picture © Roslyn Gaunt

The Unlikely Feminist

12th February 2016

Despite his youthful looks Irishman Ed Byrne recently marked up 20 years as a comic. Veronica Lee meets the ‘Mock the Week’ star who is also an established touring favourite.

Ed Byrne’s latest show of observational comedy, Outside, Looking In, covers a wide range of subjects – from a recent gastric illness to the success of UKIP – but he also talks a lot about his family and the performance is his most personal yet.

“I didn’t make a conscious effort to write a more personal show, but that was what was coming out when I started,” Ed says. “People come to see me for a laugh and I would like to think they go away thinking the show is quite heart-warming. A lot of comics may talk about the same stuff, but what makes it mine is that what I’m saying is what I genuinely think on this subject, and I try to make it as funny as I can. I think we all mine our lives to some degree or other.”

Ed, now 43, is adamant that he will keep his two young sons out of the celebrity spotlight, so don’t expect an ‘At Home With Ed Byrne and Family’ in OK! any time soon. But in Outside, Looking In, he shows a picture of one of his sons – the denouement of a bittersweet story about buying new shoes – which not only illustrates it perfectly, but produces an ‘Ahhh’ moment.

“I’m aware that they haven’t given me permission to talk about them and that there will come a point when I can’t,” Ed says. “John Bishop, for example, has stopped talking about his [much older] children on stage because people know who they are.”

Ed’s comfortable with his own approach at the moment, though. “I talk about them in pretty abstract terms, because what I’m discussing is the act of parenting, and you can’t talk about that without mentioning your own children. And there isn’t anything in this show that would make them at a later date say, ‘I don’t like this’.”

But while there is a lot of personal reflection in his new material, Ed also ponders on matters political – the story about his son sparks a passionate section about how we label young children, for instance, and he also talks about feminism and transgenderism.

I ask him if dipping a toe into the transgender debate (for which some have been vilified on social media) isn’t a little risky. “It has become such a big subject because of Caitlyn Jenner [the former athlete Bruce Jenner, who transitioned in 2015] and some Twitter trolls were refusing to acknowledge her as anything but Bruce. I thought it was interesting that it stills divides people. I call it the thorniest issue since Jesus was fitted for a hat…”

The feminist slant to the new show was sparked by Ed’s reflections on his early days in comedy and, strikingly, he admits to being a little uncomfortable about some of his more laddish material back then.

“My comedy reflected my life at that time – single and enjoying myself – and most of it was fairly harmless: ‘the difference between men and women’ kind of thing. But some of the stuff about an ex-girlfriend I can see was a bit angry and I wouldn’t do it now.”

He says he is more aware of how men and women interact in the modern world and is sometimes surprised by the difference in his reactions to things as a man in his forties to when he was twentysomething. “I started watching Californication [the US dark comedy starring David Duchovny as a sex addict] but I found it insulting because I’m expected to empathise with him. His character behaves so unconscionably that I couldn’t watch the second series.”

He reflects that he’s not sure how much of that reaction is simply getting older, or that times have changed, or that he’s mixing with a broader group of people. “Interestingly I find Twitter can expand your horizons; I’ve started following all sorts of people on it and it’s good to get a different take on things,” he adds.

I wonder he still likes touring after two decades. “Apart from the travel involved, which no comic likes, I love it, because you have people responding to something that you have written alone in your office, and the work comes alive in a room of people. I like the television things I do, but nothing can beat a live comedy audience.”

In any spare time he has, Ed is a hill walker; when he’s in Scotland he ‘bags’ Munros [peaks above 3,000ft] – he’s at 75 – and the completist, slightly geeky side of him, he admits, means that elsewhere in the British Isles he also collects ‘county tops’ – the highest point in the county. “I’ve downloaded an app for them,” he says with a laugh, “and have started making a list of those I’ve done.”

He’s currently writing a sitcom set in an outdoors shop, and I ask if he plans to introduce his sons to the pleasures of the outside. “My wife, Claire, and I already have,” he says. “So far they love it, camping and canoeing, that sort of thing. As they’re growing it’s hard to be apart from them when I’m on tour, and I try not to be away for more than a couple of days at a time.” He pauses, and then, confirming himself as a true family man, adds “but one of the great things about my job is that it means I can spend a lot of time with them when I’m home…”

Ed Byrne will be appearing at Watford Colosseum on Sunday 14 February at 8pm. See www.watfordcolosseum.co.uk or call 0845 075 3993 for more info

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