The return of Dapper Laughs: Daniel O’Reilly on his Newsnight mauling and why he needs to “be a bit more careful”

Jack Seale meets the man behind 2014's most controversial comedy character, and finds he's taken criticism on board - up to a point

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Dapper Laughs on Newsnight! An item on the BBC2 current affairs show last winter was baffling for most of the audience, and surreal for the rest. The creation of writer/performer Daniel O’Reilly, Dapper Laughs was a cheeky lothario who, in posts on Vine and then six episodes of laddish dating advice on ITV2, had either perfected hilarious cheeky banter or hit a new low in grubby sexism, depending on who you asked.

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At the start of August, nobody outside his social media following had heard of Dapper Laughs. By mid-November, after a flurry of critical online articles, thousands of angry tweets and a petition to ITV2 that led the channel to announce that Dapper Laughs on the Pull had not been recommissioned, this happened: O’Reilly finally appeared as himself, sober and apologetic, killing off his alter ego. Not only would his live tour not go ahead – O’Reilly now says this cost him a six-figure sum – but he wouldn’t perform again as Dapper Laughs.

Dapper’s detractors rejoiced, but didn’t take the admissions of guilt seriously – they felt they were proved right when, six weeks later, a clip was released in which Dapper returned from heaven, chiding the tearful O’Reilly for being a “soppy b*****ks”, and vowing that “my work down here ain’t finished”.

Since that switchback, Dapper’s presence has slowly re-grown. He’s done two live tours. Two days after our interview, he’s at London’s Café de Paris to co-host the Paul Raymond Publications Awards, an event heralding the very best in British pornography.

The interviews to promote his new live DVD Dapper Laughs: The Res-Erection are, however, the first appearance Daniel O’Reilly has made as Daniel O’Reilly since Emily Maitlis swatted him like a mosquito.

“It was a situation I was forced into. I had to do it,” says O’Reilly of the Newsnight farewell. “There were something like 40 news articles in the space of a week. I was trending for four days on Twitter. We lost the TV show, we lost the tour. Never lost the fanbase, thank God. But it all fell apart quite quickly. When this was going on, my stepmum came forward and said, your dad’s too scared to tell you he’s been diagnosed with cancer. You’ve got to stop this.

“I went to my management and said, I want to give up. I can’t handle it. They said, the biggest platform would be Newsnight. If you go on and quit, the media will stop hounding you. That’s why I did it. And then as soon as my dad went into remission, and I got a little bit of confidence, and he pushed me, we came back.”

So… O’Reilly said Dapper Laughs was dead to make people go away, but didn’t mean it?

“There was a certain amount that I did go on there and say to make it stop, yeah. I was completely bullied and pressured into it. But there are parts I did mean. Maybe the character had gone too far, and I [needed] to be more responsible with the message I’m putting out to the male audience. Some of the Vines – some were taken out of context, but some stuff was a bit harsh.

“The problem with a lot of them is: if you watch Ali G, you know that’s a character. But [in a notorious 2014 Vine] I’m holding the phone and I go up to a girl and say, ‘Alright sweetheart, can I smell your fanny?’ And she says no, and I say, ‘Oh, it must be your f***ing feet then.’ That girl is an actress. But if you watch that video, you would never think that.

“I used to say to myself, it’s a sketch. If people get the hump, it just means I’m doing my job. But looking back, if young lads are watching it they might then think it’s acceptable to go and do that. [It’s the same] with any of the stuff that could be deemed sexual harassment. I’ve learnt a lot more about that from feminist groups.”

O’Reilly says he’s aiming to do more “intelligent”, more “mature” work now, and The Res-Erection isn’t as offensive as Dapper Laughs’ worst Vines. It’s not far off, though: the gig, filmed in front of 650 fans at the Clapham Grand, is a lairy bear-pit where every other word begins with F and the jokes, like a “blue” comic from the 1970s, are rude and crude. It features observational routines about sex and “pulling” where men aren’t always the winners, but women are still relentlessly objectified. They’re complimented for their “bangers” or for having a “cracking arse”, called “slags”, and hit on by Dapper, who wants to “have a go on it”.

