Like many other comics and performers, Ed Byrne was enjoying life at the start of 2020. He was touring his new show, If I’m Honest…, which was getting good reviews and all seemed well. And then, well we all know what happened next. This month he resumes his tour which this autumn heads to Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield and Northallerton, with more Yorkshire dates in the new year. “The show is well seasoned and polished and has been sitting on the shelf waiting to be heard again,” he says.
Joking aside, he admits the past 18 months have been unnerving at times. “Stand up is the only thing I’ve ever known how to do and it was quite frightening to have that taken away. I’ve probably been guilty in the past of taking it for granted, or being a bit grumpy about having to go all the way to such and such a place. But having had that taken away from me and now given back, I’ll never feel like that again. I’m coming back with a new appreciation for what I do.”
However, though theatres and concert venues are now open again some people are reticent about going back out. “I’ll be brutally honest with you, sales are sluggish because the marketing departments and box offices have been shut in all the theatres so no one’s spending any money in case things get pulled, plus people are worried about getting pinged. So I’m aware that between now and Christmas I’m going to be playing a lot of half empty rooms,” says Byrne.
“I thought as soon as we were allowed out that you wouldn’t be able to get tickets for anything, I thought everybody would have missed it so much that everything would sell out straight away and it’s not been the case. I know people who are far bigger whose tour tickets go on sale and they sell out that same morning and even with them it’s taking two or three weeks to shift their tickets.
“But if people want to ease themselves into the idea of going out, then If I’m Honest by Ed Byrne is definitely a good starter. It’s just one bloke talking on stage and there’ll be empty seats around,” he jokes.
Byrne was one of four children and grew up in Ireland. His mother worked as a radiographer and his father as a sheet metal worker. “I came from quite a funny family. All us kids were quite funny and there was an appreciation of comedy. I distinctly remember my brother having a Billy Connolly LP and the whole family would sit and listen, with my dad drinking his cup of tea and eating a biscuit and laughing along to Billy telling jokes about the guy at the Glasgow Celtic match getting s*** in his shoe.”
The seeds of his comedy career were sown when he was a student at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. “I used to host pub quizzes and karaokes because I was the entertainments guy and I became the vice-president and in order to do that I had to make speeches so doing that I got a feel for talking to crowds.”
He dropped out of university and decided to try and make a living from stand up. “I set up a comedy club in a bar and the 3rd of November 1993 was the first time I properly took to the stage as a comedian.”
From there he moved to London where he started doing sets on the club circuit. “Even in the early 90s, when I started out, it was still a fairly odd job to decide you wanted to pursue. Whereas now, if you’re 16 and someone says ‘what do you want to do when you’re older?’ and you say ‘I’m working on being a stand-up comic,’ people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Compared to being an instagram influencer it sounds like a proper job.”
His rise up the ladder was steady rather than spectacular, though having the biggest selling comedy show of the year at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe was a pivotal moment.
Over the years he’s appeared on everything from Father Ted to Countryfile, and co-hosted Dara & Ed’s Big Adventure with fellow Irish comic Dara Ó Briain.
His friendship with Dara (they were best man at each other’s weddings) dates back more than 20 years to when they were both young guns on the comedy circuit. “We make each other laugh in ways that only best friends do. We’ll just set each other off,” he says. “When he first came to London he’d stay at my place, though I don’t know retrospectively if I’d known that he’d totally eclipse me, maybe I wouldn’t have been so generous with my spare room.”
In recent years Byrne has become a regular on the BBC’s popular satirical panel show Mock The Week, which he feels has mellowed over time. “It used to be a bit of a bear pit at its height, when you had Frankie Boyle on one side and Russell Howard on the other. Russell’s material tended to be more long form and in a way didn’t entirely suit a panel show, and he was constantly making space for himself and then Frankie would just drop a bomb of a line, and it was difficult for everybody else to get in.
“Now, I think it is far more collegiate and Dara is good at directing traffic and being aware when somebody is trying to come in and hasn’t yet and he tries to make sure all the voices are heard. So it’s a very good show for new people.”
It reflects, perhaps, the changing nature of comedy. “It was harder to be an overnight success in the late 90s when I was coming to the fore because there wasn’t Live At The Apollo or Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow. But now there’s a wider range of clubs to play and a wider range of comedy coming through which I think can only be a good thing.
“When I was first cutting my teeth on the circuit it was very gladiatorial and aggressive and the comedy was very hard-edged, and I was definitely a product of that.
“I think there’s a lot of comics today who might never have become comedians if they’d started out 20 years ago, who are able to find their voice in a far more nurturing atmosphere. It’s the difference between a weed growing in a garden and an orchid growing in a greenhouse and people are able to develop a more interesting comedy and a more interesting voice in clubs today,” he says.
“It’s very easy as a veteran of the bear pit comedy clubs to look down and go ‘I’d like to see you close The Late Show’, but on the other hand it’s really nice to see different flavours of more imaginative comedy coming out of alternative spaces.”
And Byrne himself feels his own passion for his job remains undimmed. “With stand up, when you get an idea and you go and try it out, the audience laughs, and that appeals to me. I like the immediacy of it and the binary nature of whether something is good or bad. It keeps things simple, and I am an immediate, instant gratification type of person.”
Ed Byrne is appearing at City Varieties, Leeds, September 14; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, September 25; the Forum, Northallerton, October 3; and Victoria Theatre, Halifax, November 25.