Brendan O'Carroll 'He shook my hand and as he did I held on for a moment and quietly said, "Gay, how's your mickey?"'
The Mrs Brown's Boys star remembers his breakout appearance on the Late Late
COMIC legend Brendan O'Carroll remembers the night he seized the moment to make his mark on his very first Late Late Show appearance.
And he reveals how Gay Byrne's showbiz instinct allowed him to steal the show and ultimately become an overnight sensation.
At that point, O'Carroll was beginning to thrive as a comedian, but Gay had never met him.
Recalling that night, Brendan tells the Sunday World that while waiting to go on he'd been watching the show backstage and had felt it was a lacklustre affair.
Despite his nerves running riot, the canny comic spotted an opportunity to make his own performance the talk of Ireland the following day.
Firstly, though, O'Carroll knew he had to grab Gaybo's attention.
So, when he was introduced by the chat show legend, Brendan arrived out, waited for Byrne to shake his hand, then holding him tight he whispered to the legendary interviewer, 'How's your mickey, Gay?'
The unflappable Gaybo chuckled quietly to himself, and obviously knew instinctively that the show was about to explode.
Going back, Dubliner Brendan (65), who grew up one of 11 children in Finglas, fondly recalls watching The Late Late Show as a kid.
"From as early as I can remember, Saturday nights were dominated in our house by The Late Late Show," he says.
"I always remember my mother saying that the main attraction for her was that it was never announced who would be on. So you watched it all the way through, just in case Peter Ustinov would appear and dazzle us with amazing and hilarious stories, or Ulick O'Connor would be on a panel and stirring up the sh*t. It was just amazing for its time. In fact, both the show and Gay were ahead of their time.
"I'm not one of those who on a Sunday would say they never watched the show, but would be able to tell you every guest that was on. I loved it as a child, as a teenager, and certainly when I was over 35 and nearly all grown up."
It was his then publicist Rory Cowan who landed him that first Late Late Show guest spot.
"About two years before that first appearance I had taken on Rory Cowan as a press and PR agent," Brendan explains.
"He was just brilliant. Rory assured me when he started that for every day of the next year my name would be mentioned in either a magazine, newspaper or on a radio station.
"He lived up to it, and this brought me to the attention of Gareth O'Callaghan (on 2fm), which led to me writing Mrs. Brown's Boys and then performing it on the radio with my band.
"That in turn brought me to the attention of The Late Late Show. So really, the opportunity to do the Late Late was made by Rory."
Was Gay a fan of your work at that stage? "Honestly, I don't think Gay had even heard of me back then," Brendan says.
"In fairness, though, things really were starting to take off for me. We were gigging virtually seven nights a week, but it was in pubs. I wanted to move to theatres and Rory agreed with me, so the plan was made to make the jump."
O'Carroll admits he was star-struck when he saw Gay in the flesh for the first time backstage at the Late Late that day.
I tried at least three times that afternoon/evening to introduce myself, but by the time I had decided whether to say 'Mr Byrne', 'Gay' or 'Sir' he had moved on.
"I was told the interview would be about seven minutes, but as I stood backstage waiting to go on, the floor manager came back to me and said, 'Gay might keep you on a little longer, maybe 10 minutes, you up for that? I said, 'Sure!'
"I had been watching the show in the green room and, no disrespect, but the guests he had interviewed were pretty average. The audience were really quiet too, and Gay had to jazz them up during advert breaks.
"The thought then struck me, 'I could really shine here tonight.' But I wasn't sure how far I could go, so I made a plan. I had been watching previous Late Late Shows and noticed how Gay always stood when a guest stepped on, and he would then indicate to the guest where to sit by kind of leading them there with a wave of his arm.
"The guest would then come down the three steps and sit. So, when Gay announced me I walked out to the top of the steps and stood. When I didn't sit, Gay made to shake my hand and as he did I held on for a moment and quietly said, 'Gay, how's your mickey?' He just as quietly laughed. I then sat in the guest seat… and Gay Byrne set me loose!"
