The Irish chat show market felt saturated even before the announcement of The Tommy Tiernan Show. The Late Late had Friday nights. Ray D’Arcy had Saturday nights. The pair, having seemingly exhausted the supply of celebrities on the island, were in the process of recycling and exchanging guests.
Then Tiernan appeared in a flat cap looking for the dregs on a Thursday evening. It seemed ready for failure but the curious had a few reasons to tune in nevertheless.
For one, it was the man himself. A stand-up comedian by trade, his wild sense of humour and the dark worlds he lives in have always intrigued audiences. Tiernan is, dare I say, an international comedian. Was he a chat show host though? It seemed an unlikely fit.
I couldn’t imagine him clawing anecdotes and revelations out of egotistical celebrities. He is used to being the only subject of the audience, captive to their seats, unable to look away, as he does impressions of duck sex. Some of the jokes fail and others triumph but the success of his shows has been in his hands and independent of others. It felt like a risk to exit a world of duck fornication for the humdrum of the celebrity chat show merry-go-round.
Intriguingly, the idea for the show was his. He welcomed the challenge. I remember reading an article (that I have since been unable to find and could well be imagining) that said he was experiencing the urge to hurt himself at random moments of the day. This was a couple of years ago, and as I remember, he talked about having the urge to fall out a car door at high speed to feel the pain of the impact – to experience a novel feeling. It was like an attraction to the absurd and the unknown – pressing the big red button to see what happens.
Tiernan’s comedy appears to operate in a similar fashion. He is always pushing at the boundary of the acceptable and when he does go over the line it is to see how the audience reacts, to see what it feels like, to escape the grip of conformity.
One of the most intriguing interviews in the six-part series was with Louise O’Neill, author of Asking For It, a novel exploring rape culture, set in Ireland. As O’Neill explained the premise of the novel, Tiernan’s arse, at least from my impression, seemed to clench up, none more so than when she extended her views on rape culture to call out people who make casual jokes about rape.
I could only think of one of Tiernan’s sketches involving his friend or fictional friend Declan Moffatt, who is described as a man with a ‘ferocious kind of sexual energy that it is not wrapped up in any charm.’ The sketch sees himself and Tiernan on a plane flying first-class from London to Dublin after a night of drinking and little sleep.
Declan is bringing a bag of oranges home to Glenamaddy, that he stores in the overhead luggage. He, as Tiernan describes, is in that hungover semi-lucid state, where ‘you know what you want to say, you can see t0he sentence but it just takes too much effort, so you pick out a couple of words, you throw them together, and you hope it makes sense.’
He sits down beside Tommy and wants to ask ‘Did you ever make love to your girlfriend, when she didn’t particularly want to be made love to?’ or, as Tiernan put it, ‘You are working on the charming side of aggressive.’ Unfortunately in his efforts to articulate his thoughts, Declan bellowed out the question, ‘Did ye ever rape someone?’
I don’t think the joke was ever meant to trivialise rape in that it had more to do with Declan’s struggles to formulate his thoughts into coherent sentences. However, I couldn’t help but think of it and judging his demeanour, neither could Tiernan, as he seemed to tread carefully through the interview while being tantalised by the ‘big red button’ taunting him to come over to the dark side again.
If he did have those urges, then he suppressed them well, only slightly wavering when suggesting that a sex life with a long-term partner ‘needs a bit of [thrusted his shoulder in a vaguely forceful manner]’ to indicate the introduction of some kind of aggression to bedroom affairs, after O’Neill had advocated for men always asking for consent from their sexual partners.
Throughout the series, Tiernan showed he possesses this kind of unsettling ability to switch between the comic and the weighty matters of life over the course of a laugh. The opening stages of the interview with Christy Dignam saw him making light-hearted jokes one moment and probing Dignam’s cancer battle and preparations for death the next. It is like he’s keen to show himself as more than a man who jokes and as someone who contemplates the pendulums of life too.
Of course, he does take the piss out of his guests. Actor and activist for the traveller community John Connors was treated to Tiernan’s impression of travellers. Legendary jockey Tony McCoy was encouraged to sit on Tiernan’s back and ride him like he would a horse. Dubliners John Sheehan and Paddy Moloney were mocked for their refusal to die. Although, I think his guests expected more piss-taking than what came their way.
The show also appeals for its format. Unlike conventional chat shows, the host, Tiernan, does not know the identity of his guests until they appear on set for interview. This has a number of consequences.
For one, there has been times throughout the series where he doesn’t know who his guests are and must ask them what it is they do for a living, i.e. what makes them a suitable guest for a television chat show.
The opening show saw him eased in gently when recognisable figure Christy Dignam of the band Aslan appeared first. However, the second guest was model and television personality Vogue Williams. Tiernan did not know who she was and an uneasy handshake made it clear this was the case. ‘Let me guess now…you are a handball player?’ he asked.
