1 July 2014 Edition
The funniest man on two wheels
Comedian PJ Gallagher talks to An Phoblacht on his way to the Sinn Féin Summer School
PJ Gallagher is performing in the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin in late July.
THE MASTER of improvisation on the hit hidden camera TV show Naked Camera is bricking it. He’s got first-time nerves. PJ Gallagher has never spoken at a Sinn Féin Summer School before.
Never mind that he’s now an accomplished performer whose Jake Stevens character with his annoying whistle, shiny suit and flailing newspaper is a comedy legend. Never mind that he’s performed at all of Ireland’s top venues and festivals, in mainland Europe, the USA, Canada and even China. Never mind that comedy superstar Kevin Bridges from Glasgow once played support to PJ IN SCOTLAND. He’s showing traits of his clueless taxi driver who drove celebrities like George Hook, Bill O’Herlihy and Don Baker to distraction.
“I’m still wondering what I’m going to say,” he tells An Phoblacht with a little bewilderment as he meets us at the National Library in Dublin’s Kildare Street just over a week before his first gig at a political event.
His “huge passion” (apart from wife Elaine, cycling and Dublin GAA) is motorbikes. This is the first year that he hasn’t been racing since 2007 because he’s focusing on writing material.
“When the season comes racewise and the weather’s good, you end up going out on the track but this year I wanted to get really stuck into the writing. I did 1000cc racing in Mondello Park, then I moved to 650s because they were cheaper and easier to run and they don’t bite so much when you go wrong,” he laughs.
“I went to race in Spain once but a guy drove straight into me, I didn’t even get to the race. Then I passed out in the duty free section and when I sat on the perfume counter instead of a bench I destroyed the perfume counter so when I was sitting on the plane (which was delayed!), I was still really dizzy and I remember thinking this is a load of nonsense, I’m going to go home and start cycling. So I didn’t go again.” He collapses in a bout of laughing.
An unassuming guy (he bought the coffees), he’s the very proud patron of as well as a volunteer courier with Blood Bike East (bloodbikeeast.ie). It’s part of an all-Ireland network of motorbike riders with advanced training transporting blood products, breast milk, X-rays and tests between hospitals and clinics for free, saving the health service a fortune on taxis ferrying nurses all over the country.
PJ was adopted after being born in April 1975 in Bessborough in Cork, “which has been in the news a lot lately”, he says of the country’s largest ‘mother and baby home’ now notorious for infant mortality rates between 50% and 60% for decades. PJ was there 20 years “after anything bad happened” but he told the Irish Independent:
“For the first time I feel guilty. I’ve never felt that before. I grew up ignorant of the whole thing. I think about those who died, the vaccines and then think about the abuses to women, illegal adoptions – people who can never find out who their parents are.”
He was sent to foster care in Finglas. “I’d actually love to find out who my foster parents were there,” he says, adding then he was known as Dermot . “I was then sent to Marino; my folks moved to Clontarf and I’m back in Marino now but other than that it was a fairly normal life.”
That said, he got a surprise when he found out that being adopted wasn’t the norm. “I thought all kids were adopted. I thought everyone got made by someone and they gave you to your parents. I remember saying this to other kids and them saying to me ‘No, you maniac! Are you serious?’”
School of comedy
School and PJ didn’t agree.
“I hated school, to be honest with you. Anything I was good at was considered disruptive in school and not constructive. I realised very early on that I couldn’t sit still and think; I have to move to think things through. Talking and telling stories meant I just didn’t fit in to a school environment.
“I was much better at Spanish than Irish, unfortunately, and I was terrible at Maths. The only pie chart I really got into was a pizza.
“But I always loved history and language, words and wordplay, essays, stories.
“If you told teachers in the 1980s that you just wanted to tell jokes and stories and act the maggot for a living they’d go: ‘Are you out of your mind?!! It’s a waste of everybody’s time. There’s no future in that.”
He left school early, not something he encourages, he stresses.
“School’s better now than back then and it just didn’t fit for me. If I’d done my Leaving Cert I’d just be really bad at something else now,” he chuckles.
