Ahead of his latest Edinburgh Fringe appearance, the mercurial Irish stand-up ponders his inspirations and believes that what a comedy crowd needs isn't always what they want
'I'm a performer who's very vulnerable to persuasion,' chuckles Tommy Tiernan. His latest hour, Under the Influence, finds the 48-year-old reflecting that at 'this stage of life, I'm never free from influence. It's an acknowledgement that all my ideas are second-hand, in the sense that I'm inspired.'
Ireland's greatest living comic points to Scotland's Billy Connolly as a like-minded spirit, just sharing 'stories and flights of fancy'. Lenny Bruce too, 'where he drifted into areas that were dramatic, that were almost like little plays'. Beyond those two, his other great inspirations are storytelling musicians like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen.
'In this particular show, the stories have been shaped by the road over the past 12 months,' he states of only his second full Edinburgh run since he won the Perrier Award in 1998. 'They're in good comic shape and I can play with them, the way that someone like Dylan would play with tempo or emphasis.' As with Cohen, he meticulously prepares but still allows himself the space to improvise. 'Like Connolly says, "I know what stories I'm going to tell each night, I just don't know what order I'm going to tell them in".'
Tiernan weaves quotations throughout his considered conversation, reaching for the lyricism of his forbears at a deep level of oral folk consciousness, a shared humanity beneath the wolfish grin. He has a James Joyce passage tattooed on his arm, a 'secular Hail Mary in praise of women', and ahead of each show he recites a mantra from Flann O'Brien. Before taking the stage, Tiernan used to listen to Winston Churchill's speeches and 'born-again Christian evangelists from the States: they're amazing orators those guys'. The former priest manqué appreciates an observation Simon Munnery made about him recently, 'that I was preaching for half the show and confessing for the other half. So maybe there's an element of that.'
His recent venture into fully improvised shows was a mixed success, 'with an extra humanity, an extra despair … but as difficult to watch as they were to perform, with no comfort for the crowd'. Still, the process spawned his own unique chatshow in Ireland, recently commissioned for two more series, in which neither he nor the studio audience know who his guests are before they appear. 'It's almost like a blind date,' he explains. 'The guest might not be as glamorous as you get on Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross. But the encounter is more interesting because it's a genuine clash of unknowns'.
Spontaneity has occasionally landed this mercurial, mischievous stand-up in trouble. But scandalised headlines are a price he's willing to pay while hunting for the playful moment. 'If you genuinely want to access wiseness and a joyful recklessness, then of course, from time to time, people are going to be offended,' he reasons. 'If I say something on stage that's tremendously hurtful, the audience lets me know and it's immediately addressed and amended in the moment. That rarely happens. It's just sometimes people outside the room pick up on something. This seems to be an era of tell-tales! But you have to say whatever comes into your head, you have to trust where it's coming from, because otherwise the audience aren't getting their money's worth in terms of seeking out that deregulated voice that pays no heed to consequence. They're entitled to that rush of blood, that carelessness.'
Returning to sitcom for the first time in 16 years with a role in Channel 4's Troubles-set comedy Derry Girls, live comedy nevertheless remains Tiernan's principal focus. 'Stand-up comedy hasn't really reached its potential,' he insists. 'Our imaginations seem quite straitjacketed when it comes to the platform we've been given. Personally, I feel like I'm only scratching the surface of what's possible. Part of it is the pressure in Edinburgh, say, of 350 people just staring at you. Working against that pressure, you need to create something they want, just not what they were expecting.'
Tommy Tiernan: Under the Influence, Gilded Balloon Teviot, Edinburgh, Fri 4–Sun 27 Aug.