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Interview with Ed Byrne: ''There has always been censorship in comedy; the skill is walking the line''

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For all that Ed Byrne is portrayed as whimsical, nerdy and off-the-cuff on-stage, the comedian is considered, well-informed and inherently self-aware off it.

Image credit: Idil Sukan

“I used to think, there’s no way I could ever become a politician. I’ve said too many things on Mock the Week that could be used against me,” he sighs. “But now I look at how people get away with stuff. People can just say anything, and it just doesn’t matter, and I realise you know what I probably could be one.”

Ed Byrne seems a lot more sombre in person. He still exudes an air of confidence necessary for a man who entertains an audience of strangers for a living, but he sounds simultaneously open and reserved. As if no question will be off the table but a response is not guaranteed.

He continues: “You know, I’ve never known a time where politicians are living so consequence-free. You can just say anything and either just claim you didn’t say it or that you were taken out of context. It’s amazing the free pass with which politicians get to be able to say whatever they want – and still actually be able to become Prime Minister.”

The Irishman is a regular fixture on our television sets appearing on QI, Top Gear, Have I Got News For You, The Graham Norton Show and Live At The Apollo among others. But, with all his experience, he disagrees with his peers who feel the industry is becoming increasingly censored. “You’ve never been able to just say anything you like,” he adds. “And if you do say something offensive you better have a really good justification, or it better be one of those jokes that’s so funny you can just get away with it.

“The time I started, people were doing jokes that were fairly near the knuckle and people were still getting into trouble for it. I mean Jesus, you said a Princess Dianna joke in 1997 and you were walking off the stage to the sound of your own feet. Peter Kay - before he was famous - was on the cover of The Sun for making a joke about Jill Dando. He was branded ‘Britain’s sickest comedian’. Jheeze, Jerry Sadowitz had a guy get out of the audience and punch him in Canada because he called them ‘moose-fuckers’.”

“But, I feel now the idea of a new club where you’re not allowed to be offended – it’s like comedy unleashed. Which to me sounds like a classic case of millennial snowflakeyness. ‘I want to be able to say whatever I like, and nobody’s allowed to complain about anything I say,’ to me that reeks of entitlement. As a comedian, you should be able to accept that something you say may offend people. It’s part of the skill.”

Ed Byrne, Live at the Apollo 2018

Byrne’s new tour If I’m honest sees the comic perform for three weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before journeying across the UK from September to March. Politics, censorship and free speech all get a mention but are certainly not the primary motif. “It’s about lots of different things Joe,” he tells me with slight exhaustion.

“But the broad theme is what about me would I want to pass on to my kids. Because your kids will annoy you in ways you recognise in yourself. You’re just being reminded of your own failures and your own bad habits. I already have enough self-loathing – I’m a performer – I don’t need reminding of what a dick I am by two little miniature versions of myself.”

Byrne and his wife Claire have two young children Cosmo and Magnus and though he jokes at their expense on-stage, it’s clear how much he misses them when touring. “Do you still enjoy it?” I ask.

“I erm,” there is a long pause. “I enjoy the telling of the jokes, I don’t enjoy the travelling around as much as I used to. It’s lonely. My wife used to come with me but, she can’t really do that anymore, somebody’s got to look after the children.”

At 47 Byrne has been on the comedy circuit for the last 24 years. “You keep thinking ‘oh I can’t write another show,’ but you do, you just keep doing it,” he says. “As I’ve grown up my material is more about my life. I started off doing stuff about being a student, talking about drinking, talking about smoking, about having girlfriends you know that was all it was. And now I joke about the difference between being middle class and being rich. Now I’m slagging off people for having furniture on their landing. I’m talking about what it’s like to have kids, I’m talking about friends you don’t really like but your wife likes them this sort of stuff.”

He stops himself mid-flow and says rather solemnly: “I’m not sure exactly how much appeal this is going to have to the readers of the National Student. But, when I was young and in my 20s, I used to love Ray Romano. And he would be doing stuff about his family, his wife, his kids; stuff that was completely removed from my own life, but I used to be a child, I had parents, so I understood what the concept was. It didn’t seem that alien.”

Byrne seems a little crestfallen – for the first time, I feel the 27 years between us. But when probed he tells me he still feels fresh and that his generation of comedians is far from being replaced. “It’s interesting, our shelf life seems to be maintaining nowadays, certainly nobody’s pissing off. We have all these new comedians who are arriving on the scene almost every day and the old ones are still doing tours.” He laughs, “We are going to reach a crisis point. There’s definitely going to be a saturation!” Would he be one to twist the knife then? “Oh no I don’t have that in me, I’ll just spread rumours and gossip,” he says.

Ed Byrne on Next Up comedy, 2019

Byrne studied horticulture at Strathclyde University before dropping out after his second year, becoming a sabbatical officer and Vice President of Strathclyde student union. “I think moving to uni was something I needed in my life. I think you can reinvent yourself in a way in that you couldn’t otherwise. I felt it, particularly coming from a small town in north Dublin and then moving to a city like Glasgow and suddenly being surrounded by like-minded people. You could become the kind of person you’ve always wanted to be. The person you always really were but you were sort of hiding at school.”

“I used to do things like host karaoke nights and pub quizzes and then when I ran for the election for Vice President I had to do loads of speeches in front of quite hostile audiences, so I got a kind of feel for stand-up then. Remarkably, I had a friend from the United States who was a comedian and he really thought that I should become one. He used to write down funny things I’d say in meetings and then present them to me at the end of the month.

“I used to have comedy appraisals if you like. And I think that was something that really made me think that I was funny, people quoting me, back to me after I’d forgotten. Because then you look at it objectively, it’s a line you haven’t heard before. ‘Oh, it really is funny’ that was pretty much the push.

“It was a massively nervous time, however. I remember saying to a friend of mine before going on stage for the second or third time and just feeling ill, ‘I cannot do this for a job, I can’t do this way, every time I go to work. It’s just too coercive it would just take its toll.’ But it goes, it does go eventually.”

I ask Byrne what scares him nowadays and once more he passionately returns to the censorship debate. “Of course, it’s a worry. I’m aware I’ve said things that have been offensive, and I’ve said things where the audience have misunderstood. But you’ve got to take responsibility, you can’t just go, ‘urgh you people are idiots that’s not what I mean!’”

And with that, the comedian is whisked away to his next interview, but he quickly gets in a final word: “I think the idea of saying that no one’s allowed to take offence, or you should be allowed to say anything I think it does comedy a disservice. I think what always made comedy like Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope or Glenn Wool, or any comic that treads the line between acceptable and unacceptable is a skill. And the moment you start saying ‘you should be able to say anything you like’ then that skill is meaningless. Then you don’t need any skill.”

Ed Byrne performs his new show If I'm Honest at Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

Lead image credit: Idil Sukan




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