Dermot Whelan: ‘I have a skill . . . to make people laugh, lift people’s moods’

After making the most showbiz entrance possible by arriving at a gig in an ambulance, the comedian Dermot Whelan decided it was time to slow down

I’m late talking to the multihyphenated comedian-radio-host-meditation coach Dermot Whelan because I initially sent my Zoom invite to a different Dermot Whelan. The latter’s email address differs from the former’s by just one letter. “Words can’t describe how much [the other] Dermot Whelan hates me,” says Dermot Whelan. “He usually has a stock reply that he sends off to go, ‘This is the wrong one.’”

“You should send him some breathing exercises to do,” I suggest.

“This is beyond breathing exercises, in fairness,” says Whelan. “He’s dealt with so much over the years. He knows me quite well. He’s got letters from my GP, contracts. He’s seen it all.”

I’m chatting to Dermot Whelan, well, one of the Dermot Whelans, about the publication of his very useful and funny book, Mind Full. It’s partially a comic guide to meditation and partially a comic memoir about his own dysfunctional pre-meditation lifestyle. He’s in good spirits, despite an occasionally malfunctioning broadband router and a pandemic hairstyle he likens to the helmet of an Action Man he once owned.

He has spent the past few years reading books on neuroscience and meditation so the rest of us don’t have to. “A lot of that world is populated by people who take themselves really seriously,” he says.

Why is that the case? “It’s just the same as someone who works for an American multinational wants to wear the logo on their T-shirt and have their lanyard,” he says. “If you’re part of that spiritual space, you’ll start to wear the uniform and speak the same language and use the jargon… It’s important, particularly if these are useful tools that are grounded in science, that people have access to it without having to wade through the bullshit that comes with it.”

He talks about how his own meditation teacher broke the trend by making him laugh. Humour is obviously important to him. His own sense of humour is a product of being the Monty Python-loving youngest of six. “Youngest siblings have some extreme personality traits just to get noticed,” he says. “I would have been the funny guy in school. It was certainly a defensive mechanism for me growing up.”

Was he anxious when he was younger? “I would never have called myself an anxious person [but] I grew up in an area [in Limerick] called Ballyclough and I had two other close friends from that area and other friends in school used to call us the Ballyclough Worriers.” He laughs. “The worst name for a gang ever, the least threatening gang on the streets – ‘Oh my God, it’s the Ballyclough Worriers!’ – We had to sit down and think how will this impact on our lives if we rob those apples.”

There weren’t any comedians or writers in his family. His mother worked in the home and his father worked for a company that made medical devices. “His name was Dermot as well… so I had a collection of false hips made out of some weird alloy that had ‘presented to Dermot Whelan’ on them,” he says. “All my brothers and sisters [are] engineers, solicitors, tax consultants. My brother’s a scientist over in Italy. So all fairly straight down the middle.”

Whelan studied archaeology but never pursued it, choosing instead to spend much of his 20s working behind the scenes in the film industry. At 27 he was hired as a newsreader on Anna Livia FM before moving to 98FM where he was fatefully paired with Dave Moore on what he describes as a “terrible playdate”. They were subsequently given the breakfast slot. “It actually reads like some really poorly [written] essay, someone would do in fourth class,” he says. He puts on a child’s voice, “And then we went to the building. And then the woman said, ‘Here’s your friend.’ And then they said, ‘Here, you’re a Breakfast Show presenter!’”

Dermot Whelan with Dave Moore, the pair present the Dermot & Dave radio show on Today FM. Photograph: Today FM

He loves radio. He made radio plays for fun when he was in school. He likes how direct and intimate the medium is compared with television, though he hosted RTÉ’s Republic of Telly for several years. The radio partnership with Moore has sustained, he thinks, because it’s changed organically as they have.

“There’s a lot of light and shade in there and it’s really important to me that we have that. We do a segment called Mind Yourself Now and we talk about everything from anxiety to mental health conditions… It took me a long time to really appreciate a skill that I have and that’s to lift people’s moods. I can make people laugh. I used to be frustrated with that. I wouldn’t think of it as being something important. But particularly since the pandemic started you get a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘Look I’m really glad you’re there, we turned on the radio and it’s gotten me through this.’”

He did his first stand-up gig at the late age of 31, not because he had huge comedic ambitions but because he wanted to hang out with other comedians. “I remember going to a gig in the International and before the show started there were four comedians all huddled around a table in front of the stage before they went up and they just looked like they were having the most amazing fun… making each other laugh and I thought how do I get to that table.”

Being on the road away from his family is always tough, he says, and he knew early on that he could never be “the next Dara O’Brien or Tommy Tiernan” because he wasn’t prepared to tour to the extent some other comedians were. “I remember doing a gig in a place called the Hyena in Newcastle and as the MC introduced me the booing started. I was booed off the stage as I walked on to it. I hadn’t even opened my mouth. When you’re on stage [an] inner dialogue is going the whole time and I remember doing the show thinking these people hate you, why are you trying so hard to entertain these people but then on the outside you’re sweating and pounding the stage.”

On a drunken night out he knocked himself out falling down the stairs of a karaoke club. He laughs. That’s the least glamorous thing that can happen to a man

His relationship with meditation was born out of a series of crises. He opens the book with the first of these, a trip to the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival that was preceded by an emergency stop in Mullinavat because he thought he was having a heart attack. “I arrived to a comedy festival in an ambulance, making the most showbiz entrance possible.”

