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
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