THE PURSUIT OF AWESOME: RYAN TUBRIDY
As the host of the world’s longest running chat show, Ryan Tubridy is a familiar face to Irish households, bringing TV screens to life and brightening up living rooms every Friday on the Late Late Show. A successful radio host, a published author and the next best thing to Santa, this broadcaster has many strings to his very long bow.
“I often think that there’s been a terrible mistake, that I shouldn’t be in this era at all and that some day I’ll be tapped on the shoulder and told, ‘the 1920s have been on, they said you could go back’. Ever since I was a child, I’ve liked old-fashioned things in life. I love the old world.
As a kid, I was a fun-sized nerd who loved books and history and cartoons. I grew up on a diet of Bagpuss, the Flumps, Mr. Ben and Mr. Men. They all informed my world. Roald Dahl and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine were all really important to where I am now because I realised from a young age I liked the quirkier side of things.
I loved watching TV, particularly cartoons. I went to the movies a lot too; Superman and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET, all those wonderful movies. They were big movies with big themes, big music and big acting on the big screen. When you’re little, the big screen isn’t just big- it’s enormous. The cinema back then was something special. You went there for a special occasion and it was a very big deal. You worked hard to be able to afford the trip there and you’d queue on the street to get your ticket. It was almost a ceremony.
My Dad, brother and I went to the movies so much back in the day, we soon ran out of films to see. Encouraged by my Dad, I wrote a tiny little letter to the Irish Times. The headline over it was ‘Too Few Films for Twelve Year Olds’ and it said “Dear Sir, what about us 12 year olds? We need more movies.” To my surprise they published it and something magic happened after that.
It begins with a headed letter with Anything Goes that came though the door in the post. Anything Goes was a program for children on RTE, and that letter might as well have been a letter from Mickey Mouse sent from Disneyland; that’s how much is meant to me. I couldn’t believe it. A researcher had seen my letter in the paper and decided to get in touch, asking me to review some films for the programme. I couldn’t believe they had written to little 12 year old me. It was as if Mr. Wonka himself had sent me the golden ticket and I was Charlie Bucket. My heart was pounding. RTE was the equivalent of the Chocolate Factory.
They sent me to see two films, the Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes and the other was The Journey of Natty Gann; two films that died without trace but I remember them because they were so important to me. I went with my Dad and brother to see them in the Savoy in Dublin and the three of us then went into RTE to do the review. The cameras, the lights, the presenters- everything made me feel I had found my natural home. If felt absolutely right.
It wasn’t long after that, that I was listening to kids reviewing books on a radio show called Poparama on RTE Radio. With my newfound confidence, I thought ‘I could do that’! I’ve done film reviews; I’m a veteran now. I wrote to them and they sent me a big envelope full of books. They asked me to review them on tape and that’s exactly what I did. I sent a cassette tape of me reviewing them at home. I had a little ole tape recorder and nice little microphone. They sent a letter back saying ‘we’ll see you on Sunday’. And that was that. I went in once a month for two years. I got an unnatural kick out of it. I really loved it. It combined two of my great loves, reading books and showing off and it was a magic collision of two things that I’m good at. I got paid 25 pounds- Kings ransom and I thought ‘this is something I could do.’ I spent that money mostly on books. But I was also a sweet fiend and I was able to buy a bigger packet of fizzy cola bottles with my new funds.
When my voice broke, I was no use to anyone. Too old for children’s radio, neither boy nor man, neither coming nor going. That was bit tricky for a while.
If ever I was sick back in those days, I used to watch a programme called Kilroy presented by a guy called Robert Kilroy Silke. I’d watch him walking around the studio with a microphone talking to people and for whatever reason; it intrigued me. It wasn’t like Jeremy Kyle- it wasn’t vulgar and cruel. I also remember watching a guy called Lesley Crowe present a programme called The Price is Right. He used to bound down the steps, through the audience and land on the stage, flick his wrist and say ‘Welcome to the Price is Right.’ I used to think that looked so exciting and how much I’d love that chance to bound down the steps and arrive in front of a bunch of people and announce our programme live on air. I loved the show business side but I also loved the intellectual engagement of a conversation. My love affair with television continued. When I was in fourth year in school, we went to London and I sat in the audience on Terry Wogan’s TV show and thought ‘oh I’d love a bit of that now.’
I remember there was a thing called Aertel on TV that had all the information about the weather, cinema and flight times. It’s very old fashioned now but it was a thing back in the day. The BBC had a version called Ceefax. I used to read that aloud to myself, off the TV screen, imagining that I was on TV- it was almost like an autocue. That’s a sad but honest admission because I just wanted to see what it would be like. I could almost see my reflection on the screen as I was pretending to be on TV. That was my pre-leaving cert idea of the media.
