Dara O Briain interview: Independence Day, videogames, 2012, Twitter, stand-up and Gillian McKeith

As he launches his brand new stand-up DVD and Blu-ray, Dara O Briain spares us some time for a chat about films, comedy, his legendary videogame routine, and more…

Dara O Briain

Walking into the room where I was set to interview Dara O Briain, it suddenly came to me where I’d seen it before. It was the very same place where he recorded the excellent drinking session commentary for his new DVD, alongside Ed Byrne and Andy Parsons.

The room was adorned with gold discs for DVD sales, although Dara confessed that he didn’t put his own on the walls of his office (he did, however, have a cracking story about somebody who did). But from there, our conversation swiftly turned to the film 2012, which Dara dissects expertly in his brand new stand-up DVD, This Is The Show. So we figured we might just start our chat by talking about the director of said film…

You broke Roland Emmerich.

[Big smile] In what way have I broken him?

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Because I figure, off the back of your gig [where Dara spends a section discussing the frailties of the film 2012], he announced he was to do a low budget film for his next project. Did you catch this story?

[Gasps with glee] I did not!

It was said that he was going to do a $5m ‘found footage’ movie called The Zone, which has now also been canned. So he was doing this antithesis to 2012, and clearly it’s now all fallen apart because of you.

I am so proud of that! Because I was never convinced by Independence Day…

It’s half a film.

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Yeah, exactly. And also, half the film is V, followed by half of Star Wars, where the single shot goes into the thing and blows up, tumbles to the ground in an impressive way and they all jump around. It was homage in every direction! Mainly V, though, which itself was stolen from Arthur C Clarke. It’s not bad geek credentials to bring it back to him.

So, I was angry with that anyway. But also because I saw Independence Day twice in the cinema. Once on holiday in Cancun in Mexico, which was full of Americans whooping and cheering. And then I went to see it in Dublin.

It was a jammed, Savoy one-screen cinema, and they got to the bit “This is our independence day”, that speech that Bill Pullman does. And this woman started laughing. She got a fit of the giggles and couldn’t stop herself. Every line of the film Pullman said, she would laugh again. And eventually, the whole room was in tears laughing at this shit. It was like the child pointing at the Emperor’s New Clothes, saying this is so silly, I’m so sorry.

And she was apologising for laughing, but every time they laid another cliché on top of it all, she’d laugh again. And it wasn’t knowing, it wasn’t sharp or shrill the laugh, it was just a genuine oh-my-God, this is hilarious. And everyone just fell around.

Were both screenings equally as good in their own way, though?

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In a way they were both memorable, yeah. But I felt more at home, I have to say, at the second screening. They were more my people!

Did you see The Day After Tomorrow, then?

Yeah, yeah.

Where the penicillin didn’t freeze?

[Laughs] What are the chances that there was going to be bad science in The Day After Tomorrow!

The other thing you put in this gig is your extensive videogame routine. And you noted on the disc in the extras that this was something you reckon you couldn’t have done until now.

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Yeah. I’d say I couldn’t have done it even two years ago. Possibly could’ve.

But what changed? Was that you and your confidence in it, or the audience?

I made the observations, as general as they are, but I don’t think gaming was as mainstream two years ago, and it certainly wasn’t four years ago. I think that the age profile of gaming has gone up. That generation has become this generation.

That young Atari, Spectrum, C64 generation is now the people at home, 35, still playing the games. It might be a tipping point. If people come to the show between 15 and 37, now more than half of them fall into gaming. And that’s enough to get away with a routine like that.

And I have the bit now where I point out the people who are sitting, looking bewildered by the whole routine. There’d just be one man, like a meerkat, in the middle, sitting up ramrod straight. He’d be going “what is this man saying. He’s just waddling on stage!”

Even when it got to doing Live At The Apollo, we’re like ‘what do we take for that’?. We said well, we’ve got to take the gaming. And there was a small element of gamble, but it goes big for the people it really hits.

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You debuted it at BAFTA?

No, the first time it really came out was on Charlie Brooker’s show.

Gameswipe?

Yeah. And it’s after that I thought that, if you simply added me waddling, that it could work as a routine.

But we never felt we could finish with it. It doesn’t have enough of the whip crack to say thank you very much, goodnight, at the end. Even though I think it’s the funniest, solid funny thing at that point in the show, you couldn’t actually end on it.

