Dara O Briain on his School of Hard Sums, the education system and women in stand up

"A certain number of women want to go into comedy, and they should be cherished and nurtured, but you’re not going to shift the fact that loads more men want to do it"

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Dara O Briain on his School of Hard Sums, the education system and women in stand up
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Simon Hattenstone

Dara O Briain has just finished working on a new series of School of Hard Sums in which he solves formidable mathematical problems with the help of kebabs, curries and cakes (and maths genius Marcus du Sautoy). Now he’s working out a simpler equation. A couple of weeks ago, the BBC’s head of television, Danny Cohen, announced a ban on all-male panels in comedy shows. The programme most regularly cited for being male-dominated is Mock the Week, the bear pit of panel shows that O Briain has chaired for nine years.

He thinks Cohen’s pronouncement is well meaning but misguided. “It’s grand, it’s fine,” he says in a way that suggests it’s not entirely grand or fine. “I wouldn’t have announced it, is what I’d say. Because it means Katherine Ryan or Holly Walsh, who’ve been on millions of times, will suddenly look like the token woman. It would have been better if it had evolved without showing your workings, if you know what I mean. Legislating for a token woman isn’t much help.”

Moreover, he says, you get into difficulties when you start thinking of stand-up comedy as being reflective of the rest of the world. It just isn’t, he insists. “Often it’s described as if some sort of a glass ceiling exists, but it doesn’t. Pick up a copy of Time Out and go through open-mic nights and flick through the names and you’ll find a ratio of 10-1 males to females.”

What is it about men? Why do so many of them think they are to the comedy manor born? “Well, men need it more I think,” says O Briain. “They need to stand up in front of a crowd to get the external validation. We once ran a writing competition on BBC3 called The Last Word. The idea was to open up the pool of comedy writing as much as possible. Ninety per cent of the entrants were male, and I’d go further and say 90 per cent were socially awkward, pallid men in their 20s. A certain number of women want to go into comedy, and they should be cherished and nurtured, but you’re not going to shift the fact that loads more men want to do it.”

Was he once one of the socially awkward, pallid squad? He laughs. “I’d have been exactly that type; awkward and shy as a teenager. Then realising you could get laughs off a crowd there was a tremendous rush to do that. For the first time, you got to be the coolest guy in the room.”

He says he’s baffled by this gender imbalance debate, and believes the BBC would be better served by addressing imbalances in areas of life that could be more easily resolved.

“It’s remarkable that this amount of time is spent debating women on comedy shows rather than, say, Question Time.” For O Briain, far more important gender inequalities exist outside television. He says he’s just been involved in a Twitter spat about the lack of women in the digital world. “I wish a tenth of the energy that was put into the women-on-panel-shows debate was put into women in computer coding, in which there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in Europe, and 11 per cent of them are done by women. It seems a more sensible challenge than these 300 people [in stand-up comedy] and how they are represented.”

O Briain, 42, was born in Bray, just outside Dublin. He grew up conscientious, clever and uncool. When O Briain studied maths and theoretical physics at University College Dublin, he co-edited the student newspaper and won a national debating championship. In stand-up comedy, he says, you rely on the same verbal tricks. “All you need is a patina of knowledge then a certain amount of conviction and a malleability about what you’re willing to say. Then you’ll thrive.”

The funny thing, he says, is that his all-female commissioning editors at Mock the Week have always prioritised women because of the imbalance. “We bring through female comics earlier than we do male comics because there is such a tiny pool of female stand-ups. But this makes it even tougher for them.”

So is the combative nature of the show just too tough? “It’s a tough environment for most people!” he says. “I find it unbelievably insulting to say women find it harder. The number of male comics who won’t do Mock the Week outnumbers the number of female comics who won’t do it. Mock the Week is tough because it requires loads and loads of jokes, and thinking, plus there’s seven voices trying to get in on the conversation. We’ve gone through all the comics at some stage and most of them are delighted not to have to do it again, male or female. People compare it to jumping out of an aeroplane.”

The last time Radio Times interviewed O Briain he was asked to complete a maths GCSE paper in ten minutes. He complained it was too easy and got in hot water for it. Does he still stand by that? “My objection to that paper was not that it was too easy but that it wouldn’t allow you to demonstrate your flair. If you were really into mathematics, there was very little in it for you.”

So if Michael Gove asked him to be maths tsar would he relish the chance? “No, for the simple reason that I haven’t come through this education system. The Irish education system was very different and I find it quite confusing.”

What would he like to see change in the English curriculum? “We do seven subjects rather than three or four in Ireland until the age of 18, so you can do languages and sciences. A real broad range of things, so you don’t narrow your options early like you do here.”

It’s strange, I say, how many of today’s comics are used on television as informal educators – himself on maths and physics, Bill Bailey on evolutionary theory, and others on world travel. O Briain says it makes perfect sense. “The split in the 1980s was from guys in tuxes going, ‘Three men walk into a bar...’ to having to write the stuff yourself. Your own passions spilled into it. You had to write a two-hour show that featured something of yourself rather than just one-liners. So when you’re more of the rambling comic, you naturally start looking for other references to bring in. So we indulge our passions more than previous comedians.”

And O Briain is passionate about many subjects. Ask about one of his bugbears and he’s hard to stop. Today’s thorn is immigration. “I’m very proud of being an immigrant, and I like mentioning it... I don’t expect people to go, ‘Oh my God, you are! I shall now rethink my position on Bulgarians because I like your work on Mock the Week’, but I find the hypocrisy about immigration incredible, particularly in countries that have built themselves on immigration.”

Does he vote? “Yes.” How? “I wouldn’t tell you that.” Has he ever voted Tory? “It wouldn’t take an enormous amount of working out, but I’d sooner not say because I have to joke about them all.” I ask what he thinks about Russell Brand’s revolutionary call for people not to vote? He raises his eyes – this is another bugbear.

“It hands over any ability to change the status quo that you’re supposedly angry about. It takes away the one franchise people have. I thought it was rubbish.”

In October, fellow comedian Robert Webb wrote an open letter to Brand criticising his stance. O Briain retweeted it, and was astonished by the vitriolic response from Brand’s army of non-voting militants, some of whom suggested both O Briain and Webb belonged to an intellectual elite so didn’t have a right to an opinion.

“I actually came from a very ordinary upbringing in a different country,” O Briain says. “Why does it become an ad hominem attack on what you think my upbringing is for what is really a straightforward point, which is ‘Just vote!’ Even Russell said, ‘Well, Robert probably went to Oxford or Cambridge [he went to Cambridge]’. Robert went to an ordinary school then got into one of the finer universities of the world, but apparently that, in some people’s eyes, means you can’t have an opinion!” O Briain really does look gobsmacked at the illogicality of it all.

“That to me is mind-blowing; that you’ve created these centres of academic excellence, but attendance at them means your opinion no longer matters because you’re too educated to gave an opinion. Also, there was an element of Russell’s here doing a tour...”

Anyway, he says, in the greater scheme of things, debates about comedy and comedians are small fry. O Briain, who has two small children, says nothing makes him more aware of this than when he talks to his wife Susan about her day at work. A urology surgeon, she finds it particularly amusing that now he’s making programmes about science and maths he’s regarded in some quarters as an intellectual (something he denies; he says he’s just a fan of science and maths).

“She finds my career as a ‘public intellectual’ quite hilarious because she properly has to know stuff that matters.”

Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums starts next Tuesday at 10:00pm on Dave


 


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