‘I used to be criticised for ‘just’ being funny’ - Ed Byrne on confounding the critics with his hit new death-inspired stand-up show, Tragedy Plus Time

David Roy chats to the veteran Irish funnyman about drawing unexpected inspiration from the death of his younger brother, and why the resulting show is still actually really funny - honest

Ed Byrne
Ed Byrne's latest tour Tragedy Plus Time finds him drawing upon the death of his younger brother, Paul. PICTURE: ROSLYN GAUNT

“I was very keen to still make it a funny show,” explains Ed Byrne of the tricky task of putting together his latest stand-up routine, the acclaimed Tragedy Plus Time, a slightly more emotionally charged affair than his previous outings.

It finds the Swords-born comic exploring how he and his family navigated the death of his younger brother, Paul, including the many moments of unlikely levity they shared with him and each other during his long battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Paul died in 2022 at the age of 44. A respected director/producer who worked with the likes of Dara Ó Briain, Andrew Maxwell, Roisin Conaty and many other well-known comedians, Paul Byrne was the man stand-ups turned to for advice on how to ensure their live shows delivered.

Ed Byrne

Somewhat ironically, Ed (52), could probably have used his little brother’s advice as he attempted to shift gears after 30 years of primarily gag-focused material in order to write the more personal Tragedy Plus Time.

“I knew I was going to introduce some sadness into a show for the first time ever, so there was a certain amount of trepidation about that,” explains Ed of how he felt while preparing the show.

“I did ask advice from a number of people who Paul worked with. Because I wanted the show to be as if he had directed it, if you know what I mean.

“The main thing that kept coming back was this: his deal was that you can be as serious as you like, and as heartfelt as you want - but there has to be a joke coming. You can’t just say something serious and then just let it hang and move on to the next bit.

“It has to be in the service of something comedic, either in the moment or at the very least later on in the show. So I’ve been I’ve made sure to stay true to that.”

Happily, it seems that the punters at Edinburgh and on the recent dates of his Tragedy Plus Time tour have been responding well - with a few exceptions.

Ed Byrne: Tragedy + Time
Ed Byrne: Tragedy Plus Time PICTURE: ROSLYN GAUNT

“I knew it would probably go right at the Edinburgh Fringe, but I wasn’t really sure about then taking it on the road,” admits Ed, who’s also well known for his TV appearances on the likes of Mock The Week, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Live At The Apollo, and his great outdoors-themed vodcast series Ed Venturing.

“But it’s actually been going really, really well. In fact, it’s probably done better on the road than it did in Edinburgh. I certainly had more people walking out during the fringe than I’ve had on the road.”

Yes, apparently the ‘serious’ subject matter in Tragedy Plus Time caught by surprise a few festival-goers who hadn’t done their homework.

“I think there were a few more people who just didn’t know what it was going to be about,” he explains.

“There were probably a few who thought, ‘Oh, we’ll go and see something a bit more challenging in the afternoon and then go and see Ed Byrne because he’s a bit more reliable when it comes to just doing jokes that make us forget about everything’.”

To be fair to such types, it seems that the version of Tragedy Plus Time being performed in Edinburgh was slightly more triggering than the one Irish fans can look forward to enjoying when Ed tours here next month.

“It’s less graphic than it used to be,” he admits.

“I had a thing in there which described in greater detail the actual moment when you remove life support from somebody, and the noises they make. I think that was just a bit much, so I have softened it bit.”

Ed Byrne
Ed Byrne

In a way, tapping the loss of Paul for comedic inspiration has helped London-based Ed ‘get with the times’ in an era where every other stand-up show seems to be doubling as a free therapy session for the person holding the microphone.

“I think nowadays it’s quite accepted and almost expected that people will incorporate some sort of trauma into their standard shows,” offers Ed.

“Certainly when you go to, say, the Edinburgh Fringe, or the Melbourne Comedy Festival, if you’ve just got an hour of jokes [there] it’s almost like, disappointing.

“It always used to kind of annoy me that that I would get marked down, as it were, by reviewers for doing a show that was ‘just funny’. Because I really used to feel like I had no ambition to be anything other than funny.

“Even if I was getting across the odd political opinion or sneaking some sort of ‘woke’ political message into a routine or something like that, you know, I had very little ambition beyond just trying to make the audience laugh or having them go away feeling like they know me a little better.

“But now, having done this show, I do get it - I get why people think the comedy should do more than ‘just’ make people laugh.”

While Ed is proud of how the show has been received and the ‘journey’ he’s been on with it, from early work-in-progress shows which found him bursting into tears while overcome by still-raw emotion, to its current well-polished form in which he can actually enjoy introducing audiences to the younger brother he knew, loved and occasionally butted heads with (at one point they didn’t speak for several years) every night, he’s already wondering what impact Tragedy Plus Time will have on his comedy going forward.

“My hope is that the next show I do will go back to just being a little bit more jovial,” says Ed.

“Not that this show isn’t funny, by the way. Without doing her any disservice, it’s not Nanette [Hannah Gadsby’s acclaimed 2017 special]: I don’t retire from comedy 20 minutes before the end of the show, and then just talk about my pain.

“This show is funny from start to finish, with a few sad bits in it, you know?”

Ed Byrne - Tragedy Plus Time: June 20, Millennium Forum, Derry / June 21, Waterfront Hall, Belfast / June 22, Liberty Theatre, Dublin / June 23, Black Box, Galway / November 16, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick / November 17, Theatre Royal, Waterford / November 28, Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire / November 29, Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny / November 30, The Whale Theatre, Greystones / December 1, The Everyman Theatre, Cork. Tickets via edbyrne.com