On The Road Again: in conversation with Dara Ó Briain

After five years away from the stage, Dara Ó Briain is bringing his brand new show So… Where Were We? to the Bristol Hippodrome on 14 and 15 September. As he prepared to get back on the road earlier this year, James Rampton caught up with the Irish comedian to talk live audiences, finding the magic and how comedy can be used to articulate something quite profound…

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 Dara, an immensely entertaining presence on and off stage. You will be delighted to hear that he has returned to the live arena with a major new national tour entitled So… Where Were We?, which is coming to the Bristol Hippodrome for two nights on 14 September.

To say Dara is looking forward to being back on stage is an understatement that would surely win a gold medal at the Understatement Olympic Games. “I’m desperate to be out on the road again!” exclaims the comedian, who is chatting to me in the run-up to the tour.

Dara, who has also had a very successful TV career on popular shows such as Mock the Week (on which, by the time the final series airs this autumn, he will have chaired over 200 episodes since 2005), Stargazing Live, Robot Wars, The Apprentice: You’re Fired! and Go8Bit, continues: “It was very similar to being on stage at midnight on New Year’s Eve. 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.’”

That won’t be a problem for Dara, one of the most naturally gifted comedians on the planet. He is a magnetic, lightning-fast performer, endowed with marvellous storytelling skills and an unparalleled ability to pluck wondrous improvised routines out of thin air.

The critics agree. The Evening Standard calls him, “pure, undiluted comic genius”, and The Guardian says, “his set is a masterclass in intelligent, no-frills stand-up.” Meanwhile, The Times declares, “if you want a comic who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand for two hours, here’s your man.”

One of Dara’s outstanding qualities is connecting with his audience. He possesses an unrivalled capacity to riff on the smallest piece of information that they give him. The comedian, says, “You can really feel the electricity when it’s a live show.

“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.”

He goes on to give an example of a recent show the other day in Ireland, where an audience member inspired a piece of comedy magic. The audience member told Dara 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 at 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 Dara’s live act so compelling. The comedian thinks the spontaneity of his stand-up means, “it never turns into The Mousetrap.

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

“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?”

So what subjects will Dara be covering in So… Where Were We? “I’m always loath to say, ‘this is what’s in the show’. Nobody asks Beyoncé, ‘what’s your new album about?’”

Of course, he adds with a laugh, “I’m very much Beyoncé 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.’”

The Irishman proceeds to disclose that the second half of the show will be a long, moving and yet very funny story centring on a very personal revelation. Dara 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’ve 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,” Dara 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.”

As he looks forward with delight to the forthcoming tour, Dara underscores 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.”

Dara jokes: “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. 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 closes by reflecting on what he hopes audience members will be saying to each other as they leave So… Where Were We? “Well, if they come out in any way intrigued or moved, that’s fantastic but first and foremost I just want them to be entertained.”

Above all, though, Dara trusts that his audiences will be filing out of the theatre having enjoyed a brilliantly entertaining night out. “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. Maybe I’ll get to put my hands in some wet concrete someday.”

“I’m always reminded of what’s written on Max Wall’s grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘I believe that since my life began, the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.’”

There is no doubt at all that Dara shares that talent. In spades.

Dara Ó Briain will be performing at The Bristol Hippodrome from 14–15 September. Tickets are available at: atgtickets.com

Image credit: Brian Ritchie; brianjritchie.photography