'In Ireland, likeability is very important," says comedian David McSavage. "In comedy, if you're likeable you don't have to be hugely funny. If people like you, you can charm your way into their hearts and affections and they'll want to laugh. I don't have that likeability. I think if you're saying things that people don't necessarily want to hear or are talking about topics that people find difficult, you're not going to be likeable."
David McSavage, known to many in the capital as a pedestrian-baiting busker, mightn't have likeability on his side (although he seems pleasant enough to me – he greets employees in the coffee-shop where we meet by name) but he is funny. His television programme, a sketch show in the form of a faux-documentary called The Savage Eye, is a hard-hitting, self-hating jab at Irish traditions and institutions. It has been very well received by critics. But the praise is often accompanied by remarks about how they never really liked McSavage's work before (I'm guilty of this myself). He seems wearily resigned to this and it's what prompts his musings on likeability.
"I think in politics, politicians who are quite competent and capable but aren't likeable don't succeed while likeable but inept ones get through," he continues, before going on to free-associate about the likeability of Brian Cowen. It has taken him less than a minute to segue from comedy to politics. This shouldn't be too surprising. McSavage, you see, is really David Andrews Jnr, scion of a Fianna Fáil dynasty which includes his father David and his brother Barry. This is a dynasty and a potential destiny he left solidly behind him when he left Ireland in the mid-'80s.
"Part of the reason I was happy to leave the country for such a long time was that I wanted to get away from a sense of judgement that came with all that [being from a political family]," he says. "I never achieved anything. I think at one point there was some expectation on me to go into politics, but it bored the shit out of me. I could never in a million years have gone into Fianna Fáil. I never wanted to become a politician. Politics always attracts the wrong sort of people – people who are into the power rather than people with an actual sense of duty. I'm sure there are some good politicians somewhere," he adds doubtfully.
So instead of taking the political road that some might have expected, young David McSavage left school at Blackrock College, did a short course in television and film, and then left the country. "I'd read things like Jack Kerouac and I just wanted to live life," he says. "All the things we were supposed to be headed towards at Blackrock College – university, getting a job – I didn't want those things. I wanted to go travelling and be a hobo. That was my ambition. So I went to the United States and did shitty jobs there and then I went to Japan and started busking. The liberation I felt the first time I realised I could do that – that I could earn a living and not have to work for anyone – it was just fantastic. I spent a year-and-a-half living in a tiny little place, playing in an underground station at night and meeting all these weird people. Basically, all the stuff that I'd been told was wrong – acting the maggot and being funny – the stuff that was supposed to never get you anywhere, it was getting me somewhere," he laughs before adding: "Okay, it was getting me somewhere very, very slowly, but it was getting me there."
He continued to travel, met his Polish wife Hannah in Amsterdam 17 years ago, and when she became pregnant they settled in Copenhagen for five years. "Denmark is a good spot," says McSavage. "There was a burgeoning stand-up scene there and I got involved in that." It was while busking, however, that he really honed his craft and made his living. His brass-necked style often involved him singling out passers-by for ridicule. "In Denmark, when someone got pissed off at things I said they kept it to themselves and rationalised it and thought 'that's his problem' and they wouldn't take it on board. In Australia, when you make fun of someone and they get pissed off they make complaints to the council. I got banned from every busking spot that I ever tried there. But in Dublin it's great because if somebody gets pissed off they come right up to your face and say 'f**k off'."
He knows this because in 2001 he returned to Ireland. "It was only meant to be a visit," he says. "I wanted to go to Vancouver for a while, but Ireland had changed so dramatically we decided to stay here. There were so many different nationalities and it was much more of an international city than when I left."
