There are many reasons why people turn to comedy. A broken home, a failed life of crime. Premature taxidermy explosion.
Perhaps they stared into the abyss and the abyss giggled coquettishly. Perhaps it’s as Eric Idle suggests in The Road To Mars, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours,” and it’s a way of healing everyday childhood trauma. Irish gadabout Dara Ó Briain doesn’t seem too traumatised, but then, looks can be deceiving.
“I remember last time I was in Melbourne and Sydney, it would be 2001, and I think back, ‘God, why would anyone have come to that show? It was dreadful!’” Ó Briain laughs. “So you get better because you’ve been doing it for years, knowing how to deliver jokes, how to draw them out. You learn as you go, but I don’t think that extrapolates all the way down to being able to teach anyone to do it. I think at some point, more than you have to have some innate skill, you need to have a need for it. You have to want it. You need to have strangers love you, and I don’t think you can teach that. I think you have to already have that damage. You are desperate to be in the spotlight, and to entertain, and that I think you can’t teach. People have to find their voice and it takes time, but some people just aren’t made for this.
“It’s weird to have a job which people admit is their greatest fear,” he adds, chuckling. “I’m not a daredevil, I don’t ride motorbikes or go mountain-climbing. But my normal job is something that people say is their greatest fear. It’s the only thing I have in common with skydivers. And the only thing that keeps me doing it is that emotional damage that requires me to be loved by strangers.”
I first grew familiar with Ó Briain in a similar fashion to most folk outside of the UK; through his appearances on QI. Having been in the comedy game for over 20 years, however, it’s by no means the cherry on his career. Ó Briain is that brand of comedian who seems just as interested in making us think as he is in getting a laugh. Since 2011 he has co-hosted Stargazing Live with Professor Brian Cox, the filming of which is part of the reason why he is touring Australia in the first place. While astronomy is such a rich and fascinating study, it may also have a more melancholic side: charting Andromeda as it careens across galaxies, the exhaustion of the sun; there’s quite a bit of despair between the stars.
“I know what you mean. Either the sun will go through various cycles, run out of helium, start making heavy elements, and then explode and expand and gobble us up. Or before that, we’ll undergo the heat death of the universe. Or Andromeda will smash into the Milky Way and destroy us. There are a lot of bad things that are going to happen, but they’re not going to happen for many billions of years, so no. I feel it’s not really worth dwelling on. There is also the sense of perspective. That we are merely dots, sitting on a dot, on a scale that is just unnoticeable to the cosmos. But! That also kind of gets us off the hook. We’re not really going to have any long-term effect on anything else nearby, so go ahead and do whatever you’re doing. I find it’s a great leveller, more than anything else.”
So before we’re all burned to astral cinders, it’s nice to know we can take comfort in the absurdities of life. To that end, Ó Briain’s latest tour has been a long and winding work in progress – but then, it seems that’s the road comedians are cursed to follow. A strange and unlikely evolution that then keels over and starts life anew like a confused phoenix.
“When you start a new show, you never write the show in your bedroom and then walk out onstage in front of 2,000 people. You sort of relive the shape of your entire career over six months to a year. You take your scraps of paper with vague ideas written down, and you go to a club and try them out. Sometimes they don’t work out and you have a terrible gig, which is awful because they know who you are! So you walk out and it’s, ‘Oh my God, it’s that guy off the tele! I’ve wanted to see him for years.’ And it’s just you there with a scrap of paper and five ideas that are like baby birds flailing around with their velvety wings and they haven’t learnt to fly at all, and you try them and they go badly. And there’s just nothing worse than when you walk off to a smaller applause than when you walked on. But you have to do it!
“So you start small, and then eventually you’re back to where you were at the end of the previous tour. You’re in your 2,000-person theatre, you walk out, there’s music – ‘Hey, everybody!’ We’re like mayflies. We live our lives in a day and then we die – but then we have to go back and do it all again.”
Dara Ó Briain appears at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on Sunday April 2 and Monday April 3.