Reasonable strops and grumpy arseholes: Ed Byrne at the Union

Hannah Graham 16 October 2014

Comedian Ed Byrne, who many people will recognise as a regular guest on the topical comedy show Mock the Week, is engaging and personable in real life: a challenge to the stereotype that comedians aren't funny off-stage. This stereotype is, in his view "a fallacy. Some comics I know are grumpy arseholes, but the majority are genuinely funny. No comedian is ever going to make you laugh as much as your closest friends, but if your closest friends are comedians, it's good."

Similarly, it’s often said that humour has to come from a dark or angry place. Again, Byrne won’t buy it. "Lots of comedy comes from a happy, innocent place, but it tends to [be dark] because you want to do comedy people can identify with and a lot of the time rage is what people most identify with." A lot of the darkness in comedy comes in when comedians attempt to shock, to say things often considered unacceptable.

Indeed, another former Mock the Week regular, Frankie Boyle, was frequently criticised for taking his jokes too far. "A lot of it comes down to who the comedian is. There are comedians I enjoy who say things I personally would not say. There are comedians, Louis CK would be a perfect example, who manage to somehow say the unsayable and it's palatable and acceptable. There's no subject that's off limits, there's nothing you cannot say, but you have to handle it correctly."

I wonder how spontaneous the humour is on panel shows like Mock The Week, and how much guests are able to plan jokes in advance. "The most spontaneous bits are the bits people think aren't – the bits when we're sitting on the panel. We'll talk in the afternoon about news stories, but we don't know what the others are going to say and we'll riff off each other." "All panel shows cheat" he admits, "and Mock the Week probably cheats more."

The BBC recently announced that all comedy panel shows would now have to feature at least one woman. “In the past Mock the Week would sometimes be all male and even if it wasn't there would only be one woman. That's not a policy I would defend – but they don't listen to me anyway! But now there's certainly no 'oh, who is the chick this week?' attitude. To be honest things have changed a bit anyway, it used to be far more gladiatorial. Now Russel [Howard] and Frankie [Boyle] have moved on to bigger and better things there are more guests and more of a free and easy atmosphere. You don't have to sharpen your elbows so much to get in and, without being sexist, I think that's a more welcoming environment for a woman."

Having appeared on the show for a number of years now, Byrne is a fairly recognisable face. Having noticed a number of students becoming significantly more giggly at his approach in the bar, I ask whether being recognised by people feels strange. "It's weird, weirder than being really famous I think. If you're really famous it's acceptable to have an entourage and it's not unreasonable to assume that people know who you are. Whereas if you're in between, you don't know if people know who you are, and that puts you at a disadvantage. It's actually quite awkward." Demonstrating the rage that much of his comedy is based on becomes, he says, more difficult: "you feel like you're having a 'show bizz strop' when really, you're having a perfectly reasonable strop!"