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You’ve talked about stuff that ordinarily your audience wouldn’t know coming into a gig in the past, of course, but you’ve always worked an explanation into the act. Also, a lot of your book, Tickling The English, is about measuring the audience.

So this is what I couldn’t reconcile, because I’m intrigued as to why gaming wouldn’t work beforehand. For want of a better phrase, is there an element of you getting better and more confident with the material?

Yeah, yeah. But I know what essential details to give an audience so as not to bog the routine down.

Ed [Byrne], in this very room, angrily gave out to me for getting away with doing routines about things that aren’t generally well known. Maybe I’ve devised a skill for it, by breaking down the hard ground with the homeopathy routine in the last show, where I do say you’re going to have to come with me a little bit on this. Or maybe I’ve got better, and hopefully I have, and I’m learning more about how to do this.

But as well as that, there’s more trust from them [the audience] for me. And that they’re more likely to go with me. They think we don’t know where he’s going with this, but we’ve worked with this guy before. Let’s hang in with him for a while and see where he’s going to take this.

So perhaps as you get better known and people get more used to you, you can take that kind of chance. I do measure gigs in terms of how far they come to me, and how far I have to go to them. But I do get to the point now where I can relax a bit, and think they’re pretty much going to come to me.

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If all else fails, there are always new films you can take the piss out of!

Yeah, they are always new films. The problem is finding a film with a comedy angle.

Some are just crap.

Yeah. And the neutrinos [from 2012] can be a tough sell.

Well, appreciating 2012 is your shell, if you analyse what it actually was that you were talking about and explaining in that routine, I’m still sat there thinking ‘but you’re explaining neutrinos’! That in itself is a tough subject for a comedy gig!

True enough, yeah, yeah, yeah! The neutrinos is a cheap pay-off, let’s not forget. It is a really silly pay-off. But I do ask the audience to be outraged by the phrase “the neutrinos have mutated”, when most of them have no idea what it means. And you can smell sometimes that they weren’t as shocked by the bad science of it as I was! But when you go “the neutrinos” – pause – “have mutated”, and you don’t have any laugh, you think this is going to be an interesting one now…!

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But I have gone wilfully more nerdy in this show.

Very much.

It’s hugely nerdy. And I even say it’s going to be slightly nerdy at the start. And then every routine from here to the end is essentially a nerdy routine!

Because going through your book, I read intently the list of who was in the audience each night, and you did it on Twitter for this tour as well. And your audience had real geek credentials. You uncovered a Second Life programmer at one point…

Oh, yes, yes!

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If I’d been sat in the audience at that point, I’d have been away. But I remember you saying at the time that you moved away from it very quickly.

That was because while Second Life was a media phenomenon, it wasn’t a general one. And there is an important distinction between the stuff that you and I know from our corner of Twitter. The tweet I sent the other week about Robin Hood airport…

This was the one you were very pleased with?

[Dara tweeted, as part of the protest against the Twitter joke trial appeal verdict, which was going around with the #iamspartacus hashtag, “Robin Hood! All your base are belong to us! Somebody set up us the Bomb!”]

Yeah! Because I was sitting in a car, and doing the I Am Spartacus thing and joining in. And then, the two bits in my deeply hungover mind came into place.

I was sitting silently in the car next to the tour manager for Ireland, who had collected me from the tour manager for the UK, and the three of us had got pissed in Derry. She was really, really not at the races. And I sat there and suddenly went ‘oh God, this would be so good. I hope nobody’s done this’.

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And then I sat there nervously checking I’d put the words in the right order, because I didn’t want to say “You have set us up the bomb”. That’s the last thing you want to write. So I got the thing down, “all your base are belong to us”, and I sent it, this little nerdy bomb of joy. And then I put the phone down, but kept checking it!

For the rest of the day, she was sat beside me, and I said “I’ve just done a great joke that you won’t understand”. And I read it to her and she said “I don’t understand that”. She’s like, I don’t get it. And then I’d read her things like “LOL. Dara wins the Internet”. And then it went on Channel 4 News, and CBS News. And all the time she’s going “why?”.,

Then my wife rang me at the end of the day, and she said how’s your day? Very good. Funnily enough, I wrote a tweet that appeared on Channel 4 News. She said what was it, and I read it to her, and she said “what the fuck does that mean?!”

But we have our own little corner of [Twitter], and it is beautiful. It’s about indulging yourself without over-indulging yourself, though.

It’s dangerous now with Twitter, too, because it’s now treated as a legitimate news source. You touched on it there.

