He expected “I do”, but she said “I don’t”, there at the edge of the world, before the earthquake came.
Just outside, the sea lapped in across a mighty trench patrolled by whales. Behind the dining room, up above the houses on the hill, a long line of mountains marched away, topped with snow.
Irish comedian Ed Byrne was in Kaikoura’s famous Green Dolphin restaurant when he asked his girlfriend Claire to marry him. She told him to sling his hook.
“She said, I’m sorry, no, I can’t marry you,” he recalls from his home in Essex. Byrne lives there now with Claire and their two young sons, Cosmo and Magnus, so it seems she changed her mind.
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“Oh, she did, yeah. Right away, in fact. She was just messin’ with my head. She’d figured out something was up, and I’m ashamed to admit that was because I’d been being reeeeally nice to her, all day! She got suspicious and thought she’d have a laugh at my expense, but in the end, I got a good joke out of it.”
A good joke, a new wife, a family. And an abiding relationship with a wee town on the other side of the world.
Byrne and I share a mutual love of Kaikoura. The scene of his jilting, the Green Dolphin, is a place I know well.
I’ve eaten there myself a couple of times. The last time I walked out of the place, full as a tick, and met a big blubbery seal, dozing on the sand nearby.
“Did you now? Imagine that! But yes, it’s an amazing place, isn’t it? I first went to Kaikoura 20 years ago, on my first trip to New Zealand. I was with (fellow comedian) Simon Pegg. We went up after a show in Christchurch to go whale watching, back when those boats were still just one step up from row boats, really. I fell in love with the place.”
And so he came back, repeatedly. Ten years ago, Kaikoura was the place Byrne settled upon to pop the question to his beloved during a comedy tour. And two years ago, they went back there together with the two kids. They drove past the Green Dolphin, and went out whale watching again.
“Without being too schmaltzy about it, Kaikoura has a very special place in my heart. When I heard about the damage, it hit me hard. I hear they haven’t dredged the bay yet, either, and so there’s no whale watching. Is it true that the whales might just f… off and go somewhere else?”
What, you mean – take the huff and leave because there’s no tourists taking photos of them any more? I doubt it.
“No, no – I mean, would the whales leave because the water’s too murky or some such? I will ask someone when I’m down there next week.”
Yes, that’s right. Byrne’s heading to New Zealand for a whistle-stop tour, and has tacked on an extra charity gig in Kaikoura.
“It’s a free show for people who need cheering up, like struggling business owners and clean-up volunteers and so on. Me and English comedian Rich Wilson and gonna go and try and get a few laughs out of them.”
Byrne will spend a few days in the beleaguered town, meeting people working on the reconstruction.
“It will be my first experience of earthquake tourism, where they show you where the fault lines are and so on. I plan to write an article about it for a magazine back here in the UK, and that might help drive some more awareness of what’s gone on there.”
After a loose and drunken youth around the streets of Dublin, it transpires Byrne has become something of a nutter for fresh air, forests, the great outdoors.
He is no stranger to polypropylene undergarments. He knows how to rolls socks and jocks and stuff them inside toilet rolls to take up less space in his backpack.
Whenever Byrne tours Scotland, he whips away between shows to knock off another “Munro”, the local name for hills of over 3, 000 ft (914 m) high. Sometimes he drags other comedians along, panting and protesting behind him, as he strides to the summit.
When in New Zealand, in the downtime between delivering punchlines, he likes to go tramping, too.
“When I last came with Claire, we did a four day tramp on the Matemateaonga Track in the North Island, hiking through the jungle in the p…ing rain. I’ve walked in to stay in a DOC hut near Napier, too, and up around the Wairarapa. But it’s a very short tour this time, so there no time to do a decent tramp.”
Instead, he will be pacing disappointingly flat stages in Nelson, Napier, New Plymouth, Kaikoura, Auckland. He will be sans boots, backpack and parka, carrying nothing but a head full of well-honed gags.
“This tour is called Outside Looking In, and it’s about the fact that, as a comedian, I don’t have a life so much as watch other people live theirs and then report back. There’s no escaping that really. It’s part of the job. Even when you go to a club and you’re on a dancefloor, you’re watching all the people dancing, or you’re noticing with a high level of irony your own crap dance moves. You’re a reporter, more than anything. Like you, I’m a sort of journalist.”
Yes, but better paid, and with enough time off to go larking about in the Scottish mountains or the Wairarapa. Still, if I make a crap joke in a newspaper story, I don’t have to witness the audience not laughing. No one boos or heckles, unless you count the online comments section.
“Yes, well, dying on stage isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it happens to all of us at one time or another. And heckling can be a pain in the arse, too. In Ireland, half the audience think they’re as funny as you are. Same in Liverpool. They expect a certain level of audience participation, which I don’t necessarily welcome. There are a few bits in my show where I’ll ask the audience questions, but the rest of time I think- These are the jokes, folks. Shut the f… up and listen to them!”
