Dara Ó Briain: ‘I’d like to maintain this plateau’
The comedian has reached an enviable point in his career where he is happy to continue doing what he’s been doing. But he’s no less irritable or interesting for that
Dara Ó Briain is hungover. Sitting in a hotel room in Dublin, the previous night was spent at the premiere of Noble. “I would characterise this interview as being slightly hungover. Not quite as coherent, or as on the nail. Eh, there’s a struggling for the words here and there. So, sorry about that.”
Despite the woolly head, he’s animated and full of chat. His upcoming stand-up show, Crowd Tickler, is bound to be another success. There’s something very solid about Ó Briain. He’s smart. There’s an edge to his opinions, a quickness, and a dexterity of intelligence that suggests you could throw any topic at him and he would probably form an enlightening and enlightened point of view on it.
The narrative is well-known now: from Coláiste Eoin on the Stillorgan dual carriageway, he went up the road to UCD, excelled at debating and eventually veered towards comedy. Like the best comedians, Ó Briain isn’t just about the gags. If he was in a journalist’s contacts book, you could call him for a line on a bunch of topics: science, maths, Irish man-in-London syndrome, video games, the Irish language, and, oh yeah, comedy.
Running away with the circusWhen did he realise that performance was a thing? “That’s a very good way of putting that question,” he says, poking fun at the inevitability of it. “The traditional way of asking it is: when did you first realise you were funny? A version of that question gets asked so often that Ardal [O’Hanlon] had a standard answer, which was, ‘The government sent me a letter when I was 11’, which I think is a fantastic stock response.”
His actual answer is: in university, attending debates and admiring that skill, “envy being a great driver at times”. He came up with some gags for a debate about the presidential election in 1990 and they got a huge round of applause. “This weird spike went off in a part of me I didn’t even know was waiting to receive that jolt. Bloody hell.”
He considered being a barrister, that being the more traditional path given the notion of doing stand-up in Ireland in the 1990s was a bit out-there. “It was as exotic as: I will run away to the circus.” He goes on a tangent about people on unicycles, and acts out people flinging knives at a woman rotating on a board.
Being at the helm of Mock the Week probably gives him a better perspective on the tropes and trends that come and go in comedy. He’s not a fan of cliches, like the one about comedians and depression, which gets asked all the time, “much as I’m sure if you’re a female comedian you get asked: what’s it like being a female comedian? We all get asked about depression. But we all know people who have actually had depression. Do you see them do many gigs? Do you see them going, ‘I want to go on stage and tell jokes or write jokes’? Nobody ever goes, ‘Your teeth look fantastic’. ‘Well, the best dentistry comes from a very dark place . . .’ ”
Another thing that bores him are stand-up routines about the song Blurred Lines, “because now this is the badge that people are quick to assert, their feminist credentials at the moment – male comedians, by the way,” he clarifies, quick to say that female comedians doing great feminist routines are totally separate to this. It happened with science too, when that became a common stand-up topic. “I don’t do it [the feminist stand up cliche] because I felt it’s slightly irritating. When science was the kind of thing for people to drop in, I was slightly, ‘Well, where were you all when I was in UCD actually doing this stuff?’ I’ll spare the patronising male attempts at doing a feminist routine now, out of the sheer professional courtesy that I found frustrating when people suddenly all decided they were into science.”
Last year, Ó Briain said something quite nuanced about the issue of gender balance on the type of panel shows comedians get invited to take part in. His point of view, given to Radio Times, was that perhaps the BBC shouldn’t have announced that it was going to do more to have women on panel shows, because it then ran the risk of women regarding their booking on these shows as the result of an edict or a version of tokenism.
Mob rule on TwitterIt was a point well made, but the quote was taken out of context in the interview, and Ó Briain was met with an avalanche of criticism on Twitter. “I was getting tweets from people going, ‘Oh Dara, I used to like you but you can f*** off now.’ And you’re going, ‘Eh, I was misquoted’. ‘Oh, sorry, okay’. Really? I’d almost prefer if you dug in and stuck with it. It’s unbelievable irritating.
