The comic ambassador for Ireland

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW:He is one of Ireland’s top comedy exports, but when Dara Ó Briain returns home next week he knows his audience will put him straight if he seems out of touch

LOPING ACROSS THE bar-room in the small Pleasance Theatre in London, Dara Ó Briain, wearing a coalman’s jacket and a black woolly hat, carries a plate of Cumberland sausages and mash, dripping with gravy.

A woman, who, over a bottle of wine with her husband, has been discussing the difficulties of getting children to school in the snow, now seeks a photograph with Ó Briain, though her spouse seems happier to take it than appear in it.

“I don’t want to be in these things,” he says, just a little pompously, as he snaps the huge Ó Briain smiling pleasantly alongside his diminutive wife, while a young boy waits patiently in line for his turn with the Mock the Weekstar.

“I’m incredibly under-prepared,” says Ó Briain, who attracts millions of British TV viewers and sells out in theatres across the United Kingdom. “I just want to go in and get my head sorted.”

He and the sausages disappear backstage.

Minutes later, the 60-strong audience, who have paid a fiver to watch Ó Briain play with comedy ideas, are sitting in the small upstairs theatre, talking excitedly amongst themselves before the lights go down.

“Ladies and gentlemen, could you please . . .” says Ó Briain, introducing himself from behind the stage. “Oh f*** it, I have left some of my notes behind. Don’t go away.”

A shuffling of papers is then heard over the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, would you please put your hands together for Dara Ó Briain.” The Co Wicklow-born comedian bounds on to the stage. “Sorry about this, I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t slick, was it?”

Faced with such deprecation, the audience purrs. “This is a chance to work out some new stuff, so don’t bother if the quality plunges,” he jokes, asking a woman in the audience to keep notes of “the best bits”.

“You don’t have to keep minutes or anything. This is the joy of the preview gig,” adds Ó Briain, whose giant frame seems in danger at any moment of coming into too close a contact with the struts of the theatre’s roof.

Ó Briain’s next tour begins in Dublin’s Vicar Street next Thursday and he will have completed several dozen dates in Ireland before the show makes its way across to Britain for a further nine months of gigs. Work began on the new show just a little more than two months ago.

“What you saw essentially on stage was a child tipping over a box of Lego so that all the bricks fell on the floor, and after that I go: ‘What do I do now?’ I only sat down in October/November, which is a stupidly short amount of time,” he tells me. “It has been an accelerated process. You get better at doing it. It is always fascinating to see what will work and what will not. But thatworked out last night. How in a day has that stopped being funny? It does start with a blank sheet of paper. I have a notebook with scatterings of ideas in it. Really, really vague ones.”

More ruffling of papers follows as he leafs through notes. “The first thing is this is, eh . . . No, they’re too bad to tell you. ‘An elephant and negative reinforcement.’ What the f*** is that all about?

“Yeah, there is a thing here about an announcement on a plane by a pilot: ‘I have negotiated a 40-minute delay down to 10.’ How? What did you have to negotiate with? ‘Closing a laptop with photographs of your family on the desktop.’

“These are not strong ideas, but they give you an idea about scribbling down half-arsed observations. You don’t know where they are going to end up. It is like throwing shit on a wall.”

Ó Briain once chatted over pints with playwright Tom Murphy about the creation of a show, or a play. “As a general rule, you don’t get to meet people in other fields that often to say, ‘How do you do it?’. I met at the Galway Arts Festival. We both agreed that drink was involved as a thing now and again just to loosen yourself up. I am sure that an album is written in the same way that comedy is written.”

GIVEN THE CULTURALdifferences, the shows in Ireland will differ significantly from those seen later by British audiences. Ó Briain, though a regular visitor home, frets that he has missed something. “I am only loosely aware of what has been going on over there,” he says. “I miss the immediacy of knowing what everybody is talking about. I worry that I will look a tourist, that I breeze in and look tokenistic. That’s the reason why I stopped The Panel.”

