Jason Byrne: interview
Mad, bad and dangerous to be in a kitchen with, high-octane, award-winning Irish comedian and star of 'Live at the Apollo' Jason Byrne tells Time Out about what it's like to be crucified (in the non-metaphorical sense).
You were recently on ITV's celebrity cookery programme 'Marco's Kitchen Burnout', but got thrown out after only one round. What went wrong?
'Well, what went right? Nothing, that's what! They rang me and asked if I'd like to do it and I said “no” before they'd finished the sentence. I've always thought I wouldn't do the “Jungle” or fucking “Dancing on Anything”, because, as a comic, that's the stuff we should be slagging off. But then I was made to see things a little differently by my wife. It was as if Wayne Rooney had rung her up and said, “Do you want to play football with me for three days?” And her going, “No.” And then me saying, “You fucking are! Holy shit, that's Wayne Rooney!”
'And that's what basically what happened the other way round. She said, “That's Marco Pierre White, he doesn't cook any more, he never teaches anybody, get on the fucking plane.” But I knew it was going to be tough right from the start. When I got there Marco said, “I only have to meet somebody for one minute and I know if they can't cook - it only took me ten seconds with you.” And he was right, I couldn't cook at all and there I was expected to cook the three separate courses for 25 people! I didn't even know how hot a kitchen was - it's as hot as the sun. I was a bit of a liability. The doctor even had to treat me at the end because I'd burnt all the tips of my fingers from putting my hand into the frying pan to flip over my fish. In the end though, I got thrown out because I didn't get enough plates of food out and I put too much chocolate on a pear. I mean, what a load of bollocks! I didn't know you could put too much chocolate on anything.
'Having said all that, I would love to do it again because I actually can cook now. Marco showed me some really simple techniques, which are brilliant. He was a wonderful bloke - a fucking amazing guy.'
In the kitchen, even under extreme pressure, you never lost your anarchic sense of humour. Have you always been like that?
'I think so. I've always been a prankster. I was the kid with all the plastic dinosaurs and the snakes and the spiders and shit. I used to put them around the house everywhere. They used to make my mum scream. The spiders were my speciality. I'd leave one just by the side of the toilet and she'd go totally mental. Then when I went to work in warehouses all we did all day was play tricks on each other. People would come into the building at their own risk. I had one friend there who we would tape up from his neck to his feet and then put him in a skip every Friday without fail.
'But I wasn't safe either. One day the lads made a big truss, like a crucifix, and crucified me. They hung me up there, more or less all day. What nobody realised, mainly due to our lack of education, is that when you're in that position you can suffocate, that's what killed most people on the cross, and that started to happen to me. I kept saying, “I'm feeling faint. I'm feeling really weird.” To which they just said, “Yeah, yeah, shut up! We're not falling for the old 'boy who cried wolf routine'.” Eventually they took me down and my lung collapsed - two years later, mind: it had nothing to do with being crucified, but it was peculiar.'
So your helter-skelter, freewheeling, slightly dangerous style of comedy was ingrained in you from an early age and you've managed to create an award-winning career out of it…
'I guess. I just love mucking around with the audience and trying stuff out. When I was in Australia recently I got a great new prop that I'm loving. I got these huge rubber hands built that are probably about two foot square - even though you can't square off hands. I have a microphone in each one and they hook on to two ten-foot sticks. With them I'm able to ask people questions in their seats and whack them from the stage. It's fucking funny. It's so childish, but it's amazing what people laugh at.You can sit down and write a gag all year, and they just go: “That was pretty clever and nice.” But they'll cry with laughter at me with silly rubber hands on the end of sticks just thwacking people on the head.'
You often have extraordinary, almost Dr Seuss-style, titles for your shows, such as 'Cats Under Mats Having Chats With Bats' and 'Shy Pigs with Wigs Hidden in Twigs.' Do the names come first and then the show or the other way around?
'Well, what happens is they ask us for titles in February for the Edinburgh Festival run in August.
At that point I always think, “I don't know what the fuck it's going to be about. I might change my whole show by then.” So that's why I have some sort of mad it-doesn't-really-mean-anything name. Because everything changes so much, the name has to come first. Besides, I'd get bored doing the same show all the way up to Edinburgh, it'd drive me fucking nuts, so it's always changing and evolving. Some people do leave going, “Wait a minute, I didn't see any cat or mat at any point, or lambs or hands or sheep or feet.” Some comics are great at writing a show, which is actually about what the title says it's about. For me, though, it's just a title, and then whatever the fuck happens happens. That's what I find most exciting about doing my shows - a lot of the time even I don't know what I'm going to do.'
Jason Byrne will be at the Edinburgh Fringe, Assembly Hall at 21.00.