Brendan acknowledges that literally overnight he became a star after that Late Late performance where Byrne allowed him to shine for 25 minutes with his hilarious tales.
"The day after was incredible," Brendan says. "It was as if everybody knew my name. The impact it had was this: the night before the show I played McKeown's pub in Stoneybatter (Dublin). Three weeks after the show, I sold out the Tivoli Theatre (Dublin) for 16 nights!"
How did his relationship develop with Gay after that? "With the exception of one breakfast, I only ever saw Gay in those early days when I appeared on the show, or was working with him on another show such as the Telethon, or his radio show from Grafton Street on Christmas Eve.
But that one breakfast itself was extraordinary. It was shortly after I had done the first Late Late. He called and invited me to join him for an early breakfast in Bewley's in Grafton Street.
"We met upstairs, and I don't know if the management had arranged it, but we were the only ones upstairs. Over breakfast we had some idle chat about politics, gossip etc, and at the end I asked him why I was there. Gay put his hand on my arm and said, 'I want you to mind yourself.
"You are surrounded by some great people and they will make sure nothing befalls you, but remember this, they only make money when you work, so it is YOUR responsibility to say, 'I'm taking a break.' They won't, it's up to you.'
"And with that the breakfast was over and he was heading for Donegal."
The Late Late host was clearly very fond of O'Carroll, does he know why they connected so well?
"I don't know why," Brendan responds. "I know he admired anyone who applied themselves and worked hard, and I do, and always have done.
"I think he also liked the fact that I put family first. But I think mostly it was because he knew that I knew how lucky I was, and how much I appreciated success and never ever took it for granted.
"Gay never took it for granted either. He told me to think of all success as fleeting. He pushed that home by telling me that if you get a bucket full of water and put your fist in it and then pull it out, the hole it leaves is how much you will be missed."
Gaybo never took any credit for launching O'Carroll's phenomenal career all those years ago, as the comic heard through one of his friends.
"I was once a waiter and knew most of the other waiters around town," Brendan tells me. "One of them told me that he had served Gay and a party of 20 ladies from some women's group at a function.
He told me that during the meal one of the ladies said the following to Gay: 'Well Gay, that little fella you had on, Brendan O'Carroll, he's very funny. You certainly made him'.
"My friend said that Gay then very politely asked the woman if she had seen that particular show, and she said she had. He then asked her, 'Who else was on?' She said she couldn't remember and Gay said again, very politely, 'It's a wonder I didn't make them'.
"Gay went on to say: 'I get a great kick out of opening the door to new Irish talent. I just open it a tiny bit, and it's up to them if they push it or not. Brendan O'Carroll kicked the door open and ran through, and I wish him all the success in the world. For this is a tough business and he will need all his wits to navigate it."
Gay occasionally turned up at Brendan's shows with Kathleen. "I think he came just the once to see me doing stand-up, but he and the wonderful Kathleen came twice to The Course, my first play," Brendan recalls. "They also came to Mrs Brown's Boys plays well over a dozen times."
Asked how he would describe Gay as a person, Brendan says: "To me, he epitomised what true success would look like if it were human. Incredibly modest, interested in other people, empathetic, amazingly relaxed under the greatest of pressure… and with a real understanding of who he was and what was important in life."
He pointed out how Gay also used his platform to bring about change for the good in Irish society. "He was courageous," Brendan says. "He held everybody that had power to account, including the Catholic Church, which was very powerful back then."
O'Carroll and Gay maintained a close connection right to the end. "John Masterson (former Late Late Show producer) is a mutual friend, and John just adored Gay," Brendan adds. "John would make sure that we three got together now and then.
"About three weeks before Gay passed away he FaceTimed me on John's phone when I was in Florida, to ask me how I was and making sure I was getting enough rest.
"As the conversation ended I said, 'Goodbye, love you,' and he simply replied, 'Go on, off with you.'
"I said, 'Love you'… and I meant every word of it."