Tommy Tiernan review Just for Laughs residential schools pope apology

Montreal audiences aren’t ready for jokes about residential schools & the Pope’s apology

Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan drew comparisons between the Canadian Indigenous experience and Ireland’s history of colonialism and institutionalized abuse, but his routine was not well received at Just for Laughs.

If Tuesday night’s show is any indication, it would seem Montreal Just for Laughs audiences aren’t exactly ready for jokes about residential schools, the Pope’s apology about the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous people or poking fun at any aspect of Indigenous culture.

And it’s not like Tommy Tiernan draws a young, woke, audience either. Tuesday night’s early show at the Gesù definitely skewed older, perhaps the oldest crowd I’ve yet seen at a JFL show. And age notwithstanding, I don’t find Montrealers to be particularly woke or politically correct or quick to take offence to begin with. Maybe Tiernan will keep up the routine that introduced his show, or maybe he was simply riffing off what was in the news — either way, he perhaps could have consulted with a local to gage how jokes on the subject might be received. Or he could have paid a little more attention to the awkward and total silence that came with the Indigenous land acknowledgement that precedes JFL shows now. 

Know your audience.

Also, pay attention to their reactions, because if it doesn’t quite work at the start of the show, it likely won’t work in the middle or at the end of it either. 

It’s not that we’re overly sensitive, just that we’re sensitive — it’s clearly still a raw nerve — and if I’m completely honest, I was quite surprised at how evidently raw it still is for an audience who, if I had to guess, didn’t have too many Indigenous people in it. So all jokes in poor taste aside, it was refreshing to witness a roomful of empathy, even if that clearly wasn’t Tiernan’s intent. I will accept, however, that the Irish people have considerable societal experience with both institutionalized sexual abuse on a massive scale, all of which was covered up for years by the Catholic Church, as well as a long history of being oppressed by British imperialism and colonialism, but they, as Tiernan explained, have had ample time to make a joke out of it. We’re not quite there.

I don’t want this to take too much away from what was an otherwise decent, if occasionally imbalanced, set, but it was hard to miss. As my brother observed, Tiernan takes the persona of your local pub’s favourite customer, the guy at the end of the bar who’s always there, and who’s occasionally afforded the privilege of refilling his glass if the barmaid’s too busy elsewhere. He told long-running stories and remembered the stories others had told him, and most were genuinely funny. Proving that anything can be funny in the abstract, a particularly long anecdote about a misunderstanding on a talk show about wanting a 12-year-old (whiskey), and then being followed by a victim of childhood sexual abuse on the same program, had the audience doubled over, and was precisely the kind of slow burn and steady build that delivered a perfect payoff. Not to be outdone, and in perhaps the first ever example of audience participation actually working to everyone’s benefit, a supremely casual yet precision-guided comment from a spectator pushed the joke over the edge in a particularly disgusting way that had everyone, Tiernan included, falling about themselves. Of note: Comedian Jimmy Carr was in attendance, and his trademark laugh bellowed through the Gesù, appreciating a Carr-esque twist to Tiernan’s routine from an anonymous audience member.

Noteworthy routines included his early-set material about how stupid people are cleverer than smart people, and a spot-on impression of his Bernese Mountain Dog. The well-trod ground of women thinking they suffer more than men was freshened up with his impression of three women judging Christ’s suffering while the latter was still breathing up on the cross. Doubling down on the idea that anything can be funny, as Tiernan related, a suicide attempt can be quite funny when the individual in question brings a broken rope back to the hardware store for a refund. Tiernan’s material on love, sex and his relationships was all excellent, especially his observation that introducing a new sex move to his wife at age 53 is more likely than not to arouse suspicion than anything else. His routines concerning life as a middle-aged man again went over well-covered ground, though his impression of a prostate exam carried out by a less than tactful (but overly tactile) physician was very well-received, as was his comment about male-pattern baldness leaving him with a hairline that looks like the former Yugoslavia.

There were too many times where Tiernan’s storytelling went a little too low, brought the energy down a little too much, for the subsequent punchline and payoff, but I’ll chock that up to the kinks you might expect to find on opening night. Similarly, there seemed to be too many instances of audience participation, and while one produced absolutely phenomenal and completely unexpected results, subsequent instances seemed to derail Tiernan and sap more energy out of the room. His closer, a riff on language and accents, and how he learned English moving from the far north of Ireland to London by way of a childhood spent in Zambia, didn’t quite have the energy needed to end a show, but was nonetheless one of his better routines, particularly given that it got very close to ‘crossing the line’, while the punchline reveals a far more innocent quality to the joke overall (which would put egg on the face of anyone too quick to take offence, which seemed to be what Tiernan was aiming for throughout the show).

All told, it was a good show on the whole but it’s clear Tiernan’s been a bit out of the game for a while, as we’ve all been what with the pandemic. By the end of his time at this year’s JFL, I expect the routine will be better oiled and running smoother. ■

Tommy Tiernan Tomfoolery continues its run at the Gesù (1200 Bleury) from July 27–30, 7 p.m., $44.30–$49.05

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.