- 13 Nov 19
With a new series of Mock The Week underway, Dara Ó Briain discusses the show’s remarkable longevity, as well as the shifting landscape of comedy, getting caught in the crossfire of the Danny Baker Twitter storm, and how he approached the gay marriage and abortion referendum campaigns. Plus his thoughts on Brexit, The Apprentice, the GAA and more.
On the occasion of Hot Press’ 40th anniversary issue last year, Dara Ó Briain feigned outrage over the magazine ignoring a submission of his back in the midsts of time. “I still haven’t forgiven it!” cries Ó Briain when I catch up with him ahead of the resumption of Mock The Week, the topical panel show that’s been going strong now for 14 years.
In the topsy-turvy world of TV, it’s no mean achievement. But for all of the TV projects Ó Briain regularly works on, it’s touring that remains the fulcrum of his working life. Based in London, the comic – a married father of two – enjoys such international popularity that he regularly performs throughout Europe, as well as in Russia, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Asia.
“People ask me why I haven’t played Vicar St. in a while,” he notes, in his familiar rapid-fire patter. “The fact is, my tours will now last between two-and-a-half to three years. It’s amazing, I’ll go to Russia and there will be comedy nerds there into Mock The Week or what have you. And in each country, I’ll be doing proper Vicar St.-sized rooms. There are other aspects too, like the fact the DVD market for the show is now gone. You used to do the DVD of the tour, but now you’re looking at editing it into a 60-minute special for the BBC.
“For me, the tour this year, Voice Of Reason, started in Reykjavik and ended in Moscow. There’s about 10 or 12 of us who are able to do this kind of international touring: me, Eddie Izzard, Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican, Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran and a few others. There will be more: we’re very much at the start of all this. We’ll be doing a few shows in the US on this tour, but I’m not looking to break America or anything. I don’t think they’re crying out for a middle-aged bald white man! (Laughs) ‘You talk too quickly, you don’t know what you’re saying – just what we’ve been waiting for!’”
Such talk is just the tip of the conversational iceberg with Ó Briain, who is funny and engaging throughout our wide-ranging chat.
Are you gearing up for the new series of Mock The Week?
Yeah, it’s at the end of the month, so it’ll be just in time for Brexit, or not Brexit, or possible Brexit. Who knows? It’s minute-by-minute. It could be really exciting – it could be one normal episode, followed by the ‘We’re all wearing poppies and no longer part of Europe’ episode. That could be the second week! There’s all sorts of weird tensions going on.
You must be pleased about the phenomenon the show has become.
Well, I can’t say we presumed it would last this long: it’s now 14 years. Certainly, there were times where people were going, well, it’s not the same since Frankie left, or Russell left, or whatever. It’s more that it’s found itself again, which is interesting. There’s a new generation of talent who are more collaborative and more fun for me to work with. It’s shifted its focus a lot – it’s no longer this angry bad boy saying things no one else will say. I always hated that anyway, as a contrivance.
So how has it changed?
It’s more of a showcase for talent coming through, but also a much more pleasant place to work. It’s a show the BBC use to give the new generation of Edinburgh talent their first outing. We would have been among the first to break, as it were, Romesh Ranganathan, Rob Beckett and Sara Pascoe. Then latterly there was James Acaster and Nish Kumar – different waves of talent pass through.
Mock The Week has its place in the BBC, but keeping a show on air can be a battle in itself.
Television is a ridiculously precarious, random business. I’ve lost four shows in the last few years, all of which looked like they were perfectly reasonable options. But they’ve gone by the wayside for various reasons. BBC budgets have been cut, so that did for Robot Wars. And Comedy Central have been bought by Viacom, who changed the programming policy, so even shows that have done well get pulled, as a result of decisions you don’t know about.
How do you deal with that?
Your wisest course of action – and this is very difficult to do – is to retain a certain amount of emotional distance (laughs). I fret far more about ticket sales for particular dates on a tour. I become almost dangerously philosophical about the vagaries of television. So you go, “Oh well, that’s gone, because that’s the way it goes. But something else will come in.” I’ve enjoyed doing shows for long periods – I hate doing just one series of something and not letting it bed down. But overall, I’ve done pretty well. And Mock is getting ridiculous, it’s like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or something! It’s weird that touring is the element that feels most solid when it’s the one thing you have to start from scratch every time. But it’s something you can always go back to.
As you mentioned, the show was regarded as a bit of a bad boy, particularly when Frankie Boyle was involved. Do you have to think through material more now to anticipate possible backlashes on social media?