Oh yeah.

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Look at Stephen Fry. One person’s tweet there generated how many pages of coverage in the media?

Yes. It is in an awkward half-light, transitional phase between spoken word and written word. That murky ground between the two, where we’d like to be able to grab it back.

My view of what Twitter is, is that it’s the open plan office experience on a massive scale. You’re working away on something, you hear a conversation, and you join in, or you shout across the office and they shout back. You can grab them into a private room.

And in your head, you’re doing that thing of thinking “I’m not going to say that to you now, I’ll say it privately”. But most of the time you’ll go “hey, did you see whatever last night”, and somebody else will join in because they hear you. And it is an open plan office for people, just with 200,000 chairs or whatever.

It’s that dynamic, and I think that people in traditional media think it’s been put on a Twitter page as an announcement, as if it’s a press release or something.

I get the same rush from it, because Emma Thompson included me in a Tweet. Somebody sent a thing to her saying do you know anything about Bill Bailey, Ross Noble or Dara O Briain. And she put, 28 years in Hollywood, and this woman asks me about them!

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So I sent her a thing and said if you’re ever stuck, just make shit up about me. It’s a win-win for me. An hour later, her reply pops up with “Remember those rumours in the 90s about Tom Cruise’ sexuality? Other man was @daraobriain.”

I was like, “yaaaay”. You get the same rush. It’s amazingly democratising, and normalising.

For better or worse, as well.

Yeah, absolutely. And it may take the sheen off things. And people can’t stand press release talk.

It’s kind of awkward, because we haven’t best worked out how to mention product, generally. And it is awkward because I want to say that hey, I know loads of you would be interested in this, and this is what I do, this is my passion. But you know that people will go “do you have to spend all your time selling”? People get fucking livid about trying to get any plug at all!

It’s weird, though. I have people I only know through it!

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[For some reason, we then got onto talking, briefly, about Uwe Boll and Topher Grace, before normal service was resumed…]

I’m excited to hear about the Blood Rayne guy’s take on the Holocaust…!

Uwe Boll?

Yeah!

He’s a great interviewee.

I’m sure.

It’s weird, because he’s not dim at all. He’s a very intelligent man, and he works the tax breaks for film making arguably better than anyone on the planet. The man’s a genius, in his own way.

Have you ever seen ‘What’s up with Topher Grace’? What’s that American site? Video Gum! They have a column checking what he’s been up to. And it’s an occasional look at Topher Grace’s excursions into popular culture. Oh, to be the subject of an ironic column…!

Going back to your DVD, Ed Byrne, in the drinking game on the DVD, made interesting points.

Feel free to quote his questions!

I did quote him in a Back To The Future article, recently.

He does have strong views on Back To The Future. His central thesis is wrong [that Marty’s parents would recognise Marty as the person who brought them together]. That they would recognise this person who you spent a week with, 20 years earlier. I don’t think they would.

I disagree. I think he missed the big one, though, the fact that there are two DeLoreans by the time they all get to 1885…!

Ah, now, if you start bringing up the second film, I’ve never fully sat through it. I’ve sat through the third film. But I got warned off the second one, because nothing makes me angrier than a bad time travel movie!

Oh heck, you’ve got to watch it. You’ll get three newspaper columns out of it, easily…

[Laughs]

The thing I took out of the drinking game segment of the DVD was the Ed talks about how you basically use the crowd as your support act.

Yes. That is a part of it. It breaks the ice, they have more to say. The way I look at it is that I should be ten or twenty times better than them at telling a story. But there’s still a thousand of 2000 there. So if you add it up, they are collectively 100 times better than me.

That’s such the nerd’s way to do it…

Yeah! And I can even see the graph in my head!

It is a case, though, of getting it out of them. The one I’m going to stop doing is what do you do for a living. I’m over that now. I’m getting more lies, which I prefer.

You’ve been overtly asking for lies from your audience too?

Yeah, I’ve just asked them to lie.

You’ve structured your show in the past around the audience. So you always seem to turn up somebody who works in IT, which gets you into the peeing on a stick routine you had…?

Yeah, you’re right. But now it’s gone the way of that I used to do, years ago, lots of “where are you from”. Then you realise that you’re trotting the same stuff out. National characteristics, too. I think, then, that it’s time to have a brief revolution, because one in three are great, and – more in the UK than Ireland – the rest of them don’t care.