But shut up they will not. There’s a certain sort of person, he says, who believe their shouted interjections are relentlessly hilarious, and there’s no convincing them otherwise.
“These people will be going home afterwards and thinking – ‘I was a real asset to that show! That guy was lucky I was in the audience. Did you hear all those jokes he made about me?’”
Meanwhile, Byrne is doing his level best to shut this plonker down.
“These people can really ruin the rhythm of your show. It’s funny at first with a persistent heckler as you can put them down over and over again, but after a while, all the other people in the room come to hate them and it poisons the atmosphere. Other audience members start to heckle the heckler, and you end up trying to entertain a load of people who, through no fault of your own, are now in a bad mood.”
But heckling is seldom an issue in this country. Over seven previous tours to New Zealand, Byrne has noticed that we go almost too far the other way.
“In your country, if you ask questions of the audience, they don’t want to answer you. They’re scared of the spotlight. The other weird thing in New Zealand is that there’s such a marked difference between week night gigs and weekend gigs. During the week, New Zealand audience are really reserved, as if they’re not allowed to enjoy themselves. I imagine them sitting there going – ‘Oh, my God! It’s Tuesday night! What am I doing, outside the house? It’s not even a Friday!’”
It is the only country in the world where he has noticed this phenomenon. “It’s very strange. Even if I do a run of sold-out shows in the same Auckland venue for a week, the week nights will be really muted compared to Fridays and Saturdays, when people are really up for it. Maybe it’s the amount you people drink? Who knows?”
Now 45, Byrne has been making a crust from comedy for over 20 years. If you dig around online you can find clips of him in the early days, the style brittle and hectic, the jokes a good deal more laddish.
Back then, he got laughs out of tall tales about roaring around Edinburgh festival trying to get laid. Now he’s more likely to talk about suffering sleep deprivation as a parent with young kids.
“My style has changed hugely, you’re right. I’ve got a lot more to talk about now that I’m older. I’ve become more anecdotal, stringing stories together around things that have happened to me. I’m also a lot more honest.”
As an example, he mentions a joke he wrote following a radio interview on a previous trip to New Zealand. The interviewer? Paul Henry.
“I said some personal stuff I regret saying. I volunteered the information that me and my wife started off as a one-night stand, to which Paul Henry then said: ‘So you mean your wife put out on the first date?’. Things very quickly took a bad turn and I ended up getting in terrible trouble with my wife because of it. Still, it did give me another story to add to my show.”
That story has since travelled the world, with Paul Henry becoming a symbolic stand-in for boorish radio announcers in every comedy market Byrne visits, from Brixton to Bendigo, Nova Scotia to Norway.
“The thing is, it showed how much my style had changed. After that Paul Henry interview, I wrote a whole piece about slut-shaming and men giving women a hard time about their sexual choices. It had a feminist bent to it, whereas in the first ten years of my career, I would say more careless things to get a laugh.”
Such as? What kids of things do you mean?
“Like, early on, I used to make jokes about hatin’ kids, because it got a good laugh. But I’ve never hated kids! I used to work as a babysitter. These days, I wouldn’t invent something just to get an easy laugh. I talk about how I genuinely feel about things, then find a way to make that funny. These days I’m speaking from… a place of truth.”
He pauses, considering how earnest this phrase might look in a story. “Now, I want you to promise me that you will point out that I said ‘place of truth’ in a funny voice just now. Promise me! Because once that’s written down in black and white, I’m gonna sound like a c—.”
OK, fair enough. Ed Byrne said that last bit in a funny voice. He’s been saying a few things in a funny voice lately, as it happens.
“Yes, I’ve been working on my kiwi accent, and I reckon I’m pretty good at it. I’ve been there so many times now, it’s improved markedly.”
To demonstrate, he says “Ah, that’s brilliant!” two or three times in a row, sounded like an Australian with tampons lodged up each nostril.
“What do you reckon? Pretty good, eh? You know Ben Hurley, a comedian from down your way?”
I do. “Well, he absolutely HATES it when I do a kiwi accent! He can’t f…..g stand it! For some reason, it’s like fingernails down a blackboard for him. He says I sound too much like your Prime Minister when I do it, and clearly, for him, that is a very bad thing.”
The 2017 NZ International Comedy Festival runs 27 April – 21 May. For more information visit: comedyfestival.co.nz. Ed Byrne plays Auckland SkyCity Theatre Tues 2- Sat 6 May, Kaikoura Memorial Hall on Mon May 8, Nelson Theatre Royal Tues May 9, Auckland Bruce Mason Centre Wed May 10, New Plymouth TSB Showplace Thurs May 11.