With the release of his new CD/DVD, Something Mental and the premiere of his hour-long special on Comedy Central, Irish comedian superstar Tommy Tiernan makes a major dent in Stateside comedy this month.
With palms up, Tommy Tiernan curls his fingers into fist formation and shuffles his feet toward the edge of the stage, longing for the ultimate symbioses with his audience.
At a measured, purposeful pace, the bearded comedian asks the crowd, “What are we looking for in a sexual relationship?”
In his thick Irish accent, he answers.
“We’re looking for someone with whom we can go to the limits of our passion.”
He checks in with the crowd’s psychological status: “Still feel comfortable? he asks, and then goes on: “The limits. Of your passion. It’s fuckin’ scary, isn’t it? Most of us are scared of the limits of our passion. Why? Because we know – we fuckin’ know — it’s got something to do with our arse.”
The crowd erupts. But then there’s the guy in the fourth row. His arms remain folded; he kinda smirks– no doubt, not still comfortable with the show.
Tiernan shifts his friendly blue eyes from left to right, his impish smile constant. He sweats. A lot. He goes on to tell a story of him being penetrated with a dildo with a degree of fervor usually reserved for one’s recounting of a religious breakthrough.
And so goes Tiernan’s set captured at the Mercury Theater in Chicago for his new CD/DVD Something Mental, out March 11 in stores and premiering on Comedy Central on March 14 at 11 p.m.
It’s an inspiring thing to see Tiernan perform and not at all surprising to know that he’s Ireland’s top selling comedian. He’s sold out 150 dates in Dublin’s Vicar Street Theatre, a 1,000-capacity room while his previous DVDs regularly hit No. 1 on the Irish charts.
Onstage, Tiernan plays physical without being hoaky; he’s endearing even when he goes blue; and while he wouldn’t win any laughs per minute contest — he’s as far from a one-liner comic as you’d get — he’d rank just as high as any great contemporary story teller, deftly bounding from topics as varied as living in Ireland, parenting, funerals, his crazy mother, religion and even language.
While visiting New York City recently, Punchline Magazine chatted with Tiernan about why it was important for him to break into the States, why he told a waitress to shut up while he was here, and much more.
When you started performing in the States, did you find yourself having to change a lot of your material because of its Irish bent?
Wherever I am, the material speaks to that place. So I have a lot of material that’s very Irish that I don’t think travels well outside of Ireland. Last year, after working a lot in the States and in Canada, I had a set that didn’t really work well in Ireland. So it’s definitely place specific. Recently, I was doing this bit about Heath Ledger. In Ireland, people were able to take on the idea that you might be treading in slightly insensitive waters but that there was a good heart behind it.
Then, I did that material in New York and people just didn’t want to hear it. So there are cultural sensitivities on either side of the Atlantic that need to be played around with. An American sitcom plays well all around the world more or less. But you couldn’t get a sitcom that’s very well known in Ireland and expect it to succeed in America. There are definite cultural differences.
Is it frustrating for you to have to modify your sets or do you feel that’s part of the art?
It’s frustrating because you’ve been working hard in Ireland and you get to the point where a set is getting a standing ovation. Then you come to America the next night and people are looking at you like you’re the crudest monkey to ever get out of the zoo. But that takes about a week to get over– a week of constant performing and then all that stuff is like bled out of you.
But then there’s a fantastic feeling when you feel as if your doing something new, bringing something to the table that perhaps an American comic can’t bring because of your own perspective on things. It’s great when that connects. I love playing a multi colored room. Specifically, I love directing material toward a black audience or a Latino audience. I thrive on that. I get a big kick out of that; it’s exciting for me– exciting and not always successful.
You’re an enormous success in Ireland. Why is it important for you to perform in the States?
It’s just a thing to do. You take your humor different places and you see if it works. It’s kinda like being the best poker player in Papua New Guinea. Will I go to Vegas? And I was always a huge fan of American stand-up. The first comic I ever actually lived with was Lenny Bruce. I had a tape of his live at Carnegie Hall and I would listen to that every night, over and over and over again– over a period of two years. So it’s important for me to try to come here.
The Irish sense of humor and Irish comedy is sort of long winded. We kinda talk around the subject and we have fun with words and with attitude. Whereas in America, the importance seems to be with the actual jokes and comic structure. So it’s interesting for me to come over here and try to succeed on those levels. It’s something to do. When you’re very successful in one place it becomes slightly repetitive and can become self congratulatory; everywhere you go, people are cheering and waving at you.
I played a one-thousand seater in Dublin one night. And the next night at I was at Stand-up New York in front of eight people. One of waitresses got really mad at me. It’s a seven-and-a-half-hour flight. I was performing at 10 pm. So it was five in the morning in my body and I was trying to this stuff about Heath Ledger that no one wanted to hear. And all I could hear was this waitress talking. So I asked her to shut up.
