The Den of Geek interview: Dara O’Briain

He hosts Mock The Week. He's done a massively successful stand-up tour over the last year. And now? Dara O' Briain talks to us, as part of our week of stand-up comedy...

The comedy genius that is Dara O'Briain

Dara O’Briain is, bluntly, one of the planet’s funniest men. He first came to prominence for many off the back of guest-hosting Have I Got News For You (although The Panel, arguably, was his first major breakthrough hit), and has since gone on to host the panel show Mock The Week. As his second stand-up DVD is released, he spared us some time for a chat – although not before explaining that he was talking to us while walking along Oxford Street….

Shall we ask you questions where you have to say strange things out loud, as you’re walking down the street?

That’d be great! Hi there! Could you shout for me the lyrics to ‘I’m a teapot short and stout’? I look forward to it. This will really shift DVDs!

We just did an interview with [the TV channel] Dave, and I got questions like ‘what’s your favourite word’. It’s comedy gold! I said ‘defenestration’ And they said okay. And I’m like: do you not want an anecdote or a clever, funny reason? And she said no! I just wanted to know your favourite word! People will see that and go – I must buy that DVD because defenestration is his favourite word!

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[Dara then notes that Den Of Geek reviewed his stand-up show earlier in the year, thanks us for it, and notes that “we’ve stepped over some boundary here where I’m now thanking you for writing a nice thing – that should never happen”. We thus start talking about the gig…]

Were you there the first or second night in Birmingham?

We were there when a lady told a story about a thief in her house who dropped the loot in the courgette patch on the way out.

That was great! Was that the night as well where the guy at the very end, some guy who I didn’t quite remember to go back and ask a question of.

Yes. But it was the courgette patch that stuck in the head most!

He dropped the stuff in the courgette patch. As if it couldn’t be any more middle class than that! The guy at the end … someone shouted ‘you never went back to that guy’ and the guy shouted ‘you’re crap’!

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It was a good night, very good fun. I like Birmingham. It’s a fucking great room.

I was going to ask that. The size of the rooms on the tour seem to have increased. Does that alter your act?

It currently hasn’t changed that much. I’m currently at what I think is the limit for doing what I do. I’m not sure where you were sitting on the night in Birmingham, or how I was, but I’d imagine any bigger than that and you’re going to lose the intimacy, the audience chat. Even the Apollo is very open as a room, so that still works, just about. That’s a 3,500 seater room. Any bigger than this, it’d be a mess. If you’re bigger than this, you’re talking Lee Evans stuff anyway. But it’s tough. The ideal space for comedy is one-to-one and a half thousand, really.

The other thing about this gig is that you seemed to give yourself more space than before to improvise and have fun with the audience. You seem to get a real kick out of that.

It does keep it fresh for me. It’s always kind of weird for me when…, I saw a comment that said ‘I think he uses the audience too much’ and I don’t think that really exists as a criticism to use them too much. But you have to have a show, because there’s always some people who think that if you’re talking to the crowd then that’s all you’ve done, that you turned up at half past seven, talked to them for a while and then knocked it on the head. So there has to be a 90 minute show.

But in the last couple of years I’ve always written in some sort of hidden Q&A type of thing. So crime story, or in previous ones there was name national characteristics, and we’d name ridiculous national characteristics. I’ve just found that the audience are a ludicrously useful resource. Crime story is the classic example. In a room of 1900 people, I’m always going to find people who have been telling this one fucking story for years, about the time they were in a shop and a man came in with a gun. And you want to get that out of them. I kind of stumbled across it by chance on the first night, and thought oh fuck it, this is really going to work every night. And every night there were loads of people who would just go for it, and you would see people in the crowd prodding, saying I’ve fucking heard you tell that story, tell the story about the time with the guy outside when you chased him in your underpants. Go on! Tell him that story!

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It creates an instant tension if you can see there’s clearly something coming off the cuff. You get credit for jokes that if you wrote them down would be weak, because they’re obviously off the cuff. It gets a huge roar.

