Ed Byrne: 'My wife Claire and I laugh all the time - she is the funny one'
Ahead of shows in Belfast and Londonderry, comedian Ed Byrne tells Una Brankin why audiences here love him better than his home ground in the Republic and how much he misses his better half when he’s working.
Ed Byrne’s voice, mid-morning on a working week day, is nothing like the chirpy brogue of his long-running Carphone Warehouse ads on TV and radio.
Groggy after a stand-up comedy gig the night before in Reading, he isn’t exactly on sparkling form.
“It’s not my kinda time of the day,” he croaks. “I’m a night owl anyway and I don’t eat until after a gig, so it’s always late nights on tour. I don’t eat before a gig — I don’t want to be burping my way through it. If I tried to swallow back the burps, I’d sound emotional, as if I was going to cry.”
The Dublin-born comedian hits Belfast and Londonderry next weekend at the tail end of his latest tour, Outside, Looking In. His performances have received rave reviews, including five stars in the a Sunday newspaper, which described Byrne as “comedy’s holy grail”. Another Sunday newspaper was equally effusive, lauding him for being “at the top of his game”.
A regular on Mock The Week, The Graham Norton Show and Have I Got News For You, Byrne has performed stand-up in Northern Ireland many times in his 20-year career.
“I cut my teeth in the Delacroix Inn in Derry and The Empire in Belfast, back when Paddy Kielty played there,” he recalls sleepily. “My gigs in Northern Ireland tend to be better than back home, because of the TV I do, possibly. All my dates in the Republic later this year are all in smaller venues.”
Whether they’re just crowd-pleasing, comedians and musicians often claim to have their favourites among the cities they perform in. So, what differences, if any, does Mr Byrne find between audience in the Republic and those in Northern Ireland?
“People like to see themselves as unique but it’s really the day the gig falls on that makes a difference with an audience anywhere,” he yawns. “On Fridays, they’ve already had a couple of drinks before the show, so the first half will go well, then tail off in the second because they’ve had no dinner.
“Saturday’s a slow-burn. Mid-week tends to draw a smarter, more discerning crowd.”
He has been on tour for eight months and admits to missing his wife Claire, their two children, Cosmo (5) and Magna (3) and his cat, back home in Essex. A PR consultant, Claire was organising the publicity for Dara O Briain’s show at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where Byrne was doing a play.
According to the very attractive Claire, Byrne bombarded her with texts and chased her round Edinburgh for the entire fortnight of the festival until she agreed to meet him in a pub at midnight.
“When we got to chatting, I realised I’d misjudged him,” she said in a previous interview. “I got to know the man behind who you see on stage and fell for the whole package. He’s very kind, generous and funny. But I work with funny people every day, so it wasn’t like I was desperate for someone to make me laugh.
“The power ebbs and flows between us. We rarely butt heads about things, and I do miss him when he’s on tour, but we speak loads — two or three times a day.”
Scotland has been good to Byrne, the third in a family of four from the north Dublin suburb of Swords.
His stand-up career began during his college years studying horticulture at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. As a student welfare officer, he was often called on to MC events in the university and soon was being invited to perform at other third-level institutions around Scotland.
From there he moved to London, where he started all over again with open spots and short sets on the club circuit, honing his material and developing his curmudgeonly and nerdy persona. The formula worked, earning him huge critical and popular success in the UK and Ireland for his hit tours and appearances on radio, television, the stage and the big screen.
He has also developed a sizeable overseas following and has performed to capacity audiences in Australia, where he was delighted to meet David Bowie backstage at a television show, and New Zealand, where he was briefly a media sensation because of an argument with a barman.
In the US, he has performed at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and in top comedy clubs in New York and LA, as well as making five appearances on NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien.
But back in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he was just another fledgling comedian trying to impress a girl. Having just come out of another relationship, he took it slowly with Claire and didn’t pop the question until 2007.
“The proposal was a classic example of why I’m with my Claire,” he said.
“I asked her to marry me, and she pushed the ring back across the table towards me and said: ‘I can’t marry you’, with tears in her eyes.
“As thoughts filled my head about what I’d do after we broke up, I said: ‘Oh.’ Before she said: ‘Only joking, I was already off in my own head mapping my life out without her, living in Las Vegas working as a lounge jack. We make each other laugh a lot, but Claire is definitely the funny one sometimes.
“What’s really sweet about her is the level that she resents other comedians who are more famous than I am.
“She pretty much hates all of them — ‘He’s not funny,’ she’ll say. But I know that she used to think they were funny before we got together.”
The proposal story was used — hilariously — by Byrne to close his Edinburgh show the following year, in 2004, and he has played regular sold-out gigs there ever since. He’s also a regular correspondent for The Great Outdoors magazine, being a keen skier and hill-walker. A Munro Bagger, he has climbed more than 70 of the Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet.
“I had a teacher who brought us to an adventure centre and took us round the west of Ireland — I suppose that sparked my interest,” he recalls. “I haven’t kept up horticulture but I do have a garden. I have three types of apple trees; eating apples, Granny Smiths and — s**** — I forget what you call them.”
Despite his witty contributions to The Apprentice spin-off show, You’re Fired, on BBC2, he hasn’t been asked back since Jack Dee took over from Dara O’ Briain as the host and Romesh Ranganathan became a panellist.
But he’s still a regular guest on The Graham Norton Show (he and Norton both appeared in Father Ted in their younger days), where he has kept host and fellow guests, Helen Mirren, Robert Downey Junior and Martin Sheen, highly amused.
The Irish entertainment website joe.ie had a bone to pick with him over his dress sense, however, following a recent stint on Norton’s sofa, alongside Mirren. Placing him on their ‘Dressed in the Dark’ list, the blogger wrote: “We’re fairly sure that pairing a dark brown suit with a navy floral shirt is enough grounds for an irrevocable sentence within these pages.
“For his ability to have us clutching our sides as if they were splitting, we’ll go easy on Ed this week, so let’s hope the comedian can put his best fashion foot forward next time. In future we hope to laugh at Ed’s comic material, not the floral material under his suit.”
At last waking up a little, the man in question confirms that he won’t be wearing any such dodgy outfits when he’s over here next weekend.
“They did try to find some good — they said they normally like me and would give me the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “I’d better watch myself though. I haven’t worn flowery shirts for a while — it’s just a black top and back jeans now. Very dark poet.”
- Ed Byrne: Outside, Looking In performs at Belfast Waterfront on Saturday, May 21, at 8pm, tickets cost £19, from the box office, tel: 028 9033 4455 or visit waterfront.co.uk/ and the Millennium Forum on Sunday, May 22, at 8pm. Tickets cost £20, from the box office, tel: 028 7126 4455 or visit millenniumforum.co.uk. For further details, see edbyrne.com