Jason Byrne’s body has been patched up so many times you’d think he was a fan of doing extreme obstacle courses while blindfolded. But the reasons behind his many medical interventions are less extreme than that, even if, in some cases, they sound more ridiculous.
“I’m full of fecking gadgets,” laughs the 51-year-old, explaining the name of his new live stand-up show, The Ironic Bionic Man which kicks off on 15 of September for a 31-date UK tour after a highly successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. “Now, at this stage in my life, I have ironically become bionic. I have six stents in my heart, I’ve got a wonky eye (it used to turn in when I was a kid so they fixed it and my dad used to call it my bionic eye), and had cartilage taken out of my knee because I ripped it on the toilet.”
“My left arm was dislocated fully in Australia. I’ve got staples on my lungs and my balls don’t work anymore because I got the snip as well.”
If you haven’t yet heard about the inelegant loo mishap, sit tight: it’s coming. But the most recent – and significant – episode concerns Byrne’s heart. He’s always been very fit and active, but in the middle of training, just after lockdown, he felt a little pain in his chest and got it checked out.
Following several inconclusive tests, an invasive angiogram revealed three semi-blocked branch arteries (charmingly known as “widowmakers”), caused by hereditary cholesterol issues.
We’re all dying…
“When I was told I had a 90% blockage of the artery I thought they’d operate on me immediately, but the doctor said no,” he recalls. “I asked him why and he said: ‘I’m going golfing.’ And I said: ‘Am I dying?’ And he goes: ‘Yeah, we’re all dying, Jason.’ These surgeons are so funny and dry. They should do stand-up.”
Byrne was given blood thinners and beta blockers and the pain dissipated. Then came the stents – put into three arteries in his wrist, all while he was awake – and the promise of six-monthly check-ups, plus quite a lot to think about.
It’s natural to wonder how all this will affect his stage performance, given that he’s not exactly known for being calm and still up there (fans will remember him appearing to cut a man in half as part of a magic trick, swinging on a wrecking ball like Miley Cyrus in vest and pants, not to mention dragging audience members about the stage).
Interestingly, the medical advice is less about movement (which he’s been less frenetic about in recent years anyway) than it is about vocals.
“What really does your chest in is shouting,” says Byrne. “Now I make sure the microphone’s really loud. I don’t do much running on stage nowadays anyway.”
One of his ways around this is getting a “Jason Byrne reserve” up on stage “just in case anything happens”, he laughs. “It’s such a funny piece of the show. I stay on stage with them with a mic and I get them to run up and down the stage asking people questions. I’ve seen really funny impressions of me. I go: ‘I don’t do that,’ and the crowd go: ‘Yeah, you do.”’
There’s even a bit where he has his blood pressure taken in the middle of the show and the Jason sub has to get up and do something to keep everyone entertained.
It’s not just the dialling-back on physicality that’ll make The Ironic Bionic Man a bit different for Byrne: it’s also his most personal stand-up show to date. This is partly down to all the material about his own health and mortality, but it’s also because he talks about his beloved father, Paddy, who died just before the pandemic.
Like many other members of Byrne’s family, his father has been a great source of comedic inspiration. True to form, there was more laughing than crying at the old fellow’s wake – an event he’ll be telling lots of funny stories about in this show, which he insists is not going to be miserable.
“My dad was cremated because he didn’t want anybody ‘looking into a hole, pissing and moaning,” says Byrne, recalling his father’s candid instructions.
The Paddy Lama Shed Talks
Inspired by his dad, the stand-up has written a play called The Paddy Lama Shed Talks. He plays his dad, sitting in his shed, and we, the audience, are Jason, listening to him chatting and giving advice.
“My dad was always very funny and he is always in my shows,” says Byrne. “He was called the Paddy Lama because he was always in the shed, always full of good advice, even though it was full of cigarettes and whisky and Perry Como. He was a calm, laid-back man and he always said that if you don’t talk about somebody after they die, they die twice.”
He’ll be putting that on at the Smock Alley Theatre as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival (11-20 September, fringefest.com), and hopefully further afield after that.
Byrne grew up in Dublin and got his first experience of showbusiness through his mother, who was a ballroom dancer, and even followed in her footsteps for a few years, enduring a great deal of piss-taking from his pals in the process. He had his mind blown by Billy Connolly after sneaking in to see him at the Olympic Theatre when he was 16, and, in his late teens, while working at a cabaret venue in the city, he got to watch all sorts of acts, from stand-ups to singers.
A natural gift of the gab
Before long he was doing it himself, and hit the ground running, thanks to a natural gift of the gab and a wealth of stories from which to draw. He was a So You Think You’re Funny finalist in 1996 (he lost out to Tommy Tiernan), and was shortlisted for the Edinburgh Comedy Award (then known as the Perrier) in 1998 (newcomer category) and 2001.
He’s done so much else besides, including judging on Ireland’s Got Talent, multi-award winning radio shows, writing couple of memoirs (Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy: The Short-Arse Years and Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Man: The Dad-Knows-Best Years, the latter coming out on 21 September) and a children’s book series, The Accidental Adventures of Onion O’Brien.
If you’re desperate to know about his injuries, you’ll have to see The Ironic Bionic Man for the details, but here’s a summary. His lung collapsed when he was 21 because he was so tall and thin (though he’s currently an inch shorter than his sons, who at 23 and 16 are 6’3”, the latter heading for 6’5” – “It’s just because we look after them too well,” he jokes. “We shouldn’t be looking after our children this well.”).
The poo incident
His left arm was dislocated by a boogie board (not even a surfboard, for shame) in Australia, and the poo incident happened about 15 years ago when years of exercise and on-stage back-and-forth damaged them without him realising. He sat down too quickly on the loo and ripped the cartilage in his left knee. It locked and he had to call his then wife to try straighten it and help him put his trousers on. “It was so humiliating,” he recalls. “Even the doctor was laughing.”
Jason Byrne will always be one of the funniest storytellers we’ve got, and it’s hard to imagine him slowing down, but that does seem inevitable. And he’s aware that it’s time to listen to the Paddy Lama’s advice. In the play, he quotes his dad saying: “Jay, maybe you should stop running around so much on the stage. Maybe you should sit on a chair and tell jokes like Dave Allen.” “It’s like my own dad telling me from the grave saying that I can’t keep doing this,” he smiles.
Jason Byrne spoke to Ashley Davies
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