It’s been a mad-busy few years for Jason Byrne, the Irish comic currently heading back around the UK in his guise as The Man With Three Brains show.
In addition to extensive worldwide touring, you may know him from appearances on shows such as Live at the Apollo (BBC1), The Royal Variety Show (ITV1), The John Bishop Show (BBC1), Father Figure (BBC1), of which he is creator and star, Just a Minute (BBC Radio 4), and a self-titled BBC Radio 2 show now up to three series and awarded the UK radio industry’s Sony Radio Gold Award for ‘best new comedy ‘ in 2011.
Then there’s his studio-based comedy chat show, Jason Byrne’s Snaptastic Show, for TV3 in Ireland, and his co-hosting of Sky 1’s popular entertainment programme Wild Things, while past credits have also included more than a decade of Edinburgh Festival shows, scooping a Forth One Fringe Award there in 2004, his Phantom FM and RTE Two comedy panel show The Byrne Ultimatum roles, being a finalist on So You Think You’re Funny as far back as 1996, with a Perrier Best Newcomer Award nomination two years later, and another Perrier Award nomination in 2001. Oh, and Father Ted in 1998.
Recently, the 45-year-old from Ballinteer, Dublin, also launched a new series for the Dave channel, Don’t Say It, Bring It, an on-location game show filmed around the UK, loosely based on a scavenger hunt, and described by Jason as, ‘the best indoor, outdoor gameshow I’ve ever worked on’. What’s more, he’s just landed a role as a judge on Ireland’s Got Talent, more of which we’ll get on to later.
All in all, I guess I was lucky to track him down, but it may seem like I’m underselling this interview when I tell you I missed out a few bits because of the quality of line between Lancashire and the Irish border.
I’m not sure that was down to the distance between myself and Jason – on the road between Belfast and Dublin – so much as the fact that he was ‘patched through’ by an agency in London. My intermediary down South could hear us perfectly and Jason reckons he could hear me, but after two attempts I was still struggling. Yet I persevered and strained my ears later, trying to listen back.
And now I’ve got my excuses out of the way, I’ll press on, having first ascertained my interviewee’s whereabouts.
“We were in Belfast. North of Ireland … sorry, Northern Ireland. You can’t say North of Ireland, that’s Donegal and all. You have to say, ‘I’ve just left Northern Ireland and we’re in the Republic of Ireland right now’. You’re basically listening to a little bit of history there – you’re interviewing me in two countries.”
Maybe that’s why the line’s not so good.
“No, the line’s not so good because the British Army are listening in.”
I winced and waited for a response at that, at least a cut line, but there was none, so I cracked on. Where’s home for Jason these days?
“North of Dublin, out in a little village, an hour and half away from Belfast. Also, I travel over to Britain a lot. It doesn’t really matter where the fuck we live, it’s just that I decided to stay in Ireland with my family and kids. I could have lived in Britain. I could have lived in Scotland. I could have lived in fucking France. There are comics who actually live in France and fly in at the weekend to do the Comedy Store, then fuck off back to France. How good is that? We’re fools, Malcolm. Fools!”
Jason swears a lot. Thought I’d better just mention that, in case it’s not already apparent. I may have left out a few swear-words here and there (mostly the same ones, to be honest), but you’ll get the idea. Of course, I could add that if that offends you, you know what you can do.
Anyway, Jason, I believe you were at Croke Park recently, for Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final?
“Croke Park? Oh yes, though hang on – this is a little bit of a sore point. I was at Croke Park, but before the fucking All-Ireland. I was doing a corporate, charity gig for Temple Street Children’s Hospital. That’s why I was there, wearing my Dublin jersey the night before the match. But that night I had to fly out and go and do Sunday Bloody Brunch on Channel 4, the day of the fucking final!”
Sunday Bloody Brunch? The Channel Bloody 4 show with Tim Bloody Lovejoy and Simon Bloody Rimmer? Can’t believe I missed that. I’m normally tuned in. A sickener for Jason all-round.
“I know. I’m flying over, and who’s going the other way? Fucking John Bishop! I’m going, ‘John, you don’t even know fucking GAA.”
So you had to make do – like me – watching the TV highlights (for the uninitiated, Dublin clinched a slim victory over Mayo, their third successive All-Ireland win)?
“Yeah, I went home. The plane landed in Dublin and I could just hear everyone around me going, ‘Fucking yeah!’ and I was going home to watch the highlights. They absolutely fucking battered each other – a great game to watch. I was trying to explain the game on Sunday Brunch, how you could punch the guys in the head, as long as the ref doesn’t see it, it’s totally legal. And they’re going, ‘What?’”
It certainly seemed an exciting match, from what I saw. And while we’re on the subject of your home city, how close to the truth was Roddy Doyle with his Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments and so on)?
“Oh, that’s something he did absolutely bang on!”
Was that the Dublin you grew up with?
