Tommy Tiernan: interview

Ben Williams talks to the Irish comedy megastar

He may be less known this side of the Irish Sea, but back home in Ireland, Tommy Tiernan is a superstar. The former Perrier Award-winner sold over 12,000 tickets in Cork alone – a figure no other artist has managed to reach – and played a mammoth 166 dates at Dublin’s 1,000-seat Vicar Street venue. He’s an Irish comedy god.

But more importantly, he’s a damn fine comic, able to keep command of an audience’s attention for hours at a time (once for a record-breaking 36 hours and 15 minutes) with passionate, honest tales around his three topics of expertise: family, sex and religion. Switching from whispers to shouts in a split second, Tiernan can be lyrical and poetic one minute, crude and mischievous the next. And thanks to appearances on ‘Live at the Apollo’ and ‘Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow’ the 42 year old is rapidly gaining a fanbase in the UK too. His latest tour, ‘Poot’ (‘I have no idea what it means, it’s just a word,’ he says. ‘Recently somebody wrote that it’s the French for “fart” ’),  makes its way to London this month. But for Tiernan, who tours relentlessly, each show merges seamlessly into the next…

You’re almost constantly on tour. How do you find the time to come up with new material?

Well, I try to have a completely different show every 12 months. So that means having a 1/52th different show every week. So, it’s just a case of constantly trying to come up with new stuff, enjoying stories that are going well, but knowing when it’s time to get rid of them. It can be very hard to perform stand-up that you’ve lost interest in. It’s best to go where the passion is. To be half-interested in a great story is worse than being totally enraptured by a shit story, I think. People go to stand-up as much for spirit as they do for writing. It’s like, I would prefer to see Liam Gallagher sing a shit song with all his attitude than I would Boyzone sing a great song, you know? It’s about spirit.

You largely stick to three main topics on stage: sex, religion and family.What keeps attracting you to them?

The fact that there is no solution. There’s no answer to them, just an infinite amount of questions and mystery. It’s not an intellectual decision where I think: I’m going to talk about these three things, it’s more that they are the things I’m interested in talking about. And other little silly thoughts shoot off that, like I might make the odd political comment or scientific story. But if I was deciding what to do stand-up about I think it would be a lot more widespread; it’d be about a bigger range of interests. I’d be doing jokes about horticulture and refugees and astronauts…’

Honesty is a big part of your act. Are you totally truthful on stage?

‘Well, Spalding Gray came up with a great phrase: he talks about “telling the lie that tells the truth”. The stage gives you an opportunity to make things up, but there are no lies on stage with me really. Stuff might be blown out of proportion, but it’s all relatively truthful. If lies were more interesting, I’d be telling them.’

You’ve caused controversy in the past for things you’ve said, mainly on chat shows [Tiernan was accused of blasphemy by the Irish Senate after a routine about the Lamb of God on RTE’s ‘The Late Late Show’]. Does your brain not have a filter when you’re on TV?

‘It doesn’t, no. I completely trust that the audience know I’m messing. I trust the fact that if it works on stage it’ll work in a studio with a TV audience. I don’t have good navigational skills in those situations, so I often screw it up. I don’t think anybody would ever walk out of my show thinking it was controversial. They might think “God, he’s a bit wild”, or “Is he all right?” but it’s not really controversial. But I think it’s easy for journalists to come to a show and to create a controversy out of something I’ve said, and I think that’s the same for most comics. It’s so easy that it’s done a lot.’

And the stories are popular. Readers seem to love them…

‘They do. I read them as well. But we have a very judgmental moralistic media that, in a sense, have taken over from the church. The media now tell us who’s good and who’s bad, what behaviour ought to be condemned and who ought to be shunned. It’s like editors are the new bishops and journalists are the new priests. And Rupert Murdoch is the Pope!’