John Selkirk/Dominion Post
Ed Byrne burns it up
"If you care at all about comedy, it's best not to try to figure out where the funny stuff comes from. As EB White put it: "Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Ed Byrne may be an Irish stand-up comedian but don't assume that being Irish automatically makes a person hilarious, as an unfortunate TV reporter recently did.
Asking why the Irish are so funny is akin to asking why New Zealanders are so good at rugby, he says. "Just 'cos there's one team of people who are fantastic at it, doesn't mean everyone in New Zealand is good at it." Byrne is currently touring New Zealand with his latest show of observational comedy, Standing Up and Falling Down, which sold out in August at the pinnacle of stand-up comedy, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, continuing his record as the top-selling comedian of the festival.
He has also enjoyed huge success on the international circuit where he regularly performs to capacity audiences in Canada, France, Australia, the United States and, of course, here in Aotearoa, where tickets to his shows are like gold dust. But if you're expecting a comedian with flowing locks to take the stage, like the one on the posters, you're bound to be bitterly disappointed. Byrne has recently shorn his hair to a short messy crop. The last time he got his hair cut, his career dipped noticeably, so he knows he's taking a definite risk with his follicular makeover. "I think it was the year 2000. That was the first time I'd gone from long to short, and yeah, my career went – not in the toilet – but it took a bit of a dive for a couple of years." Back then, he cut his hair to do a sitcom that soon tanked. "I dunno if it was a coincidence, or what." That he feels able to get his hair cut now, making all of his publicity photos obsolete in a flash of the scissors, "shows my faith in the show I'm doing at the moment and the quality of it".
His agent back in England isn't aware that he's done it yet. "She was very happy last time because she thought it made me look younger and more castable for roles. But even she admitted that the career took a dive when I did so." On the plus side, his girlfriend is much happier. "She was never happy with the whole long-hair carry-on. When I met her my head was shaved for the play I was doing." That was in 2003, and this may well be his first haircut since then.
You know that old theory about guys with a sense of humour laughing women into bed? Well, apparently it works. "Yes, I'll admit that women rate sense of humour very highly. Despite the notion that comedians are all miserable off-stage, we generally have pretty good senses of humour." The sad clown paradox is a persistent belief about funny guys, that seems to be supported whenever famous comedians admit to issues with alcoholism and depression. "I'm prone to bouts of misery just like anybody else. But no, I'm generally a pretty happy, funny person, I would say. I'm very in touch with my feminine side so I do enjoy a good whinge now and again. "Actually, I do know some comedians who are miserable bastards and there are quite a few functioning alcoholics as well. Especially in the (comedy) clubs, where you only have to hold it together for 20 minutes a night. It's pretty easy to pack a lot of drinking into the rest of your life."
While Byrne is a little hungover himself, he swears he went to bed earlier than everyone else last night, "because I was just a bit wrecked" – about 2am, in fact. The luxury of the life of a comedian is that he can pretty much always sleep in, since he only starts work after 8pm. So Byrne can snooze as long as he wants, or at least "until I have to do some interviews". While we're talking, Byrne is ambling through Auckland's CBD, since his girlfriend is still lying comatose in their hotel room, hungover from the night before. "So that's why I'm doing my interviews outside today." The unfortunate side-effect is that it sounds like Byrne is speaking to me down a wind- tunnel, but I can still catch his lilting Irish tones over the traffic noise."
"Last week, a TV3 reporter accused him of being funny just because of that Irish accent. "It's not the first time it's been said. It is irritating. There's more of an obsession with being Irish here than anywhere I've faced it before. I've fielded more questions about my Irishness in New Zealand than anywhere else." Having done plenty of interviews over the years, Ed Byrne has been asked stupider things than whether being Irish automatically made him funny. For instance, a reporter once asked if he thought being Scottish helped him in his humour. It was hard to know how to respond, the comedian says, because "I didn't want to make him look stupid on TV, despite the fact that he was clearly fooking stupid." Thankfully, that reporter was from Australia, not New Zealand.
According to one British magazine – and lord knows how they quantified this – Byrne is the 99th funniest person alive (out of a possible 100). "It's a bit of a mixed blessing, isn't it? Being damned with faint praise." Byrne notes with distaste that others on the list included Jade Goodie (now famous for her racist remarks on Britain's Big Brother reality show) and George W Bush – "people who were funny by accident". By contrast, Byrne is naturally funny, and works hard to remain so. He released his first DVD last year, Pedantic and Whimsical, which he has described as 12 years in the making.