“No way. I didn’t grow up in that Dublin. That Dublin was fucking dog-rough, that was fucking horses put into lifts and that. That’s a real thing. Very rough areas of Dublin. Not right now though. They’ve been totally redone and refurbed, but you’re talking the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“I grew up in – as in Adventures of the Wonky-Eyed Boy – a working-class area, but we weren’t poor. A lot of people near me were definitely poor, but I didn’t grow up like that. I was in an everyday housing estate where all the Dads had jobs and the mothers ran the household, with all those funny fucking stories. A lot of my stand-up comes from there.
“Bath-time in our house was very funny. My Mum would only half-fill the bath with water, then fill it with children, then the water would come up to the full level. For ages there was me and my two little sisters in front of me, and my bigger brother behind me with his fucking cock on my shoulder, asking what I was looking at. Yes, I lived in a very small house.”
By the way, Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy is his 2016 publication for Gill Books, a comic but highly evocative memoir of what it was like to grow up in a working-class Dublin suburb in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, its title making sense to anyone who’s seen him open up on stage about his ‘lazy eye’ as a kid. And when it comes to words, he can certainly paint a picture, can Jason.
That brings me to his current domestic arrangements, starting to ask about his wife putting up with being brought into his live routine. But at that point we lose each other. The last I hear is him shouting, ‘Malcolm!’ in the distance – which I’m guessing was directed at me rather than some Gaelic insult you shout at other drivers using the N1. Consequently, I had to be connected again, my interviewee returning a minute or so later, muttering something related to that earlier concern about military organisations listening in.
In a low, slow voice, he tells me, “Do not tease the fucking British Army. They totally disconnected us that time.”
You’d think they already had a good enough file on you.
“Ah yeah. I go through borders and airports … Do you know what, I do a lot of shows in Australia, and I arrive there now and get, ‘Ah, Jason. How are ya?’’
Getting back to family, before we’re cut off again, I can’t help but think of your poor wife getting a few run-outs in your material. He mentioned during one TV appearance how he’d best make sure he wasn’t sat on the sofa with his beloved when it was aired. I get the feeling he was only half-joking too. Are there elements of truth in all that?
“In the stuff about my wife? No, basically I have a fictional wife and my real wife, and they kind of cross over. A lot of the stories definitely come out of my wife for a start, and I just fucking jazz it up. People who have met my wife will say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like your wife’. I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ and they’ll say, ‘I always imagined this very stout woman with really bad hair, waving her fingers’.
“My wife’s a very attractive, skinny lady, who does a lot of training. But she does come out with some cracking lines. I recently got a new show on Dave (Don’t Say It, Bring It), which was recorded and ready to go, and I was launching it, and the day after I got a phone call asking me to do Ireland’s Got Talent. Well, I got loads of congratulations from family, friends and colleagues, and then I got a text from my wife, and all it said was, ‘You could have put that fucking bin out before you left’.”
At least she’s keeping your feet on the ground. You should be thankful. How old are your lads now?
“They’re 17 and 10, a great pair of lads.”
Will you get to see them a bit over this tour? You have a lot of live dates ahead of you (37, I understand).
“It’s all managed very carefully, mostly runs of three days, occasionally four days in a row, with the others spent in Dublin, bringing them training and dropping them off here, there and everywhere, and going out with them. After two days they get the idea, and remember how much of a jerk I am. They have their friends and school, and they’re very busy. My 17-year-old is highly mature and totally understands. He’s only seen that kind of life, me going in and out all the time. And they have each other.
“When I spoke to the headmaster, he said, ‘Actually, on paper you’re here more than any Dad’, because a lot of them work nine ‘til five, don’t get to bring their kids to school and can’t collect them or do after-school stuff because they’re travelling home. It actually works out better for me … although I’d like my wife to comment on what I’ve just said. ‘Oh yeah, that works out really well for you, the way you fuck off out of here ….”
My main excuse for speaking to Jason was his forthcoming double-appearance at the seventh annual Southport Comedy Festival, having been crowned ‘The King of The Festival’. It’s his fourth visit, and he’s built up a massive following there. This time he turns out on Wednesday, October 18th, and Thursday, October 19th, with tickets still available at time of going to press, and festival organiser Val Brady told me she was particularly looking forward to his appearance.
“That gig’s a great craic. A lot of time I’ll head around and I’ll have the show in my head, and I’ll think I’ve got to do that and I’ve got to do this. At Southport you might as well get the whole gig and fuck it out of the window, because you’re not going to be able to do it. It’s too much fun talking to them. They tell you the maddest shit, and they heckle you … in a nice way. There’s no nastiness. Yeah, I know what Val is talking about – she may be looking forward to watching the crowd, but I’m not sure if I am!
“But it’s one of those gigs I don’t have to worry about. I look forward to that. It’s in a comedy club rather than a theatre. It’s very much like, ‘Off you go, Jason, let’s see what happens for the next two hours’, you know.”
