Monday 18 December 2017

A stand-up kind of guy

He's a huge hit on TV, but Dara O Briain's first love is sharing his controversial opinions on stage, says Carl Dixon

Although we've produced our share of successful comedians in recent times, Dara O Briain stands out.

For he has managed to transcend the limitations of the genre by moving into mainstream television in the UK where his fast-paced patter and quick wit has proved very successful.

He hosts or has hosted Mock the Week, The Apprentice: You're Fired!, Stargazing Live and travelled around Britain and Ireland in the popular BBC Three Men in a Boat series with Rory McGrath and Griff Rhys Jones.

In the context of Irish television, he is perhaps best known for keeping the general mayhem in check as the host of The Panel.

One reviewer described O Briain as resembling an amiable brontosaurus and the first thing that strikes you on meeting him is his considerable size.

Coming it at 6ft 4ins, he tends to dominate whatever space he is in and his persona doesn't vary that much from the amusing, and engaging one he projects on stage.

Although he probably best known in the UK for his television work, he still sees stand-up comedy as his main occupation.

"It may seem like an empty platitude but if you are doing 150 days a year it needs to be your first love," he says. "Part of the attraction is that the authorship of the show is yours alone and thus the gamble is also on your shoulders.


"I suppose, like most comedians, I am still chasing that adrenaline shot. As you perform you have an internal barometer that continually measures and gauges the mood of the audience. There are moments when you know that the audience is enjoying a sketch and is travelling along a path with you. You know what is coming next and they don't and you really look forward to dropping the next bomb.

"It is not a job that you can realistically do without an adrenaline rush."

In 2009 O Briain wrote a travel book, Tickling the English, which poked mild fun at the eccentricities of the English nation and he admits he has a genuine affection for his adopted country.

"From a comedic viewpoint we do tend to talk about how brilliant we are in Ireland but it could be argued that we have relatively few strings to our bow," he says. "Certainly we are good storytellers. At a pinch we can claim credit for Spike Milligan, but we don't have a tradition of surreal, language based comedy for example.

"Of course it is also a numbers game and in the UK things are played out on a bigger scale. You are a more removed from your targets and you aren't as worried about insulting your neighbours or friends.

"The Panel works well in Ireland because we all know each other and we all know each other's business. But it wouldn't work in the UK where they like a formal structure with points and rules and plot devices to justify the jokes. Structure is considered more important and that probably a reflection of a more structured society in some ways."

O Briain was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, and studied mathematics and theoretical physics in UCD. His media career began as a children's presenter on RTE which included a stint as a bilingual presenter on Echo Island.

During this period, he began the slow process of carving out a career as a stand up. He recalls driving to Donegal to play for six people, but persistence and a heavy touring schedule gradually brought him to the public's notice and his was the biggest selling comedy show in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2005.


Since then, he has become firmly established as one of the UK's top comedians and his quick-witted interactions with his live audience have become a trademark of his shows.

Whilst knowledge of theoretical physics may not be a prerequisite for successful comedy, O Briain is a self confessed rationalist with a strong belief in scientific principles.

Various forms of alternative theory and quackery come in for considerable scorn in his shows.

"I was almost running out of targets in the alternative world but then the astrologers joyfully offered themselves up for slaughter," he notes cheerfully. "Someone once suggested that my show could be called whimsy and misadventure and that does describe the tone of the shows. Attacking alternative targets does give the material an extra edge and is a useful arrow to have in the comedy quiver. Having said that, I genuinely don't believe in treatments like homeopathy. It is supposed to work on two principles; namely that like cures like and that the more you dilute a substance the more effective it becomes. Now anyone who has drunk MiWadi can tell you that the more water you add the weaker the drink gets."

Although nominally a Catholic, he is also staunchly atheist. He sees Catholicism as a sort of ethnic club with a collection of common reference points.

For example you may not believe in God, but you still hate Rangers football club.

"I don't have any feel for religion, in my heart there is just nothing there and so it a subject on which my emotional response and rational beliefs converge," he says. "There is a saying that there are no atheists in a foxhole but that seems a poor philosophical basis for any religion. That you would believe when in danger and then promptly recover once saved."

The emergence of comedy as a mainstream force in the UK in particular has pushed the comedians themselves into the limelight and perhaps there is a danger that comedy will lose its critical edge.

"Certainly of all trades we need to be coruscating about ourselves," O Briain says. "Perhaps there is a danger that we will become complacent but there are probably 40 to 50 comedians who can sell out big venues and that is a huge step forward for anyone trying to develop a career in a tough business."

O Briain chooses to keep his private life separate from his professional life and despite his popularity has been largely successful in doing so. Living in London does give him a degree of anonymity that he might not find in Ireland.

Once described as Terry Wogan's heir apparent; a title not altogether to his liking, the English certainly seem to appreciate his particular take on life and innate charm.


"I think the comparison with Terry Wogan is pretty nonsensical really as we do very different things," he says.

"Certainly fame in the UK is much less intimate and I am happy to avoid the sort of untouchable, instantly recognisable type of fame that attaches to Ant and Dec for example.

" I am not sure how the English see me really. I do remind them that I am not English fairly often but perhaps to some degree they forget that I am actually not one of them."


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