The drinking game you’ve put on the DVD, where you and David Mitchell sit and watch the gig together while drinking. He notes at one point that “you were lucky with Reading”, where you stumble across a guy who had travelled from there to see the gig [it allows Dara to retort: “But I played Reading! I came to you!”]. You must, though, have had your fair share of tricky answers that you can’t do anything with?

Well, I’ve stopped doing interesting places, because it actually gets a bit hacky. You’re from there, you must be this. More interesting is what people do. But even focusing on that, if they work in IT or finance – well, finance could be funny now – but IT is a killer. Audiences don’t have an emotional response to that job. You want people basically to have the kind of jobs that appear in kids’ books about what grown-ups do for a living. That’s my rule. If it appears in a Richard Scarry book called Things We Make And Do, then that works for an audience.

We spoke to Russell Howard the other day, and he argued that DVD isn’t really a medium for live comedy. Yours does work very well on that format, though…

I really love the first DVD, and this one was in the middle of a whole area of trying to push things, and changes, and making things work. So I was never sure how things were working. Also, when you do the show, like 100 times, you say ‘oh, I wish they’d taped Leeds’. It is a gamble. That the one time when you put the cameras in that it’ll kick off.

Yours isn’t the kind of show that you could film over two nights either and edit it together? It’s got to be a one night shoot.

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It does, yeah. I know that certain things will work, and in a two-hour show I only have to get 90 minutes right to make the DVD. People’s attention spans are shorter for a DVD than they would be for a live show anyway. I think we removed one person entirely who worked. A database information manager. And God love him, he’ll buy it, he’ll have been telling his friends ‘I’m in that show’, and he’ll never appear in the show. That could be awkward.

It is an awkward one, because when you sit in a room on your own, you don’t get the tension you get from a live gig. It’s why those with really well crafted one liners will always do well, but the real live merchants, the touring acts, people who are used to working big rooms for a couple of hours, it doesn’t flatter them as much.

Do you have to trim much back for legal reasons?

We didn’t on that particularly night, but I suppose you can play things fast and loose. We checked a couple of things with it. I made sure I had the exact proper wording for the pregnancy test. ‘The most sophisticated piece of technology you will ever pee on’ is the actual ad. I actually Googled it the night before the DVD was recorded to find the exact wording. There were a couple of things. You end up taking the piss out of a memory you have or something, and you look at it and see that it didn’t actually happen that way at all. The guy never actually admitted to touching the child!

Have you just said that out loud while walking down the road?

Yeah! On Oxford Street as well!

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I loved the drinking game you recorded with David Mitchell. But the one thing that struck me, on your last DVD you did the same thing with Ed Byrne, and he clearly got completely sloshed. This seemed far more sedate getting David Mitchell in���

He drank as much! [laughs] I got quite lairy and red-faced. I had to go on and do a gig later. David well was up for doing more. He can really fucking pack them away. But I think David’s one was less shot based as well. I genuinely wait for some sensationalist phone-in in Ireland. It’s a 15, the DVD, and yet it’s got a drinking game on it. That’s got to be wrong. Somebody’s got to pick up on it and go wait a fucking minute! You’re essentially just bringing in people and getting them pissed!

[Police sirens start wailing in the background]

They’re coming for the man who’s talking loudly about paedophilia! It’s all kicking off, fire engines and everything.

I liked the inclusion of the extra Irish gig on the disc. You hint a lot in your act about the difference between playing to an Irish and an English crowd…

How different was it for you?

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I thought the top and tail of the act was tailored to the Irish audience. And I’ve no idea what the word ‘gee’ is. [on the DVD, that’s the word Dara mentions that he says the English audience won’t get]

[Laughs] It’s a word for vagina. [Laughs some more]

Lovely!