It’s quite an interesting scenario to witness as it shows the assumptions we make about people. I hadn’t heard of Vogue Williams but seeing her long, blonde hair and tall slim figure, my accumulated sensibilities said model, singer or possibly actor, when she could have easily been a lawyer, doctor, or a handball player, etc. (although these are not popular occupations for chat-show guests).
The second consequence of the unknown guest format is that it takes away the possibility of Tiernan preparing questions for them or researching interesting facets of their lives. For entertainment purposes, it seems a risky proposition to rely on improvised conversations being entertaining. We all experience conversations in our own lives that are slow and hard work, especially if you share nothing in common with the other person.
Ironically, one of Tiernan’s worst interviews was with fellow comedian Russell Howard. Conversation stagnated on travel talk before Tiernan kept repeating a similar question about Howard’s tour locations. It was as if knowing the person made the interview set-up awkward and they couldn’t overcome its absurdity.
But the niche of this show is its unpredictability and resemblance of a normal conversation more than a contrived chat show interview. Tiernan is not recreating the environment of two people sat around over a maze of pints in the pub, chatting away without any inhibitions about all things life and death. The studio, the crew, the camera and the audience see to it that it will never be an organic conversation that depicts the true character of the person. However, it gets closer to it than other modern chat shows who favour scripted entertainment over Tiernan’s ‘Fuck it, let’s see what happens’ mantra.
For instance, an interview with musician John Grant, who Tiernan is a fan of, barely touched on his music. It started out with Tiernan asking Grant where he lived, a question that led to the revelation of Grant’s impressive multilingual abilities, which led to Tiernan wondering why Americans have a desire to constantly better themselves, which led to a discussion of how people differ from country to country, which led to Grant talking about the difficulties of touring and its effect on personal relationships, which led to Grant revealing his homosexuality.
I tend to think that in a normal interview set-up, a question would have been set up to draw out this information (his homosexuality), which, in doing so, would make his sexuality a revelation or almost a selling point for the interview. You can just imagine the three-minute YouTube clip titled ‘Grant talks about being gay’.
But in Tiernan’s interview, Grant’s being gay came out naturally as the conversation developed. Conversations don’t succumb to conventions, reroute themselves to plug something, or provide the questions that prompt funny anecdotes.
An interview with Dublin footballer Philly McMahon should have brought up his brother, who was a heroin addict who died young. This would have been a high priority topic for the conventional chat show as it’s a significant event, undoubtedly affecting how McMahon lived and continues to live his life – and it is good television – sex and drugs always sells.
But I don’t think Tiernan was aware of this when he interviewed McMahon as their conversation wandered into the appeal of performance enhancing drugs (Tiernan’s doing), without ever getting close to the topic of McMahon’s brother. I got the feeling that McMahon himself was looking to broach the topic, possibly out of an impulse that it was what the audience wanted to hear or because it would make him more interesting.
The interview with McMahon may have been better if Tiernan had been versed in McMahon’s background. And the novelty of the mysterious guest format may wear off if the desired questions fail to be asked. Although it may be a worthy sacrifice if it means guests are not primed on the forthcoming questions so they can prepare an anecdote or speech that makes seem eloquent, moralistic, funny and charming.
This could all be personal tastes. I think I’m looking for authenticity in a business that’s all about the show, in which case I should take my moaning elsewhere, as I secretly watch the latest instalment of Carpool Karaoke. Yet, if you were to imagine a chat-show that could somehow dampen the showiness of show business and leave less opportunity for the rich and famous to use accumulated platitudes and second-hand jokes to steal the thunder of the philosophers, academics, comedians and so on (you are a footballer, stop misquoting Nietzsche) then Tiernan is on the right track.
It does have its flaws. There is a segment of the show reserved for a comedy sketch starring the Gusset Brothers that largely disappoints. Tiernan plays one of three siblings who riff on quite clichéd themes of rural life: loneliness, missing the mother and a fear of technology. It fills a gap but doesn’t do it very well.
The show should be commended for the variety of professions of its guests, which included two authors, an animator, two GAA players, a jockey, and a professor of psychiatry. I don’t see why they can’t drop the Gusset Brothers and interview an audience member.
It’s about time we recognise the skills and hard work of people that aren’t in the entertainment industry. The modern chat show humours and charms with the endless talents of the porcelain figures on our TV screens, people who feel alien to us as we sit on couches and fatten up on our chicken kung pao.
But everyone has a story to tell. Tiernan knows this and, ‘fair play to [him] now’, he’d be good at extracting it.
Eamon Doggett is a writer from Bettystown, Co. Meath and recent graduate of the MA in Writing programme at NUI Galway. He has had short stories published in Prick of the Spindle and the ROPES anthology, and was recently long-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize. He hopes to have a collection of stories published in the future.