is make believe, that’s where it’s at.” – Lenny Bruce.
In 1988, Tommy Tiernan pondered choices that seemed to bridge a generational divide. In the grand Irish tradition, he could join the priesthood. Or, in the spirit of the era, he could commit himself to the band of blissfully unemployed, living out the kind of existence that in Galway was once known as “the Eternal Weekend”. In true romantic tradition, he went west.
“Well, they [the Catholic Church] wanted me to repeat the Leaving Certificate,” he says in a regretful tone that makes it clear that another year in St Patrick’s Academy in his home town of Navan was – for all the unbeatable laughter he enjoyed there – out of the question. “But if they had taken me, I would probably have gone in. I was always attracted to extremes.”
Imagine Tommy Tiernan in a collar, performing the Sunday sermon in whatever parish he ended up in. It would have made for an electrifying Mass. Then again, who knows: he might have been as orthodox as John Charles McQuaid, the riot of ideas that has had packed theatre houses in stitches for more than a decade now locked permanently inside his head.
In any event, he has found his way to the national pulpit. Tiernan holds a curious place in the affections of modern Ireland, at once a beloved public figure and a phenomenally popular comedian whose work has become the source of increasing chastisement and unease. At 39, Tiernan is still the child who breaks his mother’s heart. “All the time,” he acknowledges morosely when it is put to him that the things he says on stage land him in water.
On the morning we met, he discovered he had offended his moral superiors – and his almost-employers – yet again. His latest venture into comic fantasia will take place over Easter weekend. Starting on Good Friday in an intimate, 50-seat venue in Nun’s Island in the heart of Galway city, Tiernan dives into Testamental, an intense burst of one man shows that will – unless he passes out from fatigue – earn him the world record for longest stand-up comedy show. The event is for a charity, the local Youth Diocesan Service. When Tiernan first moved to Galway, he worked for the charity and, at the age of 19, set up a youth club for kids on the edge. It ran in Westside. He has kept in touch ever since.
“I was invited to Number Four, the drop-in house for kids who are really struggling, for Christmas dinner. There would be a fair amount of young wans and young fellas on the couch circuit. And they really need the money. There is a Tom Waits song that always makes me cry when I listen to it – On the Nickel. He has this great phrase: ‘And what becomes of all the little boys, Who never comb their hair.’ It’s about strays. And it always resonated with me.”
A few days ago, Tiernan was informed that, after a board meeting, it had been decided that the Youth Diocesan Service did not want to be associated with the show. The main reservation was that it was being held on Good Friday. “Because it is a solemn day,” he shrugs. He chose the sacred day on purpose and might have guessed that even in a country where the Catholic voice has been muted, it would cause some annoyance. But Good Friday felt to him like the perfect occasion to throw himself into such a project – not that he is comparing the gruelling ritual of 36 shows to a comedian’s version of crucifixion.
“Ah God, no . . . nothing as dramatic. Although there’ll be fellas doing that in Brazil, won’t there? And in parts of Tuam, probably. In snooker clubs in Dublin, getting nailed to the table. No, it wasn’t done to sensationalise. I don’t see it as sacrilegious. Like, I would pray. I’m not sure what I am in terms of labels . . . it’s not like being in Rome 1,900 years ago, shouting ‘I am a Christian’ on the way to the Colosseum. The virtues of Christianity should be placed upon you rather than you declaring them. But I do have an interest. John Moriarty [the Kerry philosopher/mystic who died two summers ago] said, ‘I wonder if we will have to follow Christ out of Christianity.’ I am not even sure what that means, but it stops you in your tracks, doesn’t it? So Number Four is patronised by the church but you can’t allow that to stop young kids getting help. The money will be given anyhow. These are young fellas sleeping in car parks, not down-and-out seminarians.”
TIERNAN HAS THESE hopeful eyes that will still look 15 when he is 80. They fairly crackle with youth and laughter. Walking down Quay Street in a zipped-up leather jacket, a patterned beanie hat and wearing a light, greying beard, his look could be interpreted as incognito were it not for the fact that the man is helplessly recognisable. Some passers-by smile when they see him, as if he might do something funny on the spot. He agrees that the notion of fame is nonsensical in Ireland but he loves the engagement that his profile as a comedian brings. Because people feel as if they know him, they will unabashedly approach him in coffee shops and just start yapping.
“It is a wealth. You are known for something positive; people are delighted to see ya. It is great.” In a nearby hotel, he announces himself to be gasping for a cup of strong tea, yet the cup he pours goes cold and he barely touches his buttered scone as he talks. He becomes so animated when he talks – he enjoys talking so much – that he actually forgets to eat. When he references his adolescence in Navan, it is with fondness and, like a lot of people, he seems mildly stunned by how he got from that stage to this so quickly.