Britain's Channel 4 dubbed him the 73rd funniest comedian ever, placing him higher on the list than Bill Cosby or Dave Allen. "I thought it was interesting that you can be the 99th funniest person alive and yet the 73rd funniest comedian ever. That means there's a lot of very funny people alive who aren't doing comedy." While good comedians can make a stand-up routine look spontaneous and off the cuff, Byrne says "no comedian completely improvises". His current show, Standing Up and Falling Down, took about two years to write. "I do a tour of this nature every couple of years because it takes that long to write a new one. You kinda go in phases. I'm just about to enter the 'Write-a-new-show-you-lazy-prick' phase'." Byrne says he's wringing as much value as he can out of his current show. "I hope I can get another few months out of it."
Some comedy material has a longer shelf life than other jokes. Byrne may be best known for his riff on Alanis Morrisette's song Ironic, which, as any English major will tell you, isn't ironic at all – just very unfortunate. It started off as a small joke and has expanded in the telling to include a heckler's contribution and more. If you haven't heard it, it's worth checking out Byrne's DVD just for that joke, which he uses as his encore. He says it can be frustrating when you work to perfect a joke over a few years as people think you're telling the same one. "You'll write a piece and it'll be five minutes long and over the course of performing, it'll become 10 minutes long, but in order to get to the five new minutes, you've got to get through the five old minutes and somebody will go: 'Oh, I've heard that before'. But no, you've only heard half of it before. But people just say, 'no, you did it all the same'." Conversely, people sometimes complain when he doesn't do their favourite jokes. "You can't really win."
Byrne has been coming to amuse New Zealanders for more than a decade. It was 1997 when the then 24-year-old comedian encouraged an Auckland audience to hassle a bartender who'd been rude to him the night before. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Byrne happily uses them as a source of material. The problem came when some audience members decided to take his comedic advice literally by ordering drinks at the bar, then scarpering without paying. The controversy grew with the threat of legal action against Byrne and even made it into the national news.
Ten years is a long time in showbiz, and Byrne is genuinely astounded that someone remembers. "Congratulations! You are the first person to mention that to me on this trip. I asked after him (the bar manager). Nobody knows where he is or what he's doing. He was fired six months after the altercation for being exactly what I accused him of being." Byrne was only 21 when he did his first comedy gig. It began when a super-organised college friend started writing down all the funny things he would say and handed them to him, saying "These are all the funny things you've said this week. You should really be a comedian." Byrne never really had a fallback position. "I was office temping at the time. I just mooched around. I've never had a career other than comedy."
His parents were uncertain about his career decision to begin with but went to see him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1995 and now they're among his biggest supporters. "They're big comedy fans, now. They go and see all my friends' (shows) as well. Some of their parents have never even seen them but my parents have gone and seen them." With two brothers and a sister, Byrne was a middle child, which may explain his attention-seeking job, or as he puts it his "need for attention". He enjoys acting, has appeared in a few movies (Rat, Zemanovaland) and would like to do more but is thankful acting is not his sole source of income. "Comedy's very much a trade, like being a plasterer or a plumber. Certainly back in Britain, there's enough work for everyone. It's a recognised trade, and so is acting, although acting's a lot harder to break into. If you're a good comedian, you'll progress very quickly."
Which is exactly what Byrne has done. He did try his hand at a couple of sitcoms some years ago (Sam's Game, The Cassidys) but admits they weren't very good. "I didn't write them, I just acted in them and they were both received pretty badly. Which is a bit of a shame. I'm very determined not to do another bad sitcom, because it does set you back." He reckons the tradesmen currently working on his house have comparable incomes to his own. Most builders don't happen to own one of Prince's guitars, however. Byrne bought one of the pop star's old purple Telecaster-style guitars for 12,000 ($NZ32,000) in 2002. He doesn't play it himself, however. "No, I just kind of look at it. Even if I could play the guitar, it's of no use to me because it's a right-handed guitar and I'm left-handed."
Up next, Byrne heads back to England to various festivals and gigs. "Basically, I'm taking the summer very easy and I'm gonna try and write a movie script." Happily, before Byrne's particular brand of insouciant yet vitriolic humour hits the big screen, you can experience him live on Monday night.
Ed Byrne is in the middle of a nationwide tour. For times and dates, check www.ticketek.co.nz."