Right now Dara O'Briain is a rarity in the publishing world: a stand-up comedian with a book out this autumn which isn't a memoir. I'm sure I'm not the first person to point that out when we meet at Penguin's offices but he chuckles: "I'm amazed that they all go for memoirs, I'm genuinely shocked. Given that all we do on stage is essentially travel writing; all observational comedy is basically travel writing... If I had any interesting stories I would have already done them... I've done 13 years of stand-up, I've done eight Edinburgh shows. I have basically trawled my life— there are splinters under my fingernails from the scraping of the barrel that is my life."
Rather, the affable Irishman describes Tickling the English as a "comic contemporary look at England". It's part travelogue and part tour diary with O'Briain's last stand-up UK tour used as the backbone of the book. Each chapter contains the names of the venues where the gigs took place, a list of the audience members O'Briain spoke to and then what amounts to a diary entry on each gig. The gigs are then used as "jumping-off points" before skittering sideways with, say, a nugget of local history which then segues into a broader observation about the state of our nation. The book builds into an affectionate look at modern England through the people he met which draws some interesting conclusions. It's sharply observed, very well-crafted and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.
Interacting with the audience
As fans of his stand-up will know, O'Briain's particular brand of comedy involves a great deal of banter with the audience and he had long thought that the material this interaction generated might be useable in some way: "I always kept notes of the people I'd met during the gig [for the last few tours], sometimes because they became stories themselves in later gigs but also because it was nice, when I went back the following year to go 'Hey anyone remember the penguin?' or the knife or whatever. I do most of the talking to [the audience] during the first half of the show so anyway during the break I would run off and write 'Gerry the plumber who once found an arm in a drain'".
Besides the modern portrait of England the book also provides an insight into the craft of comedy and gives an idea of how it is to actually work as a stand-up comedian. In the book O'Briain summarises his writing technique as "half an idea and the panic of dying; that's how you write stand-up" but obviously writing the book was a very different experience. He elaborates: "You never really write stand-up, you never actually formally put the words down. Or I don't anyway. You get a funny idea, and then you talk it out and then you find the most fluid way of talking it out. Stand-up is written in the way that water erodes a landscape, you know, then shapes it. You do it over and over again and you smooth out the pebbles and it basically becomes the perfect shape by repetition and getting the audience reaction to it. So stand-up evolves in the performance and obviously a book can. You write stand-up at the speed at which you think it. And the speed at which you write a book gives you enough time to have second thoughts."
One aspect of the book that did give him pause for thought when he read it back was the question: "If I wasn't me, and I didn't know the tone it was in, is there any danger this could read as anti-English?" He's confident that it isn't although he is conscious that "from someone who's coming from abroad, I might get a bit of 'Well, if you hate it that much...'" There's nothing remotely offensive in the book although the dormitory towns of the south-east come in for some 'ribbing' [They are] less willing to go on the journey with you. A lot of the time you define how enjoyable a stand-up gig is by how much the audience will come to you, versus how much you have to go to them."
O'Briain's love of stand-up comedy developed soon after he graduated from University College Dublin with a degree in mathematics and mathematical physics. He also founded and ran a college newspaper, was heavily involved in college debating and reveals, unexpectedly, a distinction shared with two of Ireland's greatest writers— Flann O'Brien and James Joyce. All three ran for, and lost, the coveted position of auditor at the Literary and Historical Society, UCD's debating society. Debating led him to stand-up, although he took on presenting roles in children's television as a "day job". At one point he considered a masters in journalism with a view to becoming a science journalist but "basically the lure of the crowd was too strong".
He's been living in London for the past seven years, and his profile has grown exponentially due in no small part to his TV appearances as guest host of the BBC's "Have I Got News for You" and now host of BBC2's "Mock the Week" although he points out that "Mock the Week" takes up "literally 20 days of my year whereas the tour would be 104 [days] plus the writing and the previews".
Speaking of his fellow stand-ups he says: "For all that we are well-known faces, our actual day job touches surprisingly few people. I do big tours, but that's still 160,000 people. That's one point on the audience share scale, in fact that's not even one point, it's about a third of a point and that's the entire tour. So we're alongside jazz musicians, and noted coin-collecting historians. It's a surprisingly minor thing, live comedy."
- Jane Streeter | "There are problems but there is also lots of positivity out there"
- Tom Holland | "There are as many views as to what happened in early Islam as there are scholars writing about it.
- Kathleen MacMahon | "There was a sense that anything could happen—anything bad could happen"
- Tony Parsons | "A book like Man and Boy casts a long shadow. It's what you dream of. It has changed my life."
- Dara O'Briain