Victoria Nangle chats with Ed Byrne, international stand-up extraordinaire, about religion, marriage and Barack Obama
It’s Friday afternoon when I call Ed Byrne, he’s relaxed after a week of corporate gigs. Known recently as the voice of Carphone Warehouse ads, his stand-up tour of 2008 has proven so popular he’s added extra dates for this year and keeps turning up on all manner of comedy panel shows – as he has done for the past ten years. He’s in demand and loving it.
You were quite prominent as an atheist comic. What do you think of comics taking a stand against religious beliefs?
You’re the first person to have remarked that I’m an atheist comic, I’m happy with the title, but I didn’t particularly think people think of me in that way. It’s not just in comedy, but across the board. You’ve got people like Richard Dawkins with his book The God Delusion, it’s become less taboo.
It’s an easy thing to take the piss out of. There are so many contradictions and ugliness and hatred in it that it’s right it has the piss taken out of it, but, it’s easy to point the finger and say that’s obviously not true.
People also know who you’re talking about. More than say… Nigella Lawson. There are people out there who don’t know who Nigella Lawson is, or a famous footballer, not everyone follows football. Everyone knows who Jesus Christ is, and you can make jokes about it and it’s not going to go over anyone’s head.
You play to international audiences a lot, I imagine this would be true of the material you use in a lot of places?
America is really tricky. It’s incredible how Christian they are. You’re the edgiest of the edgy if you take the piss out of religion and you take your life in your hands if you do it in the flyover states. In places like New York, you can do it a bit, but it’s a much riskier thing. Here staunch Christians don’t tend to go to stand-up comedy, maybe they do in the States.
What about in Ireland?
It’s fine, you can be controversial. I don’t want to sound like an 18-year-old stoner, but religion has been the cause of a fair few problems over the years, so I think people are happy for you to make fun of it.
Do you think Barack Obama’s presidency is going to change the way people do material because Bush has been great fodder?
I haven’t seen many people do great stuff about Bush he’s is a very easy target. I find it annoying when people just quote him. It’s funny when he says the French don’t have a word for entrepreneur, but how many times can a comic say that as a Canadian? It’s kind of cheating. I think with Obama, political humour is going to have to be a lot cleverer. It will actually be very good for comedy because people will really have to lift their game. You can’t just go: “He’s an idiot!” It’s even going to make it hard to make fun of Americans, because they’ve finally done something right.
Which comics do you enjoy watching?
Comics that aren’t like me, because I’m not trying to second-guess them and I’m not jealous of their jokes. I like Bill Bailey and Al Murray because they’re quite different from me and very funny.
Describe your current show.
‘The best one I’ve done in ten years’ seems to be the common consensus. It’s about class, about not being able to fit in. It‘s either working class or middle class. I also have a thing of being not quite famous and not quite nobody. I’m a very in-between kind of bloke. I talk about just getting married and what a pain in the arse organising a wedding is. There’s also a thing in there about the things you wish you’d said in arguments but didn’t say at the time and think of it later.
“I think with Obama, political humour is going to have to be
a lot cleverer”
How do you decide with your relationship what is taboo to talk about on stage – do you talk it through with the other half?
I don’t really say anything that mean. When we met, she knew what I did for a living, and it would be a bit unfair for her to say: “You know how you go on stage and talk about your life, can you stop doing that now.”
There’s one joke in the show she’s not keen on because it’s a lie. It implies that my wife didn’t let me invite certain people to the wedding, but that’s a joke. Everything else she’s happy with. Her only problem is if I misrepresent her. We have a nice house to live in so that compensates.
Any advice to aspiring comics?
Don’t do it! I think the most important thing is to not go to big comedy shows until you’re absolutely ready. Lots of people make the mistake of going to the Comedy Store for their first open spot and die on their arse. A year later they’re good, but the Comedy Store won’t book them because they remember you as that guy that died on his arse. That is the most important thing on a practical level.
The other thing is to write down everything you say that is funny. Don’t go: ‘That’s not quite funny enough to do as a joke’, because two or three years down the line you might think of a way to make it funny. Don’t think: ‘Ah, I’ll remember that’, because a lot of the time you won’t.
I have forgotten, at a conservative estimate, 45 minutes of material – good jokes too! I’ve thought of it, told it to my missus and said, “We must remember that”, “Yes we must.” And then the next day: “What was that thing last night?” “Don’t know.” Write it down.
Ed Byrne: Different Class can be seen at The Theatre Royal Brighton, on Monday 9 February. Tickets cost £18.50.