THE GALWAY BAY HOTEL in Salthill has never seen anything like it. It’s seven o’clock on a Friday morning and about 120 people are packed into the downstairs bar. The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show is in town and receiving a very vocal welcome from an audience of dedicated fans. They’ve scoffed their complimentary bacon butties, sipped their cups of tea and coffee and they’re ready to be entertained. After some back and forth between presenter and sports anchor, Gift Grub comedian Mario Rosenstock gets out amongst the audience to deliver a scattergun of his most popular impersonations: Daniel O’Donnell, Bertie Ahern and Michael D Higgins. Adding to the frenetic pace of the show are the Galway Gospel Choir, performing I Keep My Joy Alive .
Considering the hour, you’d have to say, the mood here is insanely cheerful. As a print journalist, I’m not used to being out of bed before 10am. And, even then, I tend to keep my joy under wraps until at least mid-afternoon.
But the Breakfast Show team has been handling these outside broadcasts for more than a decade now, and they have it down to a fine art. At dinner the night before, I witness them run through the final preparations for the show. The atmosphere around the table is relaxed. The organisational heavy lifting has been done in advance and everybody knows what’s expected of them tomorrow. As well as the show’s production team and a couple of station engineers, Today FM has sales and marketing staff in town to meet clients. A sold-out Gift Grub stage show in Leisureland and a mobile billboard campaign have been timed to generate maximum impact.
Fans who applied for tickets were also asked to fill out a short questionnaire. Armed with their answers, Dempsey will be able to interact with the audience, cajoling victims into sharing quirky or embarrassing stories with the nation. I jokingly compare these audience pre-screening techniques to those employed by dodgy American faith healers. Rosenstock reveals that the idea was inspired by Graham Norton’s old Channel 4 chat show. (He can’t resist a camp impersonation. “Is there a Martin here? Martin, you ate a tortoise five years ago . . . tell us why!”)
The crew has a confusing habit of referring to Rosenstock’s celebrity impressions almost as though they are real people. The running order is being finalised. First “Daniel” will talk to the audience. Then “Simon” will join us via satellite to judge Galway’s Got Talent. It’s not until Rosenstock is asked if “Michael D” is up for a particular skit that the whole thing starts to sound downright mind-bending. The comedian nods. “I think so,” he says. “Last I heard he was.”
Turns out, on this occasion, they’re referring to the real Michael D Higgins, who has agreed to drop by for the show. That’s not the only familiar name pitching in. Mary Coughlan will also be along. I assumed she was another of Mario’s comic alter-egos. “Not at all,” Dempsey assures me. “Mary is great craic. She’s always good for a song and a laugh.” I must admit, I had never thought of the Tánaiste in those terms. What is she going to sing, I ask? “ I Want to be Seduced ,” replies Dempsey. “So that should be fun.”
Jesus, I’ll say.
The next morning passes without a hitch. It’s not a hip crowd who have gathered. With their Breakfast Show T-shirts and expectant smiles, they remind me a little of the studio audience for When The Whistle Blows (the show-within-a-show in Ricky Gervais’ Extras series.) But their enthusiasm levels remain high over the two hours and Dempsey is adept at keeping the show moving. The Gift Grub sections are, of course, the best received. Rosenstock dazzles with the accuracy of his mimicry and the humour of the material.
In the event that either element falls a little short, the other is invariably strong enough to carry it over the line.
Nowhere do both aspects of his performance blend as effectively and hilariously as on “Michael D’s” poetic tribute to Galway United. (The poem is impossible to summarise, but at one point it moots the possibility of a protest by the team outside the United Nations.) The real Michael D. gamely joins in on sending himself up. I’m standing only a few feet behind the pair, but it is impossible to tell their voices apart.
Better still is Mary Coughlan. Admittedly, I’m a tad disappointed at first that it’s the Galway jazz singer, rather than the Donegal TD who is performing. But she gives a raunchy rendition of Seduced and, when it’s over, “Daniel O’Donnell” storms the stage to surprise her with his version of Dr Hook’s A Little Bit More . When he offers to “rub your tired shoulders, the way I used to do”, Coughlan ad libs the line “Harder Daniel, harder.” It almost brings the house down.
By the end of the song both Mary and “Daniel” are rolling on the ground. Cameras are flashing and the crowd are on their feet cheering. This is show-stopping entertainment and it isn’t even 9am.
That evening, I sit down with Rosenstock in his Leisureland dressing room. There’s one question that’s been niggling me all day. Is what he does actually satire? He groans. “Every time I talk to The Irish Times ,” he says, “No one else ever asks me this stuff, only The Irish Times .” What he does, he says, is comedy. Some of it is satirical. Most of it probably isn’t.
His comedy could be accused of being toothless to some extent. He’s been widely accused, for example, of giving Bertie Ahern an easy ride during his time as taoiseach. He rejects this. “If you look at something like Scrap Saturday . They had the biggest satirical target in the history of Irish politics in Charles Haughey.” He has never seen Ahern in those terms. “We were just reflecting how loved and how popular Bertie was when he was in office. If we were doing sketch after sketch about the tribunal, people would have tuned out after a day.”
This may to some extent explain his enduring success. His comedy may be cheeky, but it is rarely biting, and never malicious. Even his “Daniel O’Donnell” – which plays to a certain degree to a certain unspoken subtext – is far more affectionate than anything else. No wonder so many of his targets, from José Mourinho to Enda Kenny, count themselves among his fans.
He insists that he is not comfortable fraternising with politicians, but sees no harm in chatting to celebrities. “Keith Duffy came up to me after the Vicar Street show,” he recalls. “He was like (impersonates him) ‘That was amazing buddy, that was absolutely amazing. And, you know what, my bit was the best.’ He was like a child.”
The stage show that night leans heavily on material from Gift Grub ’s golden era: Bertie’s yellow suit; Keano at Man United; Keano at Sunderland; Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. Brian Cowen hardly gets a look in. The newer material is not all stellar. (His Michael O’Leary segment includes the punch line “Volcanic ash, my hole.”) And some of the biggest laughs from the audience are merely laughs of recognition. But he keeps the sell-out crowd enthralled for the duration of the show.
In the end it’s hard to disagree with “Michael O’Leary’s” endorsement of the show. “One man. A hundred voices. That’s low-cost comedy.”