Comedy, I’ve always felt, works best in small packed clubs, with a low ceiling and a busy bar and a general buzz about the atmosphere. Move it to the wide open expanses of a three tiered theatre with the audience sitting in uniform rows, and it’s a rare comedian who can make the experience seem as intimate and personal. Dara O’Briain is one of that rare breed.
His is a rise to the top that took me rather by surprise. Living in Ireland, as I did, for four years, I first encountered him as the presenter of the RTE topical entertainment show The Panel, at which time his name would have meant nothing to most people on this side of the Irish Sea. But a couple of appearances guest-presenting HIGNFY changed all that, and suddenly he was a household name with his own BBC panel show and a thriving career, and now, just a few years later, not only is he selling out huge theatre tours, but people are even starting to learn how to pronounce his surname properly.
What makes O’Briain a great stand-up is the same quality that makes him a great topical TV show presenter, it’s his quickness of brain which allows him to probe any topic thrown at him and quickly find the funny within. He has also been blessed with a physical form which might be a disadvantage in any other line of work, but part of what makes him so funny is that his material consists of the last things you would expect to emerge from a prematurely balding six feet four walking giant with the grace and stylish appearance of an assistant bank manager.
Of course, he has also been blessed with that other great comedy attribute of his race, the lilting east-coast Irish accent that can take even the foulest obscenity and make it sound like poetry in your ears. Ireland has always punched above its weight in comedy terms, and Dara makes a fine continuation of that tradition.
He tells the audience that he considered naming the show “You Had To Be There,” as a reference to those moments of hilarity in life that suffer in the re-telling. The idea being that unlike going to see a movie, every night of a comedy show is unique and, if the comedian is good enough and allows it to progress naturally, will go off in its own never-to-be-repeated directions.
And that’s exactly what happens. There is a clear structure to the show, and a number of obviously well-rehearsed routines, laying into homeopaths and nutritionists as being no better than witch doctors, or discussing why obviously one-sided issues on news programmes are forced to show the other side for “balance.” A lengthy routine about boat tours visiting the homes of the rich and famous in Florida, and the excitement of the famous being counteracted by the disappointment at the merely rich, ends in a gloriously surreal moment after which you will never be able to hear “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and think of Gloria Estefan in quite the same way again.
But these are enhanced by the often inspired rants prompted by his randomly chosen audience victims, on this night a hospitality management teacher, a have-a-go anti bicycle-theft warrior and a man who manages the electrical and entertainment department at Tesco. All are deftly dealt with in a manner which is mocking but never crosses the line into causing offence.
O’Briain’s rise to the top of the tree may have been comparatively swift, but one cannot imagine him taking the Russell Brand, Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans route of Hollywood glitz and glamour. He is too much of a down-to-earth guy, his feet are too firmly fixed on the ground. And that’s good news for us, because it means we can look forward to seeing him making these same packed houses laugh like eejits for many years to come.