Ed Byrne could not be described as a clown. “I guess I’m an observer,” he says, hesitantly. “As I’ve become older I’ve become more of a storyteller, but when I was younger I was just someone who genuinely did have that thing of ‘is it just me, am I just crazy, or…?’” The 43-year-old comedian has just begun his latest tour, Outside Looking In, which promises to deliver the same degree of dry observational wit for which he is known.
While studying Horticulture at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Byrne’s role as the student union entertainment convener led to his founding of a comedy night. He eventually dropped out and moved to London to work as a full-time stand-up.
you realise that you’re not crazy and that other people have thought that too
He says he was drawn to observational comedy out of a love for the “laughter of recognition” that he describes as the basis for a good performance in that style. “Whether you’re talking about an argument you’ve had with your girlfriend or the way your child acts or something some guy said to you when he was trying to start a fight,” Byrne says, the fact that the audience laughs with the comedian means that there is a “kind of tacit understanding based on ‘Yeah, that happened to me too’ or ‘Yeah, that’s how I would have handled it’”.
The best observational comedy, he argues, comes when one manages to vocalise an observation that’s so odd that “only a comedian would say it out loud.” Then, the laughter of recognition turns to “laughter of relief, when you realise that you’re not crazy and that other people have thought that too”.
However, the real issue with observational comedy is that it has been around for such a long time that there are very few truly original observations left to make. Especially with the rise of Twitter, Byrne says, “any observation that you think is off-kilter or weird or niche has already been made. The only thing you can do is try to make it as personal to you as you can.”
The subject matter is not the only thing that’s become harder since Byrne first started. It is with a note of sadness that he observes how much harder it is to get into comedy than it was in the 1990s. “There was still an eight-month waiting list to get an open spot at The Comedy Store [in Soho], for instance, or a couple of months to get into the lesser but still important circuit clubs like The Cartoon in Clapham or The Mecano Club in Islington,” he says, but as the comedian population grows and the comedy club population shrinks, both parties suffer. Waiting lists get longer and longer, so that experience as an “open mic’er” is less active than it was.
Byrne remembers that his two years on the open mic circuit gave him “two or three gigs a week at least,” but now they’re few and far between. He thinks with (only slightly) mock horror about “nights where it’s all open mic’ers and you’re just playing to each other’s pals. It’s not all like that but there are just more and more gigs like it.”
Most of this he puts down to the prominence of TV comedy. The fall in numbers at comedy clubs has been matched with a meteoric rise in audiences for bigger tours by TV comedians. Although most certainly a part of the latter group, Byrne admits that he wonders where the next generation of comics will come from. The solution, it seems, is to support local comedy as much as possible. With impassioned sincerity he urges people to go to their local comedy clubs. “And see me,” he adds, cheekily. “Make me the exception.”
The joke may stand, but it’s certainly no lie that stand-up tours are the bread and butter of a comedian’s life and income. “Everything else, like appearing on panel shows, is all really just so more people will come and see you live. That’s the honest truth.”
The exposure gained from appearing on television drives more people to the tour dates, but it’s not just this that makes television appearances useful. The lifecycle of a joke is a complex one, but its development can often take place across both spheres. While a tour script is obviously written over a longer period, jokes will occur to Byrne “while sitting in the dressing room or even sitting on set”.
no-one knows where the conversation’s going and suddenly you’re talking about playing the harp with your cock
Once a joke has been made into a routine and delivered on tour, “you kind of get rid of it by crowbarring it into a panel discussion on a TV show.” He notes that “a lot of the stuff that gets said on panel shows is either a routine in short form or something that’s been left on the cutting-room floor, and then that becomes the bones of the next show that you develop.”
But Byrne’s career and skill become evident as he remembers an exception to prove this rule, in the form of a joke which started on Mock the Week when the prospect of benefit capping came up. “It seems like a good idea,” he says, “but actually work is the worst place for the work-shy to be. Really, you want them on the couch where they belong. As long as they’re on the couch they’re not losing our luggage or derailing our trains.” The quip was later turned into a five-minute routine that followed him on tour.
Some comedians are notoriously hard to interview due to the serious, even grumpy demeanour that becomes necessary if they are to maintain such a cheerful persona onstage. Ed Byrne is not one of them. Jokes and quips flow in and out of the interview in a fashion many will recognise from his japes on Mock the Week.
One of the advantages of having a cast comprised entirely of comics is that each can build on and riff off the others. With some nostalgia Byrne notes that some of his best moments on Mock the Week have been “completely unscripted, where no-one knows where the conversation’s going and suddenly you’re talking about playing the harp with your cock.” He admits that no other panel show has made him comfortable enough to be “literally crying with laughter”.
If there is a challenge for the comedians on Mock the Week, it’s the format, which is much freer in comparison with other shows like Have I Got News For You. “They say to six stand-up comics, ‘what does anybody think of this subject?’ It’s like throwing a fucking steak into the air above six hungry dogs.” Particularly with subjects that can quickly become tired, one needs to sharpen one’s elbows. After all, observes Byrne, “everyone wants to be the first one to say something about David Cameron sticking his dick into a pig’s mouth.”
gender stereotypes are the thorniest issue since Jesus was fitted for a hat
Of course, there are some things that one shouldn’t necessarily jump into freely. Especially in the last couple of decades, gender and related stereotypes have become, as Byrne calls it, “the thorniest issue since Jesus was fitted for a hat”. Looking back, he admits that he had a lot of pretty “ladsy” material when he started. “I would be guilty of doing material that took broad strokes about the behaviour of the sexes and the differences between men and women.”
Now, though, as an “older person,” he likes to think that he’s doing something a bit more intelligent. “Not,” he hastens to add, “that there’s any harm in having a gentle pop at the way men or women act, or the whole notion of the courting ritual, but I think it’s become more and more of a hot-button topic. I think people will switch off now more if you sound a bit too hackneyed discussing the battle of the sexes.”
Nevertheless, he is not entirely regretful: he stands by his mockery of a university feminist society poster, but he remains sensitive to the fact that “there’s having a pop at militant feminism and there’s being sexist. It’s a thin line to walk and I hope I’m nuanced enough to walk it.”
Byrne describes his current tour Outside Looking In as his “most right-on… certainly my most ‘feminist’ show to date,” including as it does much about the gender roles involved in parenting. Obviously unwilling to give away too many of the jokes, he does reveal that he talks about the injustice of slut-shaming and the unfairness of complaining about public breastfeeding. Later on, he has a routine about a pair of pink shoes owned by his youngest son, then aged four, and their implications (or lack thereof).
For comics such as Byrne, who rely so heavily on anecdotes, sometimes a subject can hit close to home, particularly when it comes to his children. And, of course, almost all of it is on camera. “There’s a joke in the last show I did,” he remembers, “that implied I didn’t love my second child as much as I did my first, and I would imagine I’ll have to be very careful at what age my second child ever comes across that particular bit of material.”
Fellow comedian John Bishop has spoken in interviews about how his fame and his children’s age is such that it isn’t appropriate to talk about them on stage anymore. Byrne is sure “that will come, but at the moment they’re still young enough that I can talk about them. And even when they are old enough to look back at what Dad said about them on stage, I was talking about them when they were so young that it doesn’t really, shouldn’t really matter.”
It’s not just his children who might have to watch out. After all, there are plenty of adults who are perfectly capable of watching his shows. A joke he made about the invitations for his wedding caused a little bit of intra-marital upset when it was delivered. “I’m standing up at me and my wife’s wedding,” Byrne recounts, slipping easily back into the role of stage comedian even over the phone, “with the woman I love more than I ever thought it possible to love somebody else, and we’re standing up in front of all the people she likes best and all the people she likes best of the people I know. It always works so well, but she always denies it.” He also admits that he used to be “vicious” about his mother, especially with a joke about Freud where he said “‘I don’t know about any of you but my ma’s an absolute fucking boiler! Hideous old crone!’ I remember her standing up and taking a bow.”
you just expect Bowie to be a freaky fuck and he was just a really nice bloke
Parents may be important role models, but an advantage of comedy is the chance to meet many more heroes than one might expect. For Byrne, that came in 2004 at a live television show in Melbourne, when he appeared on the same set as David Bowie. They both took the floor together, and Byrne remembers him and his band “standing there, next to the audience while I did my set on live TV. So I did my stand-up in front of David Bowie, and he watched and he applauded and gave me a big thumbs up, then I got to stand there and watch him sing The Man Who Sold The World, then he did his interview.
I had a chat to him afterwards and he was really, really nice, and really down to earth and funny and charming and self-deprecating. In a way you just expect him to be a freaky fuck and he was just a really nice bloke.”
Meeting rock stars is all very well, but comedy is far from an easy ride. Taking a shortened version of his current tour set to last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Byrne found himself in a venue so stiflingly hot that the laughs died away quickly after the first half an hour. “It kind of knocked the wind out of my sails,” he admits, “but then the first date I took it on tour in an air-conditioned theatre, I suddenly realised ‘It’s not just the first half an hour that’s funny, it’s just that the audience were melting.’”
To even reach a stage where one can worry about the immediate reception of their material is often far from an easy ride. Writing a new hour-and-a-half show for a tour every two years is no mean feat, and Byrne admits that he is “still amazed every time I do it”. The Fringe may provide something of an opportunity to ‘test drive,’ but he points out that the show still needs to be “knocked into shape” before it can be performed, then lengthened for the actual tour.
Writer’s block is a common student affliction, but Byrne’s career ups the stakes: “When it’s January and you’ve got nothing, or one new joke that isn’t really a joke yet, that’s very scary. The wheels are set in motion, and they’ve already started selling tickets and booking venues by that point. You start thinking, ‘I’ve already sold tickets for this tour and I haven’t even written it yet!’”
It looks like the pressure has yet to get to him, however. Byrne assures me that the new tour is written and that he’s very happy with it. If his past successes are anything to go by, the audience is in for a treat.
Ed Byrne will be performing Outside Looking In at the Grand Opera House, York, on Sunday 24 January. Tickets are still available.