Ahead of his highly anticipated appearance at Colchester’s Charter Hall on February 16, we speak to talented stand-up comedian Ed Byrne as he heads into emotional new territory

Is there no end to the man’s talents? A staple of revered panel show Mock the Week, Ed Byrne has also sledded down the side of a volcano for Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure, upstaged Martin Sheen and Robert Downey Jr on The Graham Norton Show, and demonstrated his driving skills on Top Gear and The World’s Most Dangerous Road. He’s also proven himself to be quiz show dynamite on the likes of The Chase: Celebrity Special, The Hit List, Pointless Celebrities and All-Star Family Fortunes. Never agree to attend a pub quiz with Ed Byrne. You will lose.

But for all his dalliances with the world of television light entertainment, Ed remains at heart one of the world’s truly great stand-up comedians. He has honed his craft for a remarkable 30 years now, garnering a hatful of awards and a constant, borderline bewildering stream of five-star reviews along the way. However, while he prepares to take his 14th show, Tragedy Plus Time, to the Edinburgh Fringe and onwards for a comprehensive UK tour, audiences need to ready themselves because Ed Byrne is heading into highly emotional new territory.

‘It’s something of a departure, and I’m slightly worried about that,’ he concedes. ‘I’ve never really had the desire to write a show that had an overly serious element to it. I got a lot of five-star reviews on the last show (2019’s If I’m Honest), but some four-star ones that opined, ‘well it’s funny, but that’s all it is…’ As if that’s not enough these days. Frankly, just being funny is a furrow I’ve been happy to occupy. But this new show features some heart-wrenching, soul-bearing stuff.

Great British Life: Ed Byrne is one of the world's finest stand-up comedians Credit: Roslyn GauntEd Byrne is one of the world's finest stand-up comedians Credit: Roslyn Gaunt

That much is indisputable. For Tragedy Plus Time, Ed bravely ventures into the world of grief and loss, a decision prompted by the passing of his younger brother Paul, aged just 44, in February 2022. Comedy that takes death as its cue is not unprecedented, but it’s a path that takes considerable creative courage to explore.

‘I was in two minds about whether to do a show of this nature,’ Ed explains. ‘Then I decided this was the subject I was going to tackle but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. But once I started down that road, that was it… Then my main worry was, how funny is it going to be and is it going to work?’

These were legitimate concerns. Of course, there’s funny and there’s funny. In Tragedy Plus Time, Ed consistently delivers the latter while expertly locating the poignancy that sits at the intersection of sadness and loss. This isn’t gallows humour; this is something else altogether.

‘The first time I performed it,’ he continues, ‘it lasted more than an hour. That surprised me, but it was too long, so I had to decide whether to cut funny jokes or material that’s meaningful. That kind of decision was new to me, and what’s really annoying is that the one person I would have asked for advice on that is the guy the show’s about. It’s like when you get dumped by someone and you’re heartbroken. The one person you’d usually want to talk to about it is the very person who dumped you.’

Says Ed, ‘I’ve spoken to people who worked with Paul, who was a comedy director, and they’ve said that his thing was, ‘you can be as emotional as you like and as serious as you like, but there has to be a joke’. So the idea of saying something purely for the emotional gut punch was off the table.’

Nor is Tragedy Plus Time unrelenting by any means. The genius of it is that it takes the most difficult of subject matter and encourages the audience to laugh in its face in a way they would otherwise simply never do. Ed has also deliberately eschewed a linear narrative structure in favour of an approach that mirrors the unpredictable nature of grief itself.

‘Obviously I don’t want the whole thing to be an onslaught,’ he says. ‘That’s partly because of the digressions, and that’s why they’re there. But they also illustrate how grief works in that you can still have a good time, you can still be happy, you can still have a laugh about other things and be frivolous. But grief is always there waiting for you when you’re done with being silly.

‘The show does elicit a very pure emotional response in the audience. There’s something about the fact that when somebody dies, everyone else carries on like nothing’s happened. Because nothing has happened to them. So there’s an anger in grief, too… how can everyone else carry on as though nothing has happened?’

Ed candidly admits that mining his family’s bereavement for comedic effect would challenge his performing skills – and emotional bandwidth – in a unique way. Is this a nightly catharsis for the Irish comedian? To an extent, yes.

‘Death is universal. We will all lose someone. So the best thing to do is laugh at it,’ he says. ‘Although I was aware, when I was first writing and performing this new show, that there was a danger I might, you know, lose it onstage. I did a work-in-progress at the Museum of Comedy and there was an audible crack in my voice. On the third performance I did actually cry on stage, and I’m sure for anyone who was there (assumes a very theatrical voice) ‘it was a very powerful experience’. But I don’t want it to be the sort of thing where I rip my heart out and stamp on it for the audience’s delectation. I’ve been able to throttle back my emotions and keep them in check.’

What of the origins of the concept that comedy is Tragedy Plus Time? It’s widely credited to American writer, humourist and quote machine Mark Twain, as many of these things are. Having researched it, Ed says there’s no conclusive proof that he coined it. Twain’s contribution to the arts might have benefitted from an audio/visual dimension, if such a thing had existed in the 1880s, but it’s something Ed has avoided. Until now.

‘There are WhatsApp messages from Paul that I wanted to share and I could have just read them out. But that wouldn’t have the same resonance, and you have to see them to fully appreciate the context. Then there’s a video of a weird guy who produces celebrity obituaries… to be honest, I’m still tinkering with the audio/visual aspect, so there may well be more of that in the show. It’s a supplementary element, though, it’s not integral. I don’t want anyone to worry unduly about the introduction of technology to the proceedings.’

Great British Life: Ed Byrne's Tragedy Plus Time tour will be stopping in Colchester and Harlow Credit: Roslyn GauntEd Byrne's Tragedy Plus Time tour will be stopping in Colchester and Harlow Credit: Roslyn Gaunt

Tragedy Plus Time isn’t Ed Byrne deconstructing comedy or going meta. That’s not what he does. Nonetheless, this is a satisfyingly left-field move from one of the undeniable masters of comedy. It is as moving as it is funny, and vice versa.

‘Is it OK to talk about this stuff? I’d say this. Every night hundreds of people who didn’t know who Paul Byrne was will leave the theatre knowing who Paul Byrne was. I’m happy with that, and I think I give a good account of him on stage. I wouldn’t say he’s up there with me every night, but he’s there every time I think about the show, and I’ve got to make sure I do right by him.’

Ed Byrne is touring nationwide. For more information, please visit http://edbyrne.com/