The voice, the body language, the manic movements are all familiar, but the laughter is different; it is not the side-splitting guffaws that normally accompany these performances.
It is the nervous, awkward kind, as if the audience isn’t sure if it’s allowed to laugh or not.
Eyeball to eyeball with the whole room, he’s not giving any clues either.
Abruptly, he announces the intermission, promising to return shortly and start all over again. Someone in the audience seems to be taking pity on him as he stares into the abyss, but he is quick to reassure them.
It’s all part of the show, and Tommy Tiernan is in control – it may be dangerously close sliding out of his grasp at regular intervals, but somehow, without a single line of scripted material, he remains in control of this packed comedy club in Stockholm, the audience bursting into laughter but at times baffled by his brilliance.
On Monday night on RTE the film about Tommy Tiernan’s improvised adventures in Europe will air, and I’ll be glued to the TV, just as I was to the stage that spring night in Stockholm back in March when he walked the wire in front of an audience expecting something completely different.
A few weeks earlier it was a lot more like what they would have expected. Passers-by stared in the window of my car at the tears that streamed down my face as I shook with laughter.
I was parked on a street in central Stockholm, trying to interview one of Irish stand-up’s top dogs, but it was proving nigh-on impossible.
On the speakerphone from “a hotel beside a roundabout in west Dublin,” Tommy was holding court about his upcoming European shows and how he still had “as much mischief in me as Gandalf.”
I was interviewing him for Totally Stockholm to try to give the Swedish capital some sort of fair warning as to what to expect at the RAW comedy club when he played.
“As you get older it’s almost like you come in, you sit down you have a cup of tea and people think you’re normal,” he says, barely able to breathe as he laughs at the notion.
“But as you’re leaving they realize you’ve pissed on the floor.”
What he didn’t mention to me was that the whole show would be entirely improvised and filmed, something that took the Friday night audience in March completely by surprise.
The seats at the purpose-built RAW comedy club were sold out as ex-pats and comedy lovers flocked to see one of the top acts from the international circuit. It quickly became apparent that the rhythm was different – edgy, jerky, unpredictable.
The regular riffs about sex and the church and bizarre people he’d met and his children were absent, replaced by observations in the moment, tied together with the thinnest of threads.
Surely he wasn’t going to improvise the whole show?
And he did.
In parts it was gut-achingly hilarious, in others cringeworthy. His few hours in the city had given him enough to hit the easy targets early and often – how well-run the country seemed, how beautiful everyone was, and how the Irish stood out in comparison.
The crowd tried to go with him but those with bellies full of beer and a distinct lack of understanding of the live setting interrupted the flow repeatedly with heckles, particularly when Tiernan tried to take the tempo down before quickening again.
It was like the lions realizing that the ringmaster’s whip and chair were no match for their teeth, but this particular ringmaster had a few more potent barbs in his arsenal.
Tommy ploughed manfully on – 18 years of dealing with audience members who all think they are funnier than you gives you certain coping mechanisms, even without the safety net of a script – never once seeking the comfort of familiar material.
It was a masterful, powerful, almost sickeningly brave performance, both physically and verbally.
This was a performer dragging us to the very limits, forcing us to stare into the abyss and then pulling us back and changing course. Only a few were lost over the side.
Finally, he took the enthusiastic standing ovation of the crowd; some applauded the jokes made up on the spot, while others applauded his courage and resilience.
Some clapped in relief that it was over, while others knew that they had seen something very, very special, even if they couldn’t put their finger on what it was.
Tommy himself seemed to breathe deeply for the first time all night. The pressure was lifted, at least until the next night of the tour.
By all accounts a very private man offstage, Tiernan had generously agreed to do a meet-and-greet with members of the Irish community, some of whom had been wildly heckling him from the safety of the darkness just a few minutes previously.
They waited in the lobby to allow him time to collect himself before they were brought back in to meet him and take photographs.
We spoke for a moment about the show, and how it went; I wanted to ask him why he never told me the show would be improvised, but I suspected I already knew the answer.
If people know in advance, their expectations are already set and the challenge is gone. But if you fill a room full of people and beer on a Friday night and then completely bamboozle them you can take them – and you – to places neither of you would ever have dreamed of going as you made your way there.
I know a lot of stand-up comics. I love live comedy, especially the improvised variety (if you’ve never witnessed it, get down to the International Bar on a Monday night for the Comedy Improv and find out yourself how brilliant it can be).
I know how much being funny, even for ten minutes, takes out of these performers emotionally.
But I have never seen a comic so thoroughly exhausted as Tommy Tiernan was after that Stockholm show.
He was emptied, worn out, fatigued. The documentary cameras flitted around and it almost felt unfair that people wanted to take his picture, or film him.
The following night he appeared again, more or less unannounced, in the same club on a bill with Swedish comics.
The crowd was modest, but that didn’t stop him getting into the swing of it again. Without the ex-pats and the beered-up Friday night revelers it was somehow easier, but the spark of conflict was also missing.
I had sneaked into the back row just before he went on and marvelled once again at the skill of his stagecraft, his sense of where the room was and where he wanted it to go. The only problem was that they didn’t want to go too far, as they all seemingly had busses to catch.
I hung around a little afterwards, but not for long. I wanted to tell him that the improv idea was a brave one and a great one, but I quickly got the feeling that he wasn’t going to appear in the bar after the show.
The truth is, it didn’t matter what I or anyone else thought about his improv idea; he was going to do it anyway, and stick to his guns.
He was going to see it through to the end, be it bitter or sweet.
And that is the difference between your regular funnyman or woman and an artist willing to abandon his comfort zone and all he knows to see where the journey takes him.
You can see the results in “Tommy: To Tell You The Truth” on RTE this coming Monday evening.