18 Mar 2015

Ed Byrne: 'My stand-up slayed nine men'

10:25 am on 18 March 2015

Irish comedian Ed Byrne would be great in one of those “it gets better” videos for people who suspect that even if, in fact, it does get better, they will never have a personality as quite relentlessly upbeat as that of Neil Patrick Harris’.

A proudly self-proclaimed “miserable git from the age of 23”, Ed has finally hit middle age and, as he sees it, an appropriate excuse to finally act the part he’s been rehearsing for since he was young.

“It’s about growing old disgracefully,” he says of his show, Roaring Forties, which he’s bringing to the New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

He’s not old; he’s 42. He’s also not letting that stop him.

His complaints include having to make unnecessary friends (“My wife’s friends with your wife; guess that means I’ll be going on holiday with your dull arse for the rest of my life!”), and the jackets rappers wear in music videos (“Aren’t they hot with those big anoraks on?”)

For anyone fearing at this point that Ed has started early on the slow descent into the predictable late-middle-aged amalgam of Jeremy Clarkson and Winston Peters, don’t worry; he plans to evolve.

“There’s certain things I’m looking forward to when I get even older,” he says. “I’ve decided, when I hit 55, to just start talking in a Scottish accent.

He yells something fairly indecipherable but convincingly Scottish (I can attest to this, having once almost fled a Scottish corner shop because I feared it was being held up; the customer was actually merely greeting the owner, who appeared to be a friend).

Ed’s a proper nerd; not the kind parts of comedy is populated with – young guys with tight pants and too-cool haircuts, who profess their “nerd-dom” for laughs – but the kind who tweets about finally discovering Civilisation V, and has a lot of feelings about Star Trek. Old age has, then, come easily to him.  

As a case in point, Ed Byrne hill walks. He has done since he was teenager, but he stopped for a while. That’s all changed now he’s ‘old.’

“All that time you’re no longer going out and getting drunk…” he says. “I’ve taken to the hills again.”

He writes for The Great Outdoors Magazine about hill walking. He even – and I felt a little apprehensive asking him about it, because I thought that couldn’t possibly be the word; it sounds rude and euphemistic and completely inappropriate – he even munro-bags.

“Munros are Scottish mountains above 3000 feet,” he says, “And there are 282 of them. And I think it’s actually a trick that the Scottish are playing on tourists, because 3000 feet is also the approximate height at which Scottish cloud tends to just… sit.

“So you just spend your day walking up a hill and then see nothing.”

This is him expressing a profuse enjoyment for the sport. Despite not being able to see anything, he’s already “bagged”, or ticked off, 76 of them. He can’t wait, either, to take to the hills while he’s back in New Zealand.

Since dropping out of university to start a comedy club (I’ve no idea where he got the nerve, and, having asked him, I’m not sure if he knows either), Ed’s become increasingly popular on the touring circuit, with big followings in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, frequent appearances on Mock the Week and other panel shows, and a list of co-stars on his Graham Norton Show appearances that makes the Oscars red carpet look like an X Factor reunion.

Perhaps his popularity is due to a knack, shared by few, of mixing his nerdy personality with arena-friendly gags and biting social satire, to create a blend of observational comedy that avoids the banality of Michael McIntyre and the esotericism of more niche comedians.

It’s like you deliberately like, put a screwdriver in your brain and just mess with the settings so that you’re kind of looking at everything with a skewed vision.

A bit, for example, in a previous show, about an 11 year old boy wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the 50 Cent lyric “I love pussy like a fat girl love cake” goes the expected places (grammar, appropriateness), but also has a five-point structure and contains an unexpected, but much appreciated,  tirade against fat-shaming.

Because it’s important to Ed that his astutely observational comedy is based on real things that happen to him, he says the actual creation of it sends him a bit mad.

“When I’m in my writing phase, which I’m in now, because I’ve got to have the new show for August [for the next Edinburgh Festival], I’m in a state that is something – not to mock people with these difficulties, but it is close to insanity. It’s like you deliberately like, put a screwdriver in your brain and just mess with the settings so that you’re kind of looking at everything with a skewed vision.”

“You’re almost taking everything in in a deliberately obtuse and misunderstood way. You’ve just become this strangely emotionally and socially unqualified person all of a sudden. You’re just looking at everything with this weird outsider perspective and imagining why it’s like that and why isn’t it different.

“It’s really irritating to be around,” he laughs. “So that’s where the stuff comes from.”

That twisted take on the mundane is how he ended up, in his current show, telling jokes about his hernia, the ultimate level-up trophy of the middle-aged man.

“I went to the doctor, and I went to the surgery, and I went with this gonzo attitude of being silly and saying inappropriate things while it was going on, knowing that I will be mining this for a routine, and I will be talking about this onstage later.

“And you know what’s interesting, is on my last tour, I had like, nine people faint.

“Over the course of about 60 gigs, we had nine people faint during my hernia routine. Always blokes in their 40s or 50s.”

Ed met with all of them after the shows and says they claimed it was just a bit hot and they hadn’t had any dinner, but it was always at the same point in his set, so he’s not buying it.

“I’ve never knocked a man out physically, but I have knocked nine men out WITH MY WORDS!” he bellows.

He’s going to make a great Scotsman.

Ed Byrne is performing at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, in Auckland and Wellington. He’s also hosting the Comedy Gala. You can hear more in On The Dial.