He went for work experience for a lighting company.
“I knew I wanted to do something with the stage – I didn’t have any ideas about wanting to be on the stage.”
He then did some sound engineering training in Crow Street but stuck with the lights. “Everyone wanted to work in sound so I thought there was more work in lights because nobody wants to do it.”
It was while working in the Lighting Dimensions warehouse for free for a few months for the work experience that he met Jason Byrne, another comic genius talent waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
“Jason was working on the lighting desk there and it was him that introduced me to comedy in that warehouse,” PJ recalls.
He was taken on full-time and the lads built lighting systems by day and set up the lighting for gigs by night.
“Then Jason started about wanting to be a comedian and he was too nervous to book gigs on his own so he talked me into doing them with him but, to be honest, I didn’t know what stand-up was. Stand-ups to me were Brendan Grace or Billy Connolly; I didn’t think there were any around Dublin. I’d never been to a stand-up show.
“Jason kept saying to me you can do it, you can do it. The very first time I stood on a stage on me own, he’d just booked me without even asking me! I was on the bus from Marino going into town and I saw my name on a poster for Vicar Street and I thought ‘You bastard! You absolute bastard! I can’t do this. This is ridiculous.’
“When I met him he said ‘You’ll be grand; you’ve got six weeks to write five minutes’ material. It was the longest six weeks of my life.
“It was six weeks of terror, just writing down notes, the same way I work even today. I can’t work from a script because when I read it back I’ll just convince myself it’ll never work.”
He’s in stitches as he recounts how he read his notes from the back of his hand, as if he was looking at his watch. “I wasn’t even looking at the audience. And I panicked and I started cursing to fill time – every amateur mistake under the sun; wrecked the whole thing and walked off five minutes later. Jason thought it was hilarious, went on after me and they’d forgotten about me within 30 seconds.”
He stuck with it.
Jake Stevens, the character that made PJ Gallagher a comedy celebrity, almost didn’t happen.
“Jason was flying at the time, gigs at the Edinburgh Festival and all over England, he wasn’t around that much anymore,” but PJ had almost given up on comedy after ten years, thinking about going to college.
“The week I’d made the decision not to gig anymore and to instead go on a motorbike trip abroad I got a call from Liam McGrath, director of Naked Camera, but I said no, thanks.”
PJ spent the next two months on his motorbike gone around mainland Europe on his own. “I came back stone broke and rang Liam on the off-chance that he might still be looking for someone – two months later!”
Luck was in for PJ. Two people had left the show for jobs in the West End and PJ auditioned. Jake Stevens was based on a few people but the whistle came from a workmate on a building site who used to give ut about everyone but replace swear words or anything suspect with an annoying whistle. “He used to drive me mad, fecking insane.” With an old two-tone suit fished out of a props bin and some quick thinking by PJ when a planned sketch fell apart, a star (and Jake Stevens) was born.
“Those three or four years with Naked Camera weren’t just fun, manic and brilliant, they were paying the bills as well.”
And he says that while people remember Jake Stevens and ‘The Dirty Auld Wan’, the real stars of Naked Camera were the public.
“We were never the biggest part of the show. We just wound up the characters (most of whom developed by accident) and let them go.
“We always thought of Naked Camera as a sketch show with a straight man who didn’t know they were in it and the straight man was the whole of Dublin City.”
His comedy idols are Richard Pryor (“my favourite comedian of all time – his attention to detail is unreal”), Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle.
So what about the Sinn Féin Summer School and politics and satire? PJ hopes that’s not what people are expecting because that’s what other comedians do, people like Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner in Britain.
“I read a review in a paper a while ago, attacking comedians for not doing satire but I don’t think many people here over the past ten years wanted that. There was some recession stuff at the start but it just dissolved. The audiences just didn’t want to hear it.
“The last thing people wanted on their night out at a comedy gig was you reminding them of their negative equity mortgage, that they can’t afford the car anymore or no one in the house was working.
“There are funny elements that come out of a recession but austerity isn’t funny.”
• PJ Gallagher is performing in the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin in late July.