Ardal O’Hanlon: A Comic Worth His Salt

By Lauren Byrne, Contributor
June / July 2007

Best known to TV audiences from the sitcoms Father Ted and My Hero, Ardal O’Hanlon decided it was time to develop his “own thing.” He talked to Lauren Byrne after a stand-up gig in Boston.

Sitting at an out-of-the-way alcove in the Park Plaza Hotel on his first visit to Boston, Ardal O’Hanlon is describing Ireland’s economic doldrums in the 1980s and how they shaped his career. A wildly enthusiastic audience greeted him the evening before at the Burren pub, and now the comedian, author, and star of the cult TV show Father Ted is keen to get out and explore the city, but first he casts his mind back to how it all began for him. “When I left college in 1987 there was absolutely nothing to do in Dublin. It was a wilderness. A lot of people went into comedy and lived the vaguely bohemian life. It was very attractive in its own modest way because there was very little alternative. I imagine I wouldn’t have gone into comedy if there were great prospects and you could sail into a job.”

For most of us, trying to raise laughs from a room full of strangers ranks only slightly lower than bull fighting and shark feeding as desirable career choices. Emigrating, as thousands of Irish graduates did at the time, seems like the easier option. Yes, it is hard to make people laugh, Ardal agrees. “But at the start you don’t know that, and you can get up there on a tiny stage in some bar somewhere and try it. You’ll very quickly find out whether it’s for you or not. But it always seemed to go well for myself and my friends. And it became a career. Though it didn’t start out like that. It was very much about fun.”

There is nothing about the soft-spoken, rather serious O’Hanlon to confirm comedian Will Ferrell’s contention that “stand-up is hard and lonely and vicious.” Sporting a pair of dark-framed eye glasses that give him a vaguely professorial appearance, he expresses mild disappointment that his gig the evening before wasn’t more challenging. “It was a bit too Irish,” he says. “From my point of view it would be more exciting to play to more of a mixed audience.”

For a nation famous for its wit and its loquacity, Ireland has produced surprisingly few comics. In America, stand-up comedy, with its roots in nineteenth-century vaudeville, began to take shape in the 1950s and ’60s with the boundary-pushing acts of the likes of Lenny Bruce. By the 1970s, there was something for every audience, from the acerbic wit of George Carlin to the gentler riffs of Bill Cosby and Steve Martin. In Ireland, stand-up comedy didn’t arrive until the late ’80s, and, at age 42, Ardal is one of the grand old men of stand-up there, having helped to introduce it. The influence of British

TV shows like Friday Night Live and Saturday Live, which showcased stand-ups, coupled with the availability on video of shows by major American stand-up comics like Robin Williams, Richard Prior, and Steve Martin kicked it off. “For the first time ever we saw stand-ups who looked a bit like us. They weren’t old men in tuxedoes,” says Ardal, who also acknowledges the influence of the Laurel and Hardy movies he saw on Irish TV as a child. “It was really in the context of Thatcherism that stand-up as we know it emerged. It was about saying what was wrong with the world. [In Ireland] we didn’t really have Thatcherism. We had fatalism. We were influenced by literature and by Flann O’Brien [the Irish writer].”

Born in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, the son of the politician and doctor Rory O’Hanlon, and one of six children, O’Hanlon graduated from Dublin City University with a degree in communication studies. It was a suitably vague topic, says Ardal, who, by his own account, was a shy child who was always doodling and writing. He discovered his flair for comedy at college, where he organized comedy debates. With no job prospects after graduation, he and some friends founded the Comedy Cellar, the first stand-up club in Dublin. Having succeeded in Dublin, he made the inevitable move to England, where there were hundreds of comedy clubs and the possibility of actually making a living from comedy. In 1994 he won the prestigious Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition. Shortly afterwards he was spotted by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, two young Irishmen also looking to make their mark in comedy in Britain. They cast him in the role of Father Dougal McGuire in Father Ted after their script was bought by Channel 4 TV.
The show, which deals with the tribulations of Father Ted Crilly (as played by Dermot Morgan) who shares his parish house on the remote Craggy Island with a demented alcoholic, Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly), the exceedingly dim Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon), and their devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn), ran for just three seasons between 1995 and 1998, but its popularity remains undiminished. In February, over 1000 fans dressed as priests, bishops, and nuns attended the inaugural TedFest on the Aran Islands. Organized to mark the ninth anniversary of the death of Dermot Morgan, the event grabbed newspaper headlines even before it began when Inis Oirr islanders insisted the event should be staged there and not on Inis Mór, since the show’s opening credits feature a view of a shipwrecked boat on Inis Oirr. A football match was played to decide the location of the event.

On record as saying he’d rather move on from Father Ted, thank you, O’Hanlon is philosophical when it inevitably comes up for discussion. “I was very lucky that Father Ted was so successful, so it might look like I can act,” he jokes about his own contribution to the show. About its send-up of Irish Catholicism, he says, “I never thought of it as particularly setting out to satirize religion. I’ve two aunts who are nuns in their seventies and they absolutely love it. And priests love it — or at least they pretend they do.”

“Typecast? Yeah, you can’t escape it,” he admits, acknowledging the ironies of success. While the show’s world-wide appeal has earned him invitations to work in the U.S. and Australia, it has limited the kinds of work he can do. A couple of subsequent TV shows he was cast in, Big Bad World (1999) and Blessed (2005), didn’t succeed largely because they broke with his pleasantly off-kilter Dougal persona. “It was apparent that people wanted me to play the fool. So despite my best intentions I got channeled into mainstream TV.”

His most successful show since Father Ted has been My Hero, now on BBC North America. In it he plays a familiarly lovable character out of step with everyday life; this time because he’s Thermoman, a superhero from the planet Ultron, whose earthly identity is as an Irish health-food shop owner living in London. The show had a successful run from 2000 to 2005, after which he dropped out. “I felt trapped after a while. I wasn’t getting much satisfaction out of it. It wasn’t making me happy. And likewise I spent far too long trying to write a second novel (his first, Knick Knack Paddy Whack, was published in 1998) and getting into a bit of a tangle. While I would welcome other types of roles in TV or movies, I’m realistic. You realize, you’ve only got a limited time and you can’t be doing your head in. And this is why I went back to stand-up. I enjoy the adventure.”

A few years ago, Ardal put some other limitations on his career when he left his London base and moved back with wife, Melanie, and their two children to live in Dublin. “It was a very easy decision,” he says. “But now I can’t do some things I’d like to do and have been asked to do. I had a few very enjoyable forays into theater, but they want you for six months and that’s very debilitating to family life. So it’s swings and roundabouts: You enjoy the quality of life in Dublin, and watching your kids grow up happily is a marvelous thing, but the price to pay is you can’t do all those other things.”

Making frequent guest appearances on British and Irish TV, and with working dates in Australia on his immediate calendar, Ardal admits, “I’m at that stage where I need to develop my own things. Any comic worth his salt has to develop his own stuff. I should have done it years ago.”

Before he sets out to walk Boston’s Freedom Trail, the talk returns to the previous night’s show. It was draining, he admits, but only because he had jet lag and his audience was an unknown quantity. “You’re adjusting all the time,” he says, conveying something of what it’s like doing stand-up. “Will I try a bit of politics? Will I try surreal stuff? You’re all the time chopping and changing in your head, wondering what will work.” It sounds gut wrenching. “Yeah, it is a bit,” he concedes. “But you need a bit of excitement in your life.”

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