Brown beauty

  • 15 November 2006
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Brendan O'Carroll tells Colin Murphy about making people laugh, stealing jokes, plans for his political party and why critics are nothing but 'failed writers' 

Brendan O'Carroll remembers the first time he told a joke that really worked. He was 11 years old, in school at St Gabriel's in Stoneybatter. An Indian chief had constipation. He sent his brave to the doctor to get something for it. The brave went in to the doctor. "Big chief no shite," he said. The doctor gave him some medicine, and he brought it back to the chief. It didn't work. The chief sent the brave back to the doctor. "Big Chief no shite." A different medicine, and back to the chief, and it doesn't work. So next time, the doctor gave him something special, prescribed for horses. "That should definitely work," he told him. "Tell him to have one leg in the toilet when he takes it." The brave came back to the doctor the next day: "Big shite, no chief."

"They were all falling around the place. I remember the feeling: I moved them, without even touching them. I twigged, Jesus, that's something else."

But it was another 24 years before he'd tell a joke on stage. His friends were pressing him to do some stand-up, so eventually he did a gig in the Rathmines Inn. First night was a bit slow, and the owner said he wanted "a show", not just gags, and suggested something like Blind Date. So Brendan O'Carroll arrived the next week, picked three girls out of the audience and blindfolded a fellow to ask the questions. "What do you look for in a man?" he asks. First girls says, "the eyes" and goes on about respect and integrity. The second says, "the shoulders", and goes on about strength and support. The third, Anne Marie, says, "I don't care as long as he has a big mickey". Forty people in the Rathmines Inn fell off their chairs, and Brendan O'Carroll's career was born.

(He's still using Anne Marie's line 15 years later, most recently on the Late Late Show in Limerick.)

"Do you know what I twigged? Do you know what Anne Marie's secret was? She was just being Anne Marie. She wasn't telling a joke. She was just saying whatever came off the top of her head. So I said to myself, go in and fucking wing it, just say what comes into the top of your head."

Three weeks later, there were 750 at his Rathmines Inn gig. But winging it could go wrong.

"When you adopt that style, stuff is coming into your head all the time. While you're telling one joke, you're editing the next. But then you get on a roll, and you're not editing..."

He rocks back on his seat and groans. He goes pale.The beauty

It was a Sunday morning pub gig in 1991. A real "roughneck" audience, the General and the Monk and their henchmen amongst them. He was "on a roll". The week before, a German tourist had been murdered while camping in a tent in the Phoenix Park. Something innocent about a tent or camping came up in the flow of banter with the audience and O'Carroll ad libbed, "Who do they think they are, fucking Germans?" The place went dead quiet.

"Ah no. Ah no. The ground could have opened up and swallowed me. I just stopped and said, 'I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for thinking that, never mind saying it. I don't know where it came from'.

"And they all clapped and I went on with the show."

The secret of Mrs Brown's success (the foul-mouthed Dublin mother who features in his most popular material), he says, is a combination of observation and exaggeration.

"If she had a little complaint, it'd be the worst complaint anybody ever had.

"'She was so long in labour, they had to shave her twice.' That gets a huge laugh, a huge fuckin' laugh." Suddenly he's gone. A little old woman squints across the lounge table.

"Twenty two stitches I had with my second child, I'll never forget it." She pauses. "I could walk down both sides of Grafton St at the same time."

And then she's gone, and Brendan O'Carroll is back, more earnest than ever.

"Do you know what it is? It's painting surreal images in their mind that they can fucking see."

The best he's ever seen is Jackie Mason, the 70-something Jewish comedian from New York. And suddenly Jackie Mason is peering across the table.

"What's wrong with women?" he demands, in a thick Noo Yawk accent. "What's wrong with women? I go home and make love twice, three times a night. My girlfriend, she looks at me, she loves me, my wife, she hates it."

Then O'Carroll is back, reverential.

"It's just the way he does it." He pauses for a moment, as if having a revelation. "And that's it. That's actually it. It's just the way he does it. And that's Mrs Brown. If I say, 'Mary had a little lamb', it's just that... but if she said it..."

Mrs Brown again:

"Mary had a little lamb, can ye imagine that? Jaysus, I wonder who the father was."

Brendan comes back, and finds something snorting across the table where his interviewer was.

"You've told that one before."


"You have."

"No. It's Mrs Brown, She's coming to the fore."

Still snorting.

"Sorry about that," he says, meekly.

Mrs Brown has made him a wealthy man. But the critics aren't impressed.

"There will always be critics. There'll always be donkeys trying to tell a horse how to race. Critics are failed writers. It's very hard to meet a critic in this day and age that isn't a complete wanker. I'd be very, very disappointed if one of my kids grew up and what they did for a living was to criticise other people's efforts." He says it very matter-of-fact.

He's not worried about originality.

"You never, ever borrow a joke from a comedian. You steal it. If you borrow a joke, it's still theirs. If you steal it, you make it yours."

He robbed a whole song from comedian Paul Malone once, back when he was starting out. Malone used to sing it at parties, but thought it was too risqué for the stage. So O'Carroll tried it, and it brought the house down, and became a centrepiece of his act. What did Malone think of that?

"I don't know. I never fuckin' asked him."

He talks with fervent enthusiasm, direct, foul-mouthed, personable. He seems about five foot tall, much smaller than Mrs Brown. He looks absolutely ordinary, except for the eyes, very intense. His conversation darts about from comedy to politics to journalism to writing, all with the same earnestness, all leavened by the same agreeable vulgarity.

He has an idea for a new political party, "a party that would want to hold the balance of power and get things done". He's designed the logo and crest already: the SJP, Social Justice Party.

"It's time for common sense to come forward."

Dáil reform – parties would be held to their manifestos on pain of disqualification from politics. Tax reform – a standard tax of "13 pence in the pound". Judges would have to get out there and live a little. All doctors would have to do stints in regional hospitals.

"It can be done in the next eight months." But he can't do it on his own. "If somebody was willing to help me form a party, then I'm there all the way." They could take 10 to 15 seats.

His mother, Maureen, was a Labour TD for Dublin North Central. O'Carroll is a Labour member, but dislikes the party's "move to the right".

He is not modest. "You can pick a level and stay there, a comfort zone, or you can shoot for the stars. The stars aren't even far enough for me."

His manager's at him to get going. They've just come from a Mrs Brown DVD signing in Liffey Valley. Over 200 people turned up. Next is a signing in his home town, Finglas.

"There'll probably be no one there," he says. "A prophet's never recognised in his own village."

He has a last burst of boyish enthusiasm, about writing for the stage.

"You write it down here, and it comes up there." He gestures to an imaginary stage, his eyes wide.

"It's magic... Even if it's shite.

"It's magic shite."

And the prophet is ushered off by his manager and driver, on to Finglas.p

Brendan O'Carroll's new Mrs Brown DVD, Triple Trouble, has just been released