Jason Byrne: Children's festivals are by far the hardest gig there is
Dublin comedian Jason Byrne tells Jenny Lee how he's learning to cope as a single man again, how children are his toughest audience and how learning to hold his breath energises him
AFTER 23 consecutive years of touring, Dublin comedian Jason Byrne is “wrecked” but he is as “ready” as ever, to entertain his fans with another unpredictable, audience-interaction-fed live tour.
Coming to Belfast’s Ulster Hall on November 2, the show's title Wrecked But Ready reflects a year of highs and lows personally and professionally for Byrne.
“It’s the usual, props, banter and getting people up – but I’ve hung it all on my break-up from my wife Brenda just over a year ago,” says Byrne who reassures fans they don’t need to bring their tissues or worrying about him spilling his heart out on stage.
“My audiences have listened to me talk about children being born, school, my marriage and everything. So when I first talked about my marriage break-up on stage, the audience were really upset – it was f***king hilarious. I said, “hold on, I’m the one that broke up here”.
“A lot of comedians will do shows on their break-up with their loved ones, and those shows are so exhausting to watch. Mine’s great craic. It’s more about the light-hearted stuff about being on my own again.”
Audiences can expect the usual trademark Jason Byrne spontaneous mayhem, where anything can happen.
“After about 10 minutes talking about break-ups, I usually get three guys on stage and put cardboard boxes around them and then I get them jumping on baby trampolines.”
After a 20-year relationship and two children, Byrne compares his break-up to a racehorse losing its rider in the middle of a race.
“Because they are so highly strung and they are guided all the time, when the jockey falls off the racehorse keeps jumping over the fences, then goes over the white line, before running aimlessly into the crowd. That’s kind of what my life has been like for about a year.”
He admits celebrating his new-found freedom by getting a tattoo and going clubbing again – something he quickly realised wasn’t for him.
“When I went to nightclubs it looked like I was there to collect somebody, so I knocked that on the head,” laughs the 47-year-old, who got a tattoo around his wrist.
“I simply wanted to get a tattoo to see if it hurt. They just drew the circle on my wrist and it really wasn’t too bad,” says Byrne, reassuring me he was sober at the time.
Being single has enabled him to discovered other things about himself, including the fact he never actually liked Top Gear, despite years of arguing over the remote control with his wife and protesting that he needed to watch it.
“I also didn’t realise I’ve been watching Coronation Street for 20 years.”
One positive he’s discovered is that he can now find things in his apartment.
“I’m still amazed that when you put keys or a pen down somewhere you can come back two days later and they are in the same place. That’s brilliant.”
During the past year Byrne has also been busy as a judge on Ireland’s Got Talent, enjoyed a sell-out run of gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe and become a children’s author with the publication of The Accidental Adventures of Onion O’Brien.
He is currently finishing the second book in the four-part series, which will be out in November and admits the adventures are based on his own childhood, growing up in Dublin suburb of Ballinteer.
“The little gang are called the Five Os and are based on me and my mates. They are almost like a funny Famous Five.”
So did he see himself as a modern-day Enid Blyton?
“When I wrote the first children’s book I thought there was just me, David Walliams and JK Rowling. Then I went to the store and saw hundreds of children’s writers and went 'Oh, s**t'."
He used the same expletive inwardly when he took part in his first children’s festival.
“I didn't realise all the kids come and sit around your feet with the parents at the back and you are just basically babysitting their kids for an hour. Children’s festival are by far the hardest gig there is.”
The first Onion O’Brien book The Great Ape was inspired by Byrne and his pals going to see the animals backstage in a circus near their home when he was 12.
“The circus man brought us into a tent to see the female elephant. Her head was rubbing off the roof and her leg was chained into the ground. My original idea was these kids trying to get a baby elephant out of the circus and then a friend in Belfast told me about Zoo, the movie they were making about the woman who took the baby elephant home from Belfast Zoo in World War Two – so I changed it to a baby orang-utan. It doesn't matter what story you write, someone's already done it I guess.”
I ask him if he’s ever featured the O'Brien family in any of his stage shows?
“No, but the mum and dad are based on my parents and they're always on stage in some way or other,” laughs Byrne, who as well as recording a new series of Ireland’s Got Talent is planning his own online television show in the new year.
“That will be great because I can do whatever I like," he adds.
A keen runner, Byrne reveals his secret to coping with the pressures of life in the past year has been meditation and in particular the Wim Hof breathing method. He first discovered the technique of the Dutch extreme athlete, known as The Iceman, during a meditation class he attended in Sweden with his sister-in-law.
“Wim Hof can do amazing things like swimming under the ice. It’s based on the principle that if you give your body enough oxygen until it doesn’t need anymore, then you can hold your breath.
“You do guided meditation and then you stop breathing for as long as you can. It's amazing how it works and then you get a very real high afterwards. It’s fantastic for your brain.
“Meditation is so important for everyone and if everyone did it the world would be an amazing place,” adds Byrne, who reveals the longest he has been able to hold his breath for is just over three and a half minutes.
So shall we see a group meditation in your show in Belfast?
“Jesus, they would all start fainting,” he laughs.
:: Jason Byrne brings his Wrecked But Ready tour to Belfast’s Ulster Hall on November 2. Tickets on sale now via Jasonbyrne.ie or Ulsterhall.co.uk.