David O'Doherty: Did you hear the one about the comedian who said he'd try to fix everything...?
His comedy may be as dishevelled as his looks, but Irish stand-up David O'Doherty, who plays here tomorrow, is no slouch when it comes to winning over new fans, says Andrew Johnston
The last time David O'Doherty played Belfast, in October 2012, it was in a cavernous, white tent in the grounds of Queen's University. On stage that night, he was scathing about his disliking of the Belfast Festival's purpose-built, supposedly state-of-the-art 'White Room', and his feelings haven't subsided a year and a bit later.
"That tent was like performing at a wedding where half of the guests haven't turned up," David groans.
It didn't help that the Dublin-born comic was touring with what he today describes as "the saddest stand-up comedy show in the history of entertainment".
The 38-year-old was coming out of a painful break-up, and the subject of his crippling depression made for an uncomfortable – if admittedly still amusing – evening.
"It was definitely funny," David remembers, "but it was quite traumatic to do, because it was about a time when I was very sad."
O'Doherty has been visiting Belfast since the early days of his career.
As his star has risen, he has struggled to book a medium-sized venue with the right ambience that can nevertheless accommodate an ever-growing audience.
"I can never find a venue in Belfast," he rues. "The time before (the White Room) was in the Ulster Hall, which is great for a rock gig, but I find it very echoey to do personal-type comedy in. The north is amazing for temperance halls, which tend to have really high stages, I guess where people have droned on and on about religious things 100 years ago. But they're awful venues for stand-up, generally.
"I also hate comedy in arenas, and some 300-seaters are horrible to play.
"I still love performing in pubs. If there was a more financially viable way of doing pubs – just standing on the carpet, with no microphone, holding a piece of paper – I'd probably do it."
A show in the Mandela Hall on March 15 may offer the middle ground David is striving for. "It comes highly recommended," he enthuses. The hard-working funnyman will also treat Londonderry's Millennium Forum to his idiosyncratic brand of mirth-making at a one-off date tomorrow night, but regardless of where or when he plays, it's safe to say his crowd will follow him. Reliably hilarious, plainly very clever, but heroically silly, David has carved out a unique niche for himself. He may not be selling out week-long runs in arenas, but he has a dedicated fanbase who indulge his whimsical style, and that's enough for him.
"The margins of comedy are so good when you compare it to being in a band, where it gets split between all the members of the band and the management, and you have to hire a van and drum kits and everything," he says. "You don't need to play very big venues. Obviously, you can make colossal sums of money if you do. I've heard that people who do the O2 in London can get £160,000 a night. Just doing half of one of those every year would do me very well."
Yet you get the sense the shaggy-haired messer with his Bontempi keyboard and childlike approach to life couldn't 'play the game' even if he wanted to. Not for him trotting out the same formulaic gags tour after tour. Indeed, even he tires of his material.
"I keep listening back to old shows, and they're terrible," David chuckles. "I can't listen to them anymore, to the point where I get sick of saying the same things. So, then, I try to write one that's funnier than it, and it becomes kind of an obsession after a while.
"I still know no other way to write a comedy show than to think about it all the time, to the detriment of the rest of your life."
The idea for his new show, David O'Doherty Will Try to Fix Everything, came while sharing a bill in New York City with American one-liner king Demetri Martin.
"Demetri was doing his proper jokes – which are actually beautiful, cut-down, perfect, Steven Wright-type jokes – and I remember thinking, 'God, I would really like to do that.' So, I set about trying to write a show that was a proper 'joke' show – that was like a real comedian.
"But life just kept interfering with the process, and more interesting things kept happening around me than the jokes, so (the new show) is a mixture of an attempt to write a 'joke' show and then how I never quite managed to do that."
'Joke' jokes might not be David's natural style, but he insists it harks back to his earliest experiences in comedy.
"When I started out, I was very influenced by my brother (Mark Doherty), who was a really great Dublin stand-up in the Nineties," he says. "He used to do non sequiturs – proper jokes. And I saw the late Mitch Hedberg at the Kilkenny festival in, I think, 1997 and it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. He was doing perfect little 'planets' – little jokes that are self-contained. I was really in awe of that, because you weren't divulging personal information about yourself; it was just funny.
"That's what I wanted to try and do, but I don't know how much you get to pick your comedy style. I think comedy is something you do for a while, and then it just emerges. I think people come away from one of my two-hour gigs, struggling to remember a single bit to tell their mother, when their mother asks, 'What did the man talk about?'"
O'Doherty's might not be the most populist brand of comedy, then, but it hasn't stopped him having his own Comedy Central special, which aired in 2012, or appearing on the likes of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and 8 out of 10 Cats. Would he consider going the whole hog and trying his hand at a full-on, family-friendly sitcom, à la Jason Byrne with Father Figure?
"I have this kind of three-act play that takes place with the TV people about once a year, where they say, 'We were at your gig. We really, really like you. Can you please give us an idea? We'd love to make something with you.' So, I submit a sitcom set in a frozen ship in 1917, and they get back and say, 'No-one would watch this.'
"But I'd rather do that than do a TV show that I wasn't comfortable with."
So, 2014 will likely be business as usual – lots of gigs, with some telly and the occasional literary excursion. David's books of fake facts about pandas and sharks have garnered a cult following among students, while he is aiming even younger with his current project.
"As you speak to me, I am staring at a steaming-hot computer, writing a draft of a children's book that has to be in for next Monday," he laughs."It goes to show if you submit enough ludicrous ideas to enough different people, certain things do get made."