A man goes to the doctor and says he’s depressed. The doctor says, “Why don’t you go see the great clown Pagliacci? He’s in town tonight. That’ll cheer you up!” The man says, “But, doctor, I am Pagliacci.”
Dara Ó Briain, who is a sort of clown, hates that story. He enumerates the ways he hates it. First, it’s not a realistic presentation of psychotherapy. “You can’t just arrive in town and go into a local counsellor and get an hour,” he says. He’s very annoyed about this.
Second, he isn’t impressed that the doctor didn’t establish the patient’s career earlier in the interaction. Surely, he says, it’s a relevant question, yet the doctor waits until the big reveal: “ ‘But I am Pagliacci the clown.’ ‘Oh, I hadn’t noticed with the shoes and the nose.’ ”
Most important, says O’Briain, “it’s just a really shitty piece of advice. ‘You’re depressed? You need to have a f***ing laugh, man. I’m a professional trained psychiatrist, and my advice to you is: go and see a comedy show. Dreadful advice.”
I mentioned the Pagliacci story after Ó Briain talked about how much he hates the spurious, “pleasingly ironic” idea that comedians suffer more than others from depression. Now I’m laughing and have lost my train of thought.
“That was very entertaining,” I say.
“Well,” says Ó Briain. “It is what I do.”
Honestly, I think there's a drug element to it. I've been seeking that high ever since
Ó Briain does what he does very well, whether it's presenting shows such as Mock the Week, Robot Wars and Stargazing Live or holding forth as a stand-up comedian. He has a lot of ideas, knows a lot of stuff and is very funny, but you knew that. He talks in excited bursts and doesn't always finish a sentence before starting a new one. Strangers greet him as though he's a neighbour, and he responds in kind. "Jesus, hello!" he says. "Are you well?"
The teenage Ó Briain never predicted a career in comedy, although he can recall the first time he got a laugh in public. He was 19, opening a debate at the Literary & Historical Society at University College Dublin, and he made a quip about the Law Society. "I remember the spike of adrenaline. And it was like a dust-covered dial that had never moved before had suddenly shot to 100. It was, 'F***, what's that?' Honestly, I think there's a drug element to it. I've been seeking that high ever since."
His whole direction changed about this time. He had gone to college enthused about mathematics and science but found himself lured into a world of debating, university journalism and general carousing. He won the Irish Times debating competition and toured the less glamorous parts of the United States. (He grouses that this year's winners got to go to Miami and New York and were "etched on Mount Rushmore"). What did he learn from debating? "Probably the most vivid thing was that I'd walk by a theatre and I would see them as 'a crowd' and I'd think, I could get a laugh off that crowd."
But comedy never seemed like an option. “There was no model for doing comedy as a career,” he says. “I remember having a chat in university with the guy who had the same job in another debating society, where we’d stand at the start and do a funny recap of the week, and I remember saying, ‘But where else can we do this?’ And one of us said, ‘stand-up comedy’, and then there was a ha-ha-ha freeze-frame of us laughing at the ridiculousness of that. Because, of course, who did that?”
By the time he left college he was aware of Dublin's tiny comedy scene. His first gig was at the Irish Film Centre. His second was at the Comedy Cellar, alongside another newcomer, Jason Byrne, and the more established Andrew Maxwell. "He'd been to London," Ó Briain says, and laughs. "I remember him sashaying down, going, 'You were good, you were good and you were shite' to some guy, who was, like, 'Okay.' "
At that point he was trying everything. He had a column in the Sunday World and had aspirations to be a journalist. (He'd run UCD's University Observer with Pat Leahy, who is now the Irish Times Political Editor.) He established himself as a television presenter with the bilingual children's show Echo Island. He went on to work on Don't Feed the Gondolas and The Panel ("the most enjoyable thing to do in the world"). There was also an ill-conceived gameshow, It's a Family Affair, "but I've wiped the tapes," he says. "It's when I learned that I'm not a shiny-floor, nonironic, 'you've won a car!' presenter."
Listowel was a high point, with 50 people
Being a television presenter was, he thinks, damaging his reputation as a stand-up in Ireland. "People only have space beside your name for one thing. Because I'd appeared so much on TV, if I did a gig it was like if Marty Morrissey appeared in your local theatre. You'd be, like, 'What's that about? Anecdotes about life in RTÉ?"
