Tommy Tiernan spent his boyhood in Ireland, consumed with American popular culture, particularly Lenny Bruce’s “The Carnegie Hall Concert” album. “And even though I didn’t understand all the references, I listened to that every night,” he said. “I thought it was incredible. It didn’t strike me as being very funny, but I thought it was really, really interesting what he was doing.”
Bruce’s fiery social commentary/comedy drove Tiernan to try standup. And after achieving success at home, he’s aiming to make his mark here. Tiernan’s CD and DVD, both called “Something Mental,” are now in stores, and his first “Comedy Central” special aired in mid-March.
In Ireland, Tiernan said, he typically plays to 1,200 to 1,400 people a night. Here so far, it’s more like 12 to 14.
“When I was preparing to go on “Letterman,” I did midweek shows in New York clubs in front of eight people, 20 people,” he said. “It’s interesting for me to not bask in anything you might have achieved in one place. It forces you back onto your chops, to see what you’ve got.”
Here’s more of our conversation:
NUVO: You make a lot of observations about America and our need to be happy. What do you see when you travel around?
TIERNAN: This is probably the only country in the world where you’re legally obliged to pursue happiness.
I was walking around Indianapolis yesterday, and I couldn’t get over the amount of security guards everywhere. Every building I walked into had security guards, usually quite large men.
“Uh, can I help you, sir?”
“I don’t know. Can you?”
“Well, what are you looking for?”
“Even the fact that you asked me that question would indicate you can’t help me on any level.”
I think people here are very concerned with what’s proper. We had a politician in Ireland who was found in a public park with a young adolescent who was a male prostitute. He wasn’t asked to resign. He was just told, “Let’s try to not let it happen again.” Whereas this guy [New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer, he’s been spit-roasted.
Historically, this is where people came to start again. Initially, it was pilgrims from England, who said, “We’ve had enough of the way England is. We’re going to go to America now and we’re going to start this new paradise.” I think people come here with the attitude of “We’re going to make it good.” That’s just the attitude here now.
People here are initially suspicious and then genuinely friendly. I think there’s a thing of “do you belong?” And I don’t mean that in the sense of being an outsider. I mean in the way you look. Do you look as if you have enough money to be in this room? Are you a threat to anybody in the shop? If those initial fears are overcome, people are very friendly.
NUVO: The security guard observation is really interesting. This is a very scared country.
TIERNAN: When you say this is a scared country, when I’m here now, then I’m in as much danger as anybody else is. So is there a need for me to be afraid? I don’t think so. There’s a great Bill Hicks routine where he talks about how he’s watching the news and it’s all war, death, famine, terror. Then he opens the curtains and he looks out and there’s just crickets chirping.
NUVO: Did Sept. 11 not make your country scared?
TIERNAN: I think Sept. 11 probably made everybody scared. But it’s like that guy caught in the park with that boy: OK, let’s try not to let that happen again.
When you look at what’s happening in places like Pakistan and Iraq, that kind of stuff is happening every single day. There was something on the news the other day that since the Iraq war started, they reckon 150,000 civilians have been killed. If anybody’s entitled to feel genuinely afraid, it’s the people over there, rather than us. If you’re selling carpets in a market in Baghdad, if anybody’s entitled to ask for security, I think it’s you — not somebody working in The Gap in Indianapolis.
NUVO: You hit religion pretty head-on, especially that joke about how Jesus probably looked like Danny DeVito. What’s been the reaction?
TIERNAN: I did a gig in New York — it was a D.L. Hughley show in Caroline’s and it was an all-black crowd. I was just doing 10 minutes because we’re represented by the same guy, so he managed to get me on the bill. I did stuff about sex and they were clutching themselves, rocking back and forth with laughter. I did stuff about children — the same. As soon as I mentioned Jesus, the women looked at the ground and the men eyeballed me as if to say, “I’d hurry up if I was you, son.”
It’s amazing to me the amount of things here that are divisive. People are divided physically and it seems people are also divided in terms of religion. It seems to be an easy place to pick up enemies. The religious right seems to think the non-believers are the enemy and the liberals are the enemy. The liberals think the fundamentalists are the enemy and if only we could conquer them, everybody would be happy. It’s very easy to get polarized.
