We use cookies on this website to improve how it works and how it’s used. For more information on our cookie policy please read our Privacy Policy

Accept & Continue

With an impressive 30-plus years on the comedy circuit behind him, Ed Byrne is a familiar face in the world of stand-up. However, his latest touring show, Tragedy Plus Time, offers something a bit different from usual, exploring the sensitive subject of grief and loss. Here, the County Dublin-born comedian explains how he has combined sadness and laughter for the show and talks about what prompted him to bring the bittersweet topic to the stage...

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 programmes including The Chase: Celebrity Special, The Hit List, Pointless Celebrities and All-Star Family Fortunes. 

But for all his dalliances with the world of television light entertainment, Ed remains at heart a truly great stand-up comedian. He’s 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. 

His 14th touring show, Tragedy Plus Time, which he’s bringing to the Midlands this month, sees him heading into 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.”

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 takes creative courage to explore.

“I was in two minds about whether to do a show of this nature. 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. This isn’t gallows humour; it’s something else entirely.

“The first time I performed it, 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. 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 - 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. 

“Obviously I don’t want the whole thing to be an onslaught. 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 challenges 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... 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.”

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’s every bit as moving as it is funny, and vice versa.

“Is it okay 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. 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. Because, believe it or not, I’m actually quite good at this.’”

Tragedy Plus Time shows at Crewe Lyceum Theatre, Thursday 9 May; Dudley Town Hall, Saturday 11 May; Coventry's Albany Theatre, Thursday 23 May; Tamworth Assembly Rooms, Thursday 26 September; Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, Friday 11 October; Regal, Evesham, Thursday 5 December