Tommy Tiernan is engaged in dangerous behaviour. Instead of taking an act, bringing it to a big stage and pressing the ‘print money’ button, he has decided to take the road not travelled. To embrace the highest and most difficult form of comedy, improvisation. As he sets of on his second World Tour of Clare, he spoke to Andrew Hamilton.
The N67 is a spectacular drive. From Kinvara and Fanore in the north down to Doonbeg and Kilrush in the south, the road cuts a swathe through some of the most interesting countryside in Europe. And then there’ the people. People hardened by the sea but softened by the music and the craic that make West Clare a place to live in. It’s a Irish melting pot, it’s own unique cultural experience, it is the Route 66 of this country. Or so says Tommy Tiernan.
“I’ve always been curious about America and American culture, the way that it has been so mythologised. People talk about being down south, in Georgia or Alabama, or the experience of being in San Francisco, or being in New York, or wherever. It almost seems like these places were much more interesting than where we lived. The thought struck me a few years ago – surely Ireland is just as interesting. Surely it’s as wild to spend a month travelling around Munster as it is to spend a month travelling around the deep south in the states,” he says.
“I love the idea of moving into a medium sized town, and doing a medium sized show for medium sized people. That really is an enjoyable thing for me. It’s not glamorous. I remember one time I was talking to Paul McGuinness, U2’s ex-manager, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was in the middle of a World Tour of Leitrim or something, and he had no interest in it. His eyes kind-of glazed over. I know what I do isn’t glamorous. I kind-of feel like the reincarnation of Joe Dolan. That’s the trail that I’m on. It’s ordinary, and that’s what interests me so much about it. It’s natural.
“I think I’ve found it [the Route 66 vibe], I definitely have. The differences from county to county are amazing, the differences between the counties. I mean, South Kerry has nothing on North Kerry. East Clare is all about trees and rivers and Martin Hayes and music, but West Clare, well, there’s madness there. West Clare is about the sun bouncing off the Burren, not a tree to be seen and not a clock in the towns that’s working. It’s not the same and I love that. It’s about finding the place where you live interesting, and I love that.”
As well as his continued search for the many essences of Ireland, Tommy Tiernan has also dived into the comedy deep end, from the relative safety of a scripted gig, to the no-mans-land that is improvisation.
“I’ll arrive in a town and try to gather as many experiences from the town as I can. Then, without being too logical about it, I will try and let those experiences come out in whatever way they decide to come out, when the lights are on and everyone’s looking at you. It’s about absorbing a place, not looking at it like an academic. It’s about experiencing a place and then, come 8.30pm, seeing what comes out of your mouth,” he said.
“The shows are different, it all depends on the night. I could do a show that was 90 per cent improvised, or on another night the show could be 80 per cent scripted. It depends on the night and what had happened to me during the day. The more that happens to me during the day, the more I can do off the top of my head.
“The best shows are the ones with the most improvisation. There is a real excitement about them because people know that your making it up on the spot, that you’re talking about their town. But it’s not a fixed thing, it’s not something I could do every day.
“It [improvising] is the most enjoyable and most adventurous thing I’ve ever done. I did a tour of Europe in March, starting in Estonia and going over to France. I did 11 shows in 10 countries in 11 nights, and each show was totally improvised. After having done that, I wanted to do that back in Ireland.
“I find it very difficult to do improvisation night after night. There needs to be a break of two or three days so you can gather your thoughts. In an ideal world you’d do two gigs a week, on a Wednesday and Saturday. You’d be building up thoughts and experiences so that when you did come to improvise, you’re not empty.
“I’ve discovered as well that the best rooms for me are three star hotels with a slightly worn carpet. Those places. Everyone is comfortable but it’s still a night out. They [the audience] have been in that room for weddings and confirmations, they own it. The carpet takes beer, you haven’t ruined the place by knocking your pint over. That to me is a huge challenge for improvisation. In a situation like that I will be more likely to go back to material that I’ve done before. This is people’s night out and I want to give them a good night out.
“I’m new to this improvisation as well, so it will take time for me to be able to do it all the time. But when it works, I know that it works better [than scripted shows].
In the coming weeks Tommy Tiernan will play shows in Kilkee, Ennis, Spanish Point, Killaloe, Bunratty, Shannon and Lisdoonvarna. For more information or tickets visit www.tommytiernan.com/gigs.