Tweet smell of success for Dara Ó Briain

Dealing with 2m Twitter followers is a mixed blessing for Dara Ó Briain, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

PEOPLE say all kinds of derogatory things about Dara Ó Briain on Twitter, including the allegation that he sucks up to British people (which led him to refer to himself as “Infamous Brit-Licker” on his Twitter bio).

Ó Briain, who returns to Ireland next month from London for a tour of nationwide gigs until next February, has an inordinate appetite for debate. He says Twitter, a domain where he has a close on two million followers, has “gone off the boil” a little bit of late. He still lands himself in the oddest of arguments on Twitter.

“There’s no chance for nuance. Nuance gets killed on it,” he says. “I got into a debate recently about an edict in the BBC that said there should be a compulsory number of women on panel shows. We’d all heard this; and it was all grand. We were going to be operating under this presumption for the next while.

“Then the head of BBC television announced it in an interview. I was asked about it in an interview afterwards and said, ‘I’m not sure about announcing it, about saying it in public because it may seem that the women we’ve booked for the right reasons now have this asterisk beside their name of, ‘Well, they’re booked because of an edict from a committee’. As a performer, you don’t want the audience to have that idea. You want them to have confidence in your ability as a comic; that ‘We entirely believe in everyone we’ve picked’.”

“That relatively nuanced objection got hammered into something different via a press release sent out by the Radio Times where I did the interview so you had every newspaper saying I object to women on panel shows and I had to spend the day fire-fighting. In that instance, Twitter actually worked for me because I banged out three different tweets: ‘That was wrong’, ‘This is what I think... ’ and ‘This is the nuanced position that I have’. That satisfied most people except for a women who wrote, ‘Dara, I used to like you, but fuck you’.

“Then there was another long argument with a woman who said, ‘You are a gatekeeper of this privileged thing’. I said, ‘I don’t book the shows. I’m not a gatekeeper. I was misquoted’’ She said: ‘They are your words. Therefore, you’re responsible for whether they’ve been quoted properly or misquoted’. I was thinking there’s nothing I can do here!

“Then I got on a plane to do some gigs in Ireland. And when I got off the plane in and turned on my phone, I see this tweet from the same woman saying, ‘Well, I see from your silence that I seem to have won’.

“I’ve had that with a lot of people. Once a position has been set, then that’s it. You cannot go, ‘I think I’m being misunderstood here’. It’s, ‘No, this is what you said, and I’m arguing against it’. And there’s a hardening. It happens on Twitter a lot.”

During his college days at UCD in the mid-1990s, Ó Briain used to be a newspaper junkie. He was one of a cohort, which included Sunday Business Post political editor, Pat Leahy, and the New York Times Pakistan bureau chief, Declan Walsh, who worked on the campus paper, University Observer. Ó Briain recalls outing an exorcist at Belfield as being one of his more memorable scoops.

“At one point during the year, there was an exorcism performed in the residences because somebody was spreading red petals on someone’s bed and writing messages in red lipstick on their mirrors. The person was so freaked out that they called in a priest. I rang the residences, and said, ‘We hear there’s been an exorcism’. And the person on the phone said, ‘Oh, we can’t make a comment’. And I said, ‘No, no, we’ve heard for definite’. And the guy said, ‘Leave them alone!’ and hung up. I said, ‘I’ll take that as a yesä.”

Ó Briain arrived at UCD from Bray, Co Wicklow, to study mathematics and theoretical physics. After nearly 20 years in show-business, he has returned to quarry his old love of maths and science in a flurry of recent TV programmes, including Dara Ó Briain: School of Hard Sums, a re-make of a Japanese show where Ó Briain and his comedian guests solve puzzles set by a maths genius, and Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club on BBC, in which he gets to wrestle with invisible worlds, adventures in time, Albert Einstein and the like.

“It was intriguing that Einstein was such a huge star, which hasn’t happened really since; maybe with Stephen Hawking,” he says. “Einstein was a massive celebrity of his time. He was slightly iconic. There is a famous story about him being on a lecture series before his face had become familiar, but his name, and what he had done, was very familiar. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, I do now know.

“He was driven around colleges in America and he would arrive and he would lecture. He had this driver, who would sit and listen to his lecture every time.

“After about 30 or 40 or 50 of these, the driver said, ‘Oh, Professor Einstein, I’ve heard this lecture so often I feel like I could deliver it myself.’ Einstein said, ‘Why don’t you deliver the lecture at the next one? These are the notes. They don’t know who I am.’

“So at the next university, a small midwestern university, they went in and Einstein put on the driver’s cap and pretended to be the driver while the driver went and delivered the speech, his 45 minutes on relativity.

“It all went very well until it came to the question-and-answer session where they threw it open to the floor and the first question came from a professor of theoretical physics who asked an unbelievably technical question about tensors and matrices and gravitational forces, and asked, ‘How does this work?’ The driver said, ‘Well, that is such a simple question even my driver could answer that.’ And pointed at Einstein who answered the question.”

Dara Ó Briain’s Irish tour starts at Vicar St, Dublin, October 15 and concludes at Cork Opera House on February 7; www.daraobriain.com


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