Tiernan’s peripatetic childhood has provided rich source material in his comedy: born in north Donegal, moved to Zambia and then London before descending on Navan when he was nine. His father, Kevin, came “from Athlone via Mayo”, he says. “Helen, my mother, is pure Tipp’. Dark Tipp’.” He suspects the humorous vein was inherited from his father.
“He could be very funny,” Tiernan says. “Like, my mother would smoke a fair bit and Dad would take the high ground on it. He’d open the obituaries page and say, ‘Right, let’s see who quit smoking yesterday.’ Or he would come in and if the kitchen was smoky, he’d say, ‘Has it come to the stage when a man has to go to the pub for a breath of fresh air?’”
Tiernan bolted from Navan as soon as he was liberated from school. As he says of his move to Galway: “I followed a girl here.” He briefly joined a religious group on the Aran Islands, becoming quickly discouraged when he found it was the kind of commune that espoused hard labour – to his disgust, he was sent off to gather seaweed on his first afternoon, “rather than sitting around philosophising and having the craic”.
He wooed the girl and followed her into Galway when she started college. The couple had three children together – Dylan, Jacob and Eve. Tiernan never enrolled in UCG but was a habitué of the canteen and whatever lectures took his fancy. He completed a philosophy course given by Fr Walter Macken and went on to represent the college in an intervarsity debate. For money, he signed on.
“There was no tension. It was very acceptable. In fact, in Galway, it was de rigueur. I was classified as long-term unemployed by the age of 22. That was a bit of a shock when you consider yourself in the full health of your vittles.”
Tiernan was 24 when his first son was born. That provoked him to try his hand at comedy, an art in which he always had a loose fascination. “Without being conscious of it or without it becoming a mantra, I just developed an engine to earn.” He started out playing free lunchtime shows around Galway. Little over a decade later, he performed in the US on the Late Show with David Lettermanin the fabled Ed Sullivan Theatre. For a committed slacker, he moved up the notoriously rickety ladder of showbiz with remarkable alacrity.
IN PAT COMER’S memorable documentary series The Green, Green Grass of Home, Tiernan revisits the humdrum wonders of Navan town. At the beginning of the film, he despairs of the place that he has, in his routines, celebrated as “a cultureless f**kin hole of a town”, and delights in pointing out the sheer smallness of his life there. And he pokes great fun at the grubby, sneering ghost of the school kid that he once was. The film is 10 years old now but it hasn’t dated and for all of Tiernan’s extremely funny anecdotes and dry dismissals, it becomes clear that he cannot leave the place, not entirely, and in the closing frames, the laughing man seems kind of choked up when he stands beside the Navan town sign. “It’s my home town, and I love it,” he says, before sprinting up the motorway – fleeing – to the closing sound of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.
As Tiernan talks of his heroes in comedy – Lenny Bruce, Eddie Izzard, Frank Skinner – he stops for a moment and says with seriousness: “I don’t think I ever laughed as much as I did in school with Hector and a fella called Spew. We had a very authoritarian headmaster so this was dangerous laughter. It was prison laughter. It came out of tension. Myself and Hector still do it. It is so childish but anything that is unusual and creates tension cracks us up.”
Every Friday, Tiernan performs a two-hour live radio show with Ó hEochagáin. Yesterday, for instance, one of their japes was to gather as many phone numbers from the risque messages scribbled on the walls of public toilets and to ring them live on air to see what happened. Tiernan has always gloried in the uncomplicated delight of juvenile humour, in the sheer indefatigable daftness of the things we do. That brand of silliness has always run through his comedy, along with a subtle thread of compassion, an unhinged manic energy and an eye for noticing the surreal in mundane and uniquely Irish situations. Lenny Bruce is his comedic hero but he lays his soul at the feet of Flann O’Brien.
There is a legion of people out there who can quote Tiernan’s classic lines verbatim now – Declan Moffit runs the marathon, the school disco, etc. Any teacher worth his salt would have recognised in Tiernan’s face – the quick eyes and cherub’s smile – a giddy little so and so, a born disruption. And even now, there is something of the schoolboy-let-loose about him on stage. His material has often offended the prevailing mores – or at least those inclined to ring Joe Duffy. But his last Late Late Showappearance drew a more severe backlash after he ran with gags that could be held up to scrutiny as prejudiced and crude and damaging and vile. He knows that the appearance bombed. Afterwards, he wrote in a notebook he keeps: “The more time I spend in that box the more I am misshapen in it.”
Many of the jokes featured in his last tour, Bovinity. He knew they worked live. But translated to television they made for uncomfortable viewing. In the late 1980s, when Tiernan was happily aimless, he had a double-sided cassette recording of Lenny Bruce in Carnegie Hall. He listened to it obsessively. “I loved him before I understood his material. I got none of the references and didn’t even find it that funny but I listened to it for months on end. When I started out, I wanted to be like Lenny Bruce. For his storytelling and his architecture and his story writing and his wit.”
In the 1960s, Bruce, who rose from New York Jewish theatrical stock, was considered a pariah for his confrontational riffs on anything and everything. No subject was off limits. The Irish actress Siobhán McKenna was among those he offended: she walked out of his performance in the Establishment, a Soho club, outraged at his depiction of the church. “Bruce is the sharpest denter of taboos currently active in show business,” wrote Kenneth Tynan, the theatre critic and all-round champion of taboo denting. “But he is seldom funny without an ulterior motive. You squirm as you smile.”
With Tiernan, though, the laugh is all. He believes that he is not a comic with a message. His eyes widen when he is asked if he felt that his Late Lateshow material could be classed as offensive.
“Of course it is. That’s the craic! That’s the fun! As a comic, it is an instinct. I can defend it intellectually but it is not an intellectual position. That line from Bob Dylan – ‘In bed with nobody under no one’s command.’ In some weird way, everything is open. So self-censorship is out of the question. I would often come off stage and worry about my material and about what I have said. I could almost sue myself for defamation of my character. But on stage, it is an alter ego – without it being theorised or explained. It is just an instinct and it is one that I trust. Because there is a purity to it. I know it is not malicious or that there is no meanness in it.
“John Moriarty talked about worrying when he was young that the church would only accept certain parts of him: that idea that the church will only accept the holy pious ‘me’. He spent a night in a castle in Kildare and he decided to light one candle for all his virtues and one for all his vices. And he was able to feel then as if the church accepted all of him. When I go on stage, that is what I am doing. I am saying: ‘I am not going to hide anything. I am not going to stop any thought that comes into my head.’ Because this is a special ceremony. There can be no holding back on stage. And I do come off stage thinking, ‘Jesus, what was that?’
“But I won’t stop. Because I trust it. The ceremony of stand-up is a special one because you say: ‘We will go into this darkened room and he will be lit up. He is not who he is normally, he is in this other space and we are just going to go with the flow.’ Now, when you take that person on stage and put him on the Late Late Show, something different happens.”
At a show in Monaghan, he ended up telling a woman in a wheelchair: “I don’t think you really have cerebral palsy: you are just drunk.”
“Now, in print, that looks brutal,” he argues. “But she was heckling me! It’s all from the perspective of: I’m here to have a bit of craic. Are you?” Or as Kenneth Tynan wrote about Lenny Bruce: “The message he bears is simple and basic: whatever releases people and brings them together is good and whatever confines and separates them is bad.”
Tiernan’s final Testamentalshow will conclude at dawn on Easter Sunday. He has no idea about the material that he is going to perform, anticipating a random trawl through the archives. He pleads tiredness on the morning we meet: there are five children now – Isabelle is two and Louis, just seven months, with his partner and manager Yvonne McMahon. Everyone in the house has some sort of seasonal ailment.
HEADING OFF TOWARDS the Quays, however Tiernan seems giddy with the dauntless energy that has defined him. The only time he felt truly lost and alienated as a comedian was, he claims, while performing in New York, even as he realised a cherished ambition by playing some of the same venues as Lenny Bruce. The Letterman experience was intense and strange. He was on the same night as Paris Hilton (“Didn’t see her – didn’t even breathe the same air as her”), Robert Duvall (“A small little man and a hero of mine. I stared at him the way an altar boy stares at the Pope”) and the band Sonic Youth (“Hadn’t a clue who they were. They looked like auld fellas in teenagers clothes”).
They collected him by limousine and when the chauffeur opened the door, the crowds assumed Yvonne was the guest of honour and sought autographs from her. He met Letterman briefly. “It was a lot different to having a glass of whiskey with Gay Byrne after The Late Late.”
The need for new horizons, to go elsewhere, will take him to the States again. But right now, he is fixated on Testamental, on just plunging into it. He says that he has never known loneliness as savage as those few minutes when he walks off stage, away from the lingering magic and heat of the theatre and is by himself for those few minutes. One imagines that it is, for Tiernan, the equivalent of heroin withdrawal. It is as though he has to leave this fabulist creation – the comedian – out there on stage while he returns to normal life. The feeling never lasts longer than a few minutes and will never leave as long as he performs comedy.
“I hate it. It is a cross between Lent and . . . east Galway.” It is during then that all the doubts and demons come crashing out. What if? Should he have said it? “That is the really daunting part of it,” Tiernan says, his face creasing up into the famous, incorrigible smile. “These are the things that dominate my mind rather than issues that the nation has to deal with. You know, what if I forget how to be funny?” Light a candle for him.
Testamentalruns from 3pm on Good Friday until Easter Sunday with 50 tickets per show. It consists of 36 hours of one-hour shows and three three-hour after midnight shows.