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‘I Could Have Done Science, But Instead I Became a Clown’: An Interview with Dara Ó Briain

‘I Could Have Done Science, But Instead I Became a Clown’: An Interview with Dara Ó Briain

19 June 2017 |

You’ll know him as the effervescent, always-smiling presenter of Mock the Week, The Panel, Stargazing and The Apprentice: You’re Fired! – which he effectively fired himself from. He was also voted number 16 in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. Please welcome… Mr Dara Ó Briain.

You would be forgiven for raising an eyebrow on hearing that someone who once described himself as having the build of ‘one of Tony Soprano’s henchmen’ was also named ‘Terry Wogan’s heir apparent as Britain’s favourite Irishman’ by the Irish Independent newspaper in 2009. But with his cleanly shaved head, standing 6ft 4in tall and best known for his delightful observational wit, Ó Briain fits both of these profiles perfectly.
 
Studying maths and theoretical physics at University College Dublin in his youth, Ó Briain always feels that he took the right career path, choosing comedy over the varying fields of science. ‘I could have done science, but instead I decided to become a clown,’ he grins. ‘Comedy is not always the thankless task that some people would have you believe. More than a few people have compared it to being a boxer, as you’re up there on your own with no one to stop you being attacked. But every 15 to 30 seconds, I am being applauded or thanked when I do stand-up – something which isn’t afforded to scientists.
 
‘Yes, they may get a handshake or a pat on the back when they have made a brilliant discovery in their quest for the ever-growing knowledge and secrets of the universe, but I’m certainly not the one in the minority here! It’s also not a poor position to be in when you get to hand the microphone over to someone else.’
 
If ‘Comedian’ was put up as an available occupation, the job description would probably frighten most people off. So, how easy was it to make that decision? And even though he has obviously lived up to that choice, what challenges does he face in the comic's walk of life?


 
‘To gain any confidence in this business, you have to repeat, repeat, repeat,’ he says. ‘There will be naturally confident comedians and comediennes who will take to it like a duck to water and even though most people will understand that it’s a crazy dream to want to achieve, as you get better and more confident, the rooms and venues that you play begin to get bigger and better.
 
‘The idea is that you then grow into them. So, playing in front of more people would be something that is great at first when you book the gigs; then it suddenly dawns on you that you have to make more people laugh and come with you! It’s the same when dealing with hecklers: you have to own it. The whole thing is a great big confidence trick, so you have to convince people that you’re in control, you’re worth listening to and you own this room.’
 
However, as is the modern way, any comments and thoughts these days are not always presented in person, in real-time or in kindness. Every artist who puts their neck out with a new joke, a new album or a new piece of work will be thoroughly reviewed and there is always good and bad feedback to deal with.
 
‘It’s obviously nice and flattering to get some good praise on a performance, but you should never, ever take that for granted,’ Ó Briain says. ‘You’re never going to please all of the people, all of the time – some people are never happy! But any feedback which is less than what you’d hope for has to be taken on the chin and it just makes you realise that this is about having thicker skin. There is a sheer variety of opinions out there and you’re never going to win everyone over.
 
‘We all have our own audiences and the people who totally get what you do and where you’re coming from, but some people are unbelievably casual in their dismissive comments on what you’re doing – Twitter seems to be the big race for people to get the first bad review in.’
 
Being prepared for it and rising above it are Ó Briain’s methods of dealing with this particular occupational hazard, but he has a handy tip for any would-be stand-ups. ‘Shifting the blame and taste onto those critics is always a great way of dealing with it… “Oh, you didn’t get what I said? What’s wrong with you?” That normally works! “You’ll need to up your listening game!” Something like that…’ He pauses, lets his trademark cheeky grin spread across his face, then concludes: ‘Or just give up. There’s always that!’
 
As part of Refugee Week (19 25 June), Dara Ó Briain will be performing at the Brighton Dome on Midsummer’s Night (21 June) alongside a great selection of comedy acts for the Standing Up For Refugees gig.

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