He might have built his Fringe show around a childhood problem with a lazy eye, but as Janet Christie discovers, there’s nothing workshy about comedian Jason Byrne. A massive tour and a new BBC TV sitcom follow his best-selling Edinburgh run.
Oh, that’s a nice cup,” says Jason Byrne, eyeing the coffee he’s just been served. It is a nice cup – Missoni, white bone china with stylised black kaleidoscopic flowers on the cup and saucer, but domestic chit-chat is not what you expect from someone who makes his living doing stand-up, a breed better known for their scorching put-downs and hair-of-the-dog lifestyle.
“Sorry, I keep saying things like that at the moment because I’ve been doing a sitcom for BBC1. It’s a sweet sitcom. It’s not violent or vicious – it’s about a stay-at-home dad, played by me, and his family and friends, based a lot on my family and friends. It’s made me more emotional too – it turns you round. You have to work out emotions and I’m writing for females as well as males, and you have to open up. My wife is delighted. It’s made me more weepy, which is probably through the stress. I’ve lost weight too, half a stone,” he says.
Then there’s the stand-up – tonight and every other night for the rest of August he’ll be performing in front of a crowd of around 600 in Edinburgh’s spectacular McEwan Hall. On stage the 41-year-old is all frenetic activity, a bundle of boyish enthusiasm rushing around from one side to the other, sweat dripping from his tousled reddish mop as he motor mouths ad-libs with the audience, a style that has made him the best-selling comedian on the Fringe.
“You lose so much weight doing stand-up, because you don’t eat properly and rushing around on stage takes it out of you,” he says.
For now, Byrne is unusually still, calm and relaxed, pausing between stories to sip his coffee. He has just signed up at a local gym so he can keep fit while he’s in Edinburgh.
With a schedule that will see him off on tour to Australia, Ireland, and back to the UK after the Fringe run, he can’t let himself go the way of some other comedians. There are no dark shadows under the eyes, no five o’clock shadow, no beer belly. Instead, he’s slim and tall in dark jeans and a black T-shirt that bears the logo for his Special Eye show; two white eyes, one turned inwards like Byrne’s “lazy” eye before he had it fixed.
The Special Eye title of Byrne’s stand-up routine refers to his astigmatism that was corrected by an operation at the age of ten. Prior to that, from the age of four, he wore glasses, with a plaster over the lens of his good eye, to make the “lazy” one work.
“Twister wasn’t much fun, or watching ping pong with my dad, and at school I was a geeky guy with glasses. I was called the Milky Bar Kid, which wasn’t so bad, but ‘Speccy’ was the name I hated. Something about the sound of it makes you lose your mind. I went at a couple of boys for that. But bullies are thick so you can keep them at bay with your mouth. And chasing them up the corridors with dog s**t from the school yard on a stick also works.”
Mind you, “Speccy” seems rather tame compared with his mother’s choice of pet name. “My eye used to get worse when I was tired, and when I was really tired she used to call me Marty Feldman.”
Sharp, observant wit obviously runs in the family, and Byrne has made a career out of his verbosity, quick thinking and story-telling abilities. Reacting to what the audience throws up is his stock in trade.
“My show is all completely scripted before I go on, but then something will happen. Like last night, there were some nice Australians in the audience and I was talking to them, and thought I’d ask everyone what the capital of Australia was, trick question. This big Scottish guy just shouted, “Who gives a f****** shite?”. Only in Scotland. You’ve got to love it. The Australians looked a bit stunned. I like that. So, it’s all scripted, then a big tattooed Scottish guy will sit down in the front row and things change.”
The show I catch features a Space Hopper race, with inflatables adorned by the skelly eyes that have become Byrne’s logo and Byrne’s audience don’t let him down, the proceedings descend into mayhem when it turns out that not everyone actually knows, or indeed has even seen a Space Hopper before.
“Where do these people come from? Why do their wives let them out on their own?” he asks, not for the first time, in an act where waste-of-space men, chiefly himself, come in for a tongue-lashing compared to women, who he admits “just rule”.
His views on gender relations and female superiority – for instance their speed and efficiency in going to the toilet because they have so much else to do – go down well with the women in the audience, who whoop appreciation, while he keeps the men onside by glorying in laddish daftness.
But being nice doesn’t mean Byrne is anodyne; it just means his comedy doesn’t need any victims other than himself and everymen and women just like him.
“I can’t go into heavy stuff because my crowd wouldn’t laugh about it. If I was nasty or talked about racism or special needs, they would say, ‘Oh Jason, why did you say that?’ But I love things like Family Guy, and they don’t leave anyone alone. I am nice and people just like me. I only get them up on stage if they want to come up; if they don’t I leave them alone. The audience love it if I talk to them and local connections are always good. So in Scotland the English get a hiding and in Edinburgh I’ll talk about things like Hearts starting the league 15 points down and Hibs being battered seven nil, things I get from taxi drivers – that’s what people are talking about.”
Back at home in the countryside near Dublin, his wife Brenda looks after their two boys aged 13 and six while Byrne is away touring on the comedy circuit, and more recently filming his sitcom, which is due to be aired on BBC1 from mid-September.
“Brenda’s used to me being away. We’ve always lived like this. In fact, last time I was home was the longest ever, three months, and I was writing in what we call ‘the cottage’ in our garden and she came down to chat and asked if I was going to be going away again soon, because it had been a long time. She likes her house back.”
Byrne’s family will join him for some of his Edinburgh stint, then he’ll have a month at home before heading off on his international tour. What kind of dad is he at home? I reckon he’s one that whips his two sons, along with the family dogs Sonny and Jessie into a frenzy of mischief.
“No, not really. Well, OK, my favourite thing that we do is the boys will wait till I’m in the shower, locked in mind, because I don’t trust them, and the little one will pretend he needs the toilet, then when I finally give in and open the door, they’ll throw a bucket of cold water over me. Often it’s the wife doing the throwing too.”
Written, directed and starring Byrne, Father Figure features a dad a bit like him and is loosely based on his own experiences. A radio show before it was commissioned as a TV sitcom, it was filmed in part before a studio audience because Byrne reckons that’s when he performs best. Having an audience also means he can check out if his jokes work.
“It’s great because you write more in or take them out. With stand-up, you don’t know till you’ve said something and then it’s too late. It’s hard and unforgiving, physically too, compared to sitcom. In stand-up you are totally on your own and there’s no-one to look after you.”
It may be hard and unforgiving, but Byrne has been doing it for so long he can’t shake the habit, nor would he want to. This is his 18th year in Edinburgh and he has every intention of continuing “unless I’m making a feature film or something,” he says. “I thought the sitcom would get me out of it, but it finished just in time, so I had to come,” he says, mock sighing. He loves it really.
Even when he was doing the BBC sitcom, and banned by the producer from doing stand-up, he found himself sneaking out at night to perform live in comedy clubs. Like an addict who needed his crystal meth, Byrne haunted the gritty underworld of stand-up, feeding his craving for laughs and the chance to spew potty-mouthed profanities.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, I just had to do it. I got out there and swore my head off – there’s no swearing in the sitcom – letting off steam, and it felt soooo good.”
Byrne’s stand-up is for adults only. “Stand-up is not for f****** children and it never will be. It’s not fair on the comics to have kids in. A lot of people clean up to get into the comedy arena, but stand-up should be a dirty, gritty thing,” he announces. In contrast, his sitcom is a family show for everyone, based on his own family, even if he’s had to tone them down and clean them up a little.
Byrne plays Tom, a stay-at-home Home Counties dad, whose career as a portrait photographer has stalled and with his wife the main wage-earner, he’s the one in charge of the domestic domain and kids.
“It chimed a lot with what’s happening in Ireland, with the recession, where they had to sit down and discuss who earns the most and who’s going to do the childcare.”
Much of the situation comedy comes from Byrne’s own life and was the suggestion of Julia McKenzie, the producer of his Jason Byrne Show on Radio 2, which won a Sony Gold Award in 2011.
She said, “Why don’t you just write a sitcom about your family? So I did. S**t happens to me all the time, it just doesn’t stop. A TV falling on my head, chasing the children around with s**t on a stick … I’m playing an exaggerated version of myself, but it’s based on real characters. The children are similar to mine, the best friend is like my best friend. And the parents are like my parents, but they’re all slightly different. The parents are toned down – mine swear too much and are too mad,” he says.
“But the dad in the show says things my dad is always saying, like, ‘Well, that was bound to happen’ if he spills a cup of tea or something. It’s to deflect blame from himself and on to other people. And my mother is always saying, ‘Shut up Paddy!’ and giving him a whack on the head, and in the show the mum’s the same. I just go round to my mum and dad’s and write it down, like when my mum accused my dad of getting s**t all over the bedsheets but it turned out he’d fallen asleep with a box of Rolos in the bed. The worst of it was, when he woke up he thought he had done it too.”
Byrne is a born story-teller who has kissed the blarney stone and the key to his success lies in his enthusiastic telling. As another Irish comedian used to say, it’s the way he tells them. That’s the thing about comedy. You’re either funny or you’re not. And Byrne is. Much of his delivery is surely the result of his upbringing in a house full of chat and craic, with his mum and dad, brother and two sisters, plus scores of cousins all vying for attention.
“I have 36 on my dad’s side. On my mum’s side (Eithne a former professional ballroom dancer, who appeared on Come Dancing) there weren’t so many, but there are millions of us. We’re all confident because we grew up in an adult environment. If you were a shy child you were f***ed. It was all, ‘Come here and say hello to your Uncle Frank. I didn’t even have an Uncle Frank, he was just someone that had wandered in.”
For now Byrne is hoping Father Figure will be commissioned for a second and third series so he can develop the characters, “see the family grow up, a bit like Anthony does in the Royle Family. It’s got great people in it – Pauline McLynn plays my mother, a quieter version, though that’s hard to believe, and Michael Smiley and Dermot Crowley, who are both in Luther – it’s nothing like that, Luther fans – and Karen Taylor who plays my wife. They’re all brilliant.”
And if he ever runs out of inspiration, all he needs to do is pay a visit to his mum and dad.
MORE INFO: Jason Byrne’s Special Eye, until 26 August, 9pm, Underbelly, McEwan Hall, Bristo Square, Edinburgh, £19.50, and from 17 October nationwide. More info: www.jasonbyrne.ie; Father Figure is on BBC1 from mid September.