'I haven't spoken to my father in about ten years' – Mario Rosenstock talks drinking, burnout and fractured families

It’s “genuinely” – he drawls the word with fiendish facility – hard not to see Miriam O’Callaghan when sitting in front of Mario Rosenstock. Not that he looks like her – although he says his “big blue eyes” and “manliness” give him an advantage – but his impression of her has somehow become interwoven with reality and their careers now seem bound together.

Miriam, or his wide-eyed version of her, may have even inadvertently paid for his house, he concedes. “(Michael) Flatley definitely did, more so,” he adds, alluding to his regular bare-chested take-off of the former Riverdance star. And the host of characters from Irish life, ranging from Eamon Dunphy to Bertie Ahern, that he brilliantly ventriloquises during our conversation must be due their own wings of Casa Rosenstock.

In person he mixes the impressions with acerbic – and deadly serious – observations on himself and Irish life. “We’re told we need to open up about mindfulness and depression and there’s a new buzz-word every six months,” he says at one point. “Well I’ll tell you what we need to talk about: families. Half of us don’t speak to our families but nobody knows. Half of us hate our fathers, half of us don’t talk to our mothers, some of us haven’t spoken to our sisters in 15 years. Nobody talks about it.”

Mario does, however. He has a “peculiar” relationship with his father, he tells me. “I haven’t spoken to him in ten years. There was no dreadful moment, no ‘and then he plunged the knife in’, but we just don’t speak, and I’m sorry about that but I’ve resigned myself to it. It’s on his side as well, it’s a remoteness. You kind of think I’d like him to see his grandchildren or whatever, but there doesn’t seem to be any interest on his side, so you kind of think ‘what am I supposed to do, beg?'”

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Mario’s talent, his mimicry, began as a reaction to his father. He was six years old and his parents were in the midst of one of their rows. “And as they were shouting I began to take off my father, with his hands in his pockets in that exasperated, quite male way. She (his mother) looked at me and at him and went ‘look, he’s doing you!’. And suddenly all their attention was on me and they stopped rowing for a second. That was my first impression.”

Necessity would continue to be the mother of invention. His parents had a “fractious” relationship, he recalls, and he and his siblings “lived with neither of them”; as a child he stayed much of the time with his grandparents. Eventually he was “carted off” to boarding school and was happy to go.

“In school then I wasn’t quite the class clown but I had an ability to obviate bullying,” he recalls. “There is nothing more powerful than the ability to make people laugh, so the bully might have been a six-foot bruiser but if people laughed at him it was all over.”

In school he discovered drama and acting, but found that his comedic talents could not be hidden.

“I always found that, inadvertently, people would start laughing. It would be a tone of voice that I would use. Once, I got cast as a school bully but he was a bit of a comical fascist and there was a funniness to his cruelty. Then there was my facility with voices and my craven need for attention, which is a sickness, there is no denying it. So it’s an engine born of insecurity.”

At school his obsession with tennis began – Bjorn Borg was an early hero and he extols the genius of Roger Federer several times in our conversation – but it was acting rather than athletics to which he directed his talents. He made his first stage appearance when he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in his mid-teens. In 1989, he went to Trinity College to study politics and threw himself into the university’s drama scene. Even before he graduated he had some success as an actor: he had a part in Glenroe, he proudly reminds me, and was later in a film called Miracle at Midnight with Mia Farrow.

He was in his late twenties, however, before Today FM and Gift Grub changed his life. “Today FM was radio zero per cent for a while and then Dunphy came on and set alight the evening time. Part of that was Navan Man on The Last Word. Then Ian Dempsey joined and he was the king of breakfast. We met with him and his producer, and they decided to have a trial run with me.”

Mario’s first inkling of the success of the segment was when life began to imitate the art of his Ahern impression. “Bertie had just been elected. I only had a three-month contract and there was no social media. Ian used to go down to Tesco and people would say ‘loved the Bertie’ and that was the only barometer. After three months I heard the Taoiseach’s people were asking for tapes and that his driver used to play it in the front of the car. There was one time when he was getting into the car and he turned to the waiting reporters and said ‘see you later spanners’ – he’d nicked our catchphrase for him. He was in on the joke.”

Over the following years, his impressions of Ahern, Flatley, Jose Mourinho and Roy Keane dominated the morning airwaves and, by his own admission, he partied hard.

“My relationship with drink was a little abusive. The capacity was quite high so I could be up at 7am going ‘where’s the next party?’. I had to learn how to temper that after my mid-30s, which was quite late. I gave up smoking as well, which I regard as one of the best achievements of my life.”

As his act progressed to television, the workload increased and a sense of ennui began to set in, even if the comedy drag bit wasn’t a drag.

“You might have to do numerous set-ups of the same sketch – the volume wears you down. I do sometimes catch my reflection as Miriam and think, ‘this is an odd way to make a living’.

“I love being other people, it’s a holiday away from yourself. I love women’s clothes. I think women dress in a very liberated way. I love the feel of nylon. And short skirts in summer… I mean what are we doing, going around in ball-busting jeans? They have it properly organised.”

He recalls one particular sketch a few years into his TV career, which seemed to tip him into burnout.

