- 17 Nov 21
‘I assumed that the last thing people wanted to hear when Covid came to Ireland was comedy, but that’s the first thing they wanted. As soon as you knew that, you felt safe’: Veteran Irish mimic, broadcaster, actor, comedian, radio host and podcaster Mario Rosenstock speaks to Hot Press about Covid comedy, keeping his political leanings unbiased and celebrity responses (the good, the bad and the ugly) to his sketches.
With over 30 years of experience in the industry, Mario Rosenstock has become one of Irish broadcasting’s most well-known figures. Having crafted spot-on impressions of the Government’s most absurd politicians on Ian Dempsey’s Today FM show for years, public faces must be terrified of coming face to face with such a comic force.
My first sighting of the 51-year-old comedian was behind the door of a red velour box in the Olympia Theatre. He grins widely - polite as always, despite a full day of interviews to promote his forthcoming Gift Grub “greatest hits”-style tour.
“It’s basically the tour that never happened,” he smiles, buzzing with the knowledge that live performance is back on the cards for next year. “My last show was on March 6th, 2020. My next show will be on March 3rd, 2022. It’s like Dorothy fell asleep and woke up and wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This madness has happened.”
Featuring the best sketches from the last 20 years plus bang up-to-date topical material, the satirist will bring his rescheduled dates for The Very Best Of Gift Grub Live! all over Ireland. Five nights at the 3Olympia Theatre, his favourite Dublin venue, and the Cork Opera House, his top Irish venue, will take place in April.
“The show has been adapted. Maybe 20 or 25 percent will be changed to reflect the (dramatic voice) New World we live in,” Rosenstock says, referring to that small incident which halted the globe for two years. “I remember the last show I did was in Leisureland, Galway. I came out as Joe Duffy to warm up the crowd. Even at that time, I was making jokes about mass gatherings and people were tittering in the audience. I think about three days later Leo Varadkar came on the TV and went, ‘Everybody hide under your bed. It’ll only be three weeks, don’t worry’,” he adds, speaking uncannily like the Taoiseach with a distinctive nasal-heavy tone.
“It’s been a long time away from the stage, but I was lucky enough to be able to work on the radio. I wasn’t completely shut down like some other performers were. It’s desperate, what happened to them. I’ve known people who left the arts, and comedy as a whole, because they had to pay the bills. That is a terrible shame. We could have thought about these people earlier in the game. I would be quite bitter about the lack of attention given to our beloved entertainment industry: the land of saints and scholars. Yeah right, bollox. It was much too little, much too late. Some of the stuff you’re hearing in regards to hospitality now is nonsense. Stephen Donnelly the other day was like, ‘Try not to go to nightclubs three times a week’,” Mario says, whipping out the Health Minister’s mannerisms. “How many people even do that? ‘If you go to a concert, try not to sing’. Really? What planet are you on? You need to invest some of your time in someone else to have empathy. These politicians don’t have any.”
For some impressionists, it only takes one meeting to fully nail the subject’s voice, idiosyncrasies and body language while others study their targets for weeks, if not months. How long did it take Rosenstock to fully perfect his favourite takes?
“You can do a superficial impersonation of somebody by listening to someone and going, ‘He’s the Minister for Finance, I know how to take the piss out of them’. I think it helps to dig deeper and find out what kind of a person they are,” Mario says, with a smile. “For example, I love playing Paschal Donohoe. I never thought he’d be comedy gold. He is a real music fan, believe it or not. He’s the best boy in the class. He’s the boss, even though he’s not the boss. I always get the feeling that he’s in control of Leo, even though Leo is the frontman. I have an alter-ego called Ballymun Paschal, who isn’t nice to him.
“The more you dig into the likes of Michael D. Higgins’ history or career or personality, the more it informs you on how to write sketches. That’s what I mainly do. You find out early on that you can do the voice. Well done you. That only lasts one day. Then you have to put them in situations that make people laugh. Where you develop skits is by learning more about them. My head will be buried in websites, books or forums most of the time. You need to know more about your targets.”
