Tommy Tiernan – ‘It was like being taken from the zoo and being abandoned in the Amazon’
In his own words, how the 90s Perrier winner took a leap into the improv dark
This article is from 2015.
This improv show started from the knowledge that the best moments from any show are off-the-cuff ones, both for audience and performer. A comedian puts together a 90-minute show and people leave saying ‘that bit when he was talking to the woman in the front row was amazing’, so it sprung from an awareness of being fully creatively alive in the moment.
I loved the idea of composing in front of a crowd and I started doing that in Galway as a lunchtime experiment. It was a little bit like being taken from the zoo and being abandoned in the Amazon: very difficult, very thrilling, very pressurised, but soon I developed a rhythm and a way of doing it. It’s not game-based, it’s not suggestion-based, it’s a conjuring of some sort. At any moment in time, there is something that you want to talk about and it’s about finding that.
Actually I don’t fully know how to explain it, so here’s a story. In the west of Ireland there’s a collection of Zen Buddhist monks, and one of them came to the show in Galway. The way I was working at that time was that if I had nothing to say, I’d say nothing. So I’d wait for what was only a minute or maybe 90 seconds, but felt much longer, waiting until the next wave arose and broke and I started talking again; that was the shape of the show. As this monk was leaving, he came up to me and said, ‘I liked the quiet bits’.
Then two or three months later, I was doing a show in Monaghan, and a theatre practitioner from there came to see me afterwards and said, ’yeah, do you know them quiet bits? I’d have a few things tucked up my sleeve if I was you.’
When a performer is pushed beyond themselves and out of their comfort zone, they rely on instinct and panic. I can’t demand when inspiration will turn up but I can ferociously dig for it.
As told to Brian Donaldson
Tommy Tiernan Alive in Edinburgh, Gilded Balloon, 622 6552, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30 Aug, 7.30pm, £15–£16 (£14–£15); Tiernan also appears at the Gilded Balloon 30th Anniversary Gala at the Playhouse, 622 6552 / 0844 871 3014, 15 Aug, 8pm, £20 (£18).