Ó Briain presented and co-produced The Panel– a popular attempt by RTÉ to copy UK-style topical television comedy shows, and recently presented by economist David McWilliams – for three years up to 2006.

“There was a moment on The Panelwhen I was sitting next to Tom Dunne and he did an impersonation of Bill Cullen and everyone was laughing along at the impersonation and I laughed along except I had no idea how accurate it was,” Ó Briain says. “I had heard the name Bill Cullen but I had no idea how accurate, or not, the impersonation was. I dread that. It is like any relationship. I haven’t given it the amount of time to know what is going on in people’s lives.

“The day-to-day stuff is often what makes comedy very rich. Not knowing what the current most irritating radio ad is, or what RTÉ’s latest reality show is, stuff like that, little references that everyone knows, I miss. People like to watch travel programmes and read great books about journeys, but stand-up comedy has to be about them. Even if it is about you, it has to touch on other people’s lives. That’s something, that you have to keep people in mind. The nightmare is that I arrive over with a reference set that doesn’t work out. ‘Oh God, he has really gone English,’ they’ll say. But Vicar Street is not a shy audience, and they are not slow to put you straight.”

One of the Celtic Tiger generation who went to London not because they needed a life raft, but because it is one of the great global cities, Ó Briain, now married with a small daughter, is well bedded into London.

“I don’t consider this as emigration. It is an hour away. Fifteen years ago, if you emigrated you went on a boat. It took proper effort, as opposed to hopping on a plane,” he says, adding that he only occasionally dips into the Irish scene in London. “I’ll admit to having sourced Chocolate Kimberly biscuits and Chef brown sauce. There are shops that will sell you TK lemonade, but it isn’t that I need care packages sent from home with Taytos.”

But he does meet up with fellow Irish comedians Tara Flynn, Brendan Dempsey, Deirdre O’Kane and Ed Byrne. “We all had our Christmas dinner a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “We went to Richard Corrigan’s restaurant, so it was a phenomenally Irish night. Micksmas, we call it.”

Ó Briain, who appeared in the BBC’s Three Men go to Irelandover Christmas with his regular TV boating partners, Welshman Griff Rhys Jones and Englishman Rory McGrath, frets a lot about his relationship with his home country. He liked the first episode of Three Men go to Ireland, but is less keen on the second.

“The main reason I had mixed feelings about it is that I couldn’t do what I normally do, which is take the piss, because I just knew too much about everything,” he says. “If I was doing a show about Ireland for RTÉ, I wouldn’t have had a problem, but I did because I was doing a show about Ireland for the BBC. were less interested in cultural identity than I was and more interested in the adventure.

“Two things probably impaired my enjoyment of the show. Firstly, the feeling of being an ambassador for Ireland – I could never get away from the fact that I wanted the weather to look good, that I wanted the place to look well.Every conversation I had was about that it was very tough at the moment, ‘We’re not doing any boat rentals and we’d love more tourists to come over.’ I was having that chat with people and the BBC crew weren’t.

“I was getting the other picture in my ear. I knew too much, to some extent. I certainly couldn’t go in and take the piss out of stuff, because I knew the grief I would get. Don’t think that the spectre of being a topic on Joe Duffy wasn’t weighing on me the entire time.

“You know the kind of thing: ‘He ran over to England, took the piss out of the place, and made a bit of money off us.’ It is very difficult to keep that from your head. I was making this for the BBC, but the people who are going to be the most vocal about this are Irish people. I could not get over the image in my head of Irish people walking alongside me going: ‘Hmm. You can’t say that about us.’ I am not saying that it was a particularly brave stance I took, but you know.”

The other reason Three Men go to Irelandtook it out of him was drink. Ó Briain, who has kept in close touch with many of the people with whom he grew up and went to college in Dublin, was “literally hammered” most nights.

“Mullingar was an insane night. I had to bring the crew into a nightclub, 14 of us. Mullingar really kicks off on a Saturday night. I don’t know if Mullingar was always thus – maybe it is something about the statue of Joe Dolan, but the place went bananas and we were rolling from pub to pub.

