How Jason Byrne always makes sure he eyes up the right sort of victim
Belfast-bound comedian Jason Byrne tells Andrew Johnston the secret of choosing who to bring up on stage, why he can laugh at his childhood sight problem and what he really thinks of his critics
Jason Byrne's new stand-up show was inspired by a childhood problem the Irish comic had with astigmatism. His 'special eye', as he calls it, shaped much of his time growing up in the suburbs of Dublin during the 1970s and 80s. But fans shouldn't expect the new show – which comes to Belfast's Ulster Hall in December – to be a pained, introspective affair.
"It's not me sitting on stage for an hour on a stool, like therapy, going, 'Oh my God, my poor eye!'" Jason chuckles. "I do a couple of stories about that, but there's loads of other stuff. The first half is kind of like improvv-y stuff, and then the second half is a lot of pre-written material."
Having been a regular visitor to Belfast on tour, Jason knows the crowd well, and rates the city as one of the most enjoyable to gig in. "The Belfast audiences are great fun," he smiles. "I think Belfast people are the only people who clap, cheer and laugh at the same time. It's quite a feisty audience."
And it's an audience he has honed a rapport with over many trips north of the border. "I did the Empire up there for years," Jason recalls. "It was rough as f**k. You only had a couple of minutes to impress them. But once Belfast people see there's a lot of confidence on the stage, they're fine. They love you taking the p**s out of religion – Protestants and Catholics and all that s**t."
Jason's fearless performing style has taken crowd participation to new levels, with the comic ruthlessly humiliating members of the audience he brings on stage. But there's an art to choosing the right 'victims', he reveals: "I'm always careful who I pick. You can see with their body language if they're too freaked out, if they're shaking their heads, going 'No ...' The other people you don't want to get up are people who are waving their arms, going, 'Pick me!'"
And though he milks the encounters to outrageous effect, Jason doesn't feel he has ever gone too far. "No, no, no," he says. "Whatever I'm doing, it's only a bit of fun. I never make the audience feel uncomfortable. I'm constantly praising the person that's up on stage – 'Well done,' and, 'Thank you,' and all that."
He's famous for it now, but Jason's full-on, confrontational approach came about quite by accident. "I remember years ago, I used to use loads of props on stage, and that's all I did," he explains. "I couldn't remember my set because I had such a bad memory. And then one night, I'd forgotten a few props, and my set was cut short, so I just asked a couple of people in the audience what their names were, and then that was it. I realised then I was able to think on my feet.
"I get the information off people and I twist it and turn it and mould it into some sort of stand-up. It's taken a lot of years to get that right, though."
Lately, the ubiquitous funnyman has been making as many waves with his television work as for his in-your-face live shows. Byrne's debut sitcom, Father Figure – which he wrote and stars in, as Tom Whyte, the stay-at-home head of a mayhemic Irish-English family – has just completed its run on BBC One.
Despite decent viewing figures, the series has attracted savage reviews, but the hardened pro remains unfazed and unrepentant. "You've got to put yourself out there," Jason shrugs."If I never tried it, I would have been disappointed. All comics are afraid to do sitcoms, but you've got to try it. It's not the end of the world. It's not like people in Ethiopia dying, and there's famines all over the world.
"Fawlty Towers got slated at first, and The Office was murdered, and the first series of Blackadder was really weird – even the cast and crew went, 'Let's not make that again,' and then it grew into something completely different. Hopefully, we get a second series and we can iron out all the creases and go for it."
And Jason has a characteristically colourful opinion of the type of person he perceives to be penning some of the online critiques of the programme: "It's only some weirdo at home in his underpants waiting for his mother to bring him his tea anyway."
Father Figure is said to have been at least partially based on Jason's own family. Have they been flattered or outraged by their cartoonish screen counterparts?
"Oh, flattered," Jason insists."My real kids are 13 and six, and in the sitcom they're 12 and eight, and my 13-year-old, his name is Devon, but the kid in the sitcom is called Dylan. His mates go, 'So, that kid's playing you, isn't he?' And my son goes, 'Yeah. Yeah, he is. Yeah.' They're quite proud of all that.
"But to be honest, of course, it's not them. It's an exaggerated family, doing mad things. I take small stuff from my family and exaggerate it on screen."
The show's brilliant cast includes Northern Ireland's own Michael Smiley as Tom's best friend, Roddy, and the venerable Pauline McLynn, aka Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, and Cork acting legend Dermot Crowley as Tom's Irish ex-pat parents.
"Dermot and Smiley are from (BBC crime drama) Luther, which is unbelievable," says Jason, "and Pauline McLynn plays my mum bang-on. My mother said, 'Oh, I really like the sitcom. The only thing is I think Pauline McLynn might be overplaying the part.' And then afterwards, my dad goes, 'She is, my a**e. Your mother's worse than that!'"
Byrne previously worked with McLynn when he appeared in an episode of the third series of Father Ted. The classic sitcom has been a key moment in the careers of a lot of Irish comedians, and Jason loved his time working on it.
"I didn't think I was in something that was so iconic," he beams. "It was just one of the best laughs I ever had, and it's mad – even now, every time it's on, and I'm refereeing the over-75s football, I get Twittered and Facebooked by people going, 'Oh my God, it's you!' It still is the most amazing thing."
Whether Father Figure attains a similar cult following remains to be seen, but Jason certainly has high hopes for the future.
"In years to come, you won't even have to say Father Figure," he grins.
"You'll say, 'Oh, I'm going to watch "Fig".' Or, 'I'm going to watch "Fa"'. I suggest fans might even hold 'Figure Fests', à la Father Ted's highly popular annual Ted Fest.
"Figure Fest, yeah!" Jason roars in approval. "We'll have Figure Fest! That's a good one. I like you. You can run it!"
Sitcoms that didn't make the grade first time round
* Fawlty Towers – the Daily Mirror's review of the John Cleese vehicle in 1975 boasted the headline 'Long John Short on Jokes'. Critical opinion has improved somewhat over the years.
* Blackadder – journalist John Sergeant has described the first series of the ultimately revered sitcom as "grandiose, confused and expensive", while producer John Lloyd recalls a colleague sniping that it "looks a million dollars, but cost a million pounds".
* The Office – when first shown on BBC Two, it was nearly cancelled due to low ratings. It is now hailed as one of Britain's finest ever comedy series, made a star of Ricky Gervais and spawned more than 80 international remakes.