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LAUGHING STOCK: He made a lasting impression during the election, but mimic Mario Rosenstock tells Aoife Finneran it's his job to be funny -- not vicious

THE ear-splitting screech of a seagull shatters the peace of the Today FM studios. Only it's not a seagull. It's Gift Grub mimic Mario Rosenstock. Imitating Joan Burton. Actually, it's Rosenstock illustrating how the new Social Protection Minister's shrill voice has remarkable parallels with that of a seagull, and it's hilarious. Or maybe you just had to be there. Trust me, it was fun.

Throughout an hour-long interview, I've been treated to fleeting appearances from a plethora of characters, including Glenda Gilson discussing knickers, Michael Noonan begging to be mimicked and Gerry Adams muttering about compromise.



exposed

Rosenstock (39) has built up a loyal fan base thanks to his 12 years bringing Gift Grub to listeners of Ian Dempsey's breakfast show. But the recent General Election exposed him to a whole new audience thanks to his sketches on TV3's Tonight With Vincent Browne. Don't be deceived by Vincent's scowl as the presenter was the brains behind the initial idea.

"He can deny this if he wants, but I'd had over 40 phone calls to appear on Tonight With Vincent Browne," explains Mario. "Then the phone rang a few months ago when I was playing tennis and it was Vincent and he asked me to meet him at a hotel.

"So we met covertly on numerous occasions in hotels in Dublin. There was no middle man and that's the beauty of TV3.

"He said he loved the Michael Flatley thing I did on The Late Late Show and asked was there anything I could do on his show. I said to him: 'Could I take the p*** out of you?' and he gave me what I now describe as the dirty bedroom eyes, and he said, 'You can do whatever you want'."



drowned

Thanks to the success of the short series, Mario is in talks about creating a new show for TV3. "We've had a couple of chats, again covertly in hotels. They're big into covert hotel meetings in TV3.

"They've said they'd love to do something and I'm saying I'd love to do something."

Everyone from Enda Kenny to Willie O'Dea felt the heat of Mario's humour on the show, and one particular favourite was Michael Noonan. The new Finance Minister holds the distinction of being the only person ever to solicit a mention on Gift Grub.

"I hadn't been doing Noonan for years and then he met me and Ian in the Burlo one night and he said, 'Why are you always doing your man Bertie and you never do me?'

"So I said, 'I'll tell you the truth, I can't do you'. I've never had to learn voices, the two I had to learn are Gay Byrne and Michael Noonan, so I went away and I practised for about a week and a half before I got him. I love Noonan. He's one of my favourites." He's also looking forward to documenting the fortunes of our Enda Kenny, whom he describes as "a poor man's Robert Redford meets Dougal Maguire".

Yet there's always a soft edge to his brand of satire. He insists he's not in the business of being nasty, "because then you're just an ill-mannered taxi driver". His portrayal of Brian Cowen was never vicious.

He makes no apologies for this, remarking: "My perception is that Brian Cowen is an innately likeable person. He's a person who has been absolutely drowned by circumstances, some of which were in his control, some of which weren't." As for Bertie, who famously appeared on Today FM to mark Gift Grub's 10th anniversary, Mario is equally forceful.

"Back in those times, his Government was creating 1,000 jobs a week. Some people were experiencing unprecedented wealth. I'm not a tribunal. Who was I, in a light entertainment breakfast show, to harp on about what might be going on in the shady recesses? Nobody would have wanted to know. Gift Grub reflects what's going on, its job is not to pass political judgments," he muses.

If condemnation isn't his thing, then observations and gentle ridiculing certainly are.

One person who knows this only too well is the husky voiced Xpose presenter Glenda Gilson who regularly appears on Gift Grub. Mario reveals: "We exchanged eye contact once in Town Bar & Grill. I gave her the Vincent Browne eyes. I'm afraid to meet her because I think she'll beat me up. What's more, I think she's capable of beating me up. I've seen her doing weights in that Pat Henry place." As for another of his subjects, he discloses: "I heard that Eddie Irvine hated it but then I did also hear that Eddie Irvine has absolutely no sense of humour." He admits he's in a privileged position, getting paid to make the nation laugh. Yet his talents as a mimic may have gone untapped had he continued acting after making his screen debut as Dr David Hanlon in Glenroe.

He fell into radio impersonations in the 1990s when his flatmate, a producer with Radio Ireland, asked him to phone in to the station and deliver his impersonation of Gerry Adams.



COOK

This triggered the precursor to Gift Grub, Starship Compromise featuring Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Celebrity chefs and cookery shows were the trend of the day, so Mario hit upon the idea of creating a show that would see then-Taoiseach Ahern cooking with different celebrities. When they ran out of people to cook with, they sent Bertie on the road and Mario's sketches expanded to include a vast cast of characters. Since then, Gift Grub has documented topical events in Irish life, using as its targets everyone from politicians and rock stars to sports people.

Mario has also made his name across the water, where BBC3 is screening his sports comedy series Special 1 TV. Yet it might have stayed in Ireland had RTE decided to accept it.

I venture a comparison with Dermot Morgan, another talented mimic who never found a permanent vehicle for his talents at RTE. He bristles slightly at the connection, insisting: "I would never compare myself to Dermot Morgan in any way. I think we're completely different people. I don't know how good any of these things were, the so-called pilots that were being done for RTE by Dermot.

"Scrap Saturday only ran for a couple of years, so you can't compare things. And Dermot went on to be an actor in Father Ted which was written entirely by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews while I write my own stuff."

He's certainly isn't shy about his talents, but he doesn't take the bait when I mention Oliver Callan's description of his Vincent Browne caricatures as "the worst impression I've ever heard". Utterly unconcerned, Mario simply smiles: "Gift Grub is interested in being original, but I wouldn't deny anyone else the opportunity to make a living."

afinneran@herald.ie