Dara Ó Briain: it's a funny business

by Mark Broatch / 04 November, 2013
Dara Ó Briain talks to Mark Broatch about comedy, science and which of his gigs is the drinking show.
Dara Ó Briain. Image/BBC

Dara Ó Briain wears plenty of hats on that sizeable pilgarlic head. He is a stand-up comic and hosts several TV programmes, including comedy and science shows. But the live shows are his first love. Peruse YouTube and you will find his roomy nearly 2m frame striding the stage as he riffs on science, religion and anything else that takes his fancy, in that familiar rollercoaster Irish accent.

“If you put a gun to my head and said, ‘You can only do one thing’ [I hear ‘woon ting’], it would be standing on stage for the live shows. But [talking to scientists] has allowed me to indulge the 14-year-old inside me who wanted to know what the shape of the universe was. And now I get to put myself on the couch beside them and ask them.”

For nearly a decade, Ó Briain, 41, who’s from Bray, south of Dublin, has cheer-led Mock the Week, a show in which two teams of comedians try to out-quip each other on current events (sound familiar?). He does the humorous exit-interview show of the UK version of The Apprentice. He hosts travel docos and a couple of science programmes, including the magazine show Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club. “There is an element of sticks with plates balanced on top and me running from one to the other and shaking them furiously.”

About Mock the Week he says there is no script. “Everyone would come in there with some idea of the things they want to say. The trick is then meshing that into something. But I have no idea of what they’re going to say. And they have no idea of what I’m going to say.” In America they like their stand-up comedians doing late-night chat shows, he says. “In Britain, for some reason, they like them to hand out points in every round, in some vague impersonation of a parlour game.” Some viewers don’t get that the points are just a plot device. “You genuinely get people tweeting me going, why did you give the points to that crowd when they clearly said less funny things?”


Ó Briain is no science faker: he studied maths and physics at university. And he genuinely loves scientific enquiry. “For me, ’cause I don’t even work in it, it’s a doorway into a perennial sense of wonder and amazement at the things that we’ve learnt. That’s the tone that runs through Science Club usually. I don’t pretend to be the one telling you the facts. I’m merely the guy who’s been given an hour of television and hands it to over to people smarter than I am and then sit there like an acolyte going, ‘Wow, tell me more about this.’”

Many people with a small degree of celebrity use it to get close to sportspeople and models, he says. Ó Briain, a happy atheist, is a bit of a science groupie. “Scientists have passion, know what the hell they’re talking about and they’re relatively cheap.” He talks about Michio Kaku, a US physicist and one of the world’s top science writers. “He dropped in for an episode about the future. I tweeted a photograph of me and him having a pint together.” Ó Briain says after doing so many programmes for so long one always ends up being “the drinking show”, the one that when filming finishes they go looking for a local pub. “Right now it’s Science Club.”

He hopes programmes like his on national broadcasters help spread critical thinking. He says the BBC is committed to science, through the likes of David Attenborough and Brian Cox, and says there has been a groundswell of people in Britain annoyed with quasi-scientific thinking.

“People got exasperated with the crystal merchants and homeopaths getting the same amount of airtime [as science].” He swells with delight that there is a department in the BBC whose job it is to examine every piece of published research for potential use in science programmes.

He’s been to Australia and might have come here had we stopped offering to throw him off high places. “The festival was dangled in front of us, not just for the sake of how great it was and how good the audiences were, but that they would throw you off a tall building and then they would bring you up a mountain. You’ll do 30 gigs in a month but you will also be dangling on an elasticated string off a bridge at some stage.”


Ó Briain is a fluent speaker of Irish, as is his father. But he hasn’t forced the language on his kids. “They are very small, but also they’re growing up in London. My wife [Susan, a surgeon] is English and there’s no immediate danger of us moving to Ireland. So rearing them through Irish, like I was reared, would be an exercise in pig-headedness.”

For all his seeming busy, he reckons a lot of it is just appearance and he does turn down work. “I say no to an insane amount. I’ve said no to some pretty terrible projects. It doesn’t take a lot of time to make a thing like a panel show – you turn up and you crack jokes. It’s not like making a sitcom where there genuinely is a script you have to learn.

“My wife finds it incessantly irritating because the idea is that I work endlessly, tirelessly, whereas there’s a lot of getting under people’s feet just shuffling around the place waiting for a car to collect me later in the day to improvise and stuff.”

DARA Ó BRIAIN'S SCIENCE CLUB, BBC Knowledge, Wednesdays, 7.30pm

Dara Ó Briain’s Greatest Hits

“People say, ‘You won’t make jokes about Muslims, will you?’ I say, ‘Well, there are two reasons I don’t make jokes about Muslims. The first reason is, I don’t know anything about Muslims. The second reason is, neither do you.’”

“I am not a religious man; I don’t even believe in God. But still, Catholic.”

On the horror of school Christmas plays. “Die Hard is one of our finest and most beloved Christmas tales. Who among us would not prefer to see an under-fives version of Die Hard just once?”

“Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under ‘That’s grand’; then it moves into ‘Ah now, don’t push it’; and finally to ‘Right! You’re taking the piss.’ And that’s where the police sweep in.”

“I said, ‘Anyone Jewish here?’, and someone goes, ‘I’m Jewish!’, and I said … ‘And what year is this now in the Jewish calendar?’ And she goes, ‘Er, I wasn’t expecting questions, to be honest …’ – and then turned to her presumably gentile friend and had a bit of a natter – and then came back with the single finest answer I have ever heard from a member of an audience, where, without any shame at all, she just went, ‘Yeah, it’s the Jewish Year of the Rat.’”


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