Michael Parkinson shared a story in his autobiography about the time he had Orson Welles on his BBC chat show in 1974. The host was in awe of Welles and nervous about their imminent encounter.
On the day of recording, he received a visit from Welles in his dressing room. Scanning the list of questions Parkinson planned to ask him, Welles politely wondered if he could make a suggestion: “Throw those away and we’ll just talk.”
“Just talk” is exactly what they did. There were no pre-arranged topics and nothing was off-limits. It turned out to be fantastic television, arguably the best ever edition of Parkinson. It’s well worth checking out on YouTube when you get the chance.
Chat shows don’t work like that any more. No matter who the hosts and guests are, there are always pre-set questions and some agreement as to where the interview is going to go. If a guest happens to be an A-list star, there will almost certainly be a list of subjects that can’t be broached under any circumstances.
This is why no host will ever ask Tom Cruise about Scientology, and why Oprah Winfrey wasn’t allowed to ask Elizabeth Taylor any questions about her seven marriages — which didn’t leave a lot to talk about.
Fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants interviewing isn’t the done thing either. No chat show host worth their salt would dream of interviewing someone without having done some research or having a list of questions ready.
"I'm kind of a shy human being"
Paul McGrath, our first guest on The Tommy Tiernan Show
As for going into a show without even knowing who the guests are until the moment they walk on set, probably the only person in the planet brave/foolish enough to do that would be Tommy Tiernan. This is, after all, the man who embarked on a stand-up tour without a script, simply to see how it would work out (answer: not great).
I have to confess that when I first saw The Tommy Tiernan Show in 2017, I was nonplussed. It was difficult to see what could possibly be gained by having a host who often didn’t know the first thing about the person sitting across from him.
Admittedly, there can be entertainment value in some of this. Tiernan’s failure on one show to even recognise the relentless self-promotion machine that is Vogue Williams should probably be regarded as a badge of honour.
Still, a show constructed around such a gimmicky idea never looked like something that was built to last. Here we are two years on, however, and it’s back for a third series on RTÉ One, and in the prime Saturday night slot too.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve paid much attention to The Tommy Tiernan Show in the intervening time, so I was genuinely surprised and delighted to discover how good it was.
This kind of show stands or falls by the quality of the guests and the quality of the host. In both respects, Saturday’s show was excellent. A lively hour featured Paul McGrath, Ciara-Beth Ní Ghriofa, a 19-year-old who has autism and has developed an app to help autistic children make eye contact, and golfer Shane Lowry.
The reason Tiernan, who’s blessed with the whippet-fast brain of the natural comedian and charm to burn, succeeds as a chat show host is because he doesn’t behave like a chat show host (you can’t see Tubridy or D’Arcy having the cheek to ask Lowry how much he pocketed at his last tournament — and getting an honest answer).
Ironically, his lack of advance knowledge about some of his guests — Ní Ghriofa for example — translates into genuine curiosity, which in turn translates into good, carefully formulated questions. He also actually listens to what the other person is saying.
His interview with McGrath, a shy man who’s less than comfortable in the limelight, was the best I’ve ever seen.
The Tommy Tiernan Show has shaped up into the best Irish chat show in years. Given that the programme it’s replaced for the summer is The Ray D’Arcy Show, that might seem like faint praise. It’s not.
The Tommy Tiernan Show, RTÉ One, Saturday at 9.35pm
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