Tommy Tiernan’s new DVD, Crooked Man premiered at this year’s Cork Film Festival. Emmet O’Brien was there to meet the storyteller.
Having Crooked Man screened in the Cork Film Festival is a very prestigious honour, did you have any trepidation launching the show in that environment?
I was surprised we were there (laughs) but it worked as an experience for the audience. It’s amazing that a movie about one man talking for 75 minutes could hold attention like that. I was worried the crowd might be put off by the singularity of it, or the fact that there was already an audience laughing on screen. But it really worked and afterwards I was just glad it went that way.
You see I’m a huge movie fan so it’s interesting to me what the possibilities of stand-up on film could be. I’ve often thought if you took the ideas from a stand up show and tried to represent them visually, what would you end up with? If you could take a line from the show such as ‘Ireland should exist as a giant question mark on the edge of Europe that nobody can understand’. How could you convey that cinematically? I’ve seen films that are visual records of the world and they can go from seeing children in India scrambling around for food to a donkey slowly walking up a hill. Now while they may be beautifully shot, they had sad music to score the scenes of the poor and I didn’t enjoy that. You can’t make those sorts of assumptions.
You think the visuals should speak for themselves and allow the viewer to bring their own interpretation to it?
Exactly. I saw the Bob Quinn film Budawanny (1987) and I loved it. I’m a big fan of his. It was a revelation and when he was introducing the film he said that storytelling hadn’t improved since the advent of sound. Techniques had but the actual act of telling a story hasn’t been bettered since the ’20s. Michael Moore was the same, he’s a polemic and I often wonder is there a link between his point of view and how he conveys it and if you set that against stand-up could you go beyond the idea of simple storytelling and make it into something more visual?
Stand-up is such an aural technique. Monty Python is what I think of when I consider verbal humour being married to striking and distinctive visual style.
Well The Meaning of Life is brilliant. The Life of Brian is more of a story, it’s a ridiculous one but it has a structure to it. But Meaning… would be more what I’m talking about. I watch a lot of slow-burning art house, Eastern European films where the image is paramount. I have a great love of the power of that.
Is that where the bookend scenes for Crooked Man come from?
Well in the DVD I mention the idea of shape-shifting, the folklore idea that Irish people used to be able to turn into rabbits and other creatures and at the end of the show I do this thing where I mime playing a fiddle, an invisible fiddle in the dark. It’s to a wonderful piece of music played by Kevin Burke. But I come back on stage then wearing a rabbit mask and just look at the audience and it really was a nice theatrical flourish to the whole thing but we wanted to know how to make that work cinematically. The piece at the beginning, which shows a wood, sets the tone and looks so beautiful and still. It’s reminiscent of something out of a Tarkovsky film. I’m delighted with it.
The mantra of your show reminds me of the Talking Heads album title Stop Making Sense where you seem to be celebrating a sense of absurdism in what are quite heavy and serious times. Are people still taking everything that bit too seriously?
I don’t think when we meet each other and have conversations we’re taking it too seriously. In normal everyday life our instinct is to laugh. The media, however, is loving the drama and using every opportunity to remind us of how dire the situation is to sell more newspapers or whatever. But if anyone chats with anyone else no matter how serious it gets, we want a laugh at the end, that’s our inclination. Prime Time doesn’t have the courage to end with a joke every week (laughs). We find great relief in laughter and we have a great capacity for it.
What was the response to the show at the time and why did you pick Cork as the place to film in?
That club, the City Limits, is one of the best of the smaller rooms around. We considered other places, like the 100 Club in London but that had just shut down, but I think the room in Cork has a real great atmosphere to it.
When we did the show in Vicar Street last Christmas the response was phenomenal, very strong. It was great being able to look the recession in the eye and refuse to be beaten down by it in a way everyone felt they could draw strength from. That was thrilling.
In stand-up all you can do is say what you’re thinking at the time and naturally it’s heightened and it can be a bit of a pose but because of the nature of the thing, it still has authenticity to it. I don’t have a message or anything. You just tell your stories and everyone in there experiences them. In fact the storyteller is experiencing the narrative as well and at the end you might disagree with it but it’s all instincts. I have those more than I have a message. I’m not wise enough to impart knowledge. I’m certainly not throwing stars into the sky people should navigate by (laughs).
So you sometimes fundamentally disagree with things you’ve said?
Oh God, yes. I’ve come off stage so many times and thought ‘Em…No’, but then that’s what gives the performance its life. I’m trying to entertain a room full of people and there’s a pressure to keep all that going. But yes I frequently question things I’ve said and challenge my own ideas. When I’m out there I believe whatever it is I’m saying at that moment but that’s when you’re in the middle of a very heightened situation. There’s no such thing as eternal certainty.
Do you see yourself and your craft developing since you’ve started? Do you approach the process of being a comedian any differently now?
Just trying to keep people interested and you can only do that if you yourself are still engaged. My next run of shows are an enquiry into folktales and we’ll see where that leads. The thing to remember, however, is that a stand-up audience are ruthless and they don’t allow self-indulgence. They get bored quickly so I have to keep it fresh and exciting. That’s what I love about stand-up, it can’t get too precious or pretentious and if it does it’s only for a moment cause an audience may tolerate something once, but they won’t for a second time. It’s a living thing, every show is different and you have to adapt. I don’t think Crooked Man is a shocking show compared to say Bovinity, but it’s a complicated balancing act doing comedy. You have to reassure an audience but also elude them.
Have you ever considered moving more seriously into acting?
Stand-up is where it is for me and I’d love to make those movies of my act and let them stand and speak for themselves across the world like in a hotel in Toronto or somewhere. But I don’t have any interest in making something with a long narrative or anything. I’m quite particular about film and what I like. I try to live by the idea though that if you are doing something different and new it has to be adventure, not just for you but for everyone. It has to be inclusive.