It's the expression on his face. Complete innocence meets complete ignorance meets total surprise. No other Irish actor has produced such an unforgettable look, that signature deer in the headlights expression of Father Dougal, the awful eejit sidekick toFather Ted.
If he wanted to, Irish comedian Ardal O'Hanlon, 47, could bask in the glory of that hit comedy show for the rest of his days. All of Ireland and a good proportion of the the rest of the world would be happy to let him do so.
But O'Hanlon started out as a standup and the itch to perform has never left him, leading him down some interesting roads – to stage plays, films, and writing his own memoirs.
Life has obviously moved on for him since the glory days of Father Ted – he's a husband, father of three and a working actor – but there's no question that the Irish public still adore him for his work on that classic show.
Now on November 16, the Irish in New York will get a special treat when O'Hanlon headlines the third annual Craic Comedy Festival in New York City (sponsored by by Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey and Con Edison).
It's a billing that's sure to be a sell-out so you'd be advised to book your tickets for the show at 116 MacDougal now.
O'Hanlon's role in Father Ted has long become the stuff of legend. Irish people quote that show to each other with more enjoyment than just about any other.
Did he know at the time it was comedy gold? When did it start to occur to him how big it was getting?
“I knew it was funny from the first time I read a script but genuinely thought it would be at best a cultish show buried in schedules late at night,” O'Hanlon tells the Irish Voice.
“I thought the subject matter was too obscure for a mainstream British audience. There was nothing in the writers’ resume that suggested they would produce a massive hit. But I do remember shortly before the series was aired for the first time, a few of us sat down in Graham Linehane's (Father Ted's writer) flat and watched the first six episodes back to back.
“And I have to say I was thrilled with the result. I suspected we were on to something. Even though initially the reviews weren’t great, I was confident they were wrong. And soon the show started picking up awards. And then we were off.”
For people who know and love Father Dougal, and there are millions of them, seeing O'Hanlon in person is quite an experience. He's long ago moved on with his life and career, but it must be interesting to see how the character gets confused with the actor playing him?
“When I started doing stand-up in the early nineties, there was more of Dougal in me. My on-stage persona was awkward, wide-eyed, naïve,” he says.
“It was quite low-energy and reliant on slightly surreal lines. I suppose that’s why I was cast in the first place. As time has gone on, I’ve loosened up a bit, become a bit bolder in terms of material and performance levels. While I try to retain the slightly odd perspective and some of the innocence, it’s really liberating to be able to talk/rant about all the stuff that bothers me.”
Has Linehan ever asked him to reprise the role of Father Dougal in any context? Would he if asked?
“I don’t think we would ever reprise the role in any context and if asked I would decline. There was talk about doing a stage show at one point, but that sounded to me like exploitation and besides, I had a career on stage anyway,” he said.
“I have great fondness for the character of Dougal and tremendous memories of the show and the cast but you can’t dwell in the past. I’ve been incredibly lucky since Father Ted in terms of career. Every day has brought new challenges, ups and downs.”
In O'Hanlon's stand up he often riffs on Irish themes. What has he noticed are the themes that get the biggest laughs? What do the Irish get most uncomfortable about?
“Irish people are still very prickly about Catholic Church. Despite all the scandals and cover-ups that have rocked the church, you can only push it so far,” he says.
“In general we like to laugh at ourselves, our history of misery, our recent economic woes, the weather and of course the old reliables like sex, marriage and raising children.”
O’Hanlon’s RTÉ show So You Want to Be Taoiseach had a lot of snark, but the job of Irish prime minister has taken on a new character since 2007. What would O’Hanlon’s approach to it be if he was filming it now?