Dara O’Briain might be 6ft 3in and able to eviscerate the best comedians in the business with a raised eyebrow and a sharp one-liner, but the Irish presenter and stand-up isn’t in the least bit intimidating.
And this is a man who also has a degree in maths and theoretical physics.
Best known for hosting long-running current affairs panel show, Mock The Week, and for asking the questions on Stargazing Live, the 44-year-old is now exploring the world of gaming, in the new Go 8 Bit on Dave.
Based on a live Edinburgh comedy show, created by team captains Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon, O’Briain explains that it works on telly because “unlike any other panel show, people get really genuinely competitive about winning a game of Nineties’ Sensible Soccer or Tekken 2”.
“We all smile and laugh at the end around Mock The Week [and pretend to look] disappointed or happy, and no one really cares,” he adds. “The points don’t really mean anything, it’s a plot device. But genuinely, this stuff, people care about.”
O’Briain himself has been gaming for around 30 years, but admits he’s a classic arcade gamer and isn’t, believe it or not, “encyclopaedic in my knowledge”.
In fact, however much he enjoys gaming, he admits he is “fantastically bad” at it, but that doesn’t mean he has any time for the stereotype that gamers are loners who don’t get enough sunlight.
“There are people who watch every episode of the West Wing or Breaking Bad who are still going, ‘If you play video games, you’re just sitting in the dark’. And you’re not?!” he shouts, incredulous. “We are all watching screens – it makes no difference whether you are watching the TV.”
But when it comes to his own kids – he has two with wife Susan – will he be pushing them to play outside instead of plugging into their Xbox?
“You do the same thing as you do with anything else, you limit the screen time,” he says. “This is catnip or heroine – you choose the word – video games to kids, they love them. That’s unavoidable in my house.”
Taste for stand-up
When he’s not presenting the likes of Mock The Week, Stargazing Live and Robot Wars, O’Briain will generally be found, his voice booming, on tour.
Making people laugh, right?
“There’d be many that would argue I’ve yet to,” he quips in response to that, but explains it was during a debate while studying at University College Dublin that he got his first taste for stand-up.
“I cracked a joke and I got a huge laugh and a round of applause and I wasn’t expecting it. It was like a shot of adrenaline,” he buzzes. “I got this jolt of, ‘Ohh, that felt good’, and genuinely, I have been chasing that same rush for the last 20 years.”
Now in his mid-40s, he reckons there’s quite a lot to be gained from becoming an increasingly crotchety old man.
“Being grumpy isn’t actually a bad thing in comedy. We tend to be grumpy young men anyway – even in your 20s, you’re going, ‘Life is so bad!’ You’re also in that middle bit of life where actually you can’t care about the small things, so you find it difficult to sustain that kind of corny comedy like, ‘Oh, I’m being angry about things’, because you know that just doesn’t matter,” he muses. “So you’ve got to find a different way of going at it. I’ve shifted away from being angry into having adventures, but complaining about things works for stand-ups.”
“Having adventures”, of course, could include ‘facing death by crocodile’ after a Comic Relief boat trip on Africa’s raging Zambezi River in 2013 went badly wrong.
“What I gathered afterwards was that they had already sent for the helicopter to sweep the river, expecting to find me,” O’Briain deadpans of the close call. “I ended up with no boat, holding onto a tree stump in a rapid, hoping there were no crocs, basically. And then I ended up in hospital with an infection from being scraped along the river, so that was quite serious.”
But, he adds happily: “I ended up getting a really solid 20 minutes of material from that for the last tour.”
Mad on hobbies
Between gaming and interviewing Stephen Hawking, O’Briain always manages to wrangle jobs where he gets to indulge his passions.
“I am scared of introducing the British public to any more of my hobbies, because it does look like I’m constantly going, ‘I’m also into this!'” he says with a laugh. “My love of dressage, my love of impressionist painting, my love of all these things that I could be doing huge landmark documentaries on for the BBC, I should probably stop adding to, because people will begin to get angry at the number of hobbies I seem to have.”
He pauses, then adds: “At some point I would like to introduce you all to the Irish game of hurling…”
Mocking the week
Next up, O’Briain has the second part of his documentary series, Dara And Ed’s Great Big Adventure, with fellow comedian and friend Ed Byrne, to film, and Mock The Week also returns this month.
“I’m hoping it will be a tiny bit more serene when we go back,” he says, recalling the “most apocalyptic season in British politics” the Mock The Week team had to try and navigate during the last series in July. “We record on a Tuesday and it goes live on a Thursday. I would like to think that between Tuesday and Thursday for one week this year, we don’t look desperately behind the times because, you know, the Queen has decided to resign or something.
“And we’ve still got Trump – Jesus, we’ve still got Trump!”