Conor McKenna from comedy sketch trio Foil Arms and Hog tells David Hennessy about pretending you can speak perfect Irish, putting out a new video weekly and what is different about their live show that they are bringing around the UK from this month.
When the list of Ireland’s most watched YouTube videos of 2019 was announced, Foil Arms and Hog’s When Irish Can’t Speak Irish was high on the list. Behind only beauty vlogger James Charles and conspiracy theorist Shane Dawson, both American, the trio’s sketch about what happens when you lie about your ability to speak Irish was one of very few Irish videos that had clocked up that many views.
The comedy trio have amassed 62 million YouTube hits and 950,000 followers on Facebook alone.
“It was number four for the year in Ireland,” Conor McKenna remembers when The Irish World brings that video up. “It was just a stupid idea we had one day. I think it came from all those times when you’re in a taxi in Italy or somewhere on the continent and you think the taxi driver might be taking you for a ride and then you start to go, ‘Cá bhfuil sinn ag dul?’ And I always thought it was funny. Foil’s Irish is so terrible, he would be like, ‘What? But the pride as well, he never wanted to let anybody know that he couldn’t speak perfect Irish, you’ve got to pretend because they’re not aware that Irish exists a lot of the time in different countries and so you’ll tell them, ‘We have our own language’. And the next obvious question is, ‘Can you speak it?’ You don’t want to say no so you speak what you can.”
Many people wish they had better Irish. Is Conor the same? “Absolutely. It’s one of those things that comes around in my head every day and in fairness to Hog, he’s a Gaeilgóir, he’s got perfect Irish. I would love to do it. I did pass Irish myself. I would love to learn better than I had. You leave school having done 12 years of Irish and you can barely hold a conversation. You’ve done six years of German and you’re more competent. Really, starting Irish at 5 or 6 you should be completely fluent by 12 but it doesn’t work out that way.”
Conor is joined in Foil, Arms and Hog by Sean Flanagan and Sean Finegan. The trio write, shoot and edit a new sketch every week to release on Facebook and YouTube. They don’t have a specific genre and their sketches tend to be observational and sometimes topical.
Described by Rowan Atkinson as ‘very funny’, the comedic sketch group was founded in 2008 while they were still in University College Dublin studying architecture, engineering and genetics. The group’s name evolved from nicknames each of the members had for each other and Conor has just referred to. Sean Finegan was the comedy foil. Conor McKenna was ‘All arms and Legs’ and Sean Flanagan ostensibly hogged the limelight.
Conor goes through the process of making the weekly videos: “Every week, something new. We do a bit of writing ourselves. Come in Monday, thrash it out until 6 or 7 Tuesday night. Then we’re filming Wednesday. At 2am the video is uploaded and you hope people find it funny the next day.
“The good thing is if they don’t find it funny, we don’t get to see their faces. That’s the big difference between video and live. You wonder how many years we can tour at the rate we tour at anyway. Can you do that when you’re 50? It’s a very tiring way to work. It’s nice to have another way to communicate with your fans.”
Having a weekly deadline is a great idea for keeping your fans engaged, but are there ever times when it is not working for the guys? “Absolutely, it happens every third or fourth week where you are halfway through Tuesday and the script you worked on the previous day is thrown in the bin and you start again.
“Because there’s three of us and we all love writing- I would write comedy on my holidays. I always have on my computer somewhere another script, there will always be something else and it might be one that had been shot down a year previous but now under the new light of pressure and under the new circumstances, it looks a little bit nicer: ‘My script that was shot down when we had loads of time now that we’re a bit stuck, looks a bit rosy now doesn’t it?’
“Timing as well. Sometimes you do something and it’s okay funny and two years later for some reason it’s really relevant. That happens with material all the time so we never really throw anything out. We recycle frequently from the back catalogue of our mind.”
The three piece comedy act are preparing to tour the UK. Now that they are selling out venues up and down the country, they certainly have come a long way since they started at the Edinburgh Fringe and were playing to venues with 50 seats and finding those hard to fill.
“You book a theatre and sometimes they’re big theatres and you’re kind of crossing your fingers. You can get a little bit apprehensive sometimes like, ‘Who will turn up? How many people will turn up?
“But the audiences are great, they’re really brilliant. They watch our YouTube and Facebook videos so they’re excited to be there. It’s not like the old days when we used to do comedy clubs and you kind of arrive in and the first ten minutes is them going: ‘Who are they? What is going on? What are they doing? Why aren’t they doing stand up?’
“Now they just come and they’re just excited. It’s a great place to start a comedy show with an audience that are up for it from the beginning. It just makes everything so much easier and you can really go places with an audience like that, quite early on you can start improvising and messing.”
Does material ever work for both video and stage? “Rarely, they’re two completely different styles really of comedy, you can do loads of wordplay in your videos, you can put the camera up close whereas stage, it needs to be big, everything needs to be bigger.
“Wordplay, talking heads just gets completely lost. It has to be big ideas, big characters, you have to talk to the audience, you have to include them. On video, you just play the characters out and the audience watch.
“The main point really is the stuff for stage just needs to be much, much funnier. You can have a video of three minutes and if you make someone laugh three or four times, that’s success whereas if you have three minutes onstage you need to make people laugh every ten seconds, even five seconds because the silence is so palpable if you don’t.
“Onstage every line needs to be either a set up or a joke and that’s just the way it is, that’s why we can throw together a sketch for video in two and a half days whereas we can spend months on a stage sketch.”
As well as the UK and Ireland, the lads have toured Australia and the US. They were in Australia as recently as last April bringing some Irish comedy to some people who are very far from home: “You get people who want to say goodbye at the end of the show but they want you to know that they’re Irish so you can see they absolutely ramp up the accent so they’re like, (OTT Donegal accent) ‘Cheers, that was a great show!’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Rathfarnham’.”
Foil Arms and Hog tour the UK from 20 February right into April. foilarmsandhog.ie