David O’Doherty: ‘Sexual assault in Irish comedy … They’re not allegations … they happened’

In David O’Doherty’s new book a greedy developer gets his comeuppance when  some children rob a bank. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times
The Dublin comedian on podcasting from Achill Island, his new children’s book and owning 14 bikes

Let me tell you about David O’Doherty’s stuff. I am sitting at a big sliding door looking into the comedian’s kitchen in Dublin 8, ostensibly to talk about his funny and moving children’s book The Summer I Robbed a Bank, but I keep getting distracted by his stuff.

O’Doherty has a framed photo of his grandfather, Kevin O’Doherty, leaping over a hurdle at the Tailteann Games in the Phoenix park in the 1920s. “He was a hurdles champion and I have failed to live up to that promise,” says O’Doherty.

O’Doherty has an embroidered cushion featuring references to the Isolating with David O’Doherty podcast which he hosted from Achill Island where he lived with his parents last summer. Listeners repeatedly sent him things like this despite not having his address. He has one envelope that just reads “Doddles, Achill”.

O’ Doherty has a Daniel O’Donnell cup. I’m sipping coffee from it and I mention that I once interviewed O’Donnell. O’Doherty asks me if O’Donnell had a David O’Doherty cup (he did not). “In the days of CDs we used to appear alphabetically beside each other in record shops,” he says “I remember it was Old Dirty B**tard, David O’Doherty and Daniel O’Donnell with three plastic sleeves one after the other.”

O’Doherty has a bit of a bike problem. He has 14. “Every bike has a very unique and beautiful tale and I fixed them up so nicely I can’t just sell them for what I got them for.” He sighs. “But you’re right we’re at critical mass now as regards bikes. We’re now operating a one in one out service. Fourteen bikes is too many bikes for one person... Everyday I cycle to the Phoenix Park to a specific tree which I’ve done since October, and I usually go on a different bike.”

O’Doherty contemplates his problematic bike lust. “Look, there’s worse vices to have. This was introspection I didn’t expect to be having to today. Just accept it. You probably have loads of guitars or pencils or something.” I do have a lot of pencils.

There was a break-up, an end of all work and a move to Achill Island with two 82-year-olds

Like most of us, O’Doherty has had an emotional pandemic. In the space of a week last March he had a sad break-up, moved in with his parents on Achill Island and saw his live comedy career grind to a stop. “I was ready to go to Australia with a new show that I was really excited about but the pandemic came, and [I thought] ‘David, who gives a s**t about any of these things that you’re talking about?... Tiny bats are trying to get into people’s lungs!’ It suddenly became almost grotesque… I don’t think any point you heard a comedian say, ‘We should come back now’ because everyone realises that it’s effectively a spume transfer in a small, poorly ventilated space. So, there was a break-up, an end of all work and a move to Achill Island with two 82 year olds.”

Doing his Isolating with David O’Doherty podcast from the island gave his life some structure and he heaps praise on the media company Second Captains for adopting it and producing it. “We moved to Achill last year on about the 10th of March and I remember dad was worried that he might never see my sister again,” he says. “The first episode, it’s raining and I sound like I’m about to burst into tears and that’s actually how I felt… I would shut the door of my car. I would face it out towards the sea because at least I could talk about that. You’d see people were still fishing for crabs and you’d see lighthouses in the distance. And I would turn my phone around and balance it on the steering wheel and just start talking about things... There was an episode on about the 3rd of April and I’d been sitting in the car talking for about 10 minutes. Where our house is in Achill, there’s a field and then there was a beach you can’t see from the road. And completely spontaneously [I]just went, ‘F**k it, let’s do this’. I open the car door, I walk through the field, I climb down the cliff, and I pull off all my clothes and get into the sea, and in doing so, almost destroy the phone. But there was a feeling, because I knew a lot of people were cooped up in the city at the time, that I was doing it for the listeners… It was one of those moments where it made you feel a little less lonely.”

David O’Doherty: ‘Fourteen bikes is too many bikes for one person...’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

He did other things to keep busy. He performed his cancelled stage show live from his car. He and illustrator Chris Judge made a special Department of Health Covid advisory strip for children featuring Dr Noel Zone from their excellent Danger is Everywhere books. “I found that quite cathartic,” he says. “When we conceived of Noel Zone five years ago it was almost like, ‘Guys, there’s nothing to worry about. Here’s a guy worried about sharks jumping out of the toilets, chill out’. And what I didn’t anticipate was a killer, invisible virus.”

