Tommy Tiernan: 'People are being congratulated on their opinions rather than for being funny'

Tommy Tiernan: 'People are being congratulated on their opinions rather than for being funny'

The 1998 Perrier Award winner's mojo is still firmly intact as he glides from one thought-provoking stand-up show to another

As he treks around the UK atop his Paddy Crazy Horse before launching into 2020 with a brand new puntabulous show entitled Tomfoolery, passionate and intelligent Irish stand-up Tommy Tiernan continues to amuse and amaze audiences. Here, he chats about comedy as an artform, our increasingly censorious times, and why you should never berate the audience.

You've always been someone who's open to influences other than comedic when putting together your shows. What has been inspiring you lately?
Last night after the show and prob after a few glasses of whisky as well, I was listening to someone reading 'The Wasteland' by TS Eliot, and a 1959 recording of Allen Ginsberg reading 'Howl' in a café in San Francisco. All this stuff is available now. I'm constantly being made aware of the possibilities and the promise of what can happen with the spoken word and an audience. So even when I think I need to get out of this job because it's not doing me any favours, five or six hours later I'll be thinking 'well, I wonder if I could try this thing?'

Do you view stand-up comedy as high or low art?
If it's an artform, it's not a perfect one: it's not classical music or opera. It's such a rough and tumble affair that you're bound to be fumbling half the time. And it's so organic because in a sense you can only go where the audience will bring you. I check my own state before I go on, and if I don't feel particularly inventive, I'll realise that this is the night when you have to rely on the script, so just relax into that and let it take the pressure off you. And on the nights when you do feel inventive, the script is the trampoline to get you into that space.

Some comedians might blame the audience if things aren't going well. Can that ever be a good idea?
I have done that myself but what happens there is that your antennae are so heightened. That kind of self-reflective commentary can sometimes work in stand-up, and you can use it as a ploy. Bob Dylan once said that you should never talk to the audience because maybe they don't want to be there. When the comic starts commenting on how the gig is going, you're qualifying the experience for the audience and they don't need that.

You've said a few things down the years that have got you into trouble, mainly with religious groups. But do you think these times are increasingly more censorious for stand-up comedians?
Lenny Bruce was getting in trouble in mid-60s America, though that time might not be the proper image of freedom. My sense of it is that these times are conservative, but there are good intentions within the conservatism. I'd almost suggest that we live in times that are anti-diversity. Instead of diversity being celebrated and enjoyed, it's almost like let's not mention it and let's pretend that we're all the same. Of course, beneath nationality, beneath gender, beneath religion and race, we are the same. But there are enjoyable differences that we should be able to talk about. What has happened in American stand-up now is that people are being congratulated on their opinions rather than for being funny. I listen to some American stand-up and I think, 'where's the joke?' But for all the people who are self-congratulatory opinion-holders, of which I was once one, there's some great stuff out there, like Jim Gaffigan, Maria Bamford and Doug Stanhope. But it's like anything: if you ask a harp player about the state of harping …

You've done shows that are totally improvised, and even in your scripted shows you seem open to dealing with the atmosphere and events happening in the room. Is it preferable to be a little bit out of control?
If you're in total control then nothing exciting can happen, because you've already decided before you go on what's going to happen. A friend of mine gave me some great advice: get ready for the gig, but as soon as you walk on stage, abandon all preparation. Just be as open as you possibly can.

Paddy Crazy Horse is on tour until Sunday 3 November; Tomfoolery runs from Tuesday 3–Saturday 21 March.

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