The biggest Irish comedy gig of the year is about to hit Manhattan on June 11 when Tommy Tiernan, Ardal O’Hanlon and Dylan Moran play the Town Hall. Called simply “The Fellas – Live!,” it’s an unseen before collection of Irish comic royalty under the one roof, and a guaranteed sell out.
Tiernan, 39, who starred here last year in critically acclaimed live show, “Something Mental,” broadcast on Comedy Central, will headline the three-man gig, and that’s appropriate because he’s now the uncrowned king of comedy.
It’s an honorary title, and if you dared to suggest it to him he would probably thump you, but it’s no less true. For sheer wildness, originality and comic daring Tiernan is completely unmatched, and his live shows prove it.
But Tiernan, whose onstage character is famously uncensored, is a complete contrast when he steps out of the spotlight. Meet him for a one on one chat and you’ll find a gentle, if slightly melancholic soul.
In fact in person he’s so bookish and softly spoken that he almost gives off an Ivy League professor vibe. It’s hard to square the mild mannered, everyday Tiernan from the flailing wild man onstage, but he leaves helpful clues.
Occasionally he’ll talk about the themes that obsess him -- sex, psychology, pointlessness, the things you see in Irish country life -- and then the connection between the two halves of his private and public face is instant, like a thunderbolt.
One thing's for sure -- if you spend even a little time in Tiernan’s company you can’t help noticing how bright he is.
This is a man who does not know how to be dull anytime, anywhere, about anything. Tiernan can turn a simple question about comic timing into an impromptu history of the importance of the fool at the medieval court, and then he’ll apologize for his erudition, and then he’ll continue.
Considering all this highbrow stuff, it may surprise you to know who he most wants to make laugh when he comes to New York next week.
“I was just in Manhattan about two weeks ago,” Tiernan tells IrishCentral, by telephone from his home in Galway. “And I was walking on Broadway somewhere around Midtown when I saw two lads building a ramp for a handicap toilet.
“Next thing they’re shouting, ‘No way! Wait there! Are you Tommy Tiernan?’”
The two men turned out to be Irish construction workers from Co. Monaghan who chased him down and correctly identified him. When they got talking Tiernan discovered they were living here undocumented.
“They couldn’t get driver’s licenses, they had trouble opening bank accounts, they couldn’t get work visas, and they couldn’t even fly home for a visit. These were lads nearing their thirties,” he said.
“The biggest thing was it’d been four years since they’d had a cup of tea in the kitchen with the mammy. They missed that, you know.
“Going over to New York I want to give fellas like that a great night out. Not in a sentimental way, but in a sort of kinship way you know.”
He’s a decent skin, beneath it all, is Tommy Tiernan, and his own story has seen him border hopping for years.
He was born Carndonagh, Co. Donegal in 1970, but his family moved to Africa when he was three. Three years later they moved to London.
Then eventually they moved back to Ireland, this time to Co. Meath. All the early continent hopping often made Tiernan feel like he was rootless, out of place everywhere he turned up, and he has used that outsider’s awareness in his routines.
This year Tiernan set himself a new challenge, out of curiosity, he says. He decided to win the Guinness World Record for non-stop standup. “I was fascinated by the idea of getting rid of any tricks I might have learned as a stand up, and I was interested to in discovering other ways of performing. First I did it as a test, then as a dry run for charity, and then the last time I did it for the Guinness Book of World Records. Not because I attached any real importance to being in the Guinness Book, just because it gave the event some structure.”
Tiernan won. It’s typical of him that he wasn’t in it for the glory, though. He was in it to discover what made his act tick.
After 36 hours and 15 minutes he also held a new world record. But for him the reward was discovering new material.
With a massive recession, the unspeakable scandals in the church, the government’s inaction and the end of the Celtic Tiger, it’s not as if there’s a lack of material for any Irish comic to mine right now, but Tiernan isn’t interested in what’s obvious.
“It can’t be too premeditated, too clever or too intricate. I don’t go on stage with any point to prove. What I do is I inhabit this wild untrustworthy character,” he says.
“You might gather information about recession or child abuse in your daily life, but it’s only when you go onstage that all of it takes shape. You’re too irresponsible to be taken seriously on that. And you’re doing it in such a way that people will respond positively to whatever you’re saying.
“It’s a release, rather than a sad thing. The jester is not to be trusted with anything really important.”
New York audiences are a special challenge. Sure, there’s the Irish who come by the hundreds, but they bring their New Yorker friends too. The question is how do you reach all of that diversity?
“I made a reference to show jumping here one night and American people there didn’t know what I was talking about. Maybe two people from the Upper West Side did,” Tiernan recalls.
“New York people have extreme intelligence and a very dark wit. People here understand that you might not mean what you say. But I also find that some people here don’t know too much about the U.S. in the world.
“They’re not used to hearing the European perspective delivered with an Irish accent. That’s interesting for me to know and to play with.”
Tiernan is a huge fan of the other two comedians at the upcoming Town Hall gig. He’s known Dylan Moran since his schooldays (they both attended St. Patrick’s school in Navan) and he’s known O’Hanlon since they worked on the infamous “Father Ted” show.
Says Tiernan, “I find Dylan’s stuff fantastically poetical and louche, and Ardal’s stuff is a mixture of charm, intelligence and real bitterness. Dylan’s sort of a Peter O’Toole character; he permanently relaxed, he’s the only man I know who can recline still standing up.
“He’s probably my favorite comic in the world. He’s set apart stylistically, too. Its something that people who are interested in writing will recognize.”
So what makes someone funny? “We could have a big conversation about it and I’d enjoy that. But in front of a crowd of people I’m not going to reflect on that. Most Irish people will say, ‘Ah we here for a laugh shut up about that stuff.’”
“The Fellas – Live!” appear at the Town Hall on June 11. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com.