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 to Father 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?
“I don’t envy anybody that position. Don’t blame previous incumbents for mismanagement or like Time magazine credit our current leader for any better,” he says.
“I’ve no doubt they all do the job as best as they can in impossible circumstances. But really we are the mercy of forces beyond our control. The big challenge for our taoiseach is to reduce the debt burden on the state by securing some sort of write-off.”
What was it like growing up in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan.
“I had a happy childhood and still have lots of family in the town. The deadpan nature of the people definitely inspired my comedy. I don’t think anybody in the history of the place has ever given a straight answer to a question,” O’Hanlon says.
“I also wrote a love/hate coming of age novel, The Talk of the Town, which was heavily influenced by my experience of growing up in such a border town.”
Why is O’Hanlon’s spirited and witty banter still so important to the Irish?
“There is something restless and curious about the Irish. Like everybody else, we want to make money and make our way in the world but it’s not the be all and end all. We also want to have fun, we want to make friends, make connections, share stories. Banter is a great way of breaking the ice.”
Why does he think be never learned about his paternal grandfather Michael O'Hanlon and his Irish Republican Army activities during the Irish War of Independence? It took a TV series called Who Do You Think You Are to reveal all that. Why do Irish families filter out their history?
“I was dimly aware of his exploits but because Ireland is such an intimate society and because memories are long, people generally didn’t talk much about the civil war, not wanting to open old sores. Also people are innately modest in this country,” he says.
“They don’t want to be ‘bigging-up’ their relatives. That’s fair enough. Now that most of the people who were around then have passed on, it’s easier to talk about it.”
Back in the nineties O’Hanlon was instrumental in setting up Dublin's first comedy club. What's the atmosphere and audience like for standup there now?
“It was a tiny scene when we started out in Dublin. One small club and a handful of comedians, more like a drop-in center for misfits,” he says.
“Now despite the recession there are literally hundreds of comedians, most of them making a living. Comedy is booming. There are clubs all over the country. International comedy festivals. The bigger names can pack out proper theaters and even arenas. It’s big business.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching that transformation over the years and adapting to changing times. You can quibble about the quality, the apparent descent into boorishness, the more mainstream nature of audiences, but overall there is great variety and invention out there and a great appetite for comedy. Long may it coninue.”
Irish celebrities seem to always want to retain their private lives and usually the Irish let them -- is that true for O’Hanlon?
“I certainly never saw myself as a celebrity. I don’t like the word and don’t like to be described as such. For your own sanity it’s vital to separate your family life and your working life,” he says.
“I love stand-up comedy, acting, writing and accept any attention, good or bad, that comes my way as a result of that, but it’s possible to live a very normal and satisfying life as well as long as you don’t get carried away with yourself. You are allowed to say no occasionally, no to every panel game and chat show, no to advertising, no to Twitter and Facebook. You don’t have to be switched on all the time.”
What does O’Hanlon want people to know about his new show for the Craic Comedy Fest in New York City?
“It’s a fairly lively and robust show, quite silly in places, pointed in other places, about dealing with the minutiae of everyday life against the backdrop of a world falling apart,” he says.
What could be funnier than that?
The opening act for O'Hanlon's show will be Irish American headliner Kevin Flynn (Comedy Central), the only son in a close-knit Irish-Catholic family with the scars to prove it. Don't miss this one night only event. For tickets call 917-373-6735 or visit the website here.