What do you get when you mix an Irishman and standup comedy? A lot of caustic commentary on drink, the English language and Catholicism. Tommy Tiernan, a rascally, frolicsome standup performer making a fine West Coast debut with “Loose,” has enough smarts to provide these subjects with some existential insight and enough manic energy to make it all work in a college arts festival environment (read: without the lubrication of alcohol).
Tiernan probably would prefer it if the audience could get a bit tipsy, in part because he considers alcohol one of God’s great gifts to humankind. In fact, when the subject arises, he starts skipping around the stage in an expression of existential joy. He’s completely puzzled when an American bartender asks him to estimate how much beer he plans to consume. Grappling with a level of measurement he’d never really contemplated, he comes up with a new unit of liquid volume: “A small child’s worth of beer,” he says.
No doubt, Tiernan would be a great drinking partner. Unshaven, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, he’s dressed casually but not lazily, as if he really were headed out to a pub where he might run into some attractive ladies.
His observations are offbeat and thoughtful and, most importantly, he’s a terrific storyteller willing to take his tales to politically incorrect extremes, such as suggesting the Holocaust really could’ve been worse and imagining what would have happened if Hitler had been forced to take Irish step-dancing classes as a child.
Watching a comic like this makes one wish American standups had Tiernan’s facility, and affection, for language. It’s not as if he tries to be pretty with his words or anything; there’s just a flow to it all when he really gets in the groove. Sure, it’s naughty, but it’s also fun-loving.
He spits out each use of the F-word with enough relish to decorate a foot-long frankfurter. It’s among his favorite words, and he’d be happy to justify his liberal employment of it in esoteric terms: “The English language is a brick wall between you and me,” he says early on, “and ‘fuck’ is my chisel.”
He makes great use of broad physicality to add emphasis to his imaginary scenarios and to create characters. His depiction of an English headmaster is all spasmodic anger, and his take on Irish Olympian Michelle Smith has the swimmer vibrating with drugged-out energy.
He depicts two different versions of a sermon on the gospel of Luke, one told by a saccharine Irish priest (“We used to grow priests in Ireland,” he quips, “but we over-planted”), and another by a forceful, if intimidating, African cleric.
Yes, some of his material, such as his last bit on anal intercourse, is a bit too typical and predictable. It’s funny, but it really would go down better after a couple of whiskeys.
But if there’s something especially promising about Tiernan as a long-term contributor to world humor, it’s that he’s got a certain take on humanity and aspires to express it. He performs in front of a mural backdrop of distorted figures — part Magritte, part Rembrandt, part political cartoons — and that mix of rich, contemporary surrealism is captured in his act. He’s rough on strange people, but also forgiving and admiring. He thinks the guy in Ireland who speaks to seagulls is crazy, for example, but somehow he’s genuinely happy the man is there.
At least, he suggests, he has something to fall back on if the comedy thing stops working out.