The Wrecking Ball

Already a sellout star in Ireland and Britain, Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan's new special on Comedy Central will finally introduce him to a nationwide U.S. audience. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to Tiernan about his move into the American market.

FROM the moment he burst onto the international comedy scene, Irish funnyman Tommy Tiernan has been a star. On March 11 he launches the DVD of his new live show here titled Something Mental, which will be broadcast in a special on Comedy Central on March 14.

Tiernan will also appear as a guest on David Letterman's late night show on February 29, where he's sure to give the famously witty host a run for his money. It's often claimed that comedy doesn't travel, but playing to a cheering Chicago crowd in his live special Tiernan has no trouble bringing the house down.

His comedy style, a blisteringly funny blend of storytelling and full on surrealism, is about as Irish as can be, but he's mastered the art of translating it for a general audience.

Tiernan draws you in with simple stories that get weirder and funnier as he riffs on them. An intensely physical performer, his antics on stage are often every bit as funny as the things he's saying. Throughout his career Tiernan has somehow managed to adopt the edgy brilliance of Lenny Bruce, the existentialism of Samuel Beckett and bizarre rural capers of Flann O'Brien in one man.

Born in Carndonagh, Co. Donegal in 1970, Tiernan's family moved to Africa when Tommy was three. Three years later they moved to London. His English schoolteachers thought his background was hilarious.

"You're from Africa, mate? Funny, you don't look black!" they said, slapping him on the back. All the comments and the early continent hopping often made Tiernan feel like he was out of place, and he has used that outsider's awareness in his routines.

But it wasn't until the Tiernan family finally settled in Navan, Co. Meath in the early 1980s that Tommy found his voice. Winning Scotland's famous Perrier Award for standup right out of the starting gate in 1998, the Irish funnyman started at the top and he's stayed there since.

It wasn't roses all the way, though. Breaking the American comedy circuit is a daunting challenge for any European. After all, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, Ireland and America are two nations that are divided by a common language.

Tiernan made his first TV show in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, arriving to film a pilot for a sitcom that never got made. Each day he came to work and marveled at the can-do attitude of his toothy Californian cast mates.

But his own attitude at the time was more like "ah sure, we'll give it a lash and see what happens," he told the Irish Voice during an interview last week.

Eventually one of the actors came up to Tiernan privately and said he wasn't showing enough optimism on camera. They perceived his ordinariness, his Irish solidity, as a TV negative. It's a lesson he's never forgotten.

"In America they say, 'Have a nice day.' That kind of greeting really doesn't suit the Irish. We're a wee bit darker, a bit stranger, we may have a greater appreciation for the random things that can get in the way. So the Irish don't say, 'Have a nice day, they say, 'Good luck,'" Tiernan notes.

He throws his head back and laughs uproariously. A deep appreciation of the randomness and mystery of life is something Tiernan thinks may go hand in hand with an Irish Catholic upbringing. Spirituality is certainly a constant theme in his standup shows, and he's utterly fascinated by the strange things that people are willing to believe to make some sense of their lives.

"Catholics are okay with mystery, I think. They don't mind it as much. They're aware that things can unravel. The Irish live with that kind of awareness in their bones, you know?"

At this point Tiernan looks around the room. We're having coffee in the swank foyer of the Ritz Carlton on Central Park West.

"Look at this place!" he says. "Most Irish people can still hardly believe they're allowed in the door of in a five star hotel. They'll be waiting the whole night for the alarm to go off."

For Tiernan comedy is all about being able to explore his own dilemmas and make others laugh. And he's very good at it. America has been another enduring fascination for him too.

"It's easy to dislike America for their imperial exploits around the world, but I have a great affection for Americans because I actually think they have been sold a line," he feels.

"Americans are told all the time how free they are, but it's a peculiar type of freedom because it's the kind of freedom that comes with great responsibility. For me freedom is the ability to be irresponsible."

That kind of freedom is at the center of Tiernan's act. He knows what's said on stage in comedy can't be said in the real world.

"You can't take something from the stage and think it will exist perfectly outside the comedy club because it doesn't. It needs to be irresponsible, it needs to be offensive," he says.

A case in point was a recent flap over a joke Tiernan made about Stephen Hawking, the famous research biologist confined to a wheelchair. "My point was that sometimes people who are overly clever at one thing forget how to do simple things, like Stephen Hawking has forgotten how to walk," he says.

"There's footage of him in his early twenties walking around the place fine. It's just a silly little sketch, but the American audiences I was playing to would not respond at all."

Tiernan is puzzled by that firm line in the sand. But he's equally puzzled by the scale of America, by the stories that come out of the place, and by the success of people like Christian self-help guru Joel Osteen for example, an author of books with titles like Become a Better You.

"I talk about Joel Osteen in my act," Tiernan says. "In America this self-help preacher is considered a superstar. But because of the way he talks in Ireland we'd say he was retarded. Odd that there's such a gulf in perception between us, isn't it?"

It was the booker on the David Letterman show who set him straight. "You can't say retarded here," the booker told him, "because you can't make fun of someone who isn't there to defend himself."

Tiernan was impressed by this forthrightness. "There's a fundamental decency in America that is probably a great thing to live by, but in terms of comedy it's deadly. Comedy needs to be reckless," he adds.

Although Tiernan admits that he gave up drink four and a half years ago and lives with his wife and three children in Galway, he hasn't mellowed at all. Asked what he does for recreation on a Friday night in a city that is basically wall-to-wall pubs, Tiernan replies that he's happy to be a dad.

"In real life I'm a much calmer person, I read immensely heavy books, I listen to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and I'm a dad. I like the contrast. It's a simple enough idea. On stage you're a wrecking ball - in real life you might be a gardener."

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