I meant to put a glossary in! It’s essentially that’s how it works. The heart of the show, crime and community, they carried on on rails. We had the things that happened in the house. The Montesorri answer was particularly brilliant, and I’ve been telling that one on stage ever since. But I’m intrigued to know: were you watching going what the fuck is he talking about?

The first five minutes, to a born and bred Englishman, I was a bit lost. But then I think that was part of the point? You referred to the fact that you were filming it as a DVD extra as well. And the other thing I thought was that you’d surely never get chucked a bag of crisps at the end of a gig in England, as you do in your Irish gig?

Yes! That was really sweet and a genuinely touching moment!

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You looked absolutely overjoyed…

I was so glad she did it on a night when the cameras were there! I did my last one. I did 34 nights at the Vicar Street this year. It’s just an incredible room for comedy. 34 nights would be a brilliant run anywhere. Tommy Tiernan did 60 nights! It’s just amazing. When I got to the last night, the first guy I found was a semi-professional footballer for one of Ireland’s clubs. An apprentice, 19-year old. But it was Sunday night, and I said we can’t find a football. He looked crestfallen.

But one of the security guys went out to the block of flats behind, and knocked on doors until someone gave him a football. And when I did the big round-up at the end, I went off to do the encore. When I came to the last story, I walked off the stage, walked back with a football in my hand, and the fucking roof came off! The biggest applause I’ve ever got, just for having a football in my hand. He came on stage and juggled the ball, passed it to me and hoofed it into the crowd. Massive ending, standing ovation. I’m going why did I bother writing jokes, when all you want to see is a man doing keepie-uppies and then passing it to me to kick into the crowd. It’s just a joy of a room.

Thinking about your work, if I had to put a core theme to it, it’d be something like an upbeat intolerance?

[Laughs] Excellent!

It’s not frivolous comedy is it? You talk about solid things that matter, and make them funny. Is that the aim?

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That is. When you start writing it, it’s impossible just to go I will choose to write about bicycles or Post Offices or taxis. You kind of wonder what the fuck am I genuinely angry about? What’s been pissing me off? Bad science is a major thing this year. It is useful to tap into genuine emotions. It’s like writing a sitcom. You write a sitcom and you write the characters first, the jokes just kind of follow. It’s very difficult to construct one-liners in a vacuum. The funny lines kind of follow. If I’m genuinely pissed off, or embarrassed, or in a somewhat extreme situation, then the way I express it will emerge.

Upbeat intolerance? That’s fantastic! I might nick that! Would you be deeply offended if I call my next tour The Circus Of Upbeat Intolerance?

Help yourself! One thing I’ve always wondered. You were quite scathing about Gillian McKeith on your first DVD. Has she ever been in touch?

Weirdly enough, she hasn’t! And also she’s never been with a writ, and she’s notoriously litigious. Everything I said about her, and she couldn’t fucking say anything! I dreaded that I’d have to have all the previous DVDs pulped, or whatever you do with DVDs, but it turns out I’d given myself sufficient wiggle room.

I saw you on a show the other day on Dave, where you seemed in your element. It was called Argumental, a show about debating hot topics…

Oh yeah, yeah!

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Coming back to the point about the serious heart of your comedy, you really seemed to be getting into that quite a lot.

[Laughs]

I like a debate! Debating was my background, and I like an argument! I found my blood rising. Argumental I really enjoyed. It was the middle of the last series, and I was like, this one looks like a gas to do.

In the middle of the last series last year, I hit a block, a mental block where I couldn’t think of how jokes work, which occasionally happens. It’s like a footballer dipping in form. And I went off and did Argumental, and just roared and ranted. Then I was ah that’s how you do it, and I was back on track again.

Dara O’Briain, thank you very much.

Dara O’Briain Talks Funny: Live In London is out now on DVD. Our review of it is here.

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Tomorrow, our week of stand-up comedy continues as we interview Sean Lock.

Also check out:Tim Vine interviewRussell Howard interview

Interviews at Den Of Geek