“Controversy follows him like a stalker.” Brian Boyd on Tommy Tiernan
TOMMY Tiernan used to do a joke about the old Christian contention that the Jews killed Jesus: “The Jews say they didn’t kill Jesus. Well, it wasn’t the f**kin’ Mexicans was it?” In the context and confines of a live comedy club, it was a line that always worked well for him. He brought this joke up in a question-and-answer session arranged by Hot Press magazine at the Electric Picnic earlier this month.
Asked by an audience member if he had ever been accused of anti-Semitism (Tiernan has been accused of many “isms” during his career), he replied that the above line had upset two Jewish people at a show he did in New York.
They approached him afterwards to remonstrate with him about the nature of the joke. The couple’s complaint, he said, was that “the Israelis are a hunted people” and therefore the joke was insensitive.
He spoke about the nature of his material and how it can cause offence: “It’s all about being reckless and irresponsible and joyful. It’s not about being careful ... and mannered. It’s trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing is being taken seriously.
“But these Jews, these f**kin’ Jew c**ts came up to me. F**kin’ Christ-killing b**t**ds! F**kin’ six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No f**kin’ problem! F**kin’ two at a time, they would have gone! Hold hands, get in there! Leave us your teeth and your glasses!”
When reproduced in print, this passage certainly has the power to shock, and it has been roundly condemned.
The interview took place on Saturday September 6th but Tiernan’s remarks weren’t widely reported until last Sunday, when The Sunday Tribune ran a story quoting what he had said. From this we can assume that none of the audience at the Electric Picnic interview was moved to complain about what he had said.
ALAN SHATTER TD: “SAD THAT PEOPLE FOUND THIS OUTBURST IN ANY WAY AMUSING”
In the Sunday Tribune, Fine Gael TD Alan Shatter called it “a disgusting and unacceptable outburst” and criticised the audience for laughing throughout: “I would regard it as particularly sad that people found this sort of outburst in any way amusing.”
At a Mass this week, the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin spoke about Tiernan’s words, saying: “Comedy does not bring with it unlimited licence. Comedy can easily be the forerunner of intolerance.”
The Jewish Representative Council of Ireland has also condemned the comments, stating: “Not alone were the comments insensitive and deeply hurtful to the many Jewish people whose relatives were murdered during the Holocaust, they run the risk of inciting racism ...
“The Council ... hopes that all right-minded people will join in condemnation of Mr Tiernan’s offensive remarks.
The story has now gone international, and headlines such as “Irish comedian in trouble over ‘Kill Jews’ remarks” have appeared widely on the internet.
TOMMY TIERNAN: “IT HAS BEEN TAKEN SO FAR OUT OF CONTEXT THAT I AM QUITE BEWILDERED”
Tiernan has not spoken to either the Sunday Tribune or The Ticket, but he did post a message on his website (www.tommytiernan.com) on Monday saying: “I am greatly upset by the thought that these comments have caused hurt to others as this was never my intention. The Electric Picnic interview with Hot Press magazine has been taken so far out of context that I am quite bewildered.
“The things that I said in front of a live audience were in an attempt to explain my belief that one of the duties of the comic performer is to be reckless and irresponsible and that the things they say should NEVER be taken out of context.
“If you read the full transcript or listen to the podcast you will see that I preface my rant by saying that it should not be taken seriously and as such, the rant took place as an example of my argument.
“While it is out of context, which it most definitely is now, it seems callous, cruel and ignorant. This is not the first time that something like this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. However, as a public performer, I can only hope that whatever wild, irresponsible and reckless things that come into my head will be taken in the context which they were said.”
INTERVIEWER OLAF TYARANSEN: “I’M NOT ANTI-SEMITIC BUT I FOUND MYSELF LAUGHING”
At time of going to press, the podcast of the full Electric Picnic interview is still available on www.hotpress.com, and Hot Press itself is standing behind Tiernan. The person who conducted the Electric Picnic interview, Hot Press’s Olaf Tyaransen explains that the “rant” that has caused the controversy came after 30 very entertaining minutes with the comic.
“Not one member of the audience took what he said at face value; the remarks were taken as humorous because he had built it up that way. He began by talking about people taking offence at one of his jokes, then he gave a dramatic and exaggerated example of causing offence. People were laughing – and I was laughing – because it was a comedic performance that exaggerated the notion of ‘causing offence’. “In the context, the remarks were not meant as anti-Semitic in any way. I am not anti-Semitic but I found myself laughing because it was Tommy Tiernan in full flight as a comedy performer dramatising how to really offend.”
HOT PRESS EDITORIAL: “ONLY AN IDIOT COULD THINK THAT HE WAS EXPRESSING HIS OWN FEELINGS”
And in an editorial published in yesterday’s edition of Hot Press, which also carries a full transcript of the interview, editor Niall Stokes writes: “If Alan Shatter reads the interview and comes to the conclusion that Tommy Tiernan is prejudiced against Jews, then he is suffering from a lifethreatening humour by-pass and needs to get it attended to quickly ... The fact is that the interview turned – as many of Tommy Tiernan’s interviews do – into a spontaneous comic performance in which he improvises around whatever subjects are thrown at him ... What he said was strong, referring to the fact that he’d have killed not six million but 10 million or 12 million Jews.
“But, while you have to read the full interview to understand what was going on and to see it in context, only an idiot could think that he was expressing his own feelings.” IF THERE’S a sense of déjà vu here it’s because, since Tiernan came to prominence after winning the Perrier prize at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998, he has built up a quite a portfolio of “offensive” material.
As a comic he is profoundly influenced by the legendary US iconoclast Lenny Bruce, who was frequently arrested for delivering “obscene material”.
Tiernan is not your typical comic, chucking out tepid observational inanities to get a guest slot on a TV panel show. His is an intense and passionately felt style of comedy. He is clearly abundantly talented and phenomenally popular. In the space of just over a year, he sold out Dublin’s Vicar Street venue 166 times.
The attraction, for many, is that he is not just a gag-merchant but someone who dances around the lines of taste and decency. Controversy follows him around like a stalker.
In his first high-profile TV appearance on The Late Late Show, he was the subject of 300 complaints to the station due to a “mocking” routine on the crucifixion. After the show he couldn’t leave the studio for several hours because an angry crowd had gathered outside RTÉ. Since then there have been complaints and condemnation arising from material he has done about Travellers and people with Down syndrome.
He has used some of these controversies to stunning comedic effect. The show that won him the Perrier award in Edinburgh, based on a Late Late Show appearance and its fallout, was a coruscating deconstruction of traditional Irish Catholicism.
If you were to take Tiernan’s remarks about the Holocaust at face value, it would be hard not to view them as wicked. But you might also choose to see them in the way he says they were intended. He asks that we consider them in the context of an entertainer reaching around during a live interview for dramatic and extreme imagery. The decision on how to interpret them lies with the receiver.
Next month, Tiernan does a series of dates in the US, where remarks of this nature could be even less popular. As he says himself this is probably not the last time his remarks will cause offence.
The comments were made at a Q&A session at the Electric Picnic three weeks ago, but became widely publicised only last weekend