Tommy Tiernan(Photo © Nick Hitchcox)
Tommy Tiernan
(Photo © Nick Hitchcox)
Tommy Tiernan moves like a chicken who's had a few drinks. In his yellow T-shirt, striped pants, and plimsols, the 37-year-old Irish comeidan skitters around the stage of the Actor's Playhouse in his often hilarious new show, Loose, with arms on the move and fingers waving, as if he's got some lowdown about the disposition of the sky.

Tiernan also has the look of a non-fundamentalist Mel Gibson. He has a couple days' growth of beard, flashing blue eyes, and a smile replete with a set of teeth that any orthodontist would be proud to say he'd helped produce. No matter how outrageous his remarks -- for example, he recommends shooting the Pope -- he turns that smile up to high-wattage after he's uttered them, and many if not all audience members forgive his audacity. (Incidentally, his rationale for shooting the Pope is, "He'd forgive you!") And no matter how rambling Tiernan gets, he keeps patrons solidly on his side and panting for the next barrage of abrasive insights.

Tiernan takes sizable pauses between comedy hunks in a transparent indication that he's figuring out not only what he wants to discuss next but also whether he thinks the audience will identify with or even accept it. The night I was there, he brought up the subject of the subway posters in which celebrities and lay people claim, "We all have AIDS." He mentioned the posters, got no recognition from the audience, and immediately switched gears.

Among the topics he did talk volubly about werelaziness among the Irish, Ireland's low regard for fame, Tiernan's own disdain for facts as opposed to the benefits of dreaming up "what-ifs," his tough father and tougher mother, and his having lived in Zambia and London. He also intrepidly ventured into religion, subject matter for which he's made something of a mixed reputation. "Jesus is not coming back," he announced, "Superman is coming back." Mimicking people who exhibit election-campaign piety, he demanded, "How would Jesus vote?" He quickly followed that query with, "How would Yoda vote?" The what-ifs that he entertains can be delightful, as when he muses on what might have happened if, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Native Americans had invaded Europe rather than the other way around. What if they'd gone on to India? "'We're the real Indians,'" he yells, "'No, we're the real Indians," he counters.

Because Tiernan drops what has become for too many comedians a slew of the obligatory four-letter-, seven-letter-, or 12-letter dirty words into an overwhelming percentage of his sentences, he establishes a low-common-denominator sensibility. Still, it's apparent that he's a thinking man, and that his assault on religion isn't simply cheap pandering. He even pulls off a couple of quips about Samuel Beckett in front of his primarily young Irish crowd. He wants to know why Beckett is being lionized during his centenary year; after all, Tiernan notes of the seminal playwright, he's "the least motivational" figure going. The comic then blurts out Beckett's repeated cry, "I can't go on."

Various interviews about Tiernan mention that his characteristic approach is the shaggy-dog story, but that he's been discouraged from pursuing that strategy here. (Is this a reflection of the sound-bite influence on the domestic ticket buyer?) As a result, he seems to be keeping his hunks under tighter control during this short Off-Broadway stay. That may be a wise commercially decision, although it would definitely be interesting to hear him in a more stream-of-consciousness mode. I, for one, would be happy to pay full attention.