When college called, I decided to study Arts in UCD- History and Greek and Roman civilisation. It sounds very grand but it actually was for the less bright academics. I did an alright Leaving Cert but I definitely wasn’t the brightest kid in the class. I was nerdy but I wasn’t geeky. A geek will get the results and the straight A’s but as a nerd, I had interests in things but I wasn’t brilliant. I was also easily distracted- I still am to this day. I couldn’t concentrate for long enough. I was good at the things I liked and I was rubbish at everything else. History and English I did well in, in my Leaving Cert, everything else I was only OK at.
I loved college. I had great fun for three years. Once I graduation I toyed with doing law because it required a lot of spoof and media which requires even more spoof. I settled on law and studied it for a week in the Kings Inn’s before deciding I just didn’t like the smell of it. I thought it was really pretentious, it felt like a slog and I wasn’t sure that my head was ready for it.
It’s about that time that I came into RTE. Someone who I had worked with when I was a teenager doing research pointed me in the direction of somebody else and I started making coffee for Gerry Ryan, who was a famous broadcaster before he sadly passed away.
Gerry was a larger than life figure in Ireland. When I was making his tea and coffee, we hit it off. We just got on well, like an older brother or uncle and nephew. He decided that I was a good guy and we had fun. We liked American politics and we had similar things in common, including a very dark, bold sense of humour. If ever there was something wrong or I had trouble, Gerry always had my back and he always had my corner and sadly, when he died and it put an awfully large hole in my career and my life because he was always somebody I wanted to talk about things. I miss him to this day. He was very, very important person in my life and he hasn’t been replaced.
In the early days, when I was making tea and coffee and bringing down the Danish pastries for Gerry in the mornings, I would look around at other programmes to try and find an opportunity; an ‘in’. Where could I do something to get on air? I always felt I was an on-air person, not a behind the scenes. It’s amazing the confidence but my parents loved me and that would explain that. Radio was a great medium for me because I didn’t have any confidence in my looks but I had good confidence in my personality. I never thought of TV. I thought you had to be an ex boy band member to be on the box and unfortunately, that wasn’t on the cards.
In radio, I learned how to work tape recorders, machines and put radio packages together and they really liked what I was doing. Slowly I began to get more attention and in time I started to work as a reporter on Pat Kenny’s radio show. Eventually I got my own show called Morning Glory which went down quite well because it was a mix and gatherum of things; the sort of things that Emily would have seen through the window when she went to see Bagpuss. It was just a bit different and they liked that. And that’s something that one has to be – a little bit different. You have to have your own thing. My thing was the nerd thing, the young fogy, the love for history and the old world- but it’s not fake. I love all that stuff.
TV wise I did a small quiz show called All Kinds of Everything. Somebody saw me talking to the audience in that and said ‘you’d be great at presenting the Rose of Tralee,’ which I then did for two years. It’s off the back of that, that I got a Saturday night chat show- my own one, called Tubridy Tonight. That was the best five years of my TV life. Then the Late Late Show came along and there I was hosting the longest running chat show in the world; this iconic programme. Initially I didn’t know if I could do it but six years on, I’m doing OK. It’s a dream job!
In the beginning, I definitely felt the pressure. To this day, I still get nervous every Friday. The show starts at about 9:30pm and around 9:15pm I go into my special zone. It’s like a bungee jump thing. When you get out there for the first 20 seconds you’re just adjust, adjust, adjust and then you’re in and its show time and that’s addictive and gorgeous and every interview is like playing a match. Did you score, did you win, did you lose, did you draw? It’s gladiatorial and it’s hugely satisfying. I love it, it’s challenging.
Choosing a favourite interview is difficult because there are so many. I was very surprised by Professor Green. I wasn’t sure what he had to say because I didn’t know him that well other than a few tunes. He turned out to be amazing. He gave this extraordinary interview about his life that was really dark and difficult but he told it in a very articulate and intelligent way. He was a lovely surprise and I love when that happens. You sometimes get oddball interviews like Ryan O’Neill- Hollywood icon who gave a very odd, peculiar interview; he was followed on the night immediately by Russell Crowe. We got him to get up on stage with the band and he sang a Johnny Cash song. He was brilliant and it was such a nice surprise.
Joanne O’Riordan is another favourite guest. She had a condition called total amelia- no arms, no legs and a personality that would fill Croke Park countless times over. She’s extraordinary. It can be Hollywood, it can be royalty, or a Hollywood oddball or just these Irish people with an amazing story told brilliantly. I love the surprise of the Late Late Show, who’s coming out and what have they got to say. It suits my personality where I’m constantly distracted. I would be useless as a train driver or doing anything that requires concentration. I’d have to focus and I’d have to be on it. I’m great at radio and TV because it’s constantly moving from one topic to another.