Radio and podcasting became Rosenstock’s bread and butter during the Covid-19 pandemic, where his skits and satire became a hugely pivotal part of his audience’s day. During times when familiarity was and routine were craved beyond belief and restrictions were at their most strict; Mario’s comedy was a lifeline for some.
“There’s a funny arc to that. When the pandemic happened and we were told to go home, I didn’t get any days off. We were on the radio the next day and I was doing comedy. Then there was a moment about a week later when someone in Ireland died, and that was really grim. Just one person, but it brought it home to everybody that this virus is a killer. I was coming into work that day and was like, ‘This is panic stations, where’s the humour going to come from?’. Believe it or not, that only lasted about two days. In your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, the last thing people want to hear are jokes right now’, but that’s the first thing they wanted to hear. As soon as you knew that, you felt safe. It was a clear feeling.”
How did he cope with the pressure of such an emotionally charged listership?
“I was really worried. I didn’t think I could write anything, but the public wanted us on at 8:15am to make sure the structure of their lives hadn’t completely fallen apart. Remember that awful feeling of weirdness? We had to make sure not to make it any more weird. Give them something to rely on. I realised that I did have a role: Do comedy. Covid was a shared experience. We did an early sketch that went down well, I think it was in April. It was this idea that the supermarket had become the new nightclub, and women were doing themselves up to go out. Lads were putting on the shirts. People were queuing up, bouncers were letting you in. You’d lock eyes with people across the aisle, music would be playing. ‘Oh, yer man’s gone outside his 20k limit, cheeky’. It’s humour from our strange, shared reality.”
“Then it got to this stage, where Covid turned out to have been a magical time for comedy because it reinvented our whole world,” Mario beams. “All the rules have changed. Comedians jump on that because we can point out funny things about the new rules before anyone else spots it: that’s our job. It’s been gold dust. The last two years have accelerated the amount of female comedians involved, which is great.”
Given the length and breadth of Rosenstock’s repertoire and the sheer amount of people impersonated, does he have any amusing celebrity reactions to his sketches?
“There have definitely been a couple of moments where a few targets I had weren’t pleased, but I wasn’t unhappy with that. Generally, the people I do impressions of are strong, powerful people of interest. I don’t tend to go after ‘weak’ members of society,” he laughs. “That wouldn’t be a cool move. Ronan Keating - when he was younger, especially - was disastrously against me. ‘What’s that guy doing, I’m fucking out there like an ambassador and this guy’s taking the piss?’ One day he said he’d run for President when he turned 50 and I was like, ‘Well I have to take the piss out of that’. Same thing for when he said he’d love to break Hollywood. I had him go off to LA with Louis Walsh and they end up doing porn movies.”
“Keith Duffy has always taken it really well. It’s better to be on it than not on it. Ronan named his boat ‘Fair Play’, which was a catchphrase I had for him. I read somewhere that Michael Flatley hated it for similar reasons.”
“‘Who does that guy think he is, bejesus and begorrah?’” Mario says, in a perfect Irish-American twang. “‘Amn’t I the greatest thing since sliced bread and potatoes to ever come out of Ireland?’”
I’m surprised to hear that Rosenstock has never actually met Professor Luke O’Neill, whom he regularly impersonates. “When you call his number and get to his voicemail, the answering machine is just him saying ‘YES’ to everything,” he jokes.
“Most people are like ‘Ah it’s great!!’ but actually hate it,” he adds, with a spark in his eye. “Miriam O’Callaghan is always killing me with kindness. ‘It’s so amazing, it’s so amazing (shut up, stop doing it)’ type of vibe. When you want something to stop you just say it’s brilliant. But I love her. In Ireland, you’d be seen as a dryshite if you didn’t take it on the chin. It’s a take the piss society. That’s ingrained into our culture. We’re a nation that sees ourselves as funny people and we think we’re great storytellers and banterers. Yet there’s hardly any daily comedy in Irish media.”
Given that he spends a gigantuan chunk of his time aiming gas gibes at famous politicians, does he keep his own political leanings a locked up secret?