The show’s called The Man With Three Brains, apparently because his left brain scans the audience and room looking for improv. moments, while his right brain collates stand-up material and stunts, poised to ‘dish out the funnies at speed’, and the centre brain is Jason’s coach, pushing him to the limit. I think that makes sense, although I had to wade through some typical comedy press release clichés about how ‘hilarious’ and ‘extremely funny’ he is, and mentioning his ‘famous warm and generous stagecraft’, which sounds like one of those things people my age thought we’d all be riding around on now we’re in the 21st century.
“Well, you have to name your show in January, one that’s not even written, so they can put it in the brochure at Edinburgh. But it’s connected to the fact that someone said it looks like I’ve got three different heads on my shoulders when I’m up there, because I do a lot of improv. – it’s like I’ve got three brains on the go.”
“Well yeah, and someone said, ‘You don’t have three brains, just different streams of consciousness’. And I said, ‘I’m not putting that on a fucking poster! No one will go!’ Only Derren Brown.”
Last time you were doing the rounds was for 2016’s Propped Up tour, strangely enough involving lots of props, like giant ducks, rubber hands, owls, and big wooden pegs. That kind of reminds me of Tommy Cooper back in the day, going out of his way to walk through a gate in the middle of the stage for no apparent reason during a live show. I don’t really know why, but that was funny.
“Ah, do you remember that? My parents saw him do that in a cabaret set here in Dublin. He had a white picket fence, and … did you see this yourself?”
I didn’t, but my big sister and brother mentioned it after a performance in Surrey many moons ago. My sister was in pain from the laughter by the end, Tommy making it worse every time he looked at.
“Yeah, all he did was … he couldn’t get through the gate, because he was supposed to push rather than pull, or something.”
And he never mentioned it all night.
“I know! That is brilliant! Except I remember Eric Sykes saying that kind of annoyed Tommy when he was out, being himself. He’d ask for a drink at the bar and the barman would just laugh at him. He’d get annoyed and say, ‘What are you laughing about?’ Eric would have to explain, ‘You just sound funny, Tom’. I think that just tortured him.
“I don’t really have that. I certainly have funny bones and I like messing about, and I do bring an air of funniness on to the stage with me, but I would never walk on with a picket fucking fence. Can you imagine? ‘What are you fucking doing, Jason?’”
It’s 20 years that you started performing, and it’ll be 20 years next year since your Father Ted appearance as a football referee. Did you think you’d made it there and then, or is that something that became more special in hindsight?
“Well, Graham (Linehan) and Arthur (Mathews), the writers, are good friends of mine now, and I felt I’d made it. But then I did a gig with Simon Pegg and they came along, asking, ‘Who’s that guy?’ I said, ‘Who?’ and said I didn’t know him, although I did. But they sat down with Simon and a couple of months later he was doing Hippies, and he did Big Train, then he did Spaced, and then … and then … and then. So yes, in answer to your question, when I did Father Ted, I definitely knew Simon Pegg was going to do well!”
Finally, I see the team at Ireland’s Got Talent were on the hunt for performing priests and nuns recently. Is that the prime difference between that show and Britain’s Got Talent?
“The difference between Britain’s Got Talent and Ireland’s Got Talent is that everybody in Ireland thinks they’ve got talent. So you’ve got a vast amount of that coming, everybody thinking they can sing or dance, and there’ll definitely be singing priests and dancing nuns and parrots reciting fucking ballads and all sorts. My friend, the producer, texts me now and again, going, ‘You won’t believe what I have coming towards you!’”
Jason’s latest The Man With Three Brains run opened in Aberdeen on October 1st, and runs through to a date at Southen’s Cliffs Pavilion Palace Theatre on Sunday, December 3rd. Ticket prices for all venues are £19.50, and £22 for London shows. For tickets head to www.ticketmaster.co.uk or his www.jasonbyrne.ie website. You can also follow him via Facebook and Twitter.
This year’s Southport Comedy Festival is billed as the ‘biggest and best yet’, extended to 18 days and involving more TV names, more venues and more events. It includes the return of the festival’s somewhat unique comedy pub crawls and its Children’s Comedy Festival, plus a star-studded line-up.
As well as Jason Byrne, there are new shows from Paul Sinha from ITV’s The Chase, Jo Caulfield, Rich Hall, Gary Delaney, Robin Ince (with an interview to follow here within a couple of days), Tom Binns (aka Ivan Brackenbury), Tom Stade, Patrick Monahan, Andy Askins, Mike Gunn and Britain’s Got Talent finalist, Daliso Chaponda. There’s also something of a scoop as long-time friend of the festival, Jason Manford, plays – like Jason Byrne – two nights, closing the festival with a ‘work in progress’ show as he prepares for a 2018 national tour.
From shows in restaurants (meals included) to those in marquees, comedy workshops, comedy bingo, family and children’s events, there’s plenty to savour, also including the Nando’s New Comedian of the Year heats and grand final. And many good causes benefit, the organisers raising money for Community Link Foundation, When You Wish Upon a Star, Friends of Bridge Inn and Duchenne UK.