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The Res-Erection opens with a segment about the death of Dapper Laughs. “Did you see my Newsnight interview?” grins Dapper. “It’s the only time I’ve ever actually played a character.” Does O’Reilly stand by that?

“No, that’s Dapper Laughs that’s on the stage.”

This is confusing.

“Of course it is confusing, yeah.”

So might the fans still think those more extreme Vines are still acceptable, because Dapper says, I didn’t mean it when I said sorry?

“I think people like yourself need to have a lot more respect for the intelligence of my audience. The age range is from young right up to late 40s and there are a lot of women there. They don’t come to a comedy show to learn how to behave, and they understand that Dapper Laughs is an exaggerated character. Watching stand-up comedy in a comedy [venue], I don’t think it’s going to influence people as much as watching someone doing it on the street.

“Do the girls at the front in my audience look scared? We might as well talk about horror films and shoot ’em ups. Would you ban horror films because you think people are stupid enough to go out and kill someone? Who am I mocking? Am I taking the p**s out of women when I stand on stage and go, this is what lads do?” 

I can’t see who the target of the joke is. It looks to me like Dapper’s not mocking sexist attitudes – he’s just repeating them. It looks like in the show, O’Reilly says what he can’t get away with saying in real life. It looks like he changes his name, goes on stage and says what the fans want to hear.

“I can understand that, yeah.”

O’Reilly feels he was stitched up by the media generally last year. “It was disgusting. I felt ashamed to be a part of the industry. Until someone literally goes away and shoots themselves, I don’t think it’ll ever change.

“Three or four journalists kept circulating the same stories. They took tweets out that were two years old, from when I had 100 followers, and used them as if they were published [that day]. That rape comment was completely taken out of context. I’ve never written a rape joke. I’m not like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr, who’ll go out of their way to do a joke about gang rape.”

This is O’Reilly’s biggest beef: he is horrified at the suggestion that, in the clip from a stand-up show that went viral and was played on Newsnight, he was making light of rape. He does have half a point. Maitlis quotes him as follows: “Get some duct tape and rape the b***h… she’s gagging for a rape.” The first half of that is Dapper imagining the TV show he would have made if people accusing him of condoning rape had been correct; the second half is a later ad lib, repeating what an audience member has said.

On the other hand, the “gagging for a rape” clip is, at best, a cavalier approach to such a serious issue, of the kind that opens a performer up to people simply saying they’re doing “rape jokes”. Most people can’t be selectively quoted in the way O’Reilly was, because they haven’t said those phrases in any order.

Then there’s how Dapper Laughs talks about Maitlis on stage. Dapper’s been humiliated by an intelligent woman: this won’t stand. She must be reduced to a sexual object. “The whole way through [the interview],” Dapper tells the crowd, “I was thinking: you f***ing want it, don’t ya?”

“Yeah but listen,” says O’Reilly when I quote this back to him. “What I do as Dapper Laughs and what I’m saying now are two completely different things. So if you’re going to ask me how I felt, and I tell you, and then you’re going to refer to what I said on stage: that’s irrelevant. That’s stand-up comedy. That’s fictional. Like when I talk about my mum: that’s fake. Everything in that show is fake.”

But not everything is fake. Dapper Laughs impersonates his Indian anger-management counsellor by doing a comedy accent, before hastily explaining his grandfather is Indian; O’Reilly does have an Indian grandfather. Dapper Laughs says his father was ill; this is true.

Dapper Laughs also says another reason for his retirement was that his mother was being hounded – she had Channel 4 News on her doorstep. Did she?

“No. I’ve been writing stand-up comedy since I was 17,” says O’Reilly, who has worked as a cruise-ship entertainer and also had a spell as a London estate agent. “If you only write within the realms of reality, you’ll run out of material quite quickly. It’s the same with the bit where I said that I once did a handstand, pissed on myself and swallowed it. That also isn’t true.”

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Although Dapper Laughs had had negative reactions for his Vines and the launch of his ITV2 show, the TV series concluded without further outrage. The problems started when the viral news site UsVsTh3m reviewed Dapper’s festive album, Proper Naughty Christmas, and Dapper hit back.

