TOMMY TIERNAN is about to undertake his greatest challenge yet. In the Nuns Island Theatre during the Easter weekend, he will attempt to perform 36 hours of non-stop stand up comedy in an attempt to enter the Guinness Book Of Records. What can we expect? “Imagine the Sex Pistols doing an album of ballads!” he says.
Tommy will present his new show Testamental at the record breaking attempt which he will perform between 3pm on Good Friday (April 10 ) and dawn on Easter Sunday (April 12 ).
During that time he will be monitored by a Guinness Book Of Records official to ensure everything is in accordance with the standards needed to comply with feats of endurance records.
He will only be allowed five minute breaks between shows (each show lasting about one hour ) which does not leave a lot of time for meals or going to the toilet. “I’ll be doing that on-stage,” Tommy tells me with a laugh as we sit for the interview on Tuesday morning.
Tommy appears calm and relaxed as we talk but he admits he is “daunted and worried” about the huge challenge that faces him.
“I’m daunted and worried in the way someone who is about to do Blackwater rafting might be,” he says. “In Blackwater rafting you sit in a big inflatable donut and travel in rivers underground where it is pitch black and you can’t see anything. I feel as if I am being lowered into a deep well and I can’t see but I hope there is a river below and that it will be a bit of craic.”
There is currently no record for such a stand-up comedy performance so it will be a major achievement on numerous levels - physical, emotional, and in terms of trail blazing - if Tommy can achieve this.
“Thirty-six hours is a long time,” he says. “There is no guarantee of success. It’s not a fait accompli.”
It’s time to testify
As a live performer, Tommy is known and celebrated for his manic, intense, energy and the physicality of his shows - will he be able to keep it up for 36 hours for Testamental?
“It will be like the Sex Pistols doing an album of ballads,” he laughs. “Imagine The Prodigy doing a slow set. I have to mind my voice. I don’t want to end up sounding like Freddie Starr. I will have to be careful.”
A title like Testamental has religious and biblical connotations and interestingly Tommy says the idea for the 36 hours comes from the 36 hours Christ lay in the tomb between Good Friday and dawn on the first Easter Sunday. Also the show started out with a biblical theme.
“Initially I was hoping to do a show based on the Bible,” he says. “I was reading Genesis and making notes and reflections after each line but I didn’t think they were very interesting to the audience. I mean who can you talk about that they would know? Noah and Adam and Eve and that’s it. The Bible is very distant from mainstream culture and I didn’t think it was interesting enough to base a 36 hour comedy show on.
“For me stand-up always has to be about surprise. If you know the route you’re travelling it makes it less interesting so in the end Testamental doesn’t have a theme apart from a journey into states of mind - and that’s not a theme. What will happen in the show is about what will happen during the show and the thoughts in my mind at that time.”
Tommy’s interest in the Bible and religious matters is fascinating, given the notoriety he has attracted over the years because of his comedy about religion, Jesus, and the Roman Catholic Church. Yet for Tommy, to stage his record breaking attempt on the Easter Weekend has deeply personal, perhaps even spiritual reasons.
“The story of Jesus is bigger than the Church,” he says. “I think that it’s a story that is very very special at this weekend and this is my way of marking that. For me to do this at Easter is no less authentic to me than it is to the established church.
“There is an element in terms of the Easter weekend that can be interpreted on many levels and as well as that you are reminding people who might have no interest in the established church that however misshapen or crooked their notion of God might be, you are still entitled to your own particular dance.”
So what is Tommy’s “particular dance”? Tommy’s reply calls to mind John 14:2: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”
“The only two houses I’m interested being in are the one with God and the one with jokes and to me they are both hard,” he says.
Say it fearlessly
That Tommy is arguably the greatest Irish comedian at work today is beyond doubt. His comedy is uninhibited and fears no boundaries, whether it be the religious, the disabled, women, Travellers, Eastern Europeans, and above all the Irish themselves. All peoples and walks of life are covered - often with the intention of exposing the attitudes people really hold beneath the polite and politically correct exteriors they present to the world. However this is something which Tommy’s critics consistently fail to see.
“I really believe in jokes,” he says. “I don’t see anything sinister in laughter. I don’t fully understand it but I trust it. What I can’t figure out is that I get into so much trouble creating laughter in public about what people laugh about in private.
“The most recent reaction was on The Late Late Show to a routine that made over 100,000 people laugh during my tour but as soon as it was on The Late Late Show it was offensive.
“I think there is an Irish thing of no matter how bad a situation is we always find a way of looking at it humorously. It’s a great sense of spirit. It’s not logical but it’s not fake. Maybe the sociologists in The Irish Times don’t appreciate it.
“I have nothing against jokes. I don’t mind if they are racist or sexist. I don’t consider myself racist or sexist. I am curious about laughter and where it comes from. My ideal comedy club would be a multi-cultural room - like the UN - where they get up and the Indians slag the Pakistanis, the Ethiopians slag the Nigerians, the Irish slag the English. That would be really liberating.
“The most important thing is to get up on stage and have the craic and not hold back about anything. Comedy is an arena where the inappropriate has currency and you can say the things that people are thinking and that way, by saying the unsayable, you can take away any power it has.”
Tickets for a one hour show are €20/15 and €45/35 for a three hour show. All proceeds from the event will go to charity. For more information contact 091 - 564875, email [email protected], or see www.tommytiernan.com