Irish comedian Jason Byrneâ€™s trips down under have become an almost annual event keenly anticipated by his ever-expanding fan base. His stints in Australia slot into an almost regimental schedule, which seems at odds with his chaotic stage persona.
But Byrne admits heâ€™s like a baby and loves routine; he starts every year at home in Ireland with a raft of live gigs, and thatâ€™s where he is now. â€œBasically during this time Iâ€™m trying out loads of stuff and doing different things yâ€™know; all sorts of stuff and then Iâ€™ll pick my favourite hour and Iâ€™ll bring that to Australia, because you can only do an hour in a lot of the festivals. Iâ€™ve been doing two hours while Iâ€™m here so Iâ€™ve got a good lot of stuff to pick from. Itâ€™s all new stuff and I just keep sort of tweaking it and poking it.â€
Tweaking and poking complete, Byrne spends around three months in Australia with his family in tow for four weeks of that. He appears at the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane Comedy Festivals as well as other gigs in between. Then itâ€™s back home to Ireland again.
â€œIâ€™ll be home around the end of May and then June and July I have the Kilkenny Comedy Festival and then some other festivals in Canada and stuff like that, and then I go to Edinburgh in August. My family tend to come there for at least a week, and then the British tour is September, October, November and into December. Thatâ€™s three gigs a week and then Iâ€™m home for the rest of that â€¦ thatâ€™s my year â€¦ having a young family you have to do that â€¦ they have to more or less know where you are all the time.â€
His high-energy shows may seem like borderline anarchy from where weâ€™re sitting â€” as he randomly drags audience members on stage to participate in his antics â€” but he says that while each show is different, thereâ€™s a carefully planned structure in place too.
â€œThe first half of the show Iâ€™ll do a lot of making up stuff, improv, stuff coming into my head, messing with the audience and the second half would be heavy with all the material I would have written and stuff Iâ€™ve tried out â€¦ the whole thing is structured. I know totally where Iâ€™m going all the time â€¦ everything I do every night always happens at the same time in the show, you know what I mean, so in that sense itâ€™s like organised chaos.â€
With audience participation such a huge part of his act, you wonder if itâ€™s as nervewracking for him at times, as it is for those cowering in the front row. But Byrne reckons heâ€™s pretty good at knowing whatâ€™s going to happen from reading peopleâ€™s body language.
â€œIâ€™m just so used to it. Iâ€™m so used to seeing people who are frightened, seeing people who are mental, seeing people who are just sort of normal and up for a bit of a laugh and thatâ€™s normally who I pick â€¦ using them and talking away to them is great for me but Iâ€™m not too nervous because if they donâ€™t want to play, I donâ€™t play and I just do all the pre-written stuff. But then again, thatâ€™s very rare because Iâ€™ve got great fans now and they come to play. The Australians are really good at that â€¦ theyâ€™re fucking nuts. Most of them sit in the front now in my shows hoping Iâ€™ll talk to them.â€
But there have been a few times when heâ€™s been caught off guard. â€œIf somebodyâ€™s handicapped in any way I donâ€™t know. There was a guy in the audience in Dublin and he was totally blind. I didnâ€™t know and I was trying to get him and his two mates up and they said no, he canâ€™t get up. So the two guys get up, and I looked down, because his eyes didnâ€™t look too bad, and I said, â€˜why canâ€™t he get up?â€™ And they said, â€˜heâ€™s blindâ€™. And I said â€˜oh my God, are you blind?â€™ And he said â€˜yeahâ€™, and the crowd all went a bit quiet you know, and I said â€˜whatâ€™s your name?â€™ and he goes â€˜Robâ€™ and I went â€˜your nameâ€™s not seriously Rob the fucking blind man is it?!â€™ The whole crowd started laughing, and then he started laughing â€¦ it was brilliant.â€
Byrne himself even seems a bit surprised that almost two decades in, he hasnâ€™t upset anybody. Complaints after the show are rare. â€œOne year I did an impression of a rabbit suffocating in a shed. It was a true story about my kidsâ€™ pet rabbit that was in the shed, and the shed got hot, and the rabbit died in there. So I did an impression of the rabbit dying in there and some woman from the animal rights movement left a letter for me afterwards saying it was cruelty to animals. But she wasnâ€™t talking about what happened to the rabbit, she was saying that my impression of a rabbit was cruelty to animals. And I thought, I mustâ€™ve done a good job.â€
But even with his years of experience, his people reading skills and his adoring audiences, Byrne says heâ€™s still nervous before every show. â€œEvery comic is â€¦ every comic is going â€˜oh Jesus, I hope itâ€™s a good audience,â€™ do you know what I mean? Actually in this new show I do like an Irish dancing piece but Iâ€™m kind of flopped on the ground like a puppet at the start, and then I come up and do Irish dancing, but at that point there I always know if itâ€™s going to be a great gig or not. The crowd normally starts to cheer when the light comes on me, but if they donâ€™t I go â€˜oh fuck, Iâ€™m going to have to work this roomâ€™.â€
JASON BYRNE PLAYS THE BRISBANE COMEDY FESTIVAL AT THE POWERHOUSE MARCH 8-10. briscomfest.com