IS ANYTHING off limits to a comedian? Just as I'm wondering if it's bad form to laugh about the funeral of someone's 100-year-old granny, Dara O'Briain, star of Mock the Week and occasional presenter of Have I Got News for You, turns the comedic screws mercilessly.
So there they are at the Dublin funeral when two politicians turn up to carry Granny's coffin alongside O'Briain and the family. The politicians are in the middle, but they're about six inches shorter than everyone else. "They're walking along, you know," says O'Briain, "just with their hands in place, taking no weight whatsoever, and they would break away to go and shake hands with someone and then walk back in and it would make no difference whatsoever. And I remember thinking, this is ridiculous."
O'Briain (pronounced 'Bree-an') has turned up for the interview, at a London club, with a Hugo Boss overcoat, a bagful of charm, two empty banana skins from his portable breakfast (it would have been more impressive if I had actually seen him eat either of them, I tell him – bet he's a sausage-and-potato-scone man who just fished the skins out of the downstairs bins), and an almost tangible abundance of nervous energy. There's a sense of perpetual motion about him, as if he's constantly tapping his foot under the table, and he talks with the speed of an express train.
Anyway, we digress, as comedians say. Back to the funeral. The politicians were there because Granny was a teenage member of the old IRA. (This is a true story, by the way.) The old IRA, O'Briain points out, was a different organisation to the modern IRA as we know it. His granny's involvement was limited to the war of independence, not the civil war that followed, and her role was to carry information between different squadrons of the organisation. "There was one time when she was running through the fields with whatever bit of information she had when she heard a British troop-carrier come along, so she jumped over fences and hid in the ditch. The troop-carrier pulled up on the other side of the fence, and they got out and stayed there for the night. She lay there in the ditch on the other side of the hedge."
It was only in the latter years of her life that she spoke about her experiences. When you think about this generation, says O'Briain, they say so much about so little, yet she said so little about so much. In fact, most of the stories about her exploits emerged after her death. What a temptation for a comedian! This granny was his local granny, the one who was around all his life and lived just along the road. She was Lucozade and a packet of biscuits when you were sick. He loved her. He also realised she was brilliant comic material.
ON THE DAY of this interview, the storm over Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross is still raging. (For anyone who was holidaying in outer space, the pair had left messages on actor Andrew Sachs's answering machine, gloating that Brand had had sex with his granddaughter.) Interesting territory for comedians; there is always that discussion about how much comedy relies on pushing boundaries. Is being shocking connected to being funny?
"Well, there's one boy who's very good at it…" begins O'Briain, in an oblique but humorous reference to Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, one of his co-stars on Mock the Week. "God love him, I have undying respect for Frankie, and he's genius at it, but his need for the bizarre has led to a lot of sub-Frankie stuff. There's a lot of young comics who are not finding their own voice – they're potentially finding Frankie Boyle's."
O'Briain may joke about his granny's funeral but he has boundaries. Along with Peep Show comedian David Mitchell, he says, he doesn't like jokes about rape. "It's a cheap holiday on someone else's misery, though that doesn't mean a transgressive comic can't make it work."
Interesting that he should mention Mitchell. O'Briain has just released a DVD of his live tour, and one of the extras is him in conversation with Mitchell. Mitchell talks, tongue in cheek, about footballer Paul Gascoigne, but O'Briain says quickly, well, of course Gascoigne is ill. Yes, says Mitchell, and if he should take the final step… "The final step!" O'Briain exclaims, half laughing, but he seems uncomfortable to be laughing at a reference to suicide. Was he? He hasn't seen the edit, he says, shifting enough to make clear the answer is probably yes. "But I think if you sense someone's pain, it's probably time to step back from the joke."
His take on Ross and Brand is interesting. He doesn't just see it as a comedic dilemma about boundaries but as an indicator of something more deep-rooted in British society. His first reaction had been that it was a terrible way to behave towards the woman involved, Sachs's granddaughter. "I don't think it's a healthy culture towards women in this country. It just shows their disposability that she wasn't even a factor in this. There's a strange attitude to young women here, which you don't get in Ireland, an emphasis that you have potentially ten years of a career, essentially, until things begin to sag. You've got between 18 and 28 to make it."
