Belfast Telegraph

Dara O Briain: Audiences are a great source of gags, but I never mock the weak

By Hannah Stephens

When appearing on television, BBC Two's Dara O Briain looks to his Mock The Week co-stars for laughs. But Dara says that when he's on the road doing stand-up, his audience provides the fodder for most of the gags.

Indeed, those who have crossed his comic path while on the road have provided O Briain with such a wealth of comedy gold that he's written a book, Tickling The English.

After every gig, O Briain explains that he wrote pages of notes for future reference and the resulting book charts some of his hilarious experiences with audiences and hecklers.

His stage show, for anyone who hasn't seen it, requires some audience participation. O Briain will ask individuals what they do for a living, whether anyone has ever interrupted a crime and other questions which might spawn a string of amusing asides and off-the-cuff jokes from the man himself.

But it's not the type of show where you sink down in your seat in the hope you won't be spotted, as O Briain avoids the personal humiliation route taken by so many of his peers.

"Hopefully, I have a warm, welcoming face," he smiles, looking more like a Mafia hitman than a gentle giant. "I don't do the, 'Look at you and slag you off' stuff. I want to take whatever facts they give me and use it as a starting point.

"If a member of the audience gets a laugh, a smart comedian will step back and laugh along as well. And you also want to create moments that the audience knows won't happen on any other night."

There have been times when individuals have left him tongue-tied, he admits.

"It's rarely bad tongue-tied. Bad tongued-tied is, 'I'm an engineer and I work with powerhouse solutions for high-energy compression'. Those are awful because the audience doesn't have an emotional reaction to that.

"You want the man in the pastry chef's hat sitting next to the guy in the fireman's uniform. You want the jobs that we all know."

On his travels, the 37-year-old found that there are no national characteristics shared across England.

"There is no everyman. You will not meet an English person who sums up the entire nation," he shrugs. But there is a definite north-south divide when it comes to audiences, he says.

"It's much easier to talk to people in the north than people in the south," he insists. "Audiences from the north are much more willing to speak and join in.

"I'm not a Butlin's host, I don't like organised fun, but I'm just looking for something I didn't anticipate. I just want random things thrown at me."

Born in County Wicklow, the son of a trade union negotiator, O Briain was sent to an Irish-speaking school and, though his mother never learned the language, he and his father still only converse in Irish.

"The school I went to was full of argument, discussion and debate because everyone came from that kind of background.

"I wasn't a class clown. I was quite quiet and nerdy and into science. I felt I was shy, but who at 15 or 16 doesn't think they are shy?

"A lot of the reason I took great glee in my 20s in discovering I liked talking in front of audiences was that contrast in how awkward and self-conscious I felt as a teenager."

He went on to UCD, where he gained a degree in maths and theoretical physics.

He laughs: "I thought I was going to be an academic, but I don't think it's physics' enormous loss that's comedy's minor gain."

But joining the college debating society gave him an outlet for comic speeches, he recalls. Then he went on open mic nights, where you'd have a five-minute slot at a pub or a club.

"The ratio of bombing never fully goes away," he says.

"At the start, one in six gigs would go badly, then you get better, so it's one in nine, then one in 20.

"I don't know what number I'm on at the moment but it's still there. That never goes away.

"You get better at devising a way out if it's going badly.

"You get better at knowing when to throw your script and go into street-fighting mode."

For a while he became a children's presenter on RTE before gaining success on the Irish comedy circuit.

His one-man shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival got him noticed, but it was with BBC Two's Mock The Week, the topical panel show -- a mix of Have I Got News For You? and Whose Line Is It Anyway? -- that his profile reached new heights.

"It's made me better known, which is an advantage in terms of getting bums on seats for my shows."

He is also a frequent guest panellist on QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, and appears occasionally on Just a Minute on BBC Radio Four, but is thankful that he is recognised far less in London, where he has lived for seven years, than in Dublin.

"If people think they know me, I say, 'I was in your class at school' which usually buys me half a second and by the time I've gone the penny drops.

"But at 37 I'm past the stage when I'm going to become really famous. There's a whole celebrity industry which I don't court and which doesn't have any interest in me and doesn't need me.

"Nobody is wondering what nightclubs I spill out of or where I go on my holidays."

So secretive is he about his personal life that he has dedicated his book to big S (it's been reported that his wife's name is Susan and she's a doctor) and little O, presumably his young daughter's initial. He won't tell me her name.

"I am currently engaged in a lifelong project to have a successful career that never involves using your private life in any way." And that's all O Briain will say on the matter.

He's currently working on another series of Three Men In A Boat, with fellow comics Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath, in which they will be venturing by boat from Dublin to the Atlantic in 12 days.

Next spring he'll be embarking on another stand-up tour, which is where he seems most at home.

"I don't have a need or hunger to be that kind of BBC One household name or to be a celebrity or to be on Strictly Come Dancing."

In fact, during the interval of one gig he checked his email and found that he'd been asked to appear on Strictly Come Dancing.

"I announced turning it down to a crowd in Dublin -- and that got the best cheer of the night."

Tickling The English by Dara O Briain is published by Penguin/Michael Joseph

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