The last time we spoke to Tommy Tiernan for The Irish Times Christmas magazine was in 2017. The Galway-based comedian was backstage at Vicar Street, musing over how a recent acting gig – a Channel 4 sitcom about four teenage girls, set in Derry during the Troubles – might go down with British audiences. Five years on, it’s safe to say that the answer was: extremely well.
“A bigger surprise than that, really, was how it landed in places like America,” he says of Derry Girls, in which he played dad Gerry across three seasons. “I played the Montreal Comedy Festival recently, and an American promoter said to me: ‘You could now do a tour of the States on the back of Derry Girls – that’s now your calling card.’ So that was a strange one, because it’s hard enough for people in Sligo to understand what the girls are saying, never mind the people in Saskatchewan in Canada, or Sacramento in California.”
The success of Derry Girls, and subsequent roles in the likes of Conversations with Friends, doesn’t mean that Tiernan plans to forgo his comedy or stand-up career, however. He loves the “collegiate aspect of acting”, he says. “But I’ve enough to be doing without generating my own projects. So if someone says ‘Would you like to play this’ or ‘Would you like to play that’, I might give it a go – but I’ve no interest in waiting around for offers.”
Tiernan undoubtedly has enough to busy himself with – not least his new stand-up show, Tomfoolery. He admits that there was a period of adjustment when returning to the live arena post-Covid.
“There was definitely a turbulent few months last year from October to December, because I spent so long uninhabiting the part of my personality that is able to do stand-up – that kind of larger-than-life, boisterous, slightly uncontrolled motormouth – and I didn’t miss it,” he says.
“I had a few nights where I thought ‘I can’t do this, I’m not the same person any more, I don’t want to access that alter-ego.’ But I had to stick with it, and once January 2022 came around, it reminded me of starting stand-up again; that thrill. So I’m now kind of full-throttle into it, and love it again.”
Tiernan has added several other strings to his already impressive bow over the last few years. In September 2020, with lockdowns and the pandemic continuing to keep the doors of venues closed for the foreseeable future, he decided to start a podcast with his friends Hector Ó hEochagáin and Laurita Blewitt. The Tommy, Hector and Laurita podcast has become a huge hit, recently nabbing two gongs at the Irish Podcast Awards.
“At the time, no one knew how long that experience was going to last, so it was just something to do,” he shrugs. “I had a suspicion that the three of us together would be able to make each other laugh – and that was all it was. I’ve got two such creative co-workers; Hector is the best storyteller I’ve ever come across in my life. When he’s telling you about waking up in Dar es Salaam, or negotiating his way through the poor on the streets of Mexico City, there’s nobody like him. And Laurita is a remarkable woman; she kind of has this very humble, defiant, mannerless, witty way of being in the world. I just love working with the pair of them.”
In 2017, there had only been one series of The Tommy Tiernan Show, the chatshow that sees the comic conversing with surprise guests. Now, with six successful series under his belt, it’s safe to say that the RTÉ show is a hit; at several points, it has clocked up bigger viewing figures than The Late Late Show.
Tiernan is quick to credit the researchers and producers for their hard work and input, but he is clearly an asset himself, sparking conversations that are often gut-bustingly funny, usually fascinating and occasionally moving.
“I know that I’m a nosy bastard,” he laughs, when I ask if he was previously aware of his skill as an interviewer. “I know that I often ask inappropriate questions in my private life, of strangers. And because I do so much stand-up, I’m always looking for life, adventure, the thrill of the new. I used to love watching David Letterman and the way he was able to be funny off the cuff. So that was where I started off from – just trying to be funny.”
He recalls an early episode of the show when Aslan frontman Christy Dignam stood up mid-interview to sing Ave Maria. “That was something I’d never seen before,” he says. “So I knew after that happened, ‘Hang on a minute – this show is different’. Not in a contrived way, but I was delighted the show could have moments like that in it.” He pauses. “And you wouldn’t get that on David Letterman.”
After almost three decades in stand-up, Tiernan is keen to keep things fresh on that front, too, and new show Tomfoolery sees him chart new territory.
“It starts off fairly normal, in the sense that it’s recognisable stand-up,” he explains. “And then the show goes into a kind of strange storytelling space, where I’m telling stories that you wouldn’t normally hear in a stand-up show. There are four or five of them in the middle of the set that are theatrical, they’re dark, they’re funny, they’re very enjoyable to perform and I get a kick out of them. It feels like new territory. So the show interests me at the moment, and it’s changing a lot.”
The show will run across the country in the run-up to Christmas and after it, something that Tiernan is used to after so many years in the business. He likes Christmas, he says, although perhaps not the day itself.
“The lead-up, that feeling of anticipation; the lights in the city centre, the perfume, the winter coats, that feeling of comfort. But the day itself never delivers what it promises,” he says with a wheezy chuckle. “I would like to spend a Christmas, say from December 22nd to the 3rd of January, just in bed with me wife, drinking. Otherwise you’re man-managing your children and their expectations and their disappointments,” he laughs.
“But there’s often a good soccer match on the telly on Stephen’s Day – or myself and my son Pio are big American football fans, so they often play on Christmas Day. So there’s that kind of stuff,” he says. “But as Tom Waits would say, ‘The pursuit and never the arrest’, and that’s definitely right.”
The only thing that has changed as his young family have got older, he says, is that “I’ve started drinking earlier in the day. I usen’t to take a drink before 12,” he says. “Now, I wouldn’t have a whiskey, because I’d be sideways by three. But last year, I think I may have had a glass of wine before lunch.”
As far as new year’s resolutions go, he hasn’t made any. I suggest that he add “get into politics” into his already full schedule for 2023, given his recent passionate campaigning for Trócaire and their hunger crisis campaign following a visit to Somalia.
“I will eventually go into politics but it’ll probably be local,” he says, perhaps only half-joking.
Given the surprises of the last five years, anything is possible, after all. “The first thing to do would be accepted as a coach on the local GAA team, but I haven’t cleared the Garda vetting yet,” he deadpans. “So after that, from small humble beginnings, I’ll plan the world takeover.”
Tomfoolery runs nationwide until January. See tommedian.com