Comedian and Father Ted favourite Ardal O’Hanlon tells JOANNE SAVAGE why he finds comedy a great outlet for venting frustrations and exploring his keen sense of the absuridty of life
FIFTEEN years since the last episode, it’s still difficult to disentangle Ardal O’Hanlon’s wide-eyed affability from the character of Dougal in Father Ted - a hugely hilarious and affectionately-drawn study in clerical stupidity. Dougal was as dopey as they come, outrageously and extravagantly dense, but always lovable as Ted’s red pullover-wearing man-child sidekick.
O’Hanlon, however, is very sharp and witty, literary even - he published a novel in 1998 loosely based on his formative years. And Ardal was a successful stand-up long before Linehan cast him in the now cult sitcom.
Born in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, the son of politician Rory O’Hanlon, Ardal was educated at Blackrock College and what is now Dublin City University, leaving with a degree in communications.
After embarking on a career in stand-up he helped form the International Comedy Cellar at a bar on Dublin’s South Wicklow Street with Kevin Gildea and Barry Murphy; in the early 90s the city’s comedy scene was regarded as ‘non-existent’ and this was a step towards a corrective.
A relaxed and assured performer with a nice line in sending up Irish mores and manners, and blessed with generous amounts of personal charm, his faux-naive on-stage persona somehow persistently suggestive of an uncynical good nature, O’Hanlon won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition in 1994.
Previous material has lavished the audience with kooky observations: the Irish, he suggests, “turn up everywhere with sticks and tin whistles and hairy ears”; growing up, his mother insisted no one should walk on her good clean floor, so he and his siblings had to cling to the skirting boards and swing from levers and pulleys to get around; so ubiquitous are the Irish, he riffs, that when Neil Armstrong arrived on the moon there were probably a few Irish men waiting to shout through space: ‘Are you related to the Armstrongs from Fermanagh at all?’ Michael Flatley has also been a recurring source of humorous ire, for in O’Hanlon’s estimation he’s nothing but a “fun-loving sexaholic dance-lord”. Ardal is a natural raconteur, finely attuned to the loopiness of human behaviour.
Part of the Dubliner’s current stand-up show, which arrives at the Waterfront on October 5, ponders why he does comedy, what it is about his outlook and personality that pushed him into a professional life spent in the pursuit of laughter. On the phone to the News Letter, he traces his comedy career back to a need to question and challenge.
“Even as a child and right through school I think I had this tendency to question things and I found it hard to see the point in working very hard in class,” he explains.
“I could never envision myself in a workplace environment, in an office. I knew that wasn’t for me.
“So I’ve always enjoyed thinking about stuff, and trying to be funny.
“Comedy is a great way of sharing your frustrations with the world.
“I’m bewildered very frequently by the absurdity of everyday life too - I think that’s the biggest comedy inspiration of all.”
Ardal’s stand-up typically follows the complicated trajectories of spontaneous conversation, a kind of almost philosophical awareness or insight often delivered amid the simpleton schtick. He doesn’t deal in saturations of cynicism or crude wisecracks, rather he muses in whimsical fashion, flitting like a grasshopper between topics like the madness of celebrity, Irish politicians “who always look as if they’ve broken something”, ageing, marriage, parenthood, religion and flatpack furniture.
“I’ll be riffing around hundreds of subjects,” says Ardal of his forthcoming Belfast show.
“I start with my childhood - I had a very quiet and sheltered upbringing. Then I talk a bit about religion and what it was like being raised as a Catholic. I touch on politics and how generally annoying the political class can be, the nature of the politician, and then I think about who the heroes are these days, asking who do we look up? People don’t have a lot of faith in religion anymore, we don’t have much faith in politicans, then you’ve got sporting heroes who are also widely discredited...”
Not that this is an in-depth examination of such themes; this is just Ardal trying to be funny while zigzagging across topics, always trying to underpin the humour with “something that’s real and thought-provoking”.
A fan of Laurel and Hardy from a young age, he likes to keep a certain innocence to his comedy, and, he adds, “because I think I’ve always had that bewildered look”.
Is he a naturally bewildered individual, I ask, or is this just a trick of his physiognomy, his natural expression somehow always suggestive of a mix of surprise and confusion?
He laughs at this: “Well, I am always surprised and amazed at the way people behave,” he quips. “I’m bewildered at the things that people can get away with. I’m bewildered very frequently by the absurdity of things and at the way people can take themselves so seriously, at the banking crisis, at politics being a bit of a shambles, at the way all these pillars of the establishment frequently turn out to be fools.
“I feel comedy is the only sensible job because it’s our job as comedians to highlight the complete absurdity of things.”
Funny and likeable, O’Hanlon also seems wise, head firmly screwed on. And diligent too - he writes for five or hours a day in his attic at home in Dublin, refining his material until he’s happy with it.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that there are no shortcuts when it comes to writing stand-up,” he adds, reflectively. “It’s something I work on every day.”
Yet the delivery, as with all stand-up, must seem spontaneously fluid and off-the-cuff.
“You have to play with the audience you’ve got, sensing what people are responding to.
“Touring is great when you have a show that you’re proud of and you can’t wait to get out there and see how people will respond to it. That’s how I feel about this show.”
How often, I ask finally, do people rush up to him in public blethering on about Father Dougal, maybe bothering him with garbled renditions of funny scenarios from the show?
“I usually try and hide from people coming up to me to say ‘hi, Dougal’. But if people do spot me I have to say they’re always very friendly; it doesn’t happen that often.
“Sometimes if my kids are watching Father Ted on E4 I do sit down occasionally and watch it with them and I have to say it still surprises me; I still find it very funny.”
I find it hard not to start asking him about ecumenical matters or about Father Jack or a million other instances of exquisite hilarity, but our time has run out and I’m certain he’s heard it all many, many times before.
Ardal O’Hanlon, Comedy Club at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast in association with Bellylaughs, October 5. Call 02890 334455 or visit www.waterfront.co.uk.