How did you get into comedy?
I’ve done all the jobs in the world and was terrible at all of them but I always admired comedy. When I was in college I wrote some children’s books and did readings for kids so it wasn’t a million miles away from standing up in front of groups of inebriated people.
So what are the differences between entertaining children and your average comedy club audience?
One difference is that when an audience doesn’t really like the thing you’ve done they sit to the end and go “Oh, it was reasonably good, I liked it in parts.” If children don’t enjoy your performance they all go to the loo together and make a sort of snowman out of toilet paper which once happened at one of my readings. The last kid’s show I did was in 2008 and I heard one kid say very clearly “Mummy, I’m bored!” I think it’s a bad thing that you don’t get that when performing for adults.
Yes, but adults heckle.
Well, people don’t really shout stuff at me; they just pick me up on factual inaccuracies. Recently I did a song about a lady dog called Florence that that featured a lyric about the dog getting neutered and immediately three people shouted “SPAYED!”
You’ve recently come back from America, how does it compare gigging in Britain and Ireland?
It‘s harder to get to America. I don’t know if you know this but there are no trains and you can’t drive there. From a comedy point of view it’s exactly the same: there are nice crowds, not nice crowds, smart people and thick people. In a way they see us as exotic because they have an inferiority complex about stand up in their country and think there’s a much more vibrant scene in Ireland and Britain.
You’re also a world leading authority on both pandas and sharks, which must have involved extensive research in the field...
I wrote two books of total bullshit about animals. They were hard books to write in a way because I started to read proper Zoology books which doesn’t really help you make up complete lies about animals. The trick was to get a book or magazine that has nothing to do with the thing you’re supposed to be writing about. I was on an aeroplane, reading an article on technology and thought it would be funny if a shark had a USB input on it. Then we came up with the idea of the Fax Machine Shark, the rarest of all sharks.
Some of your contemporaries also use music as part of their acts. What would you say makes you different from comedians such as Tim Minchin or Bill Bailey?
Well, Minchin and Bailey are both incredible musicians who are harnessing the power of their musical talent to add to their wonderful and beautiful jokes. Whereas I have virtually no musical talent whatsoever and am using jokes to mask that fact. I have a more lo-fi aesthetic than Minchin with his orchestra and grand pianos or Bailey with his ability to play numerous musical instruments and perfectly replicate styles and create parody songs. Even The Conchords are incredible guitarists with their beautiful harmonies: I have none of that. So my music is simply a way of masking my limitations as a comedian and a musician. I suppose I’m not trying to move you emotionally through music, I’m just trying to present the jokes in a slightly different, musical way.
You say that your music doesn’t seek to move people emotionally but you often use past relationships as subjects for your routine. Is this something we can expect from this show?
I had a bit of a shitty winter last year when I found myself down in the dumps for a variety of reasons so this show is really about trying to cheer yourself up. I definitely use my own life as fodder. I don’t really have enough of an imagination to make things up so instead I talk about my own life in relentlessly tiny detail and use it as a kind of springboard for other more ridiculous things. You try not to give too much of your life away but I speak about relationships, triumphs and disasters: things that actually kind of mean something to people. If you do a whole show, you want to make people laugh but after a while you want to tell them something quite interesting. That makes it sound terribly serious, it’s more a really silly show but I get something out of it as well.
Who do you admire on the comedy circuit?
I’ve done the Edinburgh Fringe festival every year since I was 22 years old. So, every year I’m inspired by a new group of people that I may not have seen before. At present I look up to Tim Key, who is phenomenal and doing incredible stuff. Josie Long’s show is really beautiful this year. Kristen Schaal and Sara Pascoe are both absolutely brilliant.
I also admire stuff that’s not necessarily comedy. I’m inspired by this Irish band called Jape; the atmosphere of their gigs is like a massive party and then they will suddenly take it down to an acoustic set. I really like artists who can grab a room rather than stand at the back mumbling one liners.
Are there any comedians who influenced you?
I’ve been lucky enough to tour with people who had a huge influence on me. Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran: probably the greatest comedians Ireland has ever produced. There aren’t that many people with truly original minds, there are a lot of people who can technically do comedy very well and are popular for that reason but then there are some people who approach it in an entirely different way that is just their own. Before the Conchords were megastars they would come on stage and people would give them a polite round of applause then they would tune their guitars for a few minutes. You know, as opposed to people yelling “Are we gonna have a party?” That was very interesting. I toured with Rich Hall who is able to tell you stories about working with Billy Crystal on Saturday Night Life or Eddie Murphy or Seinfeld. Aside from being an amazing comedian he is the real link to the history of stand up comedy as an art form. I’ve been lucky enough to mix in really stellar circles and definitely picked up things from all those people.
How was touring with Noel Fielding?
He and I toured Agrarian Universities or Colleges in rural parts of Ireland in 2002. It was one of the first tours I ever did and we baffled people so badly to the point where one man shouted at Noel “Oh, you’re confusing me!” That is a remarkable thing to confuse someone to a point that their brain actually hurts. I love Noel’s luxury comedy and I’m a huge fan of The Mighty Boosh but his one man stand up is brilliant also.
Your play Saddled involved you repairing audience members' bicycles. How quickly can you fix a puncture?
Four minutes. The tricky part of that show was when people came in with a bike they’d fished out of the canal. That would take ages.
Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers?
I have a soft spot for Nottingham, I did a gig there with the Conchords in 2004 and we were quite worried as it was a new show but it went really well. Just the sight of a bow and arrow conjures up soft, happy memories for me. Everything is leading to this Nottingham gig in November.