“Oh, I was infuriated. They implied I actually went up to a homeless person and mocked them. They said, Dapper Laughs goes up to an actual homeless person and takes them into a bar and accidentally bumps into Brian McFadden, and I was infuriated that the journalist was stupid enough to think that I’d done this, when actually it was in a studio with a group of comedians and a script.”

His interpretation of the album review is ironic and telling: the writer doesn’t really think O’Reilly has harangued a homeless person. Referring to characters as if they are real is a standard way for reviewers to interact with fiction. It’s bizarre that a man making a living from character comedy wouldn’t recognise this; O’Reilly generally has a loose grasp on what playing a character entails.

I wonder what he thinks of people who are like Dapper Laughs in real life: I shagged this bird, I’ve got a big penis, etc. Are they compensating for something?

“Yes! That’s the whole joke! Dapper Laughs is probably lads I hung around with when I was in my teens. Yeah, it is strange when I see people at my show saying the sayings, but when you talk to them you can tell that they’re imitating it, they’re not actually like that.” 

This feels like a risky claim. It’s not apparent at all that the Res-Erection audience think leering at women is being sent up, rather than celebrated. It certainly wasn’t clear when UsVsTh3m’s journalists received abuse on Twitter from Dapper Laughs fans, including gendered attacks on one of them, Abi Wilkinson.

“That was terrible, yeah. All the sexually derogatory stuff, I was ashamed of it, I didn’t like that.”

Yet Dapper had invited his followers to tell Wilkinson what they thought of her. “The problem with Twitter is once my emotions get involved, I’m responding as Daniel O’Reilly, not Dapper Laughs. I crossed that line by saying, look at what this person is doing. Dapper wouldn’t say that.

“At the same time, they tagged me, exactly what you’re saying [I did], and I had people saying, I hope your dad dies, I hope your mum gets raped, I hope your sister gets raped, I hope you die. But I lost my rag and I shouldn’t have done. I won’t be making that mistake again.” The day after I meet him, O’Reilly contacts Wilkinson to apologise.

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People who were delighted to wave goodbye to O’Reilly will see all his sorries and promises as lies, thrown out to deflect criticism and enable him to get on with being a professional misogynist. More forgiving observers will say, leave him alone, he’s learned his lesson. I think the truth is in between: part of him knows that playing a creepy letch causes problems, but another part knows that acknowledging that fully would mean ripping up his act and alienating the fans who give him validation. So he’s tried to compromise but it’s not come easily, especially since his time in the media spotlight has left him feeling victimised.

He’s also not, in all honesty, a very gifted comedy writer or performer: there are not many jokes in The Res-Erection, and his delivery is nervy and needy, feeding too hungrily off the crowd’s enjoyment of him overstepping boundaries. He doesn’t have the chops to pull off the tricky task of making Dapper Laughs a viable comedy character, and isn’t far enough removed from his creation. 

What’s certainly true is that O’Reilly is a social media phenomenon. Not just in the obvious sense that he rose via Vine, Facebook and Snapchat, and still has his fanbase there. He was also brought down by social media: the negative press and the death blow on Newsnight were reflections of a Twitterstorm, fuelled by users’ honest reactions, that was made worse by O’Reilly recklessly wielding the power of his own following. O’Reilly admits he did bad things because he was “fishing for likes”. ITV2 tried to grab an easy win by hiring a social media star, without stopping to worry about what goes on within a narrow online fan silo, and how material that’s popular there might not be acceptable outside.

So if this DVD sells a million copies, will O’Reilly approach fame differently?

“Yeah. You can tell how frustrated I am. I wish I’d dealt with it differently. This time round, you’ll be surprised by what we’ve got coming up in relation to sexual harassment and lad culture. I’m trying to educate the fans, and show people I’ve learned there’s a bit more to it. So yeah, I’ll be a bit more careful. I just want to enjoy it again.”

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DAPPER LAUGHS: THE RES-ERECTION LIVE is available on DVD and Digital from 16 November