“Everyone said it was good and then someone said ‘what are we doing tomorrow?’ and I thought ‘oh my God, can we not just play that one again?’. The next morning we were all ready to go again and I felt like I was about to get a panic attack or something and I just lost it and didn’t go on the air. I just went home for a week.

“I was burnt out. I felt numb, empty, grey, barren. When burnout happens you’ve lost your articulacy and you feel beaten. It wasn’t as simple as me being overworked, it was that I hadn’t made peace with being a comedian. I wanted to be an actor still. So I responded by preparing myself more thoroughly. I manned up and armed up. You could say I grew up.”

Part of that growing up was also the deepening of his relationship with his wife, Blathnaid. They met in their 20s in a nightclub in the basement of the Clarence Hotel.

“By then I had got a bit sick of messing around,” he recalls. “I locked eyes with her across the floor and the first thing we did was kiss, and I was an obnoxious, arrogant bollocks. The first thing I said to her was ‘that’s wrong, let’s go over to the bar and I’ll show you the right way’.

That put me back two days in the relationship already. There was no social media so we agreed to meet but we couldn’t remember what each other looked like so we had to bring friends to identify each other, like Crimecall.”

Mario’s behaviour early in the marriage was “difficult”, he says. “It wasn’t ‘let’s get married and settled down’, I was more like ‘I love you but, eh, are we not supposed to split up? Y’know: go mad and leave each other.’ Because from my own family that was all I knew. I didn’t understand that sometimes people stay together and are harmonious. We were getting really serious and I announced we had to break up and she just said ‘no, we’re not, shut up, you’re not going anywhere’ and I was like ‘fair enough’ and it just completely punctured my balloon.”

Blathnaid used to get a bit down, he says. “I brought a little light into that,” he adds. He also taught her the value of enjoying herself, he explains. “We didn’t have much money but we wanted to go to Berlin for the weekend and we wanted about 900 quid. I said ‘well let’s just borrow it from the bank’ and she was like ‘no we can’t do that’ – she’s a Catholic from Raheny – and I was like ‘listen, I’m just going to walk right in to the bank and they’ll see I was on Glenroe and they’ll just give it to me’.”

They have two children together – son Dash (12) and daughter Bellamie (6) – and he says his striving for Waltons-like parenting with them is overcompensating for his own upbringing and difficult relationship with his family.

“There are internecine disputes going on all over. I love my mum but haven’t spoken to her in a good few months. One of the things that happens when you get into your late 40s is that, by hook or by crook, you look back a bit more and make judgments. In my case I’d be vacillating between different opinions of what happened but all I know is the family was fractured and that really hurt me a lot.”

He says he has become more careful with how he blows off steam, but refuses to give up drink entirely. “Performing spikes your cortisol levels all the time, you’re running on fight or flight a lot and the tendency is to blow off steam with alcohol. One thing I didn’t want to be is the guy who says ‘I didn’t have a drink in 14 years’. Fair play to those people but I love wine, I love a cold lager – I have to respect it enough to keep doing it.”

His new show represents “the best of the best” of his comedy for the last 20 years. The political scandals of this year have provided rich fodder for his satire, and he hints that Trump, Boris Johnson and, possibly, Maria Bailey will take their place alongside Miriam, Flatley and his other stalwarts for the new tour.

He also says that ageing doesn’t bother him, since most of the luminaries of Irish life are of his own vintage.

“Look at Leo Varadkar or Miriam or Roy Keane – everyone is in and around my age. They have a lot of years left in them and so do I: I am only getting started.”

Tickets for Mario Rosenstock’s Nationwide Tour 2020 are on sale now from Ticketmaster and usual outlets


Three of the best: Irish impressionists, surrealists  and off the wall satirists

Oliver Callan

“Satire thrives on grotesques,” Rory Bremner once said, and Callan has made a career out of mining the grotesquerie of Irish politics and celebrity.

The Monaghan native is also a writer and broadcaster but he is best known for his impressions of Joan Burton, Leo Varadkar and Enda Kenny. He and Mario Rosenstock had a famous falling-out – and Rosenstock tells The Sunday Independent: “I’m sure comedians are jealous. When you get laughs, other people do think ‘fuck him, I could have done that’.

I don’t have time for petty squabbles and I’ve moved on from all that. I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t pay attention to what [Callan] says unless someone brings it to my attention.”

David McSavage

“Please write that I do a really good David McSavage impression,” Mario Rosenstock pleads with The Sunday Independent. “That will really wind him up.”

McSavage’s renditions of an S&M Joe Duffy and a Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh permanently in the midst of childbirth were too dark for the subjects to pretend they were in on the joke. The son of former government minister Barry Andrews, McSavage had a short but sensational run on RTE, where he always seemed to bite the hand that fed him, while churning out comedy gold.

Dermot Morgan

More than two decades after his death Morgan still casts a long shadow over Irish comedy.

Along with Pauline McLynn and Gerry Stembridge he created Scrap Saturday, an RTE radio programme that mocked Ireland’s business and political elite. Morgan’s impressions of Charles Haughey and government press secretary PJ Mara were particularly memorable, and reportedly caused consternation in government circles. Mary Robinson and Eamon Dunphy were also targets for Morgan’s satire.

Morgan went on to star as the eponymous Father Ted, which was last year ranked by the Radio Times as the second greatest British comedy of all time, ranked just behind Fawlty Towers.

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