Ireland's stereotypical reputation may be for women locked into multiple pregnancies and traditional social roles, but O'Briain says there's not the same levels of disrespect to women there. The Nuts lads' magazine culture doesn't exist in the same way. He listened recently to one of Ireland's first topless models giving a "ridiculous empowerment speech" that made him think, "You've just not got it, have you? This is a ludicrous thing to do. You're going to live to 80 – why pick something that leaves you finished when you're young?"
O'Briain's own initial career choice was far removed from comedy. He is a graduate in mathematical physics, a choice that left his parents almost as baffled as being a comedian would later. (He became a stand-up but got his television break on Irish children's TV, and later became the host of the BBC's Live Floor Show.) His mother was a housewife, his father a trade-union arbitrator. "My father would have been a barrister had he come from a middle-class background. He taught me an odd thing about negotiation: always be the seller. Even if you're the buyer, you become the seller. You shift everything round to, 'Really? Do I want to sell to you?'"
His father was also a choir master, and perhaps subtly influenced O'Briain's later career choice. He remembers watching his father at concerts, talking to audiences between musical pieces, occasionally cracking a joke. "It wasn't specifically the joke. I think it was more the command of the room, and I thought, 'That's impressive.' I used to be very bored by the panis angelicus parts, but I was quite impressed by the talking."
Despite his grandmother's IRA connections, the political interest skipped a generation and his father was apolitical – he was more interested in Ireland's cultural heritage, and was a member of the Irish language society. Indeed, O'Briain was sent to an Irish-speaking school and, though his mother never learned the language, he and his father always conversed in Irish.
The Irish school had a big influence on him. "People sent their kids to these schools because they thought it was a good thing to do; they cared about this stuff enough to make the extra effort to send their kids there. For me, it was eight miles in the morning. There was always a very vibrant, argumentative atmosphere, and people came out of it fired up. They came from backgrounds where things were discussed, debated and argued, and stands were taken."
He remembers a Jesuit priest coming looking for recruits, but he got torn apart. "He got out, 'Hello, I'm a Jesuit', and the first hand went up. 'What's with this soldier of God bit? You're a very military type of organisation.' And then the whole class turned on the Jes. It was great. The Jesuits pride themselves on being very good at sophistry and argument, and he just got torn apart by a class of 17-year-olds."
O'Briain wasn't at the forefront of the dissection, and he certainly wasn't the class jester. "I was enormously shy. I was quiet and awkward as a teenager, and I've held on to that. That's the motivation. I really hated that and enjoyed so much not being it. At university, I just came out of myself through debating. I remember seeing it and envying it and thinking, 'God, I'd love to do that,' and giving it a go and it working out. There was a short time-span between being painfully shy and enjoying being an extrovert."
He enjoyed the Jesuit's discomfort because, despite his Catholic upbringing, he is "deeply, deeply atheist". But he's not Richard Dawkins, he says. "I don't have in my heart the anger some people have about it. It's just an absence. People talk about, 'Is religion the answer?' I just don't have the question. At all. There's no void, no gap."
What about that old phrase, 'once a Catholic, always a Catholic' – the idea that once brought up in the Catholic Church you never quite escape it? "One of my favourite jokes is, 'I don't believe in God but I'm still a Catholic.' Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist? I claim I'm ethnically Catholic: don't believe in God; still hate Rangers. But I know what the sacraments are, I still remember Lent, that kind of stuff. I sometimes joke with people about that."
On a purely humanist level, then, does it ever feel like a waste that he studied mathematical physics but now spends his life telling jokes? You know, he says thoughtfully, the only other person who has ever asked him that was Scottish too. That's because in Scotland we divide into Catholic Presbyterians and Protestant Presbyterians. That sense of duty over pleasure is ingrained. "I'm always very wary of utility as a measurement of anything," says O'Briain. "In Ireland, you have this argument about the Irish language, and should it be compulsory because how useful is it anyway? I'm always wary of anything cultural being measured in terms of 'Will it get me this later in life?' I am incredibly lucky because I do something people enjoy and which they pay me to do, and I have fun playtime on stage for two hours a night."
If he has no questions about his life, does he have a sense of why he's here? "If you say you only get one go, it sounds nihilistic. I have no specific idea if we are here for any purpose. It's arrogant to think we are, that we are somehow tools of some greater being, a greater intelligence or whatever. I think we are incredibly lucky to get a go – and therefore we should just enjoy it."
