Writers going back as far as Shakespeare have recognised that comedy can be found in tragedy. And that’s what chirpy Irish comedian Ed Byrne is aiming to demonstrate in his latest show.

Tragedy Plus Time is about the death of Ed’s brother Paul. And Ed discovered that the show could work when he performed a couple of preview gigs in Derbyshire.

Ed explains that his latest offering is different from what he normally gets up to: “It was Mark Twain apparently who said humour could be defined as tragedy plus time. Something that’s not funny at the time can become funny later. I’m just seeing how far I can stretch that as a concept.”

Paul died from liver damage almost two years ago at the age of 44. He directed comedy shows and, according to Ed, was himself very funny.

“I do think he would want me to turn his death into a one-person touring comedy show and that’s what I’ve done. But it was more difficult than anything I’ve done before. I had to balance being funny with telling what’s quite a sad story.

Ed Byrne admits his relationship with his brother was “fractious” [images: Roslyn Gaunt)

“It doesn’t really help to tell the story in a linear way. It jumps about a bit but it’s not a film, it’s not like you have to follow a plot. That way the whole thing works better.”

Normally Ed, known to many people for his appearances on several television panel games, would go to a comedy club to try out new material. But he didn’t think a comedy-club audience would want to hear the type of humour that’s in Tragedy Plus Time.

“Very early on I had to go and hire little rooms to start building the show from scratch. I did a couple of gigs in Derbyshire, one in Eyam and one in Bamford. They were a half hour each. That was when I first started to get feedback on the show and I thought maybe it was going to work.”

You might be wondering about Ed’s connections with Derbyshire. His wife Claire’s parents live in Alport and you might see him walking around Bakewell when he visits the county.

He admits his relationship with his brother was fractious: “We got on well, we made each other laugh but we could also wind each other up.

“We had a massive row a little over a year before he passed and then we didn’t talk for a long time. But we did make up which I also talk about in the show.

“One of the things which was quite difficult in writing it was knowing exactly where to put things. The reconciliation we had forms a positive end to the show.”

Ed admits that initially he found it hard keeping his emotions in check although now he is fine most of the time.

“The first few times I did it I was crying on stage. Every now and again it will hit me. The better the audience is the more I get into the emotions of the show. Earlier in the year I did Horsham. They were such an amazing audience that it all came back to me and I came off stage in absolute floods.”

Despite that Ed, who’s been making people laugh for three decades, knows there has to be humour in this his 14th show.

“It’s surprising the quality of a laugh you get when you deliver a joke after sad news.”

“It’s a very dour subject but it is funny. I was talking to a lot of the clients that Paul directed and they said his thing was you can be as serious as you want but there always has to be a joke. Just being serious is no use. So I made sure to honour that.

“There’s nothing new in doing something sad and then having a punchline. It’s surprising the quality of a laugh you get when you deliver a joke after sad news. You’re creating a more emotional image or moment in the show and then puncturing that with a laugh.

“The symbol for drama is a laughing mask and a crying mask. You watch TV shows like Scrubs, M*A*S*H or even Friends where they create a sad moment followed by a laugh. I’m not exactly re-inventing the wheel here.

“But after 30 years in the job it’s nice to be still finding new things. I still feel I’m getting better. The last tour I did, If I’m Honest, was the funniest show I’ve done. I think this show is the best I’ve done.”

Edward Cathal Byrne was born on 16th April 1972 in Swords, County Dublin, Ireland. He was the third of four children.

He studied horticulture at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and while there he started a comedy night in a pub. He gave up studying and moved to London.

His observational comedy and social satire proved popular on the stand-up circuit. He was nominated for the Perrier comedy award at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe, by which time he’d appeared on the small screen in Father Ted.

His curmudgeonly, nerdy persona led to his becoming a regular on shows including Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Have I Got News For You. He appeared on Mock The Week over 70 times – more than any other panellist.

He’s performed sell-out tours, did a two-week run in the West End and regularly entertains old and new audiences alike at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Recently he won the celebrity edition of The Weakest Link, donating his £19,350 prize money to Scottish Mountain Rescue.

Tragedy Plus Time received fantastic reviews when Ed performed it north of the border and it will tour for the rest of this year, going to Australia and New Zealand as well as all over the UK.

He doesn’t relish all the travelling and being away from the Essex home he shares with Claire and their two sons Cosmo and Magnus. But he does enjoy “the pre-show pint” and sometimes “the post-show curry” as well as being on stage.

“I’ve been trying to keep myself healthy, going for a run or a walk all over the UK and indeed all over the world. It’s quite nice to be able to do that.”

Ed’s passion for the outdoors – he loves hill walking and mountaineering – meant he was chosen to present factual programmes on BBC2 including Volcano Live and World’s Most Dangerous Roads where he spent two weeks driving through Siberia.

He would like to do more but at the moment he’s concentrating on his latest tour which will include dates at the Winding Wheel, Chesterfield on Thursday 1st February and Buxton Opera House on Thursday 29th February.

He will also be playing Bakewell Town Hall on Friday 1st March. This has already sold out although an extra date is being organised for later in the year.

Ed says he’s feeling the pressure about performing in Bakewell: “I do spend a fair bit of time there and I don’t want to be walking around town and people going ‘that guy apparently thinks he’s funny’.”

After Tragedy Plus Time is over Ed will start thinking about his next show. “I’m trying not to think too far ahead because I’m doing this for another year.”

He’s always jotting things down so he’s got new material at his disposal.

“The biggest thing is having the discipline not to put it in this show. You think of a new joke and you want to include it but you’ve got to save it for the next one.”

Has his comedy evolved over the past 30 years?

“I’d say the major difference is when I first started out I would say literally anything to get a laugh whether I believed what I was saying or not. It’s a minor thing but now I’m more into making sure that I’m saying what I actually think about a subject. It means you end up putting a bit more of your personality into the show.”

Entertainers come and go but Ed Byrne’s storytelling skills, sublime wit and determination not to remain in his comfort zone mean he looks destined to continue as one of the world’s great stand-up comedians.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine


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