O’Doherty wasn’t really a nervous child himself. When he was nine, he formed a detective agency with two friends. They printed up cards and put them into people’s letterboxes. He shows me one. It features their name “Ground Raiders”, their home numbers and the promise: “We handle anything.” They got no clients from the business card drop so he went to the Garda station and asked if they had any mysteries that needed solving. “I don’t know where this confidence came from. Like, I found this letter the other day, from The Irish Times, that said ‘Dear David, many thanks for the offer. But we don’t want you to cycle around Ireland writing a series of newspaper articles on it. And we’re not sure you should be doing it on your own’.”

Growing up, I never had anything intelligent to say... I was the one who, while they were all talking about grown-up issues, would sit in silence and then say a terrible pun

He thinks the key to his personality might be down to having “a jazz dad” and “a prod mum”. His parents treated the norms of holy Catholic Ireland with eye-rolls. His father, the pianist Jim Doherty was exploring jazz “in the 50s when they were actively trying to ban jazz because there was a fear that women could lose control of themselves... My crap psychology on that is that if you go back to previous generations, my great grandfather was Seamus O’Doherty, who was head of the IRB. So it was a revolutionary family that weren’t particularly respectful of whatever the feeling in the nation was at the time”.

How was his sense of humour formed by his upbringing? “I’m the youngest, and there’s a seven/eight-year gap to my brother and sister,” he says. “So growing up, I never had anything intelligent to say. It’s no coincidence, I think, that my sister is an amazing social worker and my brother is a proper writer, writing plays and movies and acting… I was the one who, while they were all talking about grown-up issues of the day, would sit in silence for a few moments and then say a terrible pun. It was probably some plea for attention. We were that sort of a family though, where joking around was a big part of everything… My granddad would have various songs he would sing on social occasions, just funny, dumb songs. Some of them he learned from his father so we’re going back to the foundation of the nation…

“Before my grandad died in 2006, he wrote a book called My Parents and other Rebels, that’s just his reminiscences about the revolutionary period and there’s a lot of funny stuff in it. There is a lot of really dark humour about how my great grandfather kept getting arrested... So there’s definitely a strain of comedy in the O’Doherty DNA.”

O’Doherty was in college in Trinity when I was there in the mid 1990s. I remember him being involved in both the Jazz Society, a real society that promoted big jazz gigs, and the Breakdancing Society, a fake society that put hilarious posters all over college. “It started with petitioning the librarian of Trinity College to have breakdance books on the shelves and treating it as a serious contemporary art form and writing these long letters and doing these poster campaigns… I started fake poster campaigns in college just on my own for no reason whatsoever, like for fake banks and things. It struck me as a funny thing to do with my time.”

He was studying philosophy but he wanted to be a piano player like his dad. Then he befriended jazz genius Brad Mehldau and realised this was possibly overreaching. “I remember once being in the car going bowling or something and we had the radio on listening to the pop hits of the day. And later on that evening, not only could he play all of the songs that we’d been listening to, but there was an ad for a tile shop, ‘All the tiles you’ll ever want – Tile Market’ and he played that as well.”

It’s so sad to me that some really unique voices were driven out of comedy. In the comedy that I love, some of the most creative people have always been women

O’Doherty switched to comedy. “Comedy and jazz have always been quite close together,” he says. “I think because they both involve a similar analytic mind and taking the piss out of forms that exist already.”

He began doing comedy gigs around Dublin, often opening for bands (including my band). “I would get up with a piano or a little keyboard, and people would think that I was a serious singer songwriter, and there’d be this beautiful minute-and-a half before they realised…

“There was no plan. There was no, ‘My dream is to do this’. There was so many fluky events, like doing a show in the room before Flight of the Conchords in Edinburgh in 2002 and then within a week playing the piano in their show. And then you fast forward to 2018 and me and Flight of the Conchords play Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver, Colorado together.”

In recent years there has been a reckoning in the world of comedy around the side-lining and the abuse of female comedians. When O’Doherty started, he says, it was “that era where Christopher Hitchens was still writing articles about why women aren’t funny. But at the same time, I could always point to how Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian and Maeve Higgins is the funniest comedian in Ireland and Josie Long beat me in the BBC new comedy awards... So you’re always aware that those arguments were bulls**t... I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, mostly through the tragedy of the various sexual assault allegations. And they’re not [merely] allegations… They’re what happened in Irish comedy. And it’s a real sense of shame to be involved in the same business where that stuff has taken place… It’s so sad to me that some really unique voices have opted to leave comedy or were driven out of comedy. In the comedy that I love, some of the most creative people have always been women. It’s a question of how comedy from this point forward attempts to deal with the trauma that’s there… even in a tiny comedy scene like Ireland.”

