Dara Ó Bri­ain “We seem to be obliged to talk about Brexit and Trump. It’s ir­ri­tat­ing”

Dara Ó Bri­ain on Ir­ish­ness, Bri­tish­ness, be­com­ing a stand- up and lov­ing an au­di­ence. In­ter­view by Pa­trick Freyne

The Irish Times Magazine - - FRONTLINES -

Aman 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 Ó 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.” 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 co- me­dian. 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 fun-

ny 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 he 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.”

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.”

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

Dara Ó Bri­ain: “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.” PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAN BETSON

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