Talking to David O’Doherty About Standup, Edinburgh, and More
Irish comedian David O’Doherty is no stranger to our shores. His musical whimsy has been seen recently on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour and John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, and if you’re lucky, you can occasionally catch him doing his solo show at UCB or dropping in at Brooklyn’s Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. Otherwise, he and his tiny keyboard can be found at comedy festivals the world over. For those unfamiliar, there’s no better to place to start than with his own introductory FAQ for the DOD.
Recently, I got the chance to wander around the Flatiron district of Manhattan with David in search of an acceptably quiet place to have a conversation, ultimately introducing him to that most American of institutions, Jamba Juice. In the midst of all that, I talked to him about touring the world, being a chart-topping musician, and becoming a verb.
You toured the US with Flight of Conchords. Were those your first gigs in the US?
No, the first show I ever did here was with David Cross. [He] got [Daniel] Kitson over to do a show in about 2003, and then I came over with Kitson and did a bit on the show. But in 1996, I got a student visa when I was in university. I was in San Francisco, and worked as, among other things, a courier delivering parcels and packages, not knowing anywhere in San Francisco. So the people who were good at couriering could do like 36 drops a day, and I would do between four and seven. But I got a tan. So that was technically my first work in America.
I’m curious about doing gigs in different countries, and the way that people react to you. Is it majorly different?
Well, there’s a Seinfeld quote, I think it’s Seinfeld said if you talk about your town, people go, “Why’s he talking about his town?” But if you talk about your road, people go, “Oh, his road’s exactly like my road.” So, you definitely learn after a while to write stuff — I mean, at the moment, I’m not gonna work on a large piece of material that’s not gonna work in Dublin and London and Melbourne and Sydney and New York and Los Angeles. But then that’s sort of second nature after awhile. Obviously there’s small colloquialisms and whatnot that I still always get found out by. But then, part of the joy is the discovery that some of your jokes mean completely different things here, and then reacting to that with the audience. What I do is reasonably loose, particularly in the longer form, so there’s a lot of messing around and asking people why things got a certain reaction.
It’s cool that you can make it sort of interactive.
Well, certainly change it, and make the shows a bit different to each other. Particularly, doing a run like Edinburgh, [which] is 28 shows, 28 nights. Melbourne’s 24 shows, 24 nights. And you need to change it up a bit otherwise you appear to be going out of your mind on stage.
The Edinburgh Fringe has been this massive thing in my life, from a development in comedy point of view. In that, I’d been doing comedy for about 9 months, I went to Edinburgh in 1999 and did a newcomer competition where you did like a 7-minute spot. I was about 22 or 23, and won the bloody thing.
That’s very impressive.
Oh thank you. I’m still dining out on that 13 years later. It meant that I could go back then the next year and do my first hour, my first solo show.
And you won the Edinburgh comedy award in 2008. That seems like the ultimate goal of everyone going to the Fringe, so I’m surprised that you’re still going back.
Well I mean it’s only a silly award that a panel of jerks give to you. In Edinburgh, a lot of the British stand-up establishment or industry, and comedians too, get really obsessed with that award. But I never really engaged with it very much.
It was terribly nice to receive it and all the rest, but the reason to go to Edinburgh is that it’s like the Tour de France. It’s just this month that hovers over the rest of the year, when you try and write a new show for it. And while you’re there, you see 20 other shows of other people who you think are much better than you and that inspires you then to get back on the hamster wheel for another year. It’s just this colossal enormous organic monster that that just gives you a feeling unlike any other festival.
So you still enjoy doing it? I hear people say that it’s exhausting, not just physically, but also emotionally and mentally draining.
Yeah, I still really enjoy doing it. The challenge of it changes after a while. You’re just hustling for a crowd for the first few years. You spend all your time out handing out your own flyers and doing interviews and what not. And then, as you become a bit more established, you’ve got to make sure your shows keep getting better. There’s sort of additional pressure to make sure it’s something different to the last one. But, God, I’ve done that festival now every year since I was 22 or 23. There will come a time — I don’t know if I’ll do it next year, but it would be a very different year, then. I would definitely need something else to do over the summer to give my life the structure that it has at the moment.
The thing that we have in Ireland and in Britain that American comedians don’t have is, we can tour the year. [Eddie] Izzard, I think, was the first person to do it in the early 90s. You go around, you play to a hundred people in say 40 towns in Britain, in a local hall or in an arts centre. And if you can get an 80/20 split on that gig, and people pay £10 in, that’s £800 a night. And if you do 40 of those, that’s 32 grand ($52,000), which is a perfectly good amount. You can live on that.
And then, the beauty of that is, when someone comes to you with a terrible television idea, you can tell them that that is the worst idea you’ve ever heard, and they should stop what they’re doing and work in a different job. Whereas in America, there’s people who have to do mediocre television because that’s where they earn their money.
From the very start at home, for your first open spots, people are handing you 20 quid and saying thank you very much. And then, people just get a split of the door the rest of the time. So you have the opportunity to say no to things and concentrate all of your energies on stand-up comedy.
Do you still write your show each year for Edinburgh? Or does it evolve over the year?
I tour for the whole year, so organically things just come and go. I’ve had a new show every year in March for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and then the show turns over by Edinburgh. So I write about an hour and a half. So it’s new for those two festivals each time it comes around to itself again.
For the last few years, I’ve tried to write another show as well. I’m off to London next week to do a completely different show. It’s a character show where I pretend to be a shit Antarctic explorer from 1917. So that’s just another nice thing to have. That was something to do during the day in Edinburgh that sort of has got a life of its own now too.
How did that come about?
I’ve always liked Antarctic exploration, which I don’t think is really as big here, because I don’t think America had a dog in that race. But in Britain there was the race to get to the South Pole, and the guy who nearly got there was [Ernest] Shackleton, who was Irish, like sort of Anglo-Irish. So, my grandfather always had a big obsession with Antarctic exploration, and I did too.
But then I would always impose on it the psychology of today. I just imagine one of my friends coming back from two and a half years at the South Pole and just complaining about everything. It must have been so miserable. Shackleton’s ship got stuck in the ice for nine months. And they just sat there with nothing to do, freezing. And I just tried to imagine that happening to somebody I knew. So, the show is, essentially, someone coming back from the South Pole is made to do this lecture to try and earn money to pay back the debts of the expedition, who’s just come out and gone, “It was so shit. It was such a waste of time.”
And I know that it wasn’t planned this way, but at the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival last weekend, you ended up on the show entitled “Comedians Two to Five Years Away From Their Own TV Shows.” Are you interested in having a TV show?
Well, I made some documentaries at home with John Carney, the guy who made Once. They were called The Modest Adventures of David O’Doherty. And every week, I would set out to achieve something. The big success was trying to get a song to number 27 in the Irish charts.
You were aiming for 27?
Yeah. We were trying to rig up the charts by selling exactly a specified number of copies. It’s a very complicated process, but through illegal means, you can find out, on a given week, which stores are chart tracking, as it’s called, which are counting towards the actual charts. So in a given week, only some places will be. And then you’ve got to buy them in ones, fifteen minutes apart. Because if you bulk buy, they cancel each other out. I think that’s what bands used to do in the 80s and 90s. So we found three shops that were chart tracking in a given week, and they were all sort of five minutes apart, so if you walked the isosceles triangle and bought one in each, by the time you came back, you were chart tracking again.
And you were doing this yourself?
Me and my friend did it, yeah.
And they recognized you obviously, because your picture I’m sure was on the CD.
Well they would recognize me by the fact that, it’s that