He has no time for comedians who complain that they’re being stifled by political correctness because he just doesn’t believe it’s true. “For some men in particular the move towards a more equal society feels like oppression to them,” he says. “I’ve always been very close with Hannah Gadsby. And one of the backlashes to Nanette [her excellent Netflix special] was ‘this isn’t stand up’ which just shows the limited thinking [about] what stand up is, unless it fits certain parameters, which is generally a dude being angry about things.”

How similar is writing comedy for adults to writing books for children? “One of my deepest secrets is how little difference there is,” he says and laughs.

David O’Doherty’s live comedy career came to a halt last year just as he was about to go to Australia with a new show.

The Summer I Robbed a Bank is his seventh children’s book, one he originally set out to write 20 years ago and only returned to more recently. It’s about a boy who goes to stay with his eccentric uncle and ends up helping him to rob a bank. “I think there is something particularly Irish in the highly irresponsible adult who is kind of touched by magic,” he says. “That’s definitely who I was drawn to in terms of family members and family friends. ‘Derm’ [the fictional uncle] would be an amalgam of a few people. There was a guy who used to stay with us when we were little… A man called Joe… He had this sort of, semi-travelling bohemian vibe, where he lived with you for a month and carried out these changes to the house. I remember him driving me to Dollymount strand and as we drove along, him placing me into the driver’s seat and scooting out under me, so that I was now driving a van. He was that guy. I grew up in a house with 34 things wrong with it. There was a towel rail that just fell on the floor every time you put a towel on it for the first 15 years of my life. And one time Joe came and he fixed everything in an afternoon… There are people who make changes in the world and see the world as a malleable place and the flip side of that is they don’t necessarily obey all of the rules.”

The book goes to some unexpectedly deep and heartbreaking places, mainly because the uncle character has a terminal illness. “I lost one of my best friends a few years ago,” he explains. “The dignity and fun with which he lived out his final time, I found really inspiring and interesting. He has kids… I wanted to write something for them, as well.”

If there are copycat bank robberies because of The Summer I Robbed a Bank, that’s not a bad legacy for a children’s book

He has been thinking a lot about how death is represented in children’s art. He’s a huge fan of how Michael Rosen’s poetry books can mix poems about death and loss with silliness about eating too much cake. “I realise my whole career is, I won’t say stolen from, but it’s based on [Rosen’s] Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here.”

He wants everything he does to make a real emotional connection with his audience. That’s never been more important, he thinks, than in recent times. “I think we’ve all surprised ourselves with our resilience,” he says. “You cope when the government says, ‘Okay, it’s going to be another six weeks’, but then you go to the supermarket and cry because there’s no Viennettas… It’s way too early to for people to make any conclusions on the last year and a half, in that people are still trying to process the second World War and most of them are dead now.”

Still, he’s been trying to make sense of it all. “I remember getting my first ever STD check when I was about 23… and there being a moment of intense pain, and Dr Friedman, the urologist, said, ‘If this didn’t hurt there’d be something really wrong’.” He laughs. “And that is how I feel about the last year and a half.”

What does he think is going to happen when we’re all free to roam again? “There’s going to be a lot of very wrought poetry and literature written, but I don’t want to read that for a few years,” he says. “I want the stupidest, silliest, most fun celebration of us all being back together again.”

He also suspects that there might be some sort of political reckoning with ordinary people feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the way inequality is apparently accepted by some in power. I observe that he’s written a book in which a greedy developer gets his comeuppance because some children rob a bank. Some might call that a radical message. “If there are copycat bank robberies because of The Summer I Robbed a Bank, that’s not a bad legacy for a children’s book,” he says. “Maybe after Danny, the Champion of the World came out, there were copycat pheasant poaching… I guess it is a sort of an anti-establishment tale in a way.” He warms to the idea. “It surely is my Communist Manifesto, this book.”

The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O’Doherty is published by Puffin Books on May 27th

David O’Doherty and illustrator Chris Judge are doing a live online event at 4pm on Sunday, May 30th as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, for ages 8+. Tickets via ilfdublin.com