- 09 Aug 05
The funniest sketch show in Irish comedy history, Stew, is returning for a second run.
Paul Tylak is easily the best known half-Sri Lankan comedian in Ireland. From his early work with Joe Rooney in the knockabout surreal duo The Quacksquad, through his bizarre appearances on the already dizzyingly weird Noel’s House Party, up to his more recent work as a regular performer with The Dublin Comedy Improv his work is characterised by a child-like glee.
He has a ridiculous, hugely expressive face, an almost cartoonish physicality and a line in funny informed by a bewilderingly oblique angle on the world. Something else that unites his wide-ranging body of comic work is his delight and skill in the area of character comedy, and it is probably this more than anything which gives the flavour to Stew, the sketch show largely cooked up by Tylak and his similarly left-field companion in character comedy crime, Paul Woodfull.
The first series of Stew aired last year on RTE 2 and work on the second began almost as soon as the end credits rolled up on the first, if not before. Tylak and Woodfull with occasional input from the series’ script editor, Father Ted author and former Joshua Trio co-conspirator (with Woodfull), Arthur Mathews, have come up with a raft of new characters for series two, which is currently in the throes of a six week shoot.
The new characters will be added to returning characters from the first Stew. Paul W’s Vinnie Vaughan croons again in homes for the bewildered, while ‘typically Irish’ is back doing what it says on the tin. Returning too are Paul T’s Pushy Asian Dad, Enigmatic Dreamer, whose romantic fantasies are triggered by horrors, Paul T and Tara Flynn as the Radio DJs, Patrick McDonnell’s Off-The-Drink and more. However it’s not just more of the same according to Tylak.
“There’s a whole new feel to the second series. There’s more cohesiveness with no one-off sketches like [the first] Stew”.
Instead there will be weekly doses from old and new characters and “more musical stuff”.
Woodfull is enthusiastic about both the new characters and the reprises. Of the latter he says: “we know more who the characters are after the first series”.
In the case of the new characters,he feels they will benefit from a shift in emphasis in the creative process for the second series, with the new characters being drawn significantly from the writers’ and actors’ personal experience of real individuals. This contrasts with the first series where the idea for the character would come largely intact at the scripting stage.
Now a series of sketches will be written and handed to the actor (a transfer which can take a very short time indeed, if the actor is Woodfull or Tylak themselves), who will alight upon inspiration from a real individual – a teacher or a childhood friend – to construct a character to fit the bill.
Scripts can then be rewritten to play to the strengths of the character the actor comes up with.
For the performer, it makes playing the role feel a lot more real, and hopefully that transmits itself to the audience.
I point out that not all the audience will be familiar with Woodfull’s old teacher and he does admit, “it is a risk. It’s very like what Mike Leigh does, at least that what [series director] PJ Dillon has told us”.
Tylak is full of praise both for PJ Dillon and the director of series one (Orla Walsh, from whom Dillon took over late in the day this time due to maternity issues) and for the production company, Grand Pictures.
In particular he attributes magical powers to the ensemble for squeezing preternaturally high production values from the budget available.
He believes it is the biggest budget for a show of this type ever in Ireland, but that isn’t saying much, frankly, and still leaves it a poor cousin of its vastly more liquid UK equivalents.
Yet Stew demands “some things that have never been done in Irish comedy before”.
He gives the example of the ‘Love Struck Crooner’ where scenes requiring realistic musical production values to work are the norm.
If the production team are pushing the envelope to get stuff looking right on screen then Stew’s hybrid performing ensemble is bringing a quite unique cross-fertilisation of comic and acting talent to bear on making the performances sparkle amongst the clever visual trickery.
Woodfull speaks of the good crossover between those in Stew with a comedy character background like Woodful and Tylak, and those from a purer acting background like Barbra Bergin and Darragh Kelly.
Arguably, the two disciplines meet in the extraordinarily talented person of Tara Flynn, who has serious credentials both in the worlds of stand-up and straight acting.
“Often, for sketches in Stew you need an air of heaviness or realism for the piece to work. The likes of Barbra and Darragh being very good actors are able to hold a character very well onscreen.
“And it’s surprising how well some of the comedians can act. Patrick [McDonnell] for example has a very funny face, but he can play it down and then bring it out when it’s needed for the gag. Often we have a comedian playing the straight role in a sketch and an actor playing the funny role”.
Stew is also a highly collaborative process, as you might expect where the main writers are among the performers.
“We [Tylak & Woodfull] have a high degree of control which we insisted on from the outset because our names are up there as the writers. Both directors have been aware that it’s a TV production and not an auteur/cinema one. We have lots of input at all stages from workshops through rehearsals to performance on the day and post-production. Everyone contributes.”
Does this spirit of collaboration, laudable though it undoubtedly is, not make production a long and complicated affair?
“Not really. Although we all contribute we do everything very much through the director so everything’s very clear and goes along at a good rate.”
So will Stew mimic the crossover success of shows like The Fast Show and transfer to the stage for a live offering? A tour even?
In a perfect world, I’d guess that’s exactly what Paul Tylak would like, but putting on a live-show like that is time consuming and prohibitively expensive to produce properly.
They wanted to do a live show after the first series but Tylak and Woodfull were both busy.
Tylak was writing series two and putting small children to bed while Woodfull was heavily committed to the writing and production of the successful musical about the Roy Keane v Mick McCarthy saga, I Keano.
Nevertheless, they still harbour ambitions for a live show, however daunting that might be. Woodfull went to see The League Of Gentlemen live show and was impressed but aghast at what went into recreating the atmosphere of the TV series in a theatre setting.
Wind machines and multiple cranes were among the hardware utilised to create that live experience. If it does happen, it will be after Christmas. Although the first Stew of the new series airs in October, post-production on subsequent episodes will be going on well into November. So no live show until 2006 at the earliest.
Still, there’s plenty of televised Stew to look forward to in the autumn.
According to Tylak, if you liked the first series you will really like the second one, and if you didn’t like the first series you may well be pleasantly surprised at the growth and developments in the second series.
Of course, if you don’t like television or Stew at all, you will be stuck in a dead end of your own making, or something.
In the meantime you could always catch Paul Tylak live in his frequent Monday night appearances (along with Tara Flynn) at The Dublin Comedy Improv in Dublin’s International Bar.
And when you marvel at Tylak’s highly individual thought processes in any medium, you like me will be licking your lips at the thoughts of his next project, now in “pre-pre-pre-production” for which we have only been supplied with the title: Be More Ethnic.