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The Book of Tommy

By Jarrod 7 Apr 2016

Ireland's Tommy Tiernan last visited Wellington in 2013, during a sold-out tour of New Zealand and Australia. This year he returns, bringing his brand new show Out of the Whirlwind to the 2016 NZ International Comedy Festival.

Jarrod Baker spoke to Tommy to find out what audiences can expect from him.

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Out of the Whirlwind is a biblical reference, isn’t it? The Book of Job?

Well spotted sir, well spotted.

Is this a theme?

The reason I like the title is because it has a double-edged meaning. Number 1 is that you’re speaking from a place of chaos. There’s a wild, unmannered energy to you, and that’s where you’re coming from. And the other kind of meaning of it is that you are removed from that energy, that you’re away from the whirlwind. I kind of like the juxtaposition of those two things, that sometimes the show is manic, and sometimes it’s calm. The purpose of the title really is to inspire me every night – it’s to help me, rather than to be clear information for the audience.

So it’s not about your faith being tested by God?

I haven’t come to his attention just yet.

A couple of years ago you were touring a completely improvised show. I take it Out of the Whirlwind is a more rehearsed show?

Yes.

Are there still improvised elements, or–

There are bits of improvisation in the show all the time, but what I tried to do back then– I’d been listening to musicians who’d done it, a guy called Keith Jarrett who’d just improvised total concerts and I was fascinated by that and very inspired by it, and I wanted to know if it was possible to do that in standup.

I found out that it isn’t. But I tried! It was very difficult. But I learnt a lot during it. I learned- I’m a more confident improviser now. But in terms of improvising a full length show night after night – for me it was impossible. I could do one a month, but on consecutive nights it was just too difficult.

So going back to something that’s more pre-prepared is something of a relief then?

Well it’s still playing, you know, I know the stories I’m going to tell, I don’t necessarily know the order I’m going to tell the stories in, or what’s going to go between the stories. But I know the stories I’m going to tell, and I’m always looking to be walking on stage each night with two or three new ideas to work out. No two shows are ever the same. If you saw the show on three consecutive nights you’d say that each of the shows were different – the same ingredients but used in a different way.

Hands

There’s been some talk recently – particularly from some prominent American comedians – that audiences are becoming too precious, too easily offended. Do you think that’s true? Is there anything you think you wouldn’t joke about now, 20 years into your career?

It’s such an organic thing between a standup and the audience. And it’s very very live. If the performer crosses the line, and the audience let him know, he then has a decision to make. Is he afraid of the audience, or does he love them enough that he’ll keep challenging them? Whenever it’s happened to me – and it happens less than 1% of the time, it barely registers, you know, the amount of times it happens – if I cross the line, and the audience let me know, it becomes something to play with, rather than a direction given to you that you must obey. I’ve come across situations like – I was doing a show in Moscow, and I told some jokes about Putin, and I noticed that the audience didn’t laugh as much as the other jokes, and it was after the show that somebody told me people here aren’t too comfortable when you start joking about Putin.

I did some shows in Dubai where I was told beforehand you can talk about Islam, but you’re probably better off not talking about it. I did I show in Thailand where I was told whatever you do, don’t take the piss out of the king. So there’s stuff like that that are real cultural no-go areas, rather than say an audience being uptight about something.

There’s a bit in the show right now about ISIS, and after what happened last weekend in Brussels, I noticed when I went in to talk about it, the audience were initially a bit tense. But without me having to say anything they knew where I was coming from with the material, and it was fine to keep going. I haven’t felt that bound by political correctness to be honest, it wouldn’t be something I would pay much attention to.

I guess audiences get a sense whether you’re trying to deliberately offend...

It’s that thing of trust – if the audience trusts the performer, then you’re fine. If they don’t, there’s a reason for that. You probably are mean spirited...

Would you still say that comedians have a responsibility to be “reckless and irresponsible”?

They’re some of the things you have to play with. They’re not all your toys. And you have to undermine yourself as well, that’s a huge part of it. The self-criticism has to be as strong as the societal criticism. I think they’re complementary, the performer has to undermine himself as well, and I think that shows heart. An audience can respond to very clever attacks on different public figures, but unless that’s also accompanied at some stage in the show– it’s like that... do you remember when Clarice Starling was interviewing Hannibal Lecter, and she said to him ”why don’t you turn that fine mind back on yourself Dr Lecter”? So unless a comedian does that, he’s only really using 50% of his power. To me that’s just as important.

I’m interested in the intersection between those sorts of things and what’s arguably another role of comedians and comedy – speaking truth to power or punching upwards.

Just be careful, because I wouldn’t necessarily embrace agendas. Attacking power sounds like an agenda to me. To be totally reckless, to be totally free, you have to abandon agenda. And you might wander through different phases of being, but you’re not stuck in any of them. At one stage you could be attacking capitalism, and the next moment lamenting the size of your feet. You could be deconstructing Vladimir Putin, then talking about the fact you have piles in the next sentence. I don’t think you can live in any one camp – it’s almost like you’re sitting on a wrecking ball, and you’re destroying all camps. You are the camp destroyer.

Not only are you limiting your audience, but you’re limiting their experience of laughter by just attacking one thing. There are guys who just go after that one thing, and that’s fine and they’re clever, but they can be boring after an hour, or they can be just maybe 2-dimensional as opposed to 3. None of us ever get it right, it’s a constant negotiation, it’s a constant rehearsal. It’s like sport – no matter how good the last game was, the last game isn’t going to win you the next one.

One thing I find so challenging about standup, and so rewarding, is that you never get it totally right. I get excited – say I’ve been doing two or three shows, and they’re not going too well, and I think I’ve cracked it, I think “oh I know what to do now, I know how to change it” – I’m excited about going up on stage that night, and trying this thing that I think will change the current run of form that I’m on.

This will be your fourth tour of New Zealand? I think I read you were here in 2010, 2011 and 2013?

I also toured there actually way back in 1997, in one of the first ever New Zealand comedy festivals, and we did a week in Auckland, a week in Wellington and we did a week in Christchurch. That was back in 1997 and we did skydiving and black water rafting in the South Island. And is it Kaikoura or something like that? Going whalewatching?

I got done for speeding on my way to Wellington last time I was there, in Christchurch – I’m hoping I paid the fine... I’ll know when I arrive at Auckland Airport whether I paid the fine or not...

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