Honestly, it’s just happened organically that people are doing that anyway. Probably because Frankie and Jimmy Carr were doing that sort of material, in their own way, there was a brief vogue for shocking comedy. About 10 years ago, there were tonnes of young comics doing rape jokes, and trying to be edgy and dangerous. I have to say, it was never my thing. I found it quite dull. If you’re doing it as well as Frankie did, and within that incredibly well-constructed cartoon world that he had – great. But a lot of it was just for the reaction. Not everyone is Anthony Jeselnik.
But you’ve noticed a change.
It’s like that stuff has been filtered out. In the way that, 30 years ago, it was as if an invisible memo went out and English comics stopped doing Irish jokes. Occasionally these things pass and people go, “We’re just not doing that anymore.” I’m not punching any walls going, “I’m not allowed to seek my truth and do my incredibly dangerous comedy.” That was never my thing. I much more enjoyed the misadventure, the whimsy and the improvised nonsense.
You took a lot of heat last year for questioning the BBC’s sacking of Danny Baker, after he tweeted a joke about the royal baby that a lot of people felt was racist.
I stood next to that fire, and the heat off of it was ludicrous. Essentially what I said was, we live in an age of unapologetic racism. But surely we can acknowledge someone who says, “Oh my god, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I apologise and I withdraw this, and I’m very sorry.” But it seemed to be: no, that absolutely is bad. And there were a lot of people who were very heartfelt about this, and I had really good conversations with black writers and comics about it. They were very interesting about it. But occasionally there were people who stepped in and said, “Well, he meant this.” And you’re going, “Okay, are you now mind-reading now?” Is it impossible for someone to say they made a stupid, clumsy mistake? The mistake he made was not realising that Meghan Markle is of mixed race, and therefore the baby is of mixed race. That’s not so self-evident if you don’t really follow who they are. We’ve lost that element where people can go, “I’m dreadfully sorry, I’ve made an awful mistake”, and others will go, “Okay fine.”
In a broader sense, sometimes Twitter isn’t the real world.
It absolutely isn’t. I remember receiving a very angry tweet from the EMA manager for Spotify, some Italian man, about 14 hours later, going, “You are just a racist and so is he.” It was like, cheers to you – glad I’m giving you 8.99 a month! Jon Ronson’s book was prophetic. I got the smallest blowback imaginable from it, which generally led to really interesting conversations. I felt the faint echo of the hate he would have got. It’s like walking around the edge of a fire, and holding your hand up and going, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not in that.”
Did you ever consider leaving Twitter?
Well, there were various points… I got involved in Gamergate, cos I’m a gamer, y’know? That episode is a bit of a stain on it to this day. I’m normally the guy who walks into a fight and goes, “Wow everybody – let’s all calm it down, here”. I’ve literally done it three or four times outside nightclubs. And now it’s really useful, because one person will go, “You’re the guy from Mock The Week!” But I take that persona into these things as well.
What was the context with Gamergate?
I have vivid memories of writing out this thing where I said, “There are women in the industry feeling this, and it isn’t right.” I got a torrent of stuff in response, and I had to do a load of mutes. Then I got it over UKIP, and then I got it from Corbyn people in Momentum. So there have been three distinct instances and they came at about two-year gaps, where there were just pile-ons from particular communities. Each I time I was going, “I’m over this now, and I’m tempted to walk away.” But there have been pockets of it that have been nice and I just like the drip-drip of news.
How do you feel about Twitter these days?
I don’t tweet anywhere like I used to, and I don’t engage anywhere like I used to, because this stuff tired me out. But I’ve clearly muted very successfully because I get very little abuse.
It’s interesting. You’re not in any way an incendiary cultural figure, and you’ve still got caught up in this stuff.
I’m not, no. There are insults for who I am – remoaner, centrist dad, leftist or however you want to phrase it. But I don’t go particularly strong on it, because who cares? Who needs a fight? I sort of occasionally go, “Am I ducking out of a thing here?” I don’t know if I’m being so benign that I’m actually neutering myself to a certain extent.
You’ve approached it in different ways.
I had weird things. I didn’t get involved at all in the first referendum campaign in Ireland, on gay marriage, because (a) I thought it would pass anyway and (b) I thought that someone like me, stepping in from outside, would be fuel for people going, “Oh well, look at this guy who’s not even in the country getting involved.” There was a genuine tinge of, “Oh, I wish I’d been around to be involved in that”, but I felt it was the thing to do. I didn’t want to in any way give fuel to the opposition, because you can be a negative in your support.
What about the abortion referendum?
One of these Iona people suddenly started popping up on Alabama television talking about it, and you’re going, “Alright, all bets are off here. We’re all allowed to shout our support now.” But I am wary of being a cliché, of that media guy stepping in and not actually helping anything.
Has Brexit altered the perception of Irish people in the UK?