Around that time he did a three-week tour of Ireland that nearly broke him, he says. He did an audience-interaction bit in Castlebar that involved shaking hands with one of the few audience members. The man refused to do so. His friends said, "Good man, John. You showed him." He played the lobby of Vicar Street to 30 people listening to the "reverberations of big laughs" from the Après Match gig in the next room. "Listowel was a high point, with 50 people," he says. "I went into John B's pub and a man said, 'Hi, Dara. What are you doing here?' 'I was doing a show in the arts centre.' 'Terrible night for it. Sure the fashion show is on.' "
He was close to giving up, he says, convinced he'd blown it in Ireland. "I had a conversation with Stewart Lee at the time, and he said, 'I've given it a go, and it hasn't worked and nobody wants to see my stuff,' and I said, 'I know the feeling.' I occasionally remind him of this when he's complaining about the wrong people coming to his shows."
A weight got lifted off us when Frankie Boyle left, because we could actually run with things
When he moved to England he vowed never to take presenting gigs that didn't involve being funny. His profile grew with a few appearances on the BBC panel show Have I Got News for You, followed by a gig hosting its scrappier BBC Two cousin, Mock the Week. He did not expect to still be presenting it 12 years later.
Mock the Week went through different phases, he says. For a while it was all about "brutal one-liners – Russell Howard and Frankie Boyle cutting across everything." He prefers, he says, when it's more like a collaborative jigsaw. "People connect other pieces to your piece and a picture is spread out." He laughs. "Frankie was a corner piece with all four corners. He puts a piece down and there are no connections. It's done. You admire the brilliance and economy, but in the group conversation a weight got lifted off us when he left, because we could actually run with things . . . I quite enjoy rolling with the conversation."
Has recent political reality made comedy and satire more urgent? “Quite possibly it has,” he says, but that hasn’t necessarily been good for humour. “Now we seem to be obliged to talk about Brexit and Trump and these huge geopolitical shifts. It’s irritating that everyone is doing it. What I wouldn’t give now for some low-hanging fruit on either topic, but the trees are bare.”
Many people have criticised Mock the Week's lack of diversity when it comes to panellists. He's aware of this. "Oh, God, yeah. Which of our many diversity issues would you like to talk about? I don't book the show. People are genuinely surprised by that."
He has complained about the poor representation of women and minorities, but, he admits, “I haven’t gone on a hunger strike about it. I haven’t walked away from it . . . but I’m no longer willing to take the can for decisions that [the producers] made. I don’t agree with their booking policy, and I’ve said it to them.”
More recently he has become the presenter for a raft of science-themed shows, most notably the excellent Stargazing Live, which he hosts alongside Prof Brian Cox. "I never wanted to be the idiot straight man, going, 'Oh, what's that all about? What's that nerdlinger? What's Prof Brainiac saying now?'" He laughs. "I couldn't do that . . . but I'm very happy to be the one who asks the questions."
An Englishman's home is his castle. It's written into their psyche and is easily stoked up
Well before this slight career shift he had rediscovered his love of mathematical and scientific ideas. He reads Richard Feynman's physics lectures for fun, although he sighs and adds, "Your brain really isn't as sharp at 45 as it is at 22 . . . I always feel slightly guilty when people hold me up as a great example of [someone with a science background]. I'm actually a dreadful example. I ran from it because I wanted the easy life, the easy gratification." Science, he says, "is really hard."
Does science education seem more politicised nowadays? “Yeah, absolutely.”
Even before the current explosion of fake news and conspiracy theories, Ó Briain and a group of like-minded comedic and scientific rationalists such as Robin Ince and Ben Goldacre were using social media as a tool to debunk pseudoscientific woo. They targeted high-profile conspiracy theorists and other proponents of quackery, for example the television "doctor" Gillian McKeith. It felt, he says, "like a movement".
“We all found each other. We were all on this beat and found this communication tool . . . It was a fight about evidence, basically saying that things are worth measuring and comparing and taking a slow look at. [We believed that] people wanted nuanced results that were more interesting than a populist slogan. It turns out we were terribly wrong about that . . . I remember thinking that social media was brilliant for science, because you can get the truth out really widely and quickly. [In fact] it’s a much better tool for misinformation . . . Since then we’ve been drowned out by how effective it is for putting shite out there.”
