A few days before I chat to Dara Ó Briain, he sends me a message (publicly) on Twitter. “Just wondering which ‘mood’ to choose,” he writes. “It’s between ‘brusque, quick to anger’, ‘mawkishly sentimental’, and ‘coquettish’. Do you have a preference?”
The question doesn’t need to be asked. In my limited experience, everyday Ó Briain is an only slightly dampened version of the man you see on stage. There is no “persona” at work. He really is happy to share opinions in a busy flow interrupted by only his trademark “ehhhh . . .” You already have a decent idea of what he is like.
“An image popped into my head from the Comedy Store years ago,” he says. “I am saying ‘it’s important to be true to ourselves’ and then pulling on a green wig and pixie shoes. Ha ha! But really I think it is difficult to sustain a fake stance like that. The comedy is really just an amplification.”
Still, there are two or three versions of Ó Briain in the public space. Born and raised in Bray, he moved into children’s television after university (footage of RTÉ’s Echo Island will follow him forever) and then hopped towards his discursive brand of observational comedy. He hosts Mock the Week, a durable satirical show on BBC Two, and appears on every competing panel series.
In recent years, he has enjoyed a parallel career in “science communication”. A graduate in theoretical physics (the Champions League of science degrees) from UCD, he has appeared on Stargazing Live, Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club and School of Hard Sums. Secret Science and Beyond the Sky, two books on science for children, zipped off the shelves and, now, he gives the same audience Is There Anybody Out There?
Skilfully weaving thumping gags with raw physics, the book moves from the creation of the universe to considerations of the search for extraterrestrial life. It must be tricky balancing facts with punchlines.
“Well, yeah. I was reading over it and I came across this gag about Galileo,” he says. “Basically Galileo bought a telescope, discovered three moons, put it back in the garage and never used it again. Job done! I realised I should have made a note that this was a joke. Sometimes I have to remember to put the facts back in again.”
There are one or two medical doctors – Harry Hill and the late Graham Chapman spring to mind – who become comedians, but theoretical physicists are rarely found backstage at the Laff Lounge. Ó Briain has always worked forensic recreation in with his big sums. In 1994 he won the Irish Times Debate (the senior national competition, if we say so ourselves) for the UCD Literary and Historical Society. The law students tend to boss those contests. When I was in Trinity a few years previously . . .
“You had to drop it in! You had to drop it in! Didn’t you?” he says in a tone of satirical triumph. “We both know it means nothing. Trinity people have to say they went there. David O’Doherty is constantly doing this . . .”
Are we still having this conversation?
“Only with Trinity people. Ha, ha, ha!”
Anyway. The point was that science students were often left out of the cultural conversation. This goes on into middle-age. You will hear supposedly educated folk proudly boast they can’t get their head around mathematics or physics. The same people never announce their inability to understand Keats or Shakespeare.
“Yes, I had this double thing because I went to a Gaelcholáiste,” he says. “I was getting the same speech about Irish and maths. ‘Oh God, I used to hate blah, blah, blah.’ They were both seen as homework – never as things worth enjoying in themselves. I remember going to Mathsoc meetings in college and my friend saying: ‘I hope it works out for you.’ That joke, every time.”
For all his love of physics and mathematics, Ó Briain could not be dissuaded from running away to join the circus after getting his degree. “I did a thing at a UCD dinner and I coined the phrase: ‘I entered UCD with a bright academic career behind me,’” he says.
He has done all right for himself. For the last several years Ó Briain has enjoyed his position as one of the UK’s favourite Irishmen. He lives in West London with his wife Susan, a surgeon, and their two children. He follows Arsenal and, more remotely, Gaelic games. Rare is the evening when his face doesn’t appear on one of the mainstream British TV channels.
We may do a documentary on Ireland someday. If we do, one of the episodes will be called: ‘The Brits Are at It Again’
In his book Tickling the English, he wrote amusingly about the connections and the ruptures between English and Irish culture. That was back in the distant epoch known as 2009. Brexit has surely changed that relationship.
“I am more aware of the need to remind people that our country is a different place,” he says. He chortles over a much-appreciated incident that saw the Guardian referring to Ed Byrne and him as British while criticising their travel show for its supposed colonialism.
“Taking the moral high ground on our cultural insensitivity and then managing to call us British in the same article was delightful,” he says. “Hoist on their own petard. ‘Typically unthinking for these . . . Hang on . . . What are they? Irish? British?’”
It comes along every year at awards season ( or “Saoirse isn’t British” season, as we call it here). We’d love to move on. But the mistake keeps getting made.
“We may do a documentary on Ireland someday,” Ó Briain says. “And the only way to do it would be to do one that said: ‘We’re not you. We’re a foreign country.’ Not in a cutesy way. ‘We have different music. We have different sport.’ And then I am going to close the curtain and say: ‘You’re not having it.’ It’s become more critical because it cannot be anything other than a slap in the face for the Unionist community how little the so-called Conservative and unionist party cares about them.”
He’s on roll now. Nothing can hold him back.
“If we do that documentary, one of the episodes will be called: ‘The Brits Are at It Again.’ Just so as they know we have a phrase that we all recognise. Who is it this time? Who has been grabbed in the name of Britain?”
Ó Briain was peripherally involved in a Scandal of the Month recently when Tim Davie, incoming director general of the BBC, was reported – not entirely accurately, it later transpired – as saying he wanted to correct left-wing bias in the corporation’s comedy. Mock the Week was seen as a target along with The News Quiz and The Mash Report. It’s not totally wrong to suggest that TV comedy inclines in that direction. Is it?
“No, but when people say they want more right-wing comedy I say: there is no more open market than comedy. Go to Edinburgh. Book a room. For all the talk about gatekeepers, it is more open than other art forms.”
It does seem that there is no way of pleasing the recreationally aggrieved on social media. There is a certain type of complainant who will see only attacks on their own argument in any chunk of satire. That is where the alienating din of social media has taken us.
It shakes that complacency: ‘We’re a small country and everything is lovely, we’d never have a far-right movement here.’ Then it turns out: ‘Oh, it’s perfectly possible’
“Look, I can say this until I am blue in the face: I get abuse from Brexiteers and I get abuse from Corbynistas in satisfyingly similar amounts. I am not saying ‘oh therefore we are doing our job’ and walking away. But it has become like supporting a football team now. I can’t be both an ‘establishment clown’ and a ‘left-wing whatever’. Of course, then you’re accused of being a ‘centrist dad’.”
Yes, the current worst thing of all.
Ó Briain is not any sort of wishy-washy appeaser. Without much prompting, he begins wagging his head about the protests outside public buildings during the pandemic.
“The anti-vaxxer, anti-mask thing,” he sighs. “Groups of lads with planks outside Dáil Éireann. That is the worrying thing. It’s the far-right thing I am finding bewildering. It shakes that complacency: ‘We’re a small country and everything is lovely, we’d never have a far-right movement here.’ Then it turns out: ‘Oh, it’s perfectly possible.’ It has been a knock to our general sense of vanity.”
We will require another afternoon or two to make any sense of that movement. Meanwhile, Ó Briain has to move on to his appointment with the Daily Mail. We could have talked for hours.
“Ah, sure I’ll see you on Twitter in five minutes,” he closes.
Is There Anybody Out There? is published on October 1st