On the eve of their first tour date, we pressed Monaghan man Ardal O’Hanlon and Navan native Dylan Moran to reveal how comedy gets in the way of having a proper job, and what made them so funny in the first place.
Ardal, a legend in Ireland and Britain for his role as Fr. Dougal in the classic “Father Ted” sitcom series, credits his hometown with nurturing his comic charisma.
“There was a style of humor in Carrickmacross that came from being near the Border with the North — even deadly serious news items were met with a very dark, deadpan reaction,” he said. “When I was a teenager, I left town to go to boarding school, which made me an outsider when I came back for the holidays, so being funny was my way of fitting back in again. But in Ireland everyone wants to be funny — it’s not just for immature teenagers. A lot of banter gets tossed around there at business meetings between strangers so that they can get comfortable before they discuss anything serious. It’s not unique to Ireland; you find it in other countries too, but for us having a mastery of language is important, and there’s a premium placed on wordplay.”
Standup comedy was hardly a respectable profession for the son of a doctor and government minister, but Ireland’s soaring unemployment in the early nineties offered the young O’Hanlon few career options.
“Barry Murphy, Kevin Gildea and myself founded the comedy trio Mr. Trellis after we graduated from college with degrees in communications, which were basically worthless. By trying to be comedians, it was a way of looking busy and justifying not having a job in a bad economy. We made each other laugh a lot when we were bored, and we basically were expecting to have to emigrate to make a living. But instead, we sat around in a chip shop for about a year making each other laugh with gags that eventually became sketch material at the International Comedy Cellar.”
Ardal has a reputation for being quick on his feet with improvised gags. Challenged to find something funny about the recent disclosure on an RTE documentary that his grandfather was an assassin in Michael Collins infamous Twelve Apostles hit squad, he rose to the occasion.
“He was a medical student in Dublin who joined the IRA during the War of Independence in 1920,” he said. “He was arrested by the British at one point, and locked up in jail at a barracks in the Curragh. He managed to escape but lost a shoe on the way out, and had to walk all the way to his parents’ house in County Armagh with only one shoe. Does that count as funny?”
Maybe it does. But sometimes, local details in comedy don’t travel well across the ocean. Numerous comics have fallen flat on their fool faces trying to broaden their act and make it easier to digest in the U.S – check out Ricky Gervais’ yawnfest on HBO. But Ardal doesn’t expect any laughs to be lost in translation over here.
“Since I started with Mr. Trellis, we were always adamant that we wanted to do work that would be funny for any audience, anywhere,” said O’Hanlon. “We are Irish comedians, and have lived the Irish experience, and we convey it in Irish accents, but we talk about things everyone knows — about growing up, things that happened in school, about having a family. So we don’t need to change it for U.S audiences. We recognize that our shows will attract a lot of Irish people and Irish-Americans, people who appreciate Irish humor. The show won’t be changed much from what we usually do, for this U.S. tour, but it’s still up in the air as to how we approach it. But we’re always happy to play to new audiences and reach new territory.
“Audiences in Ireland would have quite set expectations about the three of us by now, because we have been doing this onstage and TV for many years, so the response in the U.S. will feel much fresher than what we are used to at home,” he said.
O’Hanlon’s co-star, Dylan Moran, like Tommy Tiernan, grew up in Navan, where he found comic inspiration in having nothing to do in a small town.
“Tommy, Hector O hEochagain and myself all grew up there, and they’d probably give you different reasons as to why the town produces so many comedians,” said Moran. “But I’d say that there was a very high level of boredom for us growing up. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Navan, and trying to entertain your fiends with smart talk was the main focus of our social lives. It’s really big in Ireland to be a funny guy down the pub, and it’s not like you had to leave the house with a prepared script ready to go down there, but you had to be able to hold your own.”
Growing up in Ireland’s pre-Celtic tiger economy, there were few job options available for a sardonic slacker. After a failed attempt to earn a living as a florist, Moran tried his hand at standup in Dublin, at Ardal O’Hanlon’s fabled International Comedy Cellar, the launch pad of so many Irish comedy careers.
“I kind of fell into it backwards, it wasn’t a deliberate thing,” he recalled. “I saw Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy with Ardal at the International and I was expecting a sloppy student revue, but I was floored by how sophisticated their humor was. I decided to give it a go, worked up some material and then went onstage there a week later. Then it sort of became my job, being funny.
Moran eventually realized that there were limited opportunities to advance his showbusiness career in Dublin.
“Taking the boat to England was the next logical step,” he said. “London has a hundred comedy clubs. By the time you’ve played them all, you can really establish yourself. I had no game plan to get on the telly, but I was asked to appear on “How Do You Want Me?” on BBC2, and it took off from there.”
Early sitcom appearances earned Moran his own TV show, “Black Books” on Channel 4 in the UK, in which he played a tipsy miserabilist who runs a bookshop. He also co-wrote the script.
“Black Books was based on an amalgamation of guys I knew, and creating the comedy felt like work for the first time,” he said. “U.S. sitcoms are a real team effort, with loads of writers, but we did it with just myself and Graham Linehan, who wrote ‘Father Ted.’ But when the writing starts to take shape, we try to hone it in the rehearsal room with really talented actors to make sure it works on the night. The challenge is to keep the original spontaneity, and the best of the U.S. standup comics retain that sense of talking to just one person, even if there are a thousand people in the room.”
Moran’s TV success led to film roles in “Run Fat Boy Run” and “Shaun of The Dead,” but he still finds inspiration in hometown pub banter as the catalyst for his comedic barbs.
“To me it always goes back to chatting with people in the pub back in Navan,” he said. “Working as a pro, you obviously have prepared material, but that acts only as a jumping off point, and you take off from there. Anything can happen in front of a packed house. I welcome hecklers. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now and it’s fun for me when someone has a go, especially if they’re any good. If some young fella wants to take me on, well, from my standpoint, he’s just another gunslinger on the avenue.”
New York hecklers can take on Moran, O’Hanlon and Tiernan in person on Friday, June 11, at Town Hall, West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Their Chicago counterparts can do likewise June 12 and 13, at the Vic Theatre.