Tiernan reinvents the tired talkshow formula
Western People 16.2.21
I could never warm to Tommy Tiernan as a comedian. While I could enjoy his lavish natural skills – his droll humour, his turn of phrase, his diverting and sometimes absurd flights of fancy – it was the foul language I couldn’t take. I found it hard to get past the tsunami of expletives that peppered his language.
Reared as I was a time when ‘bad language’ was at worst a form of obscenity and at best an adolescent attention-seeking, Tiernan’s apparent delight in using the F-word in such undue proportions grated on my senses. The evidence that most of his audience were under 40 confirmed my belief that I wasn’t the only septuagenarian unimpressed with his presentations.
When RTÉ decided to replace Ray D’Arcy with Tommy Tiernan in the premium Saturday night slot it seemed a desperate throw of the dice or, in retrospect, possibly
an astute testing of the waters. Would Tiernan be able to convert himself into an unlikely talk-show host and if he did what implications would all of that have for RTÉ and not least the lavish salaries it awards its top presenters?
That the experiment was even more desperate soon emerged when Tiernan was told he wouldn’t know beforehand who the guests would be. Not using the F-word and not knowing what the menu was meant that Tiernan would have to wing it himself. It looked an impossible, even unfair challenge.
As it turned out, the experiment is a triumph for Tiernan and RTÉ. And it’s becoming the essential television viewing of the week.
What makes it different? First, there’s Tiernan, a shrewd operator who has a natural knack for the fireside chat and who invariably treats his guests with great respect. In other words, he actually listens to what they say. He gives then space to think it out – if they need it. He gives them time to say it. And he’s not afraid of silence.
Second, he’s different from many other RTÉ talk-show hosts. Unlike Ryan Tubridy, he’s not out to impress and he’s not on a mission to instruct by giving homilies to the nation. Unlike Pat Kenny, he doesn’t answer the questions he asks. And unlike almost everyone else, he’s not waiting for a pause in order to butt in and inflict his own wisdom on the viewers.
Third, Tiernan turns the prescribed wisdom of talk-shows upside down. He doesn’t believe that a frenetic pace is essential to good communication. He doesn’t have to surround himself with noise, much less a band belting out noise. He’s not interested in making an impression or creating a headline for tomorrow’s papers or playing to the social media audience – so he doesn’t give himself marks for disrupting guests. And unlike everyone else, he instinctively knows that what matters (in radio or television) is to be able to hear a person speaking.
What Tiernan has is an enviable talent for getting his guests to share more than they might perhaps have intended. He drops a word that has particular resonance for a guest and he lets it hang in the air. If the word disturbs his guest, he pulls it back though he may drop it into the conversation later.
A recent instance of this was the way he dangled the word ‘Dolores’ before his guest, the actor, Stephen Rea. Rea had been married to Dolores Price, who was jailed during the Troubles and who was herself troubled. Rea found himself pondering and then responding, ‘I’ve never spoken about this before’. But, under Tiernan’s gentle promptings, he did just that, though Tiernan more or less left it to himself.
With Brian O’Driscoll, the rugby player, he asked a general question about the worst things that happened in his life. O’Driscoll took a while to decide what to say and indicated that it was the suicide of a friend. A gentle prompt from Tiernan led to O’Driscoll saying that every five or six months he dreamt of his friend and was comforted by the experience. For a moment it looked as if O’Driscoll might break down and Tiernan didn’t push it.
Tiernan’s easy-going, respectful style is catching. The word is that we like it. I haven’t the viewing figures but I suspect they’ve gone viral, as the youngsters say now. And it will be interesting to see what repercussions Tiernan’s success, in re-writing the ground-rules of talk-shows, will have for RTÉ.
One may be that paying small fortunes to established ‘stars’ may not be as commercially sensible as the experts think and ‘star billing’ may be attributed as much to the slots they occupy and the length they occupy them as to anything else.
There are other Tommy Tiernans and RTÉ needs to find them.
Another may be that RTÉ, in an effort to compete in the marketplace, shouldn’t be tempted to replicate what makes for success in the UK or America but rather to reflect
our own heritage and tradition. By that I mean not the ability to dance a jig or to speak Irish but to respect the resonances under the surface of Irish life and the culture that sustains us.
What we need are not smart talkers that can be transformed into celebrities but home-grown individuals gifted with a creative streak and happy to let people speak their truth – not clones of a brash and ultimately bland mid-Atlantic school of culture.