“Limerick? I have family in Limerick. I was literally poisoned after it all. You can see it by the end of the second episode: I was exhausted. Plus they fed us incredibly well. I went from carvery to carvery. For a country in recession, the portions certainly haven’t gone down.”

SOME EVENTS INIreland leave him baffled, particularly the Government’s decision to introduce a blasphemy law.

“I think it is a ludicrous notion that you can sue people for blasphemy,” he says. “I think it is an absolutely abhorrent idea that religion in and of itself must remain without question and cannot be insulted and cannot be attacked. I don’t say this in a childish, petty way. I am not going to rush to become a challenge or a test case for it, but it is insane in this day and age that a quasi-medieval church-and-state symbiosis should exist and that somebody will step in.

“Is there a citizen’s arrest from the audience, when somebody goes: ‘You blasphemed.’ I am intrigued about how this is going to work. Is there any equivalent? Is there any other facet of human life that I am not allowed mention?”

But what those who would be offended by criticism of their faith? “I’d like them to point out where it says that you can’t be offended,” Ó Briain says. “Where’s the right not to be offended in life? And where the full machinery of state is got out to protect you from possible offence. It is a ludicrously heavy-handed way to deal with discussion about what is not a given, that there exists a God, or that religion in and of itself is above criticism.”

Ó Briain insists, nevertheless, that “this is not a hot topic for me. I have done my routines about religion. It is a topic that, frankly, I find very dull now and one that I want to move on from. I have done long routines about the differences between Protestants and Catholics at weddings, Lent or whatever.”

Ó Briain abandoned Catholicism during his teens. “I have never felt a need to return back to it,” he says. “People say that it is the answer to a question for them. I don’t have the question. There is no longing in me. There is no voice saying: ‘What is the meaning of this?’ I am quite happy with this, that you get one spin around without trying to explain some of this by invoking a guy with a magic wand, or indeed limiting your desire to question.

“I just don’t have a religious bone in my body. Most of the time I joke about religion is about how we all grew up. That’s why I don’t do jokes about the Muslim faith. It’s not because of any cowardice, it’s because I don’t know anything about the Muslim faith.

“I would happily go back to criticising again simply to point out just how ludicrous it is that you would have a law that you cannot criticise religion. It isn’t something I would do for publicity that I don’t need, or the ticket sales that I don’t need.

Equally passionately, Ó Briain is bitterly critical of “libel tourism” in the UK, where the rich and powerful are increasingly using the British courts to sue publications around the world for material published on the internet.

“It is not that I think that comedians are going to be hit with this, I don’t think we are,” he says. “A company would look ridiculous for suing a comedian for a joke about a brand of shampoo, or a set of razor blades, but it is worrying that cardiologists can be sued for making quite justifiable and fair comments about medical equipment on Canadian TV in a British court.”

He has backed the Sense About Science campaign seeking changes in the law, frequently doing interviews on TV and radio in support of writers, such as science writer Simon Singh, who are currently facing legal action.

His celebrity helps. “I am not, in the Hello!magazine sense of things, a celebrity, I am sufficiently well-known,” he says. “It occasionally gives one some kind of heft to bring somebody else’s case to greater public light.”

Television stations are “turned over by celebrity”, he adds. “It is a weird trade-off. We all know that I am not the most expert person to be talking, but you won’t bring on the expert. You’ll bring me on, so I had better talk about this as cogently as possible and not let the expert down.”

PERSONAL

Born in Co Wicklow, now aged 37. He is married with one daughter.

CAREER

Made his name in stand-up, but successful TV work ( The Panel, Mock the Week, Three Men in a Boat) was recently followed by a book, Tickling the English. The London Independentsaid: “He’s fond of us but hes not one of us, so his observations have perfect pitch. Above all, he proves you dont need to be nasty to be funny.”

NEXT

Will begin a nine month-long tour of Ireland and the UK next week in Dublin