Grin when you’re winning
Despite having a certain famous cousin in the profession, Eleanor Tiernan is assuredly making her own mark on the Irish comedy scene, writes Brian Boyd
AS SHE walked past a wellknown Dublin comedy club, Eleanor Tiernan noticed her name written down as a forthcoming attraction. “I was really chuffed” says the Roscommon comedian, “until after my name the promoter had put in brackets, ‘cousin of Tommy,’ which I thought was a really stupid thing to do. Would you go and see and act on the basis that they were a relation of someone wellknown?”
Tiernan is indeed a first cousin of megastar Tommy, which she says, can be a doubleedged sword.
“The good thing about it is that I have a really nice and funny person as a cousin. It’s also having someone you can bounce ideas off and having someone who understands the industry. At the moment, I’m supporting Tommy on his Bovinity tour, and I tend to get it out of the way early on by just making a joke about the connection.
“It might also be an advantage with certain promoters, particularly if, like the example above, they might just have booked me on the basis of who my cousin is – which, again, is a really stupid thing to do. At the back of some people’s minds, they might think I’ve had an easier time out of it, which isn’t the case.”
When she first began as a stand-up comic a few years ago, Tiernan actually toyed with the idea of changing her surname. “The problem there was that I did a few open-mic spots in the clubs under my real name and then I thought that if I change it now, it will just look really odd, so I kept it.”
It would be a shame to continue referring to Tiernan in terms of her extended family because she is a very bright and very fresh new talent in her own right. On stage, she comes across as slightly ditzy and very knowing at the same time, a combination which allows her to roam most anywhere with her material. When asked about the content of her act, she replies with a disarming eagerness: “human failings”.
Athlone, where’s she from, has never really been a hot bed of comedic action (at least, not intentionally). The nearest place to try out new material is Gerry Mallon’s Cuba Club in Galway. So the best thing for Tiernan was to enrol as a drama student in Dublin, where she at least could find comedy clubs to practise in. Before this, she worked for a while as a civil engineer.
“It didn’t really work out for me,” she says ruefully. “In civil engineering, you’re supposed to get things right all the time – and I didn’t always get thing right.”
As an engineer, she did some work on the M50 motorway and, as she notes in her set, “if you’re on the M50 and have to pass under the bridge at Liffey Valley, best to do it quickly.” Better not probe too much in that.
Drama college suited Tiernan fine, because she always saw herself more as a comic actress than a straight comedian.
“My influences would have been people such as Jennifer Saunders and not stand-ups. It was while I was at college that I began doing open-mic slots in comedy clubs. People tell you it’s terrifying, but I really had no clue what I was doing, so it didn’t bother me that much. There was no pressure on me, because I thought I was going to be an actress.”
When asked about what sort of comedian she is, she always replies with a quote a friend gave her. “When my friend saw me, she said: ‘You come across like a teacher who has been let go from her job for doing something inappropriate but is still in denial about it’. I thought that was brilliant so I still use it.”
Tiernan still likes to flex her dramatic muscles. At last year’s Edinburgh Festival, she picked up good reviews for her Help, a comedy drama about a struggling comedian. The show also starred another cousin, actress Niamh Tiernan, and was directed by Tommy.
“He couldn’t make it to Edinburgh last year, so he did something we call ‘remote directing’. He would ring us after every show and asked us what worked and what didn’t etc and sort of directed from afar. It worked quite well.”
Cousin Tommy is not involved in the sequel to Help, called That’s Deep, which is about a comedian who has just won the Perrier Prize at the Edinburgh Festival. Written and starring Eleanor and Niamh, it won’t go to Edinburgh this year, but will debut at the Dublin Fringe Festival in September.
For this year’s Edinburgh, Tiernan is involved in a double-header with American comic John O’Donnell called Irish-American. “We’ll both be looking at the cultural stereotypes of Ireland and the US as a starting point.” She recently did some shows in New York “in really tiny clubs. The one thing I really learnt from the experience was the absolute necessity to speak a lot slower than I do over here.”
Before starting on Irish-American, Tiernan will appear at the Carlsberg Comedy Festival in Iveagh Gardens, Dublin.
Tiernan is just one of a few very talented Irish female comics, among them Maeve Higgins and Carol Tobin, who all seem to have arrived at the same time. The gender issue leaves her bored and uninterested.
“You do get asked about it all the time. Questions like what’s it like being a woman doing stand-up comedy and all that sort of stuff. I thought we were over that level of silly talk, but evidently not.”