GICF interview: Tommy Tiernan
Caring little for the consensus, the Irish comedian continues to strive for stand-up excellence
A few years back Frankie Boyle announced that once a stand-up comedian reaches the age of 40, they should simply pack up their gags and wander off into some other vocation. The suggestion being that there’s a strict time limit on the usefulness of a live comedian, and anyone who continues beyond that magic number is simply fooling themselves.
One piece of evidence might help dispute that thesis: the sheer number of quality stand-ups refusing to give up the performing ghost. Former Perrier winners Dylan Moran, Sean Hughes, Jenny Eclair and Frank Skinner for four; Lee Mack, Stewart Lee, Reginald D Hunter and Louis CK for another four. And then there’s Eddie Pepitone who is still stirring things up at the ripe old age of 56 for pity’s sake. Oh, and not forgetting a certain fortysomething called Francis Martin Patrick Boyle.
At a thoroughly decrepit 45, Tommy Tiernan comes squarely into the ‘why haven’t you retired yet?’ category. ‘Certainly there are plenty older, useless comedians,’ notes the Irish comic, who became the king of Edinburgh comedy when he won the Perrier in 1998. ‘But some writers’ best work happens when they get older. John Lee Hooker was a better performer in his 60s and 70s than he was in his 20s. In stand-up there are so many fellas in their 20s and 30s who talk about stuff that is potent to them, but it all comes over as being very generic. For me, I feel as if there’s a slightly more meaningful wildness in the show now than before. I guess the discovery for me is that as you get older you move from generic to geriatric.’
As the years pass by, Tiernan’s comedy is improving (no mean feat given how developed it already was in the late 90s), getting wilder and becoming ever more fascinating. He may have appeared in the odd sitcom (Small Potatoes, Father Ted) and movie (Hold Back the Night, About Adam), but Tiernan has never done comedy as a leg-up to presenting a chat show or fronting a travel documentary. ‘I’m always on the road and I gig maybe 150 shows a year. The great thing about that is you’re always match-fit; you’re like some kind of carnival bareknuckle boxer who never loses that muscle. The downside is that you can sometimes get a bit tired, so you’ve got to manage yourself in that arena. But I prefer it this way rather than these guys who are well known and tour once every two or three years with their stand-up getting less and less adventurous.’
For Tiernan, the adventure just gets more intriguing. He was last in Glasgow in 2011 with Poot, a show about the great lengths we go to in order to deny our inner wildness and the more unhinged parts of our psyche. Poot ended with him departing the stage to the strains of Tom Waits’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’ as a multicoloured toy bubble machine unleashed thousands of tiny watery circles.
‘It feels now as if I have been pushed beyond trying to find a message for the masses,’ he continues. ‘As an individual I now feel less and less interested in Western culture, and I’ve entered this new Beckett landscape of being released from consensus and finding an almost self-centred freedom that seems counter-cultural; not interested in ambition, not interested in consumerism, less and less interested in sex, and there’s a new freedom in all that. I wouldn’t say I’m King Lear gone mad running across the heath just yet, but it’s definitely heading that way.’
For Tiernan (whose previous shows have had titles such as Cracked, Stray Sod and Crooked Man), the challenge of stand-up has always been to undercut everything, not least himself. He’s not someone you’d immediately consider a ‘shock-comic’, but he has occasionally flirted in controversial matters with various religious groups having denounced his utterances. But anything Tiernan might say that could be considered offensive is itself undercut by his inherent humanity and love of differences, all of it couched in a poetic, image-led narrative that would be almost impossible to bottle into a ten-minute slot on a TV comedy roadshow without losing its very essence.
‘The challenge of stand-up is to undermine everything, but that includes yourself. It’s OK to take pot shots at the stuff you see around you, but it’s only when you undermine yourself that it becomes truly comic. In that way, it’s the same as the clown’s attempt to take himself seriously being hilarious. A friend of mine described it as a second puberty: from 13 to 44 you have these ambitious predatory energies that cause havoc, but you survive them and have great times. But I definitely feel a new energy that is less concerned with what other people think and more concerned with finding a freer truth.’
Tommy Tiernan: Alive, Glasgow Garage, Thu 12 & Sat 14 Mar.