“Somebody from here [Ireland] got very angry about it and used phrases like, ‘As one of the gatekeepers it behoves you to speak more clearly.’ I said I was misquoted, and she said, ‘It’s your fault if you’re misquoted’. No, you just want to have the argument. I am on the same side as you. But people click into a mode of ‘no’.”
The mob rule of Twitter, the endless circular arguments, the frustrating clarifications, can be summed up by a quote Ó Briain gives from Stephen Colbert: “Who would have thought a medium based on 140 characters could lead to misunderstanding?” Eighty per cent of online arguments, he says, can be concluded by saying “it’s ‘you’re’ not ‘your’. Goodbye.”
Enda Kenny is on the radio talking about the possibility of diaspora voting. As someone potentially affected by it, how does Ó Briain feel?
“I’m not in favour of diaspora voting, particularly for parliamentary elections. Possibly for presidential elections. But for a parliamentary election, I don’t think that I, living in London, should have a say in the economic policies that affect how you all live here. Whatever your level of interest, if you’re paying your taxes to a different exchequer, then you don’t get to decide the direction. A parliamentary election is: do we go left or right? Do we go austerity or not? I shouldn’t be sitting in London, looking over at Ireland going [he adopts a faintly evil voice], ‘I think you should have austerity. I think you need to knuckle down’.”
Writing, freestyleÓ Briain lives in London with his wife – Susan, a urology surgeon – and their two children. He says he goes to bed at about 3am or 4am, writing his shows in headings, not the full text. I point out that Jay-Z doesn’t write his lyrics down. “Oh yes, I flow like Jay-Z, it’s often been said,” he says, laughing.
Shows usually come once every two years. This one took three.
“I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” he concludes.
There has to be something else that he really wants to do? “I’d really like to carry on doing this, weirdly. This will stop. I don’t have a sitcom I really want to do. I don’t want to drift into movies. [I want] to remain sufficiently relevant and [for] people to come along and see me carrying on doing live shows. It’s unusual in a showbiz career to say I’ve reached a lovely plateau and I’d like to maintain this plateau as long as I could.
“Certainly there’s other TV stuff, and a couple of science projects, that would be grand. But the priority would be being able to come back and still get an audience. There’s an awkward part of your career, which is in the next five or 10 years, where people go, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen him, I get the gist of that’. And then you have to disappear for 15 or 20 years and then you re-emerge. Quietly disappear and then return ironically. And people go, ‘What a trooper’, and you get a second burst of it.”
Like Take That? “Exactly like Take That. It guts me that in the time I’ve been doing this, Take That have come and gone twice. It feels like an inordinately long period. Stand-up careers are very long in comparison to most other careers. They’ve had it and lost it two separate times. . . I met Howard [Donald, of Take That] outside a hotel the day after that story broke,” he says, the story being Take That’s tax affairs. “I just said, ‘Hey Howard, how are you, how’s your week been?’.” Ó Briain asked the question very pointedly, “and he just went, ‘I’ve a bit of a flu, actually’, and I just stopped and went, ‘Really?’ and he went, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ I don’t know Howard that well that he would open up to me, but nonetheless. No, Howard, it’s not the flu.”
Crowd Tickler runs at Vicar Street from October 15 to November 29 QUICK QUESTIONS: WHAT MAKES Ó BRIAIN TICK? Earliest childhood memory? Being given a red train on my birthday. I recently mentioned this to my parents, and they said: “You were never given a red train.” Funniest Irish comedian? Dave Allen. Although there would be moments of transcendence from Tommy [Tiernan], I have to say. Last time you cried? Watching the end of White House Down. I was on a plane in a heightened state of emotionality. Biggest fear? There are unspeakable fears you have when you have children. Even now I can’t articulate them.