Mario Rosenstock sits down with David Monaghan to discuss his work in TV and radio as a comedian and impressionist
Mario Rosenstock is known to many as the voice (or voices) of the satirical breakfast show Gift Grub, in which he lampoons various political and sports figures throughout Ireland. On television, he is known for The Mario Rosenstock Show, a sketch show featuring his repertoire of characters in unusual situations; like Joan Burton riding a wrecking ball, or Donal Skehan breaking his nice guy act to beat up some local scumbags. Taking a well-deserved break from satirising the country’s elite, Rosenstock speaks about working in television and radio, his friendship with Ian Dempsey, and the pressure he feels when creating content.
Spawning numerous albums and singles since its inception in 1999, Gift Grub is the first port of call for many people when seeking Irish political satire. However, its success came as a surprise to Rosenstock. “When I started, everything I did was depending on the radio station I was working in being successful,” he says. “[It was] called Radio Ireland, and it just didn’t know what it was at the beginning. It was known in the papers, mockingly, as Radio 0%, and Radio Direland.” Radio Ireland eventually changed its name to Today FM. After recruiting Ian Dempsey to host the morning show, it began to grow in popularity. “It started to really, really appeal to people. I started working with Ian on the breakfast show [and] it was in tandem with this Bertie Ahern thing that was happening. I was the only one in Ireland doing sketches about him every day and that kind of caught the imagination.”
Rosenstock has collaborated with Ian Dempsey ever since. “We have a very special relationship. Some people describe it as a husband and wife; I don’t know who’s the man and who’s the woman. No one knows his audience better than Ian [and] he’s also a really great judge of an audience in relation to me. He’d look at stuff I do and go, ‘what would people love to see Mario doing?’ And he’d know better than I would. He often points me in the right direction.”
Having worked almost exclusively in radio over the years, The Mario Rosenstock Show was a slight departure for the performer. “In radio you can go, ‘Imagine if Joan Burton suddenly became Alexander the Great back in 20 BC, and there’s an army of 50,000 people with elephants.’ You could do that on the radio that day, and peoples’ minds will see [it].” Rosenstock, who often plays multiple characters at once on radio, simply cannot mimic this approach on television. “Radio is good for getting the ideas out there tomorrow. Television takes weeks.”
Mario Rosenstock’s sketches often veer into the absurd. Since breaking out onto the scene, we have borne witness to Alan Shatter as a 1970s TV cop, Gerry Adams as a starship captain, and Bertie Ahern as a culinary chef. This surreal approach will draw comparisons to the style of British comedy troupe Monty Python. “I was exposed to the absurdity of Monty Python. I would have been very impressed with Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, [that was] the stuff I really enjoyed.” Rosenstock also speaks of his love for American sketch showSaturday Night Live. “I love idea that you do sketches which are topical each week in front of a live audience. I love that up-to-date topical comedy.”
SNL features sketches written over the course of a week, to be performed live in front of a studio audience on the Saturday. As a result, actors can sometimes break character, forget lines, and crack up. Rosenstock is no stranger to this type of pressure. “Yes, [but] there’s pressure and there’s stress,” he explains. “Pressure is really good. [It’s] bringing the best out of yourself, rising to the occasion. I [feel] a lot of pressure doing things that I have, but I now realise that feeling is a good feeling. Stress is not a good feeling. Stress is when something is preventing you from working. You’re sick, you’re run down, you can’t think straight – that’s stress. Pressure is when you’re a bit worried, but feel of creative intent and energy.”
In 2005, Mario Rosenstock surprised many by topping the Irish Christmas charts with a parody of Will Young’s ‘Leave Right Now.’ “I’ve always loved music. I can actually hold a note really well when I’m in character – not so much as myself! I think music is a beautiful, glorious thing. You can also write stuff in music that is like poetry – rhymes and stuff – and put them into characters mouths, like politicians, or people like Paul O’Connell, and it makes them funny for a minute.” Indeed, seeing Joan Burton perform Wrecking Ball à la Miley Cyrus is not a sight many people can take seriously.
Three years ago, Rosenstock created minor controversy when the Catholic Communications Office took offence to a sketch depicting a character spitting into a bucket before receiving Holy Communion. Has the writer-performer stirred any other note-worthy controversies? “I’m careful to observe the law of defamation,” he says. “I’m also careful to observe a natural law, which is [not to] go off on somebody in a poisonous, malicious way. Satire has to be funny first. Otherwise you’re just a taxi driver giving out: ‘Them fuckin’ government, that fuckin’ bunch o’ clowns!’ So my thing would be, I don’t want to say that unless I can make it funny.”
Rosenstock’s comments bring to mind the recent developments surrounding the Denis O’Brien/Waterford Whispers News conflict; the media mogul threatened to sue the satirical news source over its depiction of him. “Waterford Whispers News published something, he threatened to sue them, which he’s entitled to do as a person,” says Rosenstock, whose radio station is owned by O’Brien. “Should he be allowed to do that? Well, he is. It’s the law. Is it right for him to do that? Maybe not, but he can. Say you live in a house, and I want to build a gigantic railway and a shopping centre right next to your house. You can object, but if I win the objection, I can build my railway and shopping centre near your house. It’s legal. It’s not nice, but it’s legal. So, we have to deal with those parameters as well.”
After a succession of albums, live performances, and a television show, what can Mario Rosenstock do next to surprise us? “[I have a] new TV show coming in November and December. It’s Saturday Night Live-based idea, so some studio based sketches, pre-recorded sketches, music, and hopefully live guests. There’s a lot going on; possibly an election – it’ll be pre-election time anyway – the 1916 anniversary, and also lots of rugby and soccer things coming to a climax. So, it’s going to be a very, very interesting time.”
While Ireland is undergoing many social and political changes, it is comforting to know that one thing will remain consistent; Mario Rosenstock will be there to point the finger and laugh. Just don’t ask him to sing out of character.