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Dara Ó Briain: Spring for laughs

After two years indoors and five years since he last toured Dara Ó Briain is returning to the live comedy circuit for a massive tour this Spring. With little material to draw on from the outside world, he tells James Rampton it will be an introspective set but one that won’t scrimp on laughs

It is five years since Dara Ó Briain last started a nationwide tour. It would have happened sooner, he says, “but there was a small matter that intervened and caused an interregnum… Cards on the table; I ate a bat and decided to take some time off.”

This is typical of the comic, who’s as entertaining off stage as he is on. At the moment though, he’s on it more often than not. He’s on massive tour until December, So … Where Were We?, which arrives in Blackpool on 10th May.

“I’m desperate to be out on the road again,” he says, and the response of audiences so far suggest they are just as eager as him for some laughs.

“That sense of excitement is very tangible,” he says. “The moment I appeared on stage at the first show, the audience erupted. It was a huge sense of relief. It was almost like people were thinking, ‘Oh! this is actually happening. Sure, we bought tickets and came along, but there was always a chance that a government minister would walk out and say, ‘this is not happening. You’re all under arrest for breaking Covid regulations’.”

If you’ve not seen him live before you will have undoubtedly seen Ó Briain on the telly, on shows such as Mock the Week (which he has chaired since 2005), Stargazing Live, Robot Wars, The Apprentice: You’re Fired! and Go8Bit. But he clearly gets a thrill from live performance.

“It’s very similar to being on stage at midnight on New Year’s Eve in normal times. As you finished the countdown, you’d get an enormous cheer. At that moment, even though you know they’re cheering the New Year, as a performer you cannot stop yourself from taking credit for that. ‘Look what I just did! Look at the round of applause I just got! Aren’t I a brilliant comedian?’

“Now it’s the same thing – ‘look at us all here in the room!’ You haven’t earned that! You get a massive round of applause as a free gift. But that will wear off soon enough and the audience will tell me, ‘Right, you have to say something genuinely funny now’.”

Tha’st unlikely to pose a challenge. Ó Briain is a magnetic, lightning-fast performer, endowed with marvellous storytelling skills and an unparalleled ability to pluck wondrous improvised routines out of thin air. But his special quality seems to be connecting with his audience. He possesses an unrivalled capacity to riff on the smallest piece of information that they give him.

“You can really feel the electricity when it’s a live show,” he says. “That’s especially true when I’m messing with the audience, which is something I love doing. When people throw things in, that’s what makes each night special and unique. There is something enormously fun about creating something on the spot that then runs throughout the show.”

At a recent show in his native Ireland, for example, an audience member inspired a piece of comedy magic. He told Ó Briain he worked in “tech”, before admitting that he was actually employed at a ladies’ hair removal clinic. “I asked him, ‘Do you zap them or do you pull them?’

“At the end, I said to the audience, imagine you’re a big disrupters’ conference in San Francisco with loads of billionaires. ‘Great to be here with all these tech bros. I hear you work with lasers. What do you do? Transfer of data?’ ‘No, hair removal’.”

It is these priceless, off-the-cuff moments that make a Ó Briain live act so compelling. The stand-up thinks the spontaneity of his stand-up means, “it never turns into the Mousetrap.

“Could you imagine being in that show? ‘I’ve only been doing this play for 60 years. Watch out, Mr Butler, I’ve got my eye on you. What’s that you’re hiding, Miss Fanshawe?”

After one show recently, someone said to me, ‘that’s a lot more personal than you’re done in the past’. ‘Of course it is,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t got any other stories

So what subjects will Ó Briain be covering in So… Where Were We?

“I’m always loath to say, ‘this is what’s in the show’. Nobody asks Beyonce,’” he says, before adding with an infectious laugh, “I’m very much Beyonce in this analogy. The similarities are uncanny. Over the years, I’ve had lots of letters from her saying, ‘don’t tread on my IP’.”

One topic he will definitely be mentioning on stage is the pandemic, however. He explains, “I keep saying, ‘I’m not going to talk about it’, but it’s very difficult for it not to creep in and colour what you’re talking about. The pandemic was weirdly specific, but also incredibly universal.

“You can’t escape the fact that it’s been the one thing we’ve all done for the past two years. It is very difficult not to allude to home-schooling or isolation. It would be bizarre not to go, ‘wasn’t that a bit mad?’ But you want to go easy on it because people are very much looking forward to moving on from it.”

The second half of the show, he does say, will be a long, moving and yet very funny story centring on a very personal revelation. Ó Briain says, “I’ve never told this story before outside of the third bottle of wine at a dinner party.

“The story is full of revelations. You’ll be reeling from surprise after surprise, each one more surprising than the last. After one show recently, someone said to me, ‘that’s a lot more personal than you’re done in the past’. ‘Of course it is,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t got any other stories – nothing has happened in the last two years! I’d love to tell you funny stories from the road, but I’ve just been sitting at home for the last two years.’”

This section of the show emphasises that comedy can be a very good vehicle for articulating something quite profound.

“The tension you create with a true-life story is both serious and funny, and that’s great fun to play with,” Ó Briain says. “You ramp up the tension and the audience are thinking, ‘hang on, this could be serious’, and then you drop it. The audience then really laugh as they’re releasing all that tension.”

Ó Briain reiterates that he retains an unquenchable passion for stand-up.

“Amazing as this sounds, I don’t think I’m the hot new thing in comedy anymore, and it may even be that I haven’t been one for a while. I know, it’s astonishing!

“By this stage, I’m supposed to have moved into an acting career, or some serious, grown-up backstage job. Sadly, I just keep coming back to stand-up. It turns out that this is what I do because this is what I love.

“That said, at some point, the temptation may be to burn it all down and do something risky, like a totally improvised character show, or a silent clowning show,” he quips. “Take 25 years of goodwill with the audience I’ve built up, and dynamite it with an hour and a half of me miming being trapped in a box. That could be my new direction now!”

The comedian reflects on what he hopes audience members will be saying to each other as they leave So… Where Were We?

“If they come out in any way intrigued or moved, that’s fantastic but first and foremost I just want them to be entertained.

“I’d just be delighted if they say, ‘yeah, that was funny’ to each other as they’re getting into the car. Ultimately, that’s what I want. I’m not looking for a statue. But maybe I’ll get to put my hands in some wet concrete someday.”

Dara Ó Briain is at Blackpool Grand Theatre on 10th May. Tickets here.

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