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Comedian Ed Byrne opens up on late brother’s untimely death as inspiration for new show heading to Perth

The Mock The Week star 'was in two minds' when it came to writing a comedy show based on his younger brother's death at 44.

Comedian Ed Byrne.
Ed Byrne tackles the subject of grief by puncturing sadness with humour in his new touring show. Image: Roslyn Gaunt.

It was Mark Twain who (probably) coined the now-famous phrase: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

But after more than 30 years as a stand-up, it’s only now that Irish comedian Ed Byrne is learning just how true that his, after suffering a tragedy of his own – the death of his younger brother Paul in 2022.

“Something that’s not funny at the time can become funny later,” Ed explains. “I’m just seeing how far I can stretch that as a concept.”

Paul, who was 44 and died due to liver failure, directed comedy shows and was also known for his quick-wittedness.

“He had always liked a drink, but had managed to get clean – but then when lockdown came he fell back into old habits,” adds Byrne, 51.

“He was so unlucky in so many ways, as he caught Covid – he was drinking and his life spiralled out of control. Lockdown wasn’t the easiest time to find an organ donor, and time wasn’t on his side.

Ed Byrne.
Ed Byrne takes a comedic look at death and grief in his new show, Tragedy Plus Time. Image: Roslyn Gaunt.

“I do think he would want me to turn his death into a one-person touring comedy show and that’s what I’ve done, but it was more difficult than anything I’ve done before.

“I had to balance being funny with telling what’s quite a sad story.”

Ed Byrne was ‘in two minds’ about show

Using comedy to tap into the universal human concern with death is hardly a case of breaking the mould, but it’s a move that demands creative courage.

“I was in two minds,” admits the former Mock The Week regular.

“When I decided this was the subject I was going to tackle 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?”

The father of two says that his personal trauma could only be turned into a laughter-filled live proposition by opting for a non-linear structure and littering it with jokes.

For him, injecting the downright preposterous into the poignant serves to mirror the unpredictable nature of grief itself.

“It’s a very dour subject but it is funny,” Byrne adds.

“I was talking to a lot of the clients that Paul directed and they said his thing was you can be as serious as you want but there always has to be a joke. Just being serious is no use – so I made sure to honour that.

“There’s nothing new in doing something sad and then having a punchline. It’s surprising the quality of a laugh you get when you deliver a joke after sad news.

Byrne admits he’s not ‘reinventing the wheel’ by surprising audiences with a laugh after a sad moment. Image: Roslyn Gaunt.

“You’re creating a more emotional image or moment in the show and then puncturing that with a laugh. You watch TV shows like Scrubs, M*A*S*H or even Friends where they create a sad moment followed by a laugh.

“I’m not exactly re-inventing the wheel here but after 30 years in the job it’s nice to be still finding new things. I still feel I’m getting better. The last tour I did was the funniest show I’ve done.

“I think this show is the best I’ve done.”

‘I am like an angry Nigel Farage’ says comic

Understandably, Tragedy Plus Time – the 14th show of his career – has proved something of an emotional rollercoaster for Ed, and he reveals he was reduced to tears on stage during his first few performances last year.

While the theme of grief inevitably runs through the show, anger is also a major element – with relief provided at points as the material covers other topics such as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and James Corden.

“I am like an angry Nigel Farage at Glastonbury,” says Byrne.

“I’m angry with the GP receptionist, angry about the man that gave my brother Covid, angry at the chain of events that then occurred. I digress at times, otherwise it could be a bit relentless, but I wanted to create a show where people come away saying, ‘I laughed, I cried and then I laughed again.'”

In taking such a bold step, catharsis was undoubtedly a big motivation and the comic believes he’s done his brother’s memory justice.

“Every night hundreds of people leave the theatre knowing who Paul Byrne was,” he declares.

“I wouldn’t say he’s up there with me every night, but he’s there every time I think about the show. I briefly entertained a notion of writing a one-man play, with me sitting and talking to him towards the end of his life.

“But you know, I’m a stand-up comic – it’s what I do. I said to the audience in one of the early previews, ‘Yes, it is sad, but don’t worry because the show is funny – believe it or not, I’m actually quite good at this’.”

Ed Byrne plays Perth Concert Hall on January 20 with gigs in Glenrothes, St Andrews and Dunfermline in September.