“I prefer to keep my political leanings out of the work. Having said that, if I really was to share them with you, I think you’d find that I’m a bit of an omnivore. At one stage or another, I have voted for pretty much every political party in this country. I vote based on who I think can offer the most integrity at this particular moment in time or have a solution to a specific problem,” Rosenstock replies, sincerely. “Though, in 2011, you’re not voting Fianna Fáil unless your surname is Healy-Rae or you’re some fucking guy with a pipe aged 100 who’s cousin was De Valera.”
“I think I have a sense of justice. I think its important that you keep your eyes open to see the potential flaws and faults in every party, and not get swayed. There is a section of Irish comedy which is irretrievably obsessed with Sinn Féin, much like Irish media in general. They’re wedded to them. How are they going to take the piss out of the Sinn Féin government, though? I will, but if you have aligned yourself to that, it’s a tricky road to go down. I’ve nothing against that party. If I was being superficial, one thing that would nearly sway me is the idea of finally having a female Taoiseach. I don’t think I’m great at impersonating her. I might get swept away by a good TikTok comedian who can do Mary Lou McDonald take.”
Does his 14-year-old son find him funny, while we’re on the topic of TikTok?
“Yep,” Mario nods.
How can he be so certain? Teenagers finding their dads funny must be a rarity.
“Because he tells me. But I think he’s at that age where I only have maybe six months left. I think because I do political satire and ‘stick it to the man’, it’s like his friends go, ‘Your dad is cool, he gave it to Leo Varadkar on the radio’. My credibility isn’t entirely shot yet. But the other day I said to him that I was thinking of putting a TikTok video up about Ronaldo and he was like, ‘No, don’t do that’. We had a bit of an argument and he stormed out. Mum (Mario’s wife, Blathnaid) comes in then and says - in a hushed mass-like whisper - ‘All his friends are on TikTok and you’ll embarrass him’. He likes me to be on the radio, not on his turf.”
Does he take in criticism, either from his kids or from the public on social media?
“Loads. All of it,” he exclaims, deadpan. “What are you talking about? I’m a diva! Course I would. I’d take all criticism personally. In fact, I look at stuff online. I do that to harden myself and not to be a chicken about it. To get used to it. ‘Yer man is as funny as a burning orphanage’ is still a stand out. In fairness, that was hilarious. Then you realise that some of them don’t even mean it. They want to be noticed.”
Two years away from the stage has lit a fire in Rosenstock. He’s practically giddy sitting in the Olympia Theatre, overlooking the stage. Seeing the seats alone has “flicked a subconscious switch” in the comic talent. What does the veteran mimic hope will come from his Gift Grub 2022 tour?
“Money,” he responds, lightning quick as always. “And people’s teeth looking at me in the audience, with shoulders shaking. The feeling of joy and love that I have when I’m in front of a crowd. I do it for a living, but I do it for the love. The love I have for it and the love emanating from people having a good time with each other and with me. I want that feeling back.”
Rescheduled dates for 'The Very Best Of Gift Grub Live!' 2022:
Lyrath Estate, Kilkenny: 3rd March
Lyrath Estate, Kilkenny: 4th March
National Opera House, Wexford: 11th March
INEC Killarney: 12th March
Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan: 18th March
Leisureland, Galway: 19th March
Radisson Blu, Limerick: 24th March
Radisson Blu, Limerick: 25th March
The Dome, Thurles: 26th March
Clanree Hotel, Letterkenny: 31st March
Knocknarea Arena, Sligo: 1st April
Olympia Theatre, Dublin: 5th April
Olympia Theatre, Dublin: 6th April
Olympia Theatre, Dublin: 7th April
Olympia Theatre, Dublin: 8th April
Olympia Theatre, Dublin: 9th April
Cork Opera House: 12th April
Cork Opera House: 13th April
Cork Opera House: 14th April
Cork Opera House: 15th April
Cork Opera House: 16th April
Fairways Hotel, Dundalk: 21st April
TLT Theatre, Drogheda: 22nd April
Radisson Athlone: 23rd April
All original tickets valid. No exchange necessary.