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Callan Kicked for Trashing Taoiseach

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced his “road map” for Ireland’s gradual emergence from lockdown on live television on the evening of 1 May. Within minutes, the impressionist and columnist Oliver Callan tweeted the following:

BREAKING: The Robot has addressed the nation. Never before has anyone spoken so woodenly. So slowly. And. Said. So little. He tried to smile and do the empathy thing, it did not go well. The autocue fought the robot, and won.

According to Twitter, Mr. Callan’s tweet received over 4,000 “likes” and triggered over 1,500 replies. While some of the replies that came to my twitter feed echoed Mr. Callan’s reaction to Mr. Varadkar’s speech, the majority directed fire at Mr. Callan rather than the Taoiseach. Mean, nasty, wrong tone, badly judged, just not funny, can he read the room?, poor taste, spiteful, almost Trumpian, bitchy not satire, flat not funny, mimic not a comic… were some of the bullets aimed in his direction.

Later that evening, Mr. Varadkar was interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show. There was an awkward moment, described by The Irish Times reviewer, Ed Power, like this:

Ryan Tubridy is quizzing Varadkar over the finer details of the five-stage plan to return Ireland to a semblance of pre-Covid normality. When, the host wonders, will family members be allowed visit loved ones over-70 coming to the end of their lives? “I’ll have to pull out my . . . I haven’t actually learned it all yet,” says Varadkar. “It’s hot off the press.”

Slowly — oh so slowly — the Taoiseach reaches for his back pocket and fishes out a sheet squished to within a centimetre of its existence. Even more deliberately, he scans the print-out for the relevant information.

Early the following morning, Mr. Callan fired off another tweet.

I slagged Taoiseach as a robot for his poor speech and got 1200+ comments. Lol, I didn’t read em. Govt plan’s so incoherent, he had to use notes on live TV and STILL couldn’t answer the qtn! No mandate, earning €207,000 +exp… I think Leo Varadkar is fair game.🤖 #Democracy

This tweet earned over 2,800 likes and received 897 replies.

Some replies were supportive of Mr. Callan’s negative assessment of the Taoiseach’s competence, of which his need to consult notes during the Tubridy interview was specific evidence. But again, the stronger current among the replies was that Mr. Callan’s comments were “out of order” and that Mr. Varadkar’s recourse to notes demonstrated strength rather than weakness. Did Mr. Callan expect so busy a man to learn every detail “off by heart” — especially about a plan on which the paint was still wet? Would it have been better for the Taoiseach to “waffle” instead of pausing to be sure of delivering the truth?

It should also be said that many replies complimented Mr. Callan’s qualities as an impressionist while condemning these tweets — and maybe this gets to the heart of why Mr. Callan’s tweets seemed to misfire.

When he is doing his comedy act, the subject of his impressions takes centre stage and the impressionist himself retreats to the background. Of course, we know it is really Oliver Callan who is speaking. But if that thought was always foremost in our minds, Mr. Callan would be a failure. As an impressionist, Mr. Callan is not just “doing” Mr. Varadkar, he is “being” Mr. Varadkar. The comedy comes from his showing us his impression of the Taoiseach, not telling us what he thinks of him.

By contrast, Mr. Callan’s tweets were simply an expression of his opinion. They placed Oliver Callan front and centre. And the opinion of an impressionist and columnist, as he describes himself, is no more inherently insightful or authoritative than that of the butcher or the baker. As attempts at humour, both tweets were clunky and flat, the second especially seemed soaked in peeved spite. When somebody makes a deliberate point of telling us they haven’t read comments (or reviews), you can be sure they know well that they are not favourable. It’s like a politician saying they haven’t read the latest poll.

Of course, Mr. Callan was also facing into the headwind of the Taoiseach being currently clothed in the highly effective PPE of being a national leader in a time of severe crisis. That doesn’t render him exempt from criticism but it does raise the bar for what counts as fair criticism — even if a fair overall view would be that the government is doing a decent job rather than a stellar one.

And Mr. Callan could also say that the slings and arrows directed towards Mr. Varadkar in his tweets are only the same sauce that Mr. Varadkar has previously served to him.

In March 2019, Miriam Lord reported in The Irish Times on a speech given by the Taoiseach as guest of honour at a dinner in north Dublin to mark the 25th anniversary of Fingal County Council.

The Taoiseach opened his address by blowing the big surprise of the night and revealing the identity of the after-dinner entertainer — Oliver Callan — who he then proceeded to slag off in no uncertain terms.

This seemed to be Leo’s take on an American “roast” where an honoured guest is jokingly insulted to demonstrate to everybody what a great guy (or gal) he really is. However, in the Taoiseach’s version, the roastee wasn’t even in the building when he performed his scripted put-downs…. the brave Fine Gael leader had to leave the function just before Callan came on to perform his routine.

Ms. Lord offers this less than sparkling gem of the Taoiseach’s “wit”:

…thankfully, despite all the time he spends on Callan’s Kicks, Oliver is able to find enough time to do a lot of other things as well, including articles for The Irish Times, a regular column in the Sun and, of course, doing lucrative voiceover ads for the Sunday Busines Post and other successful enterprises like Aldi.

So I guess capitalism isn’t so bad if the cheque is big enough.

There’s a pair of them in it!

Maybe a lesson from all of this is that the Taoiseach should stick to politics and steer clear of comedy while Mr. Callan should stick to comedy and steer clear of commentary.

But a possible lesson for all of us from this is that what we think we are seeing from our public figures might not be what we are actually getting.

Regarding Mr. Callan, the presumption is that he thought he was delivering reasonable political commentary wrapped in a bit of humour, in the desire and expectation of receiving a mainly positive reaction from his audience. It is entirely possible that Mr. Callan’s primary objective was straightforward impact, an outcome as easily achieved by prodding and provoking his audience than by pleasing and plámásing them. When it comes to boosting the brand of an “entertainer”, irritation and exasperation will do as well as affection and amusement. Ask Eamon Dunphy. Hate can be as good as love. Bland may be inoffensive and “safe”, but it engenders only the boredom of apathy.

And, as for the Taoiseach, our intuitive presumption is that he reached for his notes in the Tubridy interview because he hadn’t got all the details clear in his head. It is at least as plausible that the Taoiseach used the notes despite already knowing well the answer to Tubridy’s question. In other words, the notes were simply a low-key dramatic “prop” intended to boost his image beyond the effect of merely imparting accurate information. Yes, he might risk losing some “points” for appearing not to have the facts at his fingertips but he would win many more for the apparent honesty, humility, humanity even, manifested by checking to ensure he delivered the exact right answer.

When it comes to figures whose careers are conducted under the high wattage of the public spotlight, a lot of preparatory work goes into coming across as authentically spontaneous.

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