WHEN THE crowd in the Town Hall Theatre rose to give Foil Arms and Hog a standing ovation after they performance their show, Doomdah, last Friday night, it was a deserved accolade, but perhaps, for the comedians, a bittersweet one.
“We’re coming towards the end of this tour, so it might be the last time we ever perform this show,” Sean Finegan, the Foil in the trio tells me. “It takes so long to create a show and then, that’s the end of it. It’s like putting down one of your children.”
The mixed emotions are understandable. Doomdah has given us some of the trio’s best sketches to date, such as ‘How to Speak Dublinese’, 'The Lanyard Song', and particularly the male secret service agent who goes undercover as a Black American woman - a clever and fresh satirisation of both racism and overly sensitive political correctness, where stereotyping, rather than stereotypes, becomes the butt of the joke. Yet, Foil, Arms and Hog are moving forward, and are already preparing a new show, Oink, to premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
“We have rehearsals for it this afternoon,” says Finegan, “and we’re writing material every day. You do get bored of the old stuff after a while, so when you have new stuff, it’s always a great buzz, seeing how it will work on stage and how it will go down with the audience.”
This is not to say we have seen the last of some of our favourite FAH sketches: "We do a new show every year, but the second half always has some of 'the hits'. It's fun reprising them as you can re-write them and improve them," says Finegan, before adding with a laugh, "they can be like the re-released versions of Star Wars."
Over the past eight years, the trio - Sean Finegan (Foil ), Conor McKenna (Arms ) and Sean Flanagan (Hog ) - have become one of Irish comedy’s best loved forces, with sketches, such as The Net People and Passport Control, becoming cult classics that have stood up to repeated performances. Also important to spreading the word have been their weekly YouTube videos, which have collectively clocked up more than four million hits.
“The videos concentrate more on dialogue and fast editing, whereas the live show is more about characters, the big idea, and audience interaction,” says McKenna. “YouTube is great as you are putting the script together with little or no budget, no one tells you what to do, you have to have it done, in and out in two minutes.”
While the YouTube videos are vital ‘audience generators’, it is the stage where Foil, Arms and Hog truly shine, and where they feel their best work will always be performed. “Anything you want to do that is really good, that has a chance of standing the test of time, the stage is where to do it,” McKenna continues. “That’s where something needs to be longer than two, two and a half minutes. And performing a stage show is just so much fun.”
Galway will have the chance to see the trio twice more before the year is out as they play the Black Box Theatre in May (for which tickets are selling fast ), and they are already confirmed for the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway in October.
Foil, Arms and Hog’s three members grew up in the Rathfarnam/Terenure area of Dublin, but only really crossed each other’s paths as students in UCD where all joined the Drama Society. Along with others, they created a Father Ted show - after securing permission from Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews - to perform in the university, before taking it on the road. “Our first time in Galway was doing that Father Ted show before we formed as Foil, Arms and Hog,” recalls McKenna. “I remember us handing out fliers on Shop Street.”
Doing that show convinced Finegan, McKenna, and Flanagan to become a comedy trio. The onset of the economic recession, as the trio graduated from university, also had a persuasive effect. “I was always going to try and do comedy anyway, but the recession kind of limited our options, suddenly there were no jobs around,” says McKenna. “It gave us the time to concentrate on comedy.” Flanagan adds: “The recession took a lot of pressure off us, and a recession is also good for comedy, people want a laugh.”
With the freedom to explore and develop their comedy, and the State in dire need of cheering up at a dispiriting time, Foil Arms and Hog began touring, and Galway was a place they returned to gig again and again.
“I remember playing upstairs in The King’s Head,” says Finegan. “No one knew who we were, but Gerry Mallon was out on Shop Street, shouting, ‘Foil Arms and Hog playing this lunchtime!’ to get the crowds in. We’ve played the Róisín Dubh many times as well, and one time we were doing the ‘Bouncer Sketch’ and we called the bouncer in the venue up on the stage. He was a massive, shaved headed, dude. He did and he played the part brilliantly. That’s one of our favourite memories.”
There was also the Galway show that almost never happened, as Finegan recalls: “It was during the Macnas Parade and at that time we didn’t know what the Macnas Parade was. We went to get food and the streets were fairly quiet, and by the time we left the restaurant the streets were absolutely crowded. ‘Where did all these people come from!?!’ We almost had to fight our way through the streets to get past the crowds and to the venue on time for the show. ‘Out of my way! I’m a comedian!’”
An image, a look, is something we tend to expect of rock bands, but not of comedians. Yet, there is Tommy Cooper and his fez and Al Murray’s pub landlord persona, while Russell Brand pioneered the first phase of what is now established as ’the hipster look’. Foil Arms and Hog have their own take on this. There is Flanagan’s bow-tie, Finegan’s waistcoat, and McKenna’s breeches and high-waisted trousers. And it seems that flamboyant British fitness instructor Mr Motivator, was the key to it all.
“I was involved in an advert for Electric Ireland and Mr Motivator was in it as well,” recalls Finegan. “He was in his Lycra, or spandex, whatever it is, leotard, and he said to me, ‘Do you know why so many other fitness instructors from the nineties have fallen by the wayside, while I’m still here? It’s because I have an image. You gotta have an image!’”
Though bemused by the advice the trio did think it would be a good idea to develop a look - although they passed on Mr Motivator’s skin tight psychedelic Lycra, opting instead for more sober attire. “Foil added a waistcoat and no one seemed to mind,” says McKenna. “Hog added the bow-tie and I was the last to the party with my braces and tweed pants (“It could have been tweed shorts,” chips in Flanagan mischievously ). It actually does help give you a stage persona.”
Foil Arms and Hog play the Black Box Theatre on Thursday May 25 at 8pm. Tickets are from the Róisín Dubh; www.roisindubh.net; [email protected], Shop Street; and the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ). They will also play the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway during the October Bank Holiday weekend.