But there were victories, right? “Yes,” he says and laughs. “But they seem like small wins now. Gillian McKeith doesn’t have a book deal any more? Well done on that, but what about Brexit? Trump? Ultimately the scales tilted very heavily the other way.”
Recently a fake news story appeared about Ó Briain’s death. “My death!” he says. He talks about it in his new show. “I go line by line through it.”
The upshot is – spoiler alert – that he’s not dead and is more passionate about evidence and facts than ever.
England from an Irishman’s perspective
He has written previously about England from an Irishman's perspective, in his book Tickling the English. "My thesis was there was a schism in England between the really professional part of England that does things at a really high level and the really nostalgic part of England which harks back to the 1950s. I feel really happy that that has sort of held up."
Has his view of the English changed post-Brexit? “They have a stronger-than-we-presumed need to be an island nation. That’s just the nature of who they are. The comparison I tentatively draw, because it could come across very clumsily, is with guns in America. It’s a thing that, when you’re not from there, looks self-destructive and weird but is a central part of who they are. They like being an isolated island nation: the fog on the Channel, the Continent cut off, an Englishman’s home is his castle. It’s written into their psyche and is easily stoked up.”
When I say 'Irish' I don't mean 'my grandad was Irish.' No! I mean Bosco Irish. I mean people who know who Crystal Swing are
On a personal level, he says, he's on "a huge campaign to reassert Irish people's foreignness in the UK." He's protective of his Irishness. Recently a Guardian reviewer (unfairly) criticised his travel show, Dara and Ed's Road to Mandalay, for having a colonial attitude and in the process referred to him and Ed Byrne as white British men. A Guardian correction observed that they were guilty on only two counts. "It was a good correction. I give a hat tip to the correction."
He became very conscious of his distinct Irishness when considering schools for his children. "Everyone wants the same schooling that they had," he says. "But I can't find an all-Irish Christian Brothers school anywhere in east London that exclusively plays hurling and Gaelic and is surrounded by rugby schools."
He wants to assert that Ireland is "a different country. We play different sports and have different music, a different language, different ads. This song" – Nothing Compares 2 U is on the radio near where we're sitting – "was a religion at one stage . . . And when I say 'Irish' I don't mean 'my grandad was Irish.' No! I mean Bosco Irish. I mean people who know who Crystal Swing are."
He admits this is all partly so he can get a pat on the back, so the British will go, “Oh, you’re not from here? Well done for doing well in our culture.”
'Perfectly good television'
He loves making TV and is very protective of the kind of "perfectly good television" he hosts, which can go unloved by US-drama-obsessed critics. He spends five minutes describing the care with which the Stargazing Live crew achieved a particular shot.
He’s trying to tour a bit less, because he worries about “missing chunks of my children’s lives”, but after a too-long period off the road he starts feeling rootless. “I start drumming the table. ‘I haven’t been validated in a while! I don’t know what to do!’” He laughs. “I can see that there is some flaw in the emotional make-up that requires you to want the validation of an audience, but I have no interest in analysing that away, because it’s a flaw that gets s**t done.”
He writes, he says, as though he's a character in his own sitcom
He talks about putting a new show together, how it gradually grows from 30 minutes of ideas to a fleshed-out hour-and-a-half. (He keeps a usually unused cheat sheet in his jacket pocket.) Some people think he’s making it up on the spot. He recalls a very early review in this newspaper where the reviewer assumed he was “just talking”. The man was also a DJ, and Ó Briain ended up interrupting him mid-set in a club a few weeks later to explain how stand-up works. He couldn’t hear properly with the music, so “I shouted at him, as he was there with headphones on.” He laughs. “Monstrous behaviour.”
It took him some time to find his comedic voice, he says. How would he define that voice? "An exasperated rant that has an internal logic to it," he says. "The title we settled on for this show was Dara Ó Briain: Voice of Reason, largely because we have a very shouty poster, and it looks very unreasonable."
He writes, he says, as though he’s a character in his own sitcom. “You set up a situation and you see how the stage you, the exaggerated version of you, would react.”
How close is he to that stage version of himself? “On a spectrum from ranting and raving to urbanely quippy, I would hope in real life I’m more like the latter . . . I like to think I move urbanely through a world of concierges and maitre d’s smiling and laughing as a table is brought to the front of the room.” He laughs. “Maybe instead I’m just snapping madly at everyone.”
The Dara Ó Briain: Voice of Reason tour starts at Vicar Street, Dublin, on October 11th