It was a panic attack and he realised he was overworking and drinking too much. But he’s “slow to learn lessons” and three years later on a drunken night out he knocked himself out falling down the stairs of a karaoke club. He laughs. “That’s the least glamorous thing that can happen to a man. Then I just knew I was out of whack... [a friend] asked me to MC her book launch, and I heard that she was a meditation teacher in her spare time, so I said, ‘We’ll do a swapsies, you give me an hour of meditation and I’ll see what it’s like.’ That kind of set me off.”

Meditation helped him become calmer and kinder and better able to cope, but he let the practice slide and a few years later he found himself overwhelmed and struggling, again. “It was like someone turned off the tap and all my energy fell out of me, and I was just absolutely drained…. So I opened up my laptop one evening and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do [meditation] teacher training because I need something to kind of force me into going a bit deeper into this and actually committing to it.’ Then my friends would come to me and ask me, ‘Hey, you’re into that stuff, is there anything you can give me?’… and I thought why don’t I just teach some more people.”

He loved it, he says. “I loved the idea that people were walking away from it with things that they could now use in their day-to-day life.”

He began doing training sessions at the request of some big companies and, as more people requested training, he began planning a tour that blended stand-up and meditation. And then Covid hit and stopped all tour plans. “And that’s one of the reasons why I ended up writing the book,” he says.

There are a lot of preconceptions that suddenly if I meditate for a week I’m going to be Russell Brand. My hair will instantly grow, I’ll be wearing flowing yoga clothes

He wrote it, he says, for people who sense their lives could be better, people who are “happy but not happy”. In Ireland, he says, people often have an all-or-nothing attitude to things. “I’m fine or I’m an alcoholic and there’s nothing in between. It seems the same with ‘wellness’, that you’re either living your best life… or you’re a crazy anxious person.”

He thinks most people could simply do with some tools that might help them feel better. A lot of the book is designed to debunk the myths. “One of the things that people say to me is, ‘Will meditation make me no craic?’” He laughs. “As if the damage is where all our humour comes from. Meditation does not make you no craic. It turns down the volume on the stuff that gets in your way… There are a lot of preconceptions that suddenly if I meditate for a week I’m going to be Russell Brand. My hair will instantly grow, I’ll be wearing flowing yoga clothes, I’ll never get angry and nothing will stress me out… I’ll lose any drive or ambition I’ve ever had. And suddenly, it’s just all about hummus. It’s absolutely not that... If you are prone to shouting in traffic or you lose the rag from time to time or you tend to get a bit anxious or you get frightened, those things will still happen. The difference is, it won’t be as intense, and it won’t last for as long.”

Later, he stresses the science. “This stuff works. It literally changes the shape of your brain. It shrinks your amygdala. It shrinks your fear centre.”

I get why he’s a good teacher. He’s patient and thoughtful when I ask some specific questions about my own issues when I try meditating.

I saw on Facebook that he has tried some guided meditation with his mother, who suffers with dementia. There is good evidence that it can help people with dementia, he says, but it’s not always straightforward because it can also draw the person’s attention to issues with their cognition.

“What’s most upsetting is seeing my mum acutely aware of what’s happening in her brain, not necessarily understanding it but knowing that it’s not functioning properly. [But] the act of being able to sit down and the process of sitting down with my mum and the two of us slowing down our breathing and me guiding her… Even seeing the effect that meditation could have on her in just calming her anxiety levels, that was really powerful.”

Humour is a brilliant vehicle for opening doors for topics that maybe other traditional TV hosts mightn’t be able to manage

People regularly seem surprised that a comedian has become so interested in these things, but he’s not sure that it should be surprising. “Meditation and mindfulness [is about] awareness and, in particular, self-awareness,” he says. “That’s what stand-up comedy is. As a comedian you have an awareness of how your brain is working, you have your ability to see things from different perspectives, that ability to zoom out and actually look at your behaviour, other people’s behaviour, why we do the things we do…. In meditation, it’s exactly the same, you’re zooming out, you’re looking at your own behaviour and the behaviour of other people and the end result may not be a hilarious one-liner that’s going to get a laugh, but you’re going through the same process.”

He also thinks people are increasingly comfortable with the idea that comedians have more to say between the gags. He points to Tommy Tiernan’s chat show as an example. “Humour is a brilliant vehicle for opening doors for topics that maybe other traditional TV hosts mightn’t be able to manage.”

Sometimes the overlap between comedy and meditation is very clear. He tells me about a study in which people were told to sit by themselves for six minutes with the option of sitting in silence or electrocuting themselves. One man shocked himself 190 times. We both find this hilarious despite the sad implications for people’s general ability to just sit with themselves.

I suggest that with such anecdotes he’s tricking comedy fans into entering the esoteric world of mindfulness and meditation. “Yeah, they’re all going to the spaceship immediately,” he says.

I tell him that I can imagine him running a cult eventually. He laughs. “Oh, so can I.” I think he’s joking.

Mind Full: Unwreck your head, De-stress your life by Dermot Whelan is published by Gill Books on April 16th.