'It sometimes takes months to nail a sketch' | Interview with Foil, Arms and Hog's Sean Finegan

'It sometimes takes months to nail a sketch'

Interview with Foil, Arms and Hog's Sean Finegan

As Foil, Arms and Hog prepare for a 2020 tour, straight man Sean Finegan tells Veronica Lee about how they formed, how they got their unusual name, and building a global audience through YouTube...

Sean Finegan, as befits his status as the straight man in the Irish sketch group Foil Arms and Hog, is the spokesman for the trio off stage. It makes life easier for us to speak directly, he says, adding drily: ‘Otherwise I might say something witty and you'd attribute it to one of the other guys.’

We chat about their latest show, Swines, which is touring the UK after a season at the Edinburgh Fringe, but first Finegan explains how the trio met and got their distinctive name.

Finegan (Foil), Conor McKenna (Arms) and Sean Flanagan (Hog) were studying at University College Dublin (reading architecture, engineering and genetics respectively) 12 years ago, when they met through their shared love of performing.

‘We were friends through the drama society but it was Sean Flanagan writing a play based on Father Ted that led to us forming the group,’ says Finegan. ‘He was Dougal, I was Bishop Brennan and Conor was Father Ted. We had permission to tour round Ireland from [Father Ted's creators] Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, and when the play finished we decided we should do a sketch show together.’

And the memorable name for the trio came out of good-humoured banter. ‘We came up with loads of naff names that punned on the word "sketch" and rejected them. And then we were at a party one night and we were slagging each other off and came up with them.

‘I'm the straight man, so I'm the foil; Conor is all arms and legs and very clumsy on stage; and Sean always hogs the limelight and steals all the laughs. They're roles that we very easily fall into on stage.’

Finegan admits that some of the sketches they wrote and performed back then "we wouldn't get away with now, they were quite insulting to all sorts of people", but that over the years the humour has become more sophisticated.

That's probably down to their work ethic; they write separately and then meet almost daily to develop the ideas. ‘Ideas get torn to shreds in the process and then we jump on to the idea and add more jokes and develop them. It sometimes takes months to nail a sketch.’

Do they ever argue? ‘Well there are three of us, so it usually works out as two-to-one. No one has ever stormed out, put it that way,; Finegan laughs.

Finegan recalls when the group started out. ‘In the UK there's a big sketch comedy scene but in Ireland that doesn't exist. In our early days a lot of people would see three guys come on stage looking like Boyzone or something and they'd be instantly against us. But performing on the same bill with stand-up comics, we learnt so much about audience interaction. As any stand-up comic will tell you, you need to engage with the audience quickly and get them on your side.

‘So we learnt pretty quickly and our comedy has become a sort of weird hybrid of sketch and messing with the crowd.’

But Foil Arms and Hog's audience interaction is not cruel or humiliating. ‘I hope we're not,’ says Finegan, ‘because the intention is to bring everyone on board as it can be terrifying for some people [to be picked on]. But we love doing it because you never know what the audience may do, and we get a bit of a buzz from it. It's the element that makes every show unique.’

In their second year at the Fringe they saw Edinburgh Comedy Awards winner Dr Brown (clown performer Phil Burgers). ‘I think we had thought clowning was the "honk honk" kind of thing but then we realised that it's about going with the flow. A couple of years later we attended one of his courses and it's one of the toughest things I've ever done. It was brilliant stuff.

‘It helped us so much on stage, particularly when things go wrong, as we might get to a funnier place with those skills we learned.’

Foil Arms and Hog have built up a following over 11 Edinburgh Fringe shows, and for the past six years have posted short films on YouTube – they have clocked up an astonishing one million hits and have nearly 950,000 followers on Facebook.

They have a broad demographic and, as Finegan says: ‘When we look out into the audience and see people from eight to 80 it gives us such a buzz. We have people tell us after a show that their son or daughter has found us online and introduced them to our comedy, and they come to see us together. It's great.’

Thanks to YouTube, the group's reach is global – and sometimes unexpected, says Finegan. ‘We were worried that one recent sketch – about Irish people not really being able to speak Irish - may not necessarily appeal to non-Irish people. But then we got an email from a fan in Sri Lanka saying he loved it because, "We're all forced to learn Tamil when we go to school, it's exactly like this."’

But Swines - like all Foil Arms and Hog's live shows – doesn't contain any sketches fans may have seen online. ‘Some people may think they're going to see the YouTube videos performed live on stage, but absolutely not. We make a point of never performing the online videos live. What works online usually doesn't work on stage. It's a very different kind of comedy, and much more surreal live.’

They also have more songs in their shows now than when they started. ‘They crept in,’ Finegan jokes. ‘My singing's certainly improved – the lads were carrying me in the beginning - but Conor is a very good singer and Sean knows all about harmonies because he's been in choirs and stuff. The songs help the flow of the show and we like doing them. Who knows, in 10 years' time we may be topping the charts.’

• Foil Arms and Hog tour the UK next year. Click here for dates.

Published: 19 Dec 2019

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