LIKE MOST COMEDIANS, O'Briain sails close to the wind at times. But there is enough of a sense of mischief – and enough cleverness – to stop it descending into the merely crude. As you might expect from a mathematical physicist, he covers topics that are perhaps more esoteric than many comedians would: a rant about bacteria, a diatribe on homeopathic medicine… "I tend to be quite nerdish," he admits. "My interests are a little bit obscure. But I'm still a song-and-dance man at heart. I still think there's something about going up there and working and actually making people laugh."
Modern comedians often have a well-developed love of danger. It can, says O'Briain, lose you brownie points with certain reviewers if you are not seen as edgy. But he has a more cerebral interpretation of risk-taking than telling jokes about having sex with someone's granddaughter. Ask him if there's a high-wire appeal to being dangerous on stage and he says, "I'd sooner poach the audience away to something that they don't have a particular interest in but get them into it. It's a weird thing. Silence is a lot more dangerous than uproar. If you say a thing the audience disagrees with, but quietly disagrees with, that's a lot more difficult. That's a lot more interesting than a shocking joke."
Nobody would come to his show, he admits, if he listed the topics in advance. That's the challenge. "People who cover comedy get tremendously impressed if you are a modern comic and talk about modern things. We Irish comics cottoned on to it for years, talking about Northern Ireland, when in fact it's the easiest thing in the world to talk about."
His own grandmother fitted into that territory, and Muslim comics have it made. Terrorism is bread-and-butter to a comedian. "People say, 'How dangerous! Talking about topics I've never heard discussed before.' Except maybe in their house for their entire lives. I'm very dubious about that kind of stuff. I'm much more impressed by someone who can take an everyday topic and turn that into something."
He still tells the odd terrorism gag because he trawls his own life for material. He once went to York Model Railway because he had a few hours to kill, and asked if he could leave his bag while he went round. The man behind the counter reacted immediately to his accent. "He said, 'I don't think so. Not with what your boys have been up to for the last 30 years.' I said, 'Well, a) they're not my boys, and b) even at their most crazy, I don't think the IRA ever said, Do you know what will break the spirit of the English? If we go to York Model Railway, they'll be out of Northern Ireland by the end of the week.' And your man said, 'Since 9/11 we have to be extra careful.' I said, 'I don't think al-Qaeda are hatching any evil plans to break into York Model Railway and fly tiny aeroplanes into each of the buildings.'"
Perhaps the important thing about having boundaries is having some rationale for where you place them. Joan Rivers, for example, one of the first comedians to tell a 9/11 joke, argues that once you laugh at something, it loosens the power it has to destroy you. O'Briain worked with Rivers once, and was bowled over by her ability to manipulate an audience. "She told a joke that didn't work, and your initial instinct as a comic is to back away. But she turned on the audience and said, 'I can't believe you didn't give me more for that joke. I gave that joke everything and you held back.' She berated the audience in such a way she tore them apart and lifted up the tension – 'Oh, it's hardly worth going on… Oh, okay, I'll do the next joke…' And when she dropped them they erupted into applause. It was a masterclass."
Despite his television success, O'Briain just wants to be a working comedian with a tour every two years and no celebrity status. He turns down any shows with the word 'celebrity' in them – Celebrity Chef, Celebrity Mastermind – though he secretly wanted to do a celebrity version of Real Hustle, which reveals how particular con tricks work. But he hates the C word. "I just think it's worth not going there because I have a trade, and no matter how ludicrous it is, I do a thing – talking – and I've spent years learning how to talk, so I'm not going to pitch myself into the equivalent of just some bird or Mario off Big Brother."
He is married to Sarah, a doctor, but even asking something innocuous about how long he has been married provokes a vague mumble about "a small number of years". Once you tease him about his reticence, he explains that he refused to co-operate with the papers about his wedding so the Irish press ran a story about him "marrying in secret". So secret that there were 150 guests in a big room in London. He just has this feeling that he would rather nothing was known about him until it's old news and nobody cares any more. Contrary to popular belief, the Irish aren't great talkers, he claims. They just know how to talk a lot without saying anything at all.
When anyone comes up to him and says, 'Do I know you?' he always answers, 'I was in your class at school.' That gives him just enough time to make a sharp exit. Dara O'Briain is a man who knows exactly where all exits, and all boundaries, are located. r
Dara O'Briain Talks Funny – Live in London is out now on DVD (19.99)