This year, for the first time, it might be they’ve seen this too often. And I’m not saying there’s been a massive cultural shift where people are saying we’ve seen lots of comedy now, and we’re less impressed by this, or people are colder about it and don’t want to know. I said before that sometimes it’s different when the job’s very fragmented and very technical, but there seems to be less curiosity in the room.

In the bit where I recap at the end, it’s 50/50 whether it’s something that came from the start now, or one of the life-saving stories that I asked for. The dream thing I did at the start at the tour ended up being dropped, because it got boring. But it’s 50/50 whether there’s a good life-saving story, or just an unusual job or something. It has its purposes. But there will always be interaction.

When I saw the tour, we had a guy make a beautifully out-of-context comment about central locking that had us in stitches, that you simply couldn’t write.

Absolutely. So they will take turns that you don’t anticipate. And most of the time they’re unrepeatable, because of the moment.

The last one I did in Southampton, there was a man who had a heart attack on a treadmill, and was coming off the treadmill at the end. And then he came off the treadmill, hit an exercise bike, which hit another exercise bike, and the entire class were going like dominoes. Sometimes you get a beautiful visual element, sometimes you don’t.

The advantage of asking if you’ve ever saved a life, or committed a crime, is that you are hopefully tapping into stories they have told for ages. So they’re “ah yeah, just listen”…

So it’s already gone through the exaggeration phase?

Yeah, exactly. They remain a resource, but I’ve got to find ways to use them.

You have, in a weird way, an evening of honest lying, then?

The one trick I may use is something I did in Edinburgh called truth or liar. Throughout the show I got them to guess whether I’d been honest or dishonest. And I may do that again.

Incidentally, have you seen the final copy of the DVD yet?

No, not yet.

They’ve put a ‘thank you for not pirating’ this DVD message at the start of it.

Really?!

Because they’ve turned the campaign around. In the old days, and you featured this in your gigs once, they did the old “you wouldn’t steal a car” thing. And now it’s a big thank you.

And half-way through this DVD, not only do you not chuck out someone who’s illegally filming your DVD, you include their footage as a DVD extra.

[Laughs] That’s good, I’m delighted!

Looking into the future, the retirement gig for comedians now is that you do a daytime TV show.

Oh God, that was always thus, though.

We’ve got Goldenballs with Jasper Carrot. Lucky Ladders. Even Noel Edmonds taking an hour to open boxes.

I’ve been offered at least one of those, and I went no, I’ll keep that for the way down! It’s the Monkhouse path through the 40s and 50s. There’s a point where before you become a national treasure, and after you’re hot, you go through 15 to 20 years of doing some sort of work. And that’s where they come in.

Did you see Terry Wogan hosting Never Mind The Buzzcocks?

No, was he good?

He was great. And the strange thing was that 20 to 30 years ago, when he was doing his chat show on BBC One, nobody had a nice word for him. Now you’ve got the panellists on a show of that ilk who are deeply respectful of him.

You’re always aware, and you’d be short-sighted if you weren’t, how is this going to end. Hopefully still on stage, possibly not Ken Dodd…

Really?

Actually, no. I quite like the Ken Dodd thing. I don’t think there’s anything sad or wrong with it. It’s the only option is that, or the Ronnie Barker approach, to quietly say that was wonderful, and I’ll go and do something else.

But not in the jungle. Never in the jungle.

They’ve just sent Gillian McKeith there, haven’t they?

[Big grin] They have, yeah. [Dara’s debut DVD featured a spectacularly good deconstruction of Gillian McKeith and her “methods”]

McKeith and Emmerich, you’ve taken them both down?

It is a pleasure to have had people finally come to me about the original McKeith material! [laughs]

So where next? You’ve already said you’re going to tour again in 2012?

Yeah. I’ll start previewing this time next year. Do it again in 2012, again in 2014, and we’ll see where we are at that stage. But I am a stage animal. So I’ll have to do it in some shape or form, talking in front of a crowd.

Is there anything else lined up? Are you going back in a boat?

We’ve got one more boat thing, at the start of the year. And I’m possibly doing a science thing at the start of the year, but it’s not definite.

I’ve got all my quantum mechanics books out again, I’m going back into that. I just want to do something with a different part of the brain for a while. And then I’ll come back to writing jokes again. But I’ve got more Apprentice, more Mock…

Dara O Briain, thank you very much.

Dara O Briain’s terrific DVD, This Is The Show, is available now.

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