Yet, though the new Ireland suited him better, he didn't quite fit into the nation's burgeoning comedy scene. "I quickly ostracised myself from that," he says. "I fell out with the guy who ran the Kilkenny comedy festival, Richard Cook. He represents most of the comedians working regularly so anyone attached to him I don't get on with somehow. But that's grand. I'm always on the f***ing outside [a touch of exasperation enters his voice]. If I meet people in the wrong way, that's it. In Ireland, if you fall out with someone, you just know you're never going to talk to them again for the rest of your life. Oh, and I'm banned from the Laughter Lounge. I think the last time I was there I said something to a girl that didn't go down too well. She was Mongolian and I was talking about the difference between China and Mongolia and she said I was racist or something. In the International Bar, on the other hand, you can do anything. The way Des Bishop and his brother run it means that whatever happens at the International stays there. The Laughter Lounge is more corporate."
It's not just the comedy 'industry'. McSavage has also alienated members of the general public – people he doesn't even know. Mentions of him on internet message boards prompt extreme responses. "I spent years and years slagging people off on the street, so that's to be expected to some extent," he sighs.
"You're making fun of wobbly personalities and then in the quiet of their bedrooms they go onto the internet and go mad. There's one guy on boards.ie who spent a year talking about me – 'He's a c**t. He's a c**t' all that sort of stuff. That's beyond hatred. It's beyond love. There's something else going on there. Thank God those people have their f***ing internet chat-rooms because if they didn't God knows what they'd do."
He gave up drinking in 2003, which seemed to coincide with a flowering of ambition (he began doing bigger shows and subsequently produced pilots not just for RTÉ but also Channel 4). Although he identifies himself as an alcoholic, he makes giving up drink sound relatively straightforward.
"I'd been drinking solidly for seven years, one day off, one day on," he says, "and I'd have these horrible hangovers. But I could always just get up late the next day, and nobody really said anything to me... although I think my dad at one stage might have said 'I think you have a drinking problem'. In 2003, I had a gig at Vicar Street and I worried I'd be all fidgety, so I stopped drinking for a week and that turned into two weeks. And that had been the longest I'd ever been without drink for years.
"To me, life is a lot more challenging and interesting sober, but if you say that to the average Irish person they look at you like a scientist looking through a microscope, not quite understanding how it's possible. And those big drinks manufacturers really know how to market. That slogan 'It's alive inside'. They know exactly what they're doing with that. They know what they're saying. If it's 'alive inside' then implicit in that is that you must be dead inside, that you're boring and you need to drink this in order to become interesting, to become 'alive inside'. The result is that in Ireland when people do finally find a way to stop drinking they go underground. Not drinking is like a shameful secret."
He also recently knocked another long ingrained habit on the head – busking. "It sustained a lifestyle for me for a long time," he says. "I was able to live quite okay and I didn't have to worry about getting a job. But I think maybe it's a chapter in my life that went on for a little too long. You do end up doing the same routine over and over, and you're not doing yourself any favours. The same people are seeing you doing the same stuff, hence the vitriolic 'I saw that c**t and he said this thing about a girl on the street'."
Does he regret any of the things he's said to people over the years? "When you're in the cut and thrust of doing a street show, your empathy levels aren't particularly heightened," he says, but he doesn't seem to feel too bad about it. "You're just having a go. In all honesty, the worst thing you can accuse me of is that I said something that didn't work or that I made an ill-timed joke. There are a lot of things to be pissed off about in Ireland but I don't feel that I'm one of them."
In fact, in The Savage Eye he and his collaborators (who include directors Damien O'Donnell and Kieron Walsh and comedian Pat McDonnell) target the sacred cows of religion, politics and class that the Irish people are pissed-off about. In that respect it's very much of its time. "Yeah, I'm not sure people would have got it five years ago," he says.
"But so much has happened since – the spectacular disintegration of these infallible institutions – politics, banks, the church. The context has totally changed."
The result is that now a lot of people like David McSavage. Does he feel vindicated? "I feel more relieved than anything else," he says. "I was on the radio earlier and Ray D'Arcy said to me, 'You weren't very popular'. I suppose the only thing you can say in response to that is that Bertie Ahern was popular and look at the state of us now."
The Savage Eye is on RTÉ Two, Monday, 9.55pm
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