I’ve had my odd on air blunder, mind you. One that springs to mind is my interview with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. It just didn’t go well. It wasn’t very nice and it was quite uncomfortable and I blame myself. I wish I had handled it better. I wasn’t going through a great time personally and my confidence was a little but under par and if I did the interview tomorrow I would have been more engaged and I would have tried harder to fix it but at the time, I just wasn’t there. We all make mistakes. We’re all human at the end of the day.
Editorially, I have two teams of people who do what I call, the heavy lifting. They make the calls to the agents, they make sure the guest is OK, they will do a briefing document on the guest that I will read with them. It’s a massive, massive string pulling exercise by a group of highly skilled puppeteers; I just happen to be Pinocchio. I’m just a dancing monkey. They prepare the cage and choose the music and throw the bananas in. If you choose a sporting analogy, they set up the goal, I knock it in with my head.
I’m very, very keen about he makeup of the show, the feel of the show, the direction of an interview; I’m very, very engaged in that sense. I help choose the questions, the clip we might play- I feel the talk show or chat show has been taken over by stand up comedians and I’m definitely not that. All the chat shows around the world are pre-recorded and they’re presented by guys who are funny and sometimes who are too big for their guest and the guest gets lost. I’m trying to preserve the art of conversation. Parky would be one of my idols. It was a dream come true to interview someone like him – and Terry Wogan. They were journalists and hacks and they asked questions, their interviews were investigative and that’s what it has to be, otherwise it’s just wakka, wakka, fozzy bear. I think the world has to have chat shows with conversation as well. The Late Late Show is a real honour and I love being there every Friday.
If I really, really had to choose between radio and TV, I’d choose radio. It’s warmer and more intimate and less judge-y. If you go on the radio in the morning and you’re talking to somebody, they’re not looking at your shirt or commenting on how wrecked you look and equally the guest isn’t being judged. They’re just being judged on what’s inside the head, the heart and the soul whereas on television it’s just jazz hands and you could talk to somebody but people at home will just spend a lot of time commenting on that persons shoes or hair or whatever as opposed to saying ‘what a great story, what a great interviewee that person is.’ TV is maybe more fun to watch but presenting wise, it’s all about the radio.
Radio talent wise, I love Chris Evans. If you cut him, he’d bleed airwaves. He’s just one of those people who loves the craft and the art of it, he’s fun yet disciplined. He’s quality and I have a lot of time for him. I also love Terry Wogan on the radio to this day. He’s chatty and easy going. In Ireland, you couldn’t but listen to Liveline just for the sheer entertainment of it and Joe is a master of his craft.
For anyone wanting to work in radio, my advice is to go local. Don’t be afraid of approaching Radio Kerry or WLRFM or whatever it might be. If you’re in college, go to the college radio station, if you’re living in a town where there’s a radio station, get involved, regardless of the size. Learn how to use the equipment. Learn how to interview people. Be curious. Don’t read everything from a book; just be curious about the world.
You have to be relentless in this business. You have to be almost disturbed in your ambition. You should also never be afraid of your ambition. This is a word in Ireland that is considered dirty. It’s sort of been made into a curse word. I celebrate the American approach to ambition which is of a ‘yes we can’ vibe. I say ‘go for it’. Knock on the door and if that closes or doesn’t open, knock on the next one. If you want it and believe it that you’re good enough, you just have to keep knocking. It’ll never happen instantly. If it’s taking a while, do something else; don’t just sit at home wondering ‘why aren’t they answering?’ Find something to do. If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d go and write books or I’d research or try to make documentaries. You’ve got to be proactive. You’ve got to go out there and tell them how amazing you are.
When I started out, I definitely kept on top of critique and criticism. Sometimes I would read reviews that weren’t so nice and my morale and ego would be bruised. As my career got bigger and I got more attention, it became water off ducks back stuff. Then online came along and honestly, if you want to depress yourself as a broadcaster, read online. I made the decision to go offline a couple of years ago and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened. Of course, I use the computer and I know where the Internet is. I look up the cinema times but I don’t read stuff. I don’t interact with trolls. If I could switch off the Internet sometimes, I would. Especially for kids and bullying and all these things that are so easy to do for cowards. You used to go to school from 9 till 3 and then you could switch off. Now it follows you and bullies can follow you now wherever you are if they want to. I’d rather read a good book than what some guy in a bedsit watching Star Trek thinks about me.
I’ve been very lucky in my career. Between radio and TV, I’ve got to do so many wonderful things. I have to say, I was very proud of my book, ‘JFK in Ireland’. When I first saw it, I nearly cried. It was like my third child. That was a really big deal for me. I still go into my local library and I see the spine there and it tells me two things 1- I’ve a book in the library, 2- nobody’s taking it out. I get a kick out of that.
I’m also exceptionally proud of my children who see me as Dad only. They don’t watch the Late Late Show. They are gorgeous and warm and kind and funny and great company. I’m their Dad, I’m not the guy from the television and that’s wonderful. They’re my equilibrium. When they’re beside me, the world disappears and that’s all I want.”