“It’s like a tiny gig, for mice,” Jason Byrne says when I force him to clasp a little microphone for our interview. “Hello hello, tiny mice. It’s tiny comedy. Little jokes.” He hunches over it and speaks into it lovingly.
We sit in the Hallion Club, surrounded by the leather sofas, grey walls and modern art that are meant to make us feel extra-special. And did you see the dramatic purple velvet curtain downstairs? “That’s the cloakroom!” he says. “They make the clients there. And then they’re released upstairs at night, they look fabulous.” Are we them, I ask? “No, no, we’re not them.” And then his latte arrives and he throws the three little floating coffee beans out of the window.
Yes indeed, he is a comic of the people, appealing to a broad audience and always a fast-seller at the festival. “My fans are quite crazy. They just want madness for the hour.”
This is Byrne’s tenth year in Edinburgh and he has just flown in this morning, rather scruffy but ready to rumble. Even the word ‘bedraggled’ seems appropriate, and as the photographer gets some shots of him, I can’t imagine how they’ll turn out. But when we see the photos he looks brilliant, and somehow witty. Maybe he is just one of those people who, simply sitting in a chair in front of a camera, exudes funny.
Byrne’s Fringe show this year is promised to be a romping comedy event, with Byrne hopping around speedily, mixing material with crowd interaction. After doing this kind of show for many years, it would seem he has lost the fear instinct. Maybe it has become extremely normal to stand in front of people and riff off them. But the man still gets a little jittery. “Every time,” he says, “no matter how big or small a gig is, I get nervous. I just have to keep on pacing up and down, I can’t talk to anybody, I can’t eat. I want to make sure the show is great, you know?”
Comedy like this could be a minefield of embarrassment where the night could go wildly wrong. But it hasn’t happened so much, really. “I’m never horrible to anybody,” he says. Although there have been just a few comedy calamities… things like, let’s say, inadvertently bringing up a dead relative. The feeling is “like all the guts, all the bits dropping,” he explains, “and then your little voice in your head going, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t like to be out there.’ And then trying to correct it… I just did their voice going, ‘Try to make something funny out of that, ya bastard!’”
But the format clearly suits Byrne, and he thrives in that weird, unknown atmosphere of improv. And the audience reaps the benefits. “It’s like it’s their night. They’ll be talking to each other and I’ll go, ‘what did you think of the gig?’ and they’ll go, ‘well, we were brilliant.’”
Even the most timid of comedy lovers can sit confidently, knowing they will leave unscathed. “Sit in the front, it’s fine!” he says to the shy folks. “I’m quite good at body language-reading now,” he asserts while doing an impersonation of an eager-faced front row punter, and the reverse, someone with their head on their own lap.
There is also a finale to the show, the thought of which lights up Byrne’s face as though we’ve discovered a large shiny object. “I have to keep topping my finale each year. Last year we had planted dancers with a big hoo-ha of smoke and glitter. So this year, I can’t tell you what it is, but it involves the whole audience… all I have to say is: they just have to be as they were. That’s a good clue,” he says elatedly.
But is a finale terribly necessary in comedy? “I think the reason I do it is because my mother was in showbusiness!” he sings in a Minnelli sort of way. “And she always says, ‘you should do a shoooow!’… It’s because when I go and see comedy, I think ‘thanks very much, goodnight’, that’s not good enough.”
Sequins or no sequins, surely there are times when one has to simply trudge through, even when things aren’t going smoothly. Which brings us to a classic living-room comedy scenario. Byrne’s face lights up and then cringes at the remembrance of it: “My Auntie Cora was 60, and my mother said, ‘your Auntie Cora wants you to do a little turn at the party.’ And my dad, who is clued in to the world, said, ‘Don’t fuckin’ do it’… so I went to the party, and it was only in a little room, so I stood up beside the DJ… I just had never ever been in that situation in my life.”
And what glorious piece of material did he start with? “Slagging off my granny… and my dad wasn’t even there, he went to the toilet and he waited ‘til it was finished. He came back he went, ‘I fuckin’ told ya.’” And then, after a sip of latte and a glance around the subdued lighting of the Hallion, he says, “This is like therapy!”
With all the great reviews and the exposure on telly (The Jason Byrne Show in Ireland, and Father Ted, for example), he might even be called a comedy celebrity. “No, I never feel famous, ever,” he says matter-of-factly. “Loads of people come up to me, but I think they’re an old friend, I kind of treat them like that. And I’ve also got 40-something cousins and I don’t know who they are, a lot of them. So a lot of times it might be my cousins, so I have to have the same reaction to fans and cousins.”
With a proud family and a sell-out Fringe show, Jason Byrne will undoubtedly be having a dazzling, show-tune-singing time this month. If you can’t catch his show, you can at least scheme your way into the Hallion Club and watch him try to get thrown out, “which is better fun,” he says. And after ten years, he should know.