Dara Ó Briain
TV’S CLEVEREST COMIC RETURNS TO HIS PET SUBJECT, SCIENCE... AND BEMOANS THE FACT HIS OWN CHILDREN WON’T BE SCHOOLED AS GAEILGE
Dara Ó Briain is a very reluctant celebrity. In fact, he doesn’t even like the word. ‘ Celebrity is the opposite of greatness — you don’t necessar i ly achieve it but it is thrust upon you,’ he says. ‘You saying I’m a celebrity: what does that mean? If you’re on the television, you can say that and it means nothing. It doesn’t mean anyone is celebrated, like the root of the word. It’s just somebody we may have heard of.’
Ó Briain mixes science and humour on TV shows like his Science Club — the current series is running on BBC2 on Thursday nights — his School Of Hard Sums and Stargazing with Professor Brian Cox, and has built a successful career on the strengths of his twin talents: his brain and his wit. That he’s smart no one can doubt — he is Ó Briain the brain, one of the cleverest people on TV — and he’s achieved success without travelling down the dreaded celebrity route.
Nor can anyone challenge his claim to be funny, as demonstrated on his meandering, insightful comedy stand-up routines and his appearances on the ubiquitous Mock The Week. And as the host of The Apprentice: You’re Fired, which recently finished its ninth series, he would never make jokes at the expense of Alan Sugar’s latest hapless victim. ‘For me it’s a personal choice that I don’t do red-carpet walk-throughs or am pictured in my “lovely home,”’ he says.
He refuses, too, to talk about his surgeon wife, Susan, or their two young children. ‘I suppose I could have been eight per cent better-known if I’d opened myself up to that. I might have had eight per cent more work,’ he says. ‘Equally, if I’d at some point chosen a name that was slightly easier to transcribe, then maybe I would be 17 per cent better off. But there comes a point where it’s too late to become “Dazzy B”; too late to change into somebody else, because then it looks too much like a contrivance.’
He’s not about to get a hair transplant either or have his teeth turned into tombstones. ‘I actually have a bad bite,’ he says, pulling down his lower lip to reveal wonky gnashers. I have to have that corrected at some point, but unfortunately I can’t get it done now because it looks like vanity.’
Refusing to dumb down is one of Bray- born Ó Briain’s most appealing traits. When he appeared as a stand-up on BBC1’s Live At The Apollo, he refused to go along with a request to single out fellow celebrities in the audience. ‘I don’t care if there is somebody from The Only Way Is Essex there,’ he says. ‘And there are panel shows where they want you to make jokes about “Rylan”, or whoever.’ I’m surprised he knows who last year’s X Factor contestant Rylan Clark is. ‘Yes, but that’s all I know about him. Was he good? Or was he bad? That’s something else! Neither do I have a Victoria Beckham joke. That stuff doesn’t intrigue me. What does is being the conductor of a conversation between four or five people, whether it’s for something as silly as somebody being turfed out of The Apprentice on week one, or three scientists talking.’
Ó Briain loves science and always expected to become a scientist growing up in Wicklow. It took him a while to admit to himself he’d chosen another path. ‘Three years into doing gigs, I decided to concentrate fully on it. [He’d certainly put in the hard yards as a novice stand- up, once driving from Dublin to Donegal to perform in front of an audience of just six people.] But even then I wasn’t willing to think I was a comedian. It was seven years before I realised, “Actually, this is my career.” The 16-year-old me would have been astonished that’s what I ended up doing.’ But not totally disappointed. ‘If that 16-year-old was aware of my work, he’d probably think. “Oh yes, I like that comedy show and that science show,”’ he concedes. ‘And possibly, “You’re a bit naff,” or, “How hideously bald you are.”’
Ó Briain is not one of the comedy scene’s natural bruisers, but neither is he all sweetness and light, on or off- stage. ‘Are there times when I’m in a ratty mood? Yes. I have pet hates and can be quite a pain in the backside, like anyone. I’m not a game-show host with a permanent tan and a fake smile. I get ratty and angry about stuff on stage. I’m relatively normal, I think. What I don’t want to create is an insincere kind of bonhomie. So if people come up to me at the wrong time and ask for a photo, when I’m clearly juggling a number of children at a shopping centre, then if I say, “No!” they should get that I mean it.’
His interest in performing was sparked by his trade unionist father. ‘He used to run carol
services where he was the MC. He was very charming in front of an audience. I saw him get laughs, and be at ease in front of a crowd, and I remember thinking: that’s a good skill.’
Dara spoke Irish at home and attended a gaelcholáiste, Coláiste Eoin, in Booterstown, Co. Dublin — something he regrets is not possible for his own children growing up in England. ‘I will never be able to give my children that education,’ he says, ‘but I would hope one of the main things they get from education is the enjoyment of a good argument.’
Arguing is something he loved, as a leading light in the Literary and Historical Society at University College Dublin, where he studied maths and theoretical physics.
I imagine it’s pretty intimidating being at the wrong end of an argument with him. He got into one recently with the School Of Hard Sums producers, who wanted the Dave show to be recorded in front of a studio audience. ‘ I threw my only hissy fit — I would like to think — in my broadcasting career. I had to explain that this isn’t a comedy show. If I know there is an audience, my instinct is to try and keep them entertained. But I also have to work things out on sheets and sheets of paper to get an answer. It’s bad entertainment for a studio audience.
‘My favourite moment so far on Science Club was when a debate about re- cloning animals off the host DNA of extinct animals [which all three scientists said would be a terrible idea] turned into a Jurassic Park-type chat about how exciting it was.
‘It’s different when I write routines about science for my live shows,’ he continues. ‘I will definitely try to calibrate those to explain sufficiently to a general audience the point I am making, and that is an interesting process in itself: how much information you have to give people. I hope people will put up with a certain amount of nerdiness in return for misadventure and whimsy. The magic occurs when something I have written in a room on my own turns into something funny when it is performed.
‘People think we choose to be a certain type of comedian, like Frankie Boyle chooses to be controversial,’ he concludes. ‘But that’s just the comedy voice he has. I could no more write Jimmy Carr’s jokes than Jimmy Carr could write my long ridiculous stories. You are given the voice and you use the voice you are given.’
Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club is on Thursday night at 12.20am on BBC2; Mock The Week is on Thursdays at 10pm on BBC2
Opposite page: Dara with his Mock The Week colleagues (l-r), Chris Addison, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons