Ardal O'Hanlon: interview

Ardal O'Hanlon Ardal O'Hanlon - © Claes Gellerbrink
Posted: Fri Sep 16 2011

Former 'Father Ted' star Ardal O'Hanlon gives Time Out a crash course in his comedy career

He's recognisable to millions as naive, dim-witted priest Dougal McGuire but, apart from a low-key sense of bewilderment, the similarities between Ardal O'Hanlon and the 'Father Ted' character that made him famous are few and far between. On stage, the Irish superstar is charming, offbeat and highly intelligent - a mixture of everyman appeal and sly, sharp gags. So, who better to kick off a season of intimate comedy gigs than one of the pioneers of the Irish comedy scene?

Along with Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy, you founded the International Comedy Cellar in Dublin. At the time, Ireland had no comedy scene whatsoever. What motivated you to set up the club?
'It was partly boredom, partly lack of opportunity elsewhere. We had a shared interest in comedy and were dimly aware of this burgeoning movement in London at the time. When we left university, in the late '80s, one of the guys had been to the Comedy Store in London, came back very excited and suggested we set up something like it. And so we did. We didn't have a clue what we were doing for the first couple of years, but I think that was beneficial insofar as we weren't exposed to any particular influences and were able to develop something fairly unique. It was a total novelty for Ireland, and it remained a novelty and a secret for a few years. Well, no one turned up for the first few years. But we amused ourselves and that was part of the fun. I suppose we were all attracted to the demi monde and just to get something going. It was during the last recession and there was really nothing to do in Ireland. It's a miracle that it worked and that we're still doing stand-up all these years later. All three of us are still at it.'

Why did you then decide to leave Ireland and move to London?
'It was a move born out of desperation. I was getting into my mid-twenties and finding my feet as a comic. But I wasn't really an authority on comedy or what was going on in the rest of the stand-up world. I felt I had to pit my wits against the brightest and the best in London, just to see where I stood. It was partly a creative imperative, but it was also absolute financial desperation. I couldn't make a living as a comic in Ireland and I was watching my friends from college getting good jobs, buying houses, and I had to really take stock and say: am I going to go for this comedy thing, or what?'

And how did those first gigs in London go?
'Just great. I felt that I hit the ground running and everything seemed to click into place. I was in a bit of a frenzy, it was all a blur. It was really exciting and very unexpected. To be going from utter anonymity to being offered television stuff - it was totally out of the blue.'

Did you expect things would progress so quickly?
'Not at all. I won the Hackney Empire competition a few weeks after I moved which helped to open a few doors and get me gigs, and that's all I was really interested in. I never had a plan and I didn't even have great ambition.'

To be cast in a show like 'Father Ted' must have come as quite a surprise, then?
'Yeah, it was. And it happened too soon, frankly. Jesus, I don't know where the time goes but we had done three series very quickly and suddenly gone from a very obscure cult-ish show to a mainstream success. It happened at a time when I was really starting to go places as a comic, so the stand-up career suffered a bit. I was able to tour successfully and attract a fairly wide audience, but it was hard to assert myself as a stand-up because people were more familiar with me as a TV character.'

So, has live comedy always been your main focus?
'Yeah. I probably took my eye off the ball from time to time. But I always try to keep it up. I like it, so it makes sense to do it. I have a few writing projects on the go at any one time but stand-up is the thing I keep returning to. The beauty of stand-up is that it's very flexible, it's very malleable and immediate. Whatever is in your head that day you can verbalise in some way that night. It's the medium that suits me best.'

Ardal O'Hanlon performs at 'Comedy: Up Close', Charing Cross Theatre, Oct 3.