Certainly, there is a sense in which we are scuppering this fantastic ideal. The general level of knowledge about Northern Ireland is astonishingly bad. To the extent that I can’t even mock it on Mock The Week, because they don’t know what I’m mocking. I’ve attempted several times to go, you know, “And now they’re trying to take the votes off Sinn Fein!”, or whatever. Silence, tumbleweed. There has been zero interest in Northern Ireland when they weren’t obliged to hear about it. If I was part of the unionist community, you’d surely have a moment of pause and go, “Man, they don’t give a fuck about us.”
It didn’t really happen.
I don’t think it means ‘We’ll all rise to Dublin!’ Even though no one on – in quotation marks – the mainland has any clue. I had this conversation with Simon Coveney at an event where I went, “People should stop presuming Northern Ireland is anything like either the Republic or the UK.” Because it massively has its own culture. It’s distinct, unique and it’s fun – I love Northern Ireland. But the presumption that it’s one or the other in waiting is nonsense. Even with ludicrous things like May McFettridge – there are things there that only exist in Northern Ireland. One of the pleasures of doing gigs there is that it is its own thing, but that thing is totally unknown to people in England. They’re not great on Scotland and Wales, so you can imagine how they’re not getting the nuances of this. And the notion that it’s uppity Irish people is never far from the surface, so it’s strange to be there and wonder: “how much capital do I have?”
How do you deal with that?
(Laughs) I have a sub-Graham Norton amount of capital! I am not so beloved that the country couldn’t go, “Alright, well, we don’t need to hear this from you.” So it’s interesting – can I take for granted my status in their hearts, and nag them about this? It is a weird thing.
You’ve touched on it before.
I try and occasionally remind people, particularly when it comes to diversity, “Hey lads, I am actually from a different country! I was raised in a different language.” But there isn’t any sense of, “Oh right, Northern Ireland is different and it has very unique problems that we’re not addressing.” There’s none of that! It’s a teenager’s shrug, “Oh, you’re just stopping me from doing the thing I want to do.” They have their own obligations to their own citizens, and it’s like, “Uh, do I have to?” It’s definitely exposed a lack of interest that’s always been there.
You featured in a spin-off of The Apprentice. The American version, of course, gave us Donald Trump. Do you think those shows celebrate a kind of bullying alpha male?
You’ve got to pick your demon carefully with these things, don’t you? Alan Sugar has gone into government, although he hasn’t had Trump’s level of ambition. It’s interesting. With The Apprentice, the greatest thing you could accuse it of is that it may have given a false impression of the kind of people who are working in actual jobs in England. It’s ‘16 of Britain’s finest business minds’ – this kind of stuff. Everyone knew it was tongue-in-cheek. Four of them would be good; 10 would be benign; and two of them would be mad idiots. The other thing is the notion that it’s reality – there’s nothing less real than something from which edited highlights are selected to create some sort of narrative.
Have you had experience of that?
I’ve occasionally done things that have been mainstream. I did a Comic Relief thing once, where we rafted down a river in Africa. I remember watching going, “You’ve kind of made me out to be something I’m not in this situation.” You could see them using the broad strokes. It was something as simple as a health test they did on us all. They stick you on a bike and you cycle until you’re out of breath. The guy testing us said to me, “Well, according to your age and weight, that’s where you should be.” But then they take footage of you out of breath, and that’s the one they show – the big fat guy out of breath. There’s a thing in reality shows, where they take broad, misrepresentative strokes and go, “You can be the angry one, because it will help our very straightforward narrative.” Unfortunately, that’s what people are signing on for, although I think they’re a little more savvy now.
You follow GAA.
I do – hurling more than football.
With Dublin doing the five in a row, should they now be split?
Empires fall – this one will also fall. Before we start re-drawing the map, let’s give it a couple of years. There’s a young Kerry team on the way up. Dublin have won it for five years, but they’ve won it by a total of about 10 points across those finals. So let’s not get carried away. If we get to 10 years and they’ve won them all, then maybe we should have a look at it.
That’s what we’re all afraid of!
If you look at the way teams dominate in other sports, five years of one team winning is nothing, whether it be the Bundesliga or whatever. I still think we’re in the stage where we’re allowed have a great team emerge before we start trying to hobble them. If they’re rolling over everybody, then maybe, but I’m sure they are yet. Listen, we’ve put up with Kilkenny winning 11 All Irelands with Brian Cody in 16 years! Nobody was crying for Kilkenny to be split, and I would have voted for them to be atomised. So don’t come at me about having a couple of the years in the wilderness in football. I’m very fond of Brian Cody, I’ve met him a few times, but he’s history’s greatest monster! (laughs). Jesus, watching them hammer teams year in, year out... So yeah, five years – cry me a river!
The new series of Mock The Week is on Fridays at 10pm on BBC Two.