Everyone wants to laugh, and for those talented and skilled enough to make an audience roll in the aisles in laughter, the world truly opens up. Such is the case for New York Film Academy (NYFA) Screenwriting Conservatory alum Tony Kelly, whose international comedy career has crossed continents and genres.
Since graduating from NYFA in 2009, the Irish comedian has used his writing, performing and producing chops to carve a unique path, from BBC America’s Primeval to Canadian features Freedom and Victory, as well as recording his own solo comedy album PS I Hate You at home in Ireland.
Up next, Kelly stars in Writing Home alongside Caoimhe O’Malley. The feature has won a warm review from Film Ireland and screens at the Chicago Irish Film Festival in March. Created by a truly international team of filmmakers from Ireland, Brazil, Lebanon, and Mexico, the film puts a hilarious spin on the familiar romantic comedy trope of “finding love where you least expect it. Home.” Kelly stars as Daniel Doran, a successful novelist whose self-centered life is interrupted when he reluctantly goes back to his small Irish village to help his estranged, ailing father, and has to face the bridges he burned on his way to the “top.”
In the midst of a busy festival season, Kelly took some time to share his story with the NYFA Blog.
NYFA: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and what brought you to the New York Film Academy?
TK: Sure. I always knew I wanted to be involved in storytelling and performing in some way, from an early age. I had planned to leave home at 17 to go to San Francisco to try and at least start a journey after I finished school here in Ireland, but my mother was too nervous to let me go, and asked me to try college out for a year until I was at least 18. And if it wasn’t for me I had her and my dad’s blessing to go and do whatever I wanted.
So I tried college, I went to study Business at Waterford Institute of Technology. I quickly mentally checked out, it wasn’t for me at all. The only class I put anything into was a communications class and I enjoyed giving the speeches we were tasked with handing out.
This will sound crazy, but my friend Matt introduced me to the The Office (The UK version, the U.S. hadn’t even been made at this time), and it mesmerized me. I thought, “This is what I need to be doing.” So I dropped out of college and got a job selling cars and started saving.
Five years later I was 23 and had some changes happen in my life. I looked at my bank account and had been lucky enough to save some good money so I decided to take the leap. I applied [to the New York Film Academy], got in, made the choice to move from Waterford, Ireland to New York City, and I’ve never looked back.
Best decision I’ve ever made.
NYFA: What inspired your project I Am Jeff Shanagarry?
TK: Hahaha. Jeff Shanagarry, now there’s a thing I haven’t spoken about in a long time. You know, it’s funny, this was my first foray into on-screen comedy, having been writing comedy short stories and stuff since I was a teenager, and in some ways I’m so far removed from Jeff Shanagarry that it’s insane. But one of my teachers from NYFA, Randy Dottin, still calls me Jeff Shanagarry!
How it came about was we were tasked to write, direct, shoot, edit and just make a short film for class at New York Film Academy. I had a penchant for acting even back then so I had been in a couple of other student shorts and was obviously going to be in my own.
Almost everyone was making your usual melodramatic film school shorts. I didn’t wanna do that. I knew that direction I wanted to head in with my career, and used it as a jumping off point. So I made I Am Jeff Shanagarry, this mockumentary about an Irish singer coming to play a show in NYC.
Looking at it now I cringe, but that was the precursor to my web series The Hurler, which opened up so many doors for me, and Jeff Shanagarry itself got me my start as a stand-up comic. It was being passed around by some of the students, kind of like a cult hit at the school (everyone still used DVDs in 2009!), and one of the students was taking stand-up classes in NYC. He gave it to Stephen Rosenfield, the famous comedy teacher, and he called me for a meeting and asked me would I be interested in doing stand-up. Crazy.
NYFA: As a comic doing stand-up, web content, film, and albums, do you have a favorite format? What is your advice to NYFA students interested in doing comedy?
TK: I was asked this question only the other day in another interview. I do love scripted comedy. On camera. I think it allows the greatest opportunity to improvise and hone what you’re doing and make it the best, and obviously you get a couple of tries to make it the best it can be and give different options.
BUT stand-up comedy is my first love. It’s raw, it strips you down and forces you to sink or swim on the spot.
I don’t think I could pick a favourite, I love everything that I do.
As far as advice, I’d just say, “Get out there and do it.” We live in the Instagram world where everybody wants to attach a label to themselves to sound successful and important, nobody wants to put in the work. But the work is what separates the truly successful from the wannabes.
Get out there and do stand-up, take improv classes, take sketch classes, get a collective or a group of like-minded friends together, and create. It’s the only way to move forward. If you wait for people to hand things to you, you’ll never get anything done.
NYFA: Can you tell us a bit about working on Primeval? What surprised you the most?
TK: Primeval was a lot of fun. It was the first major thing I was ever really a part of. I was just after moving home to Ireland for a while from New York. I was 25, sad, depressed about being back home, and this chance came along. It was a small part but on a big budget show and did a lot for me. There are people, fans of that show, that still follow my career to this day and I’m so grateful for that initial exposure.
As far as what surprised me the most, probably the efficiency of the work that goes into such a big project. It was a lesson in professionalism, the hard work that it takes to work at that level and the growing up I needed to do at the time. It helped me a lot and gave me a drive to keep going.
NYFA: With your BBC America show Primeval, your Canadian films Freedom and Victory, and your original album PS, I Hate You recorded back home in Ireland, you’re truly working on the international level. What have you found most challenging working internationally?
TK: I’ve really loved having such an international career so far. Being able to work in different places with different people allows me to offer something different and gives me experience others wouldn’t have, I suppose. But, the most difficult thing was probably neglecting my home base. I could have spent the past 9 years or so just focusing on getting my name out there in Ireland but I chose to go off and work other places and learn different things. That isolates you a little, so I’ve probably sacrificed relationships and friendships with people for that. When you’re jumping from city to city and country to country it’s hard to stay close with people and friendships and relationships suffer through that. But, my career has always comes first for me, we only get one try at this life thing so we have to keep going.
NYFA: Would you say your time at NYFA was at all useful for the work you are doing now?
TK: Absolutely. 100%. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for NYFA. I wouldn’t have done any of the things I’ve done without NYFA. I mean, I studied Screenwriting, but during the course I also studied acting, directing, editing, all aspects of the business. And if people look at my resume, what I’ve done, I’ve done a little bit of everything. I haven’t pigeonholed myself and it allows me to create my own work when I need to, which was my initial plan upon going to NYFA.
NYFA: What’s next for you? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
TK: Yes, absolutely. It’s going to be a big year for me this year.
Last year I had my first lead role in a feature film, Writing Home. That has it’s U.S. premiere at the Chicago Irish Film Festival in March. [There may be a New York City opening soon, stay tuned!]
I’m also working on a feature film adaptation of my award-winning web series The Hurler.
I’ve written a comedy radio series for WLR FM here in Ireland which we’re hoping to begin work on in March.
I’ve also written a play called The Undocumented about two illegal immigrant Irishmen living in New York City, which myself and my collaborators have just gotten some funding for back home as well. So that will hopefully be up on its feet later this year and I would love to have it on in NYC as well.
I just hosted the New York New Works theatre festival finals in New York City back in November, and I made some contacts during that so we will see what happens there! There’s a couple of other things I’m working towards as well so this year looks like it’ll be an exciting one.
Congratulations to Tony Kelly and the Writing Home team!