Is that pretty much how you asked her?
I said, ‘Excuse me, shut up’ and I explained to her my day.
I wish I could’ve seen that happen.
Yeah, she was annoyed. I went up to her afterwards and I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.’ And she said, ‘You didn’t embarrass me.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry if I made you mad.’ She said, ‘That’s more like it.’
Would you have said the same thing to a waitress had you been performing in Ireland? Or was it like you didn’t care since it’s not like you’ll be back anytime soon?
I usually work theaters so that stuff isn’t happening. But in Irish comedy clubs, the waitresses don’t work the floor while the comic is on. But here that’s accepted. But I was also probably a little cranky after my flight. It was five in the morning. So we’re not used to that. We’re used to if someone is talking, you listen.
Just from talking to comics all the time, I know it’s something that annoys them– when headliners are doing their set and waitresses are dropping the check on the table 10 minutes before they end.
It’s like doing a gig in McDonald’s. You’re standing there beside the big porcelain Ronald and you’re doing your thing and people are looking at you stuffing their faces full of fries. But what are you gonna do?
You mentioned you think that in American comedy, the joke structure is more important than it is in Ireland. Why is that?
I think it’s more important for comics to hit quickly. There are a few exceptions. I like Patton Oswalt. He seems slightly more long-winded. I also like Dave Attell. But Dave’s are more micro jokes. Whereas Patton must be Irish or at least come from a family that read lots of books or where there were no books. Patton has a degree of respect here in the states now where when people go see him, they know what they’re getting. When I walk out onstage and sound long winded, it’s like, ‘Well, why should we indulge this guy?’
Are their other American comics that share that Irish sensibility?
Patton’s the only one I’ve come across so far. I recently shared a bill with Chris Rock. And Chris is fantastic. The writing and the insight is fantastically sharp. But again, it’s not as discursive as Patton’s style. Chris presents a series of comedic bullet points.
Regardless of the term “alternative comedy” being misused or overused here in the States, Patton, in many ways, fits comfortable into that scene. If you were based here, would you fit better into the alt comedy scene than you would in the mainstream?
I think you need to try to succeed in the every room. You can’t say I only belong in this arena or that arena. I think that’s a bit self-protective. I think it’s also less creative. That’s the craft of stand-up. It’s pointless if you send advanced warning to a comedy club and tell them that you will only perform if there are 17 people sitting on the left and six people on the right and nobody sitting in the middle and the microphone has to be five feet, six inches tall and all the waitresses need to be blond and black.
Whatever the way the room is when you go in, that’s what you have. So if I’m opening for Patton or if I’m playing Stand-up New York or Gotham, I just have to succeed in each room. People are people and funny is funny. And if it’s funny, it’ll work. It might just take a bit of adjusting. I think an audience is only too delighted and almost excited to adjust if someone is funny. It’s kinda like if you put Andy Kaufman in a room full guys doing one liners. People would be like, ‘Wow this is funny and this is different. It’s even more exciting. Whereas if Andy Kaufman were playing at an evening of Andy Kaufmans, it’s like, ‘Ok, we get the joke.’
I saw a very well loved Canadian comic in Montreal last year. Because his references were so incredibly regional, it would never have worked in the States. Is there anything wrong with a comedian who keeps his act regionalized?
Not at all. He’s speaking to his people. When I’m in Ireland, I speak to Irish people about Irish things. There’s some something fantastically inclusive about that. It’s a great way for a culture to reflect on itself and taking itself to task over different things. And a lot American comics do the same thing. It’s just that American culture is so pervasive. Jerry Seinfeld can live and work in New York and write his jokes there and then fly over to London and do the same set and everyone thinks its funny. It’s more incumbent on people traveling into America to change.
I always think of writers who never moved outside of their country but were able to develop a reputation worldwide. James Joyce specifically wrote about Irish people. Nobody reads his books but everyone knows he was a writer. If that Canadian comic was going to perform in the States, some type of work would have to be done. But I definitely don’t think it’s a weakness. I think it’s just that American culture is so much more accessible.
There’s a comedy festival in Kilkenny called Cat Laughs, which has a big American contingent every year. And sometimes guys come over and it just doesn’t happen because their references are just too American, too specific. It works both ways.
It’s a brutal awakening when you’re doing stuff that has people in a particular area falling around the room and you think you’re a good comedian. And then you travel on a plane and people are staring at you like you are a homeless Muslim fundamentalist ranting on an underground train. It’s a great thing to take a person down a peg or two.
That’s a healthy way of looking at it.
Healthy and uncomfortable.
For more info, check out tommytiernan.com.