Ed Byrne never thought that he’d still be a comedian after 20 years, but he likes it, he tells Jay Richardson
Ed Byrne grew accustomed to mockery when he used to call himself “a Scottish comedian rather than an Irish one … in my Irish accent”.
Byrne was born in Swords, just outside Dublin, and now lives in Essex, but it was while studying in Glasgow that he became a stand-up. Though he moved to London three months afterwards, those formative gigs fostered a stronger bond than he’s ever had with audiences down south.
Or even in his homeland. As an expat, he says, he’s occasionally felt detached from Irish culture and lost patience with their enthusiasm for joining in. He used to joke that “I have a popularity in Scotland completely out of proportion to elsewhere in the UK. I’m a bit like shinty”.
Byrne opens his tours in Scotland “because it’s where I feel most at home performing comedy”. When Fred MacAulay introduced him at The Stand on his last tour as “an honorary Scotsman”, he says, it was “one of the finest compliments I’ve had taking a stage”.
Byrne’s passion for Scotland is genuine and deep-rooted – beyond the witty, perceptive routine on independence he wrote for his recent Edinburgh Fringe run. The festival is where he “grew up comedically” and where in 2003 he met his wife Claire when she was Dara O’Briain’s publicist. He recalls his previous Scottish tour “as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, playing darts in a pub in Durness after the gig and thinking ‘why can’t life be like this all the time?’” Then he answers his own question. “Well, because you have a wife,” he chuckles.
What’s more, it’s Glasgow where the 41-year-old will celebrate two decades in comedy with “a little shindig”, following his show at the Pavilion Theatre on 2 November. It was in 1993, while studying horticulture at Strathclyde University and acting as the student union’s entertainment convenor, that he established The Comedy Cellar in the basement of The 13th Note bar. For his first gig, alongside Armando Iannucci’s brother David and the late Kenny Harris, he was organising the night, so “I didn’t have time to be nervous. I was just worried about how good everybody else was going to be, whether or not we’d get our show up. And as it turned out, it was great.”
Among those who went on to play the Cellar at that time were Bruce Morton, Phil Kay, Stu Who and Alan Francis, “which was quite exciting – this glamorous Scottish comedian who’d moved to London and made a living. He was doing stuff on it and I remember thinking ‘I need a bit about London for when I come back here, because that’s the sign of a professional comic!’”
Greg Hemphill also appeared, as part of the Trio Brothers Troupe double-act. As did his future Still Game co-star Ford Kiernan, who took over running the club from Byrne with John Paul Leach. “When I set up The Comedy Cellar, [Leach] gave me all the comics’ phone numbers and suggested £100 was a reasonable fee for them. He was a big help. Then when I handed it over to them, they paid everyone £70! Including me!”
At the start, Byrne saw stand-up as a stepping stone to acting, which he’s achieved to an extent, starring in a couple of forgettable sitcoms and some independent films. “I had a notion that after a few years I’d be able to get off the circuit. Because I couldn’t spend my whole life doing stand-up, come on! Yet 20 years later, I’m still here. It’s nice that you can continue doing it and keep getting better.”
A silver-tongued rake in his Strathclyde Union days, in London he shared a flat with Ross Noble, where paper plates piled high in the sink. He compares his development as a man and comic to that of his favourite band, Pearl Jam, “who went from brash, loud, grungy cock rock to more thoughtful, acoustic and political”.
“I would hope that I’m like that for some people as a comedian,” he reflects. “I started off doing stuff about what I knew, drinking, smoking and shagging, not being good at fighting. And now I’m doing stuff about getting married and having kids. I like to think that I’ve pretty much grown up in public. And there are people who’ve grown up with me.”
Indeed, his current show, Roaring Forties, deals explicitly with being a curmudgeonly father of two young boys. And getting a vasectomy. Shifting from observational humour to storytelling over the years, his comedy has simultaneously become nerdier, in both its pedantry and subject matter. His specialism on Celebrity Mastermind was Star Trek. Still, he admits: “I only embraced my nerdiness in the last ten years, where I’ve been less concerned about seeming cool on stage and becoming more like I genuinely am in real life. I used to say I hated kids but I never did. I used to babysit for friends. But that didn’t fit with the jokes I was writing, so I pretended.”
Paramount amongst his supposedly uncool interests is hillwalking, and specifically Munro-bagging. His office features a map of the mountains and he’s climbed 75 to date, the last two with the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue team in his role as a columnist for The Great Outdoors magazine. During the Fringe, he ascended Ben Nevis with fellow comics Craig Campbell, Barry Castagnola and Mickey D. When we speak he’s hoping to climb the relatively small, non-Munro Ronas Hill around his tour’s opening date in Shetland.
Fatherhood has curtailed his hobby to an extent but he still found time to tackle Mont Blanc for the second time recently. Time was that during the festival though, he would stay up all night, leave Edinburgh in the early hours, drive to the Highlands, bag a Munro, return, sleep, then do his show. “It was great, I did it a couple of times,” he enthuses.
In 2002, he unsuccessfully shopped around a sitcom based on his student union experience. Now he’s started writing one set in an outdoors shop, that “I would love to film in the Cotswolds store just along the road from where my brother lives in Glasgow, with its little climbing wall. I love hanging out at outdoors shops, there’s a world of possibility, thinking what a great camping trip you could have if you owned all this shit.”
During that relatively fallow time in the early noughties, Byrne’s television career was defined by his Carphone Warehouse adverts. His stand-up, likewise, began to plateau. The turning point only arrived in 2006 with his well-received Fringe hour Standing Up, Falling Down, and the best man speech he delivered at O’Briain’s wedding, which persuaded Mock The Week producer Dan Patterson to book him for the topical panel show, elevating his profile again across the UK and Ireland. “They thought it would add a nice dynamic to have someone who could take the piss out of the host,” he laughs.
As the horticulture studies dropout now wryly observes, “I have a gardener that does my garden”. He never saw himself as “outdoorsy, and certainly, all through my twenties, I never saw daylight. But when you put all the partying behind you, when you settle down, you suddenly revert to wanting to do all the stuff you did in your early teens. I’ve currently got a half-finished model of a Spitfire in my office that I still have to deal with.”
• Ed Byrne plays Corran Halls, Oban, tomorrow; Queen’s Hall, Dunoon, 25 September; Perth Concert Hall, 26 September; Alhambra, Dunfermline, 27 September; Aberdeen Music Hall, 28 September; Eden Court, Inverness, 29 September. www.edbyrne.com.