You would pick up from TV that this is a vicious ideological struggle and it’s making everyone tense and angry. But if you’re just walking around saying hello to people, does it make that much of a difference? It seems to me, everybody’s looking for someone to blame.
NUVO: How does that affect you as a comedian?
TIERNAN: Every place you do a show, there’s a sense of what is and what is not appropriate. If you say something people feel is inappropriate, if people don’t give you the minute or 90 seconds or whatever you need to show that the angle that you’re coming at is justified, that’s very repressive. I haven’t been anywhere where there’s been that.
I did a club in Pittsburgh and directly after that I went to Washington, D.C., and then San Francisco. Before I went, I thought Pittsburgh would be tough because it’s a blue-collar city, Washington should be fantastic because it’s a political city and people should be smart and savvy, and San Francisco should be crazy fun.
In Pittsburgh, I got the impression that these were people who worked hard and when they went to a comedy club, they wanted to drink beer and have a laugh. They didn’t care what I talked about. Any subject, as long as they thought it was funny, they laughed.
Washington, D.C., I was doing three shows. After the first show, the owner of the club came down and said, “We have a language policy. You don’t have to curse in order to be funny. We’d like you to refrain from using so much bad language.”
In San Francisco, it was the most conservative club I’ve ever played. It was almost like they thought of themselves as being at the vanguard of progressive thought. If you were poking fun at something they held to be wonderfully, liberally true, they didn’t go with you at all.
NUVO: When you perform on “Letterman,” are there subjects you’re told to stay away from?
TIERNAN: Yeah. I have this joke about [people picturing Jesus as an] 8-foot-tall Bee Gee Jesus and that’s where the phrase “Bejesus” came out of. The producers didn’t want me to do it.
I have this line, “My daughter is the fattest human being in the world. She walks around the house like a milky overflowing Buddha.” They said, “You can’t say your daughter walks around the house in the nude.” OK.
I have this other line about women looking after each other and I say, “A girl is inside the house crying and outside there’s a bunch of fat lesbians pacing in case a man-bastard happens to walk past.” They said, “You can’t say the lesbians are fat.”
What can you do? There isn’t a right and wrong. I can’t prove to the producers of “The Late Show” that it’s OK to say “fat lesbians.” They can’t prove to me that it’s not OK. But they have the power, so I say, “OK.”
NUVO: Are you religious?
TIERNAN: I always think the appropriate response to that is, “You tell me.”
NUVO: I always think the appropriate response is, “None of your fucking business.”
TIERNAN: Oh, really?
NUVO: The only reason I ask is, George Carlin is opposed to religion and comes right out and says so. You make jokes about religion, but it’s different coming from a religious person who believes in God and sees some merit in the positions of the church.
TIERNAN: I think I definitely would be considered religious. But I think we need another word for it because it has such a polarizing effect. If you say, “I’m interested in the story of Christ, I’m interested in making inquiries about that” — that’s what I am, basically. I’m interested in prayer and the mysteries.
One of the things I’ve noticed about some of the most fundamentalist Christians is it does tend to be loveless. It tends to be very dogmatic and moralistic without there being much generosity. All things are based on punishment.
I call myself a Christian. But at the same time, I feel wonderfully free to attack it from every angle that I can when I’m on stage. That’s my job, in a sense.
I was reading a book about the Dalai Lama recently, and he was talking about the other members of his family. He was talking about his older brother and he said, “My older brother is fantastic. He tells me loads and loads of filthy jokes. They’re very funny.”
I thought that was a fantastic thing. Can you imagine the pope saying, “You should meet my brother Franz. Some of the filthy jokes he tells me, they have me in knots.”
NUVO: Carlin comes at it and he’s 100 percent positive there’s nothing. You come at it and you talk about a lot of the same things, but in more of a curious and joke-y way.
NUVO: Maybe you’re hedging your bets.
TIERNAN: Hey, show me a hedge. I’ll bet on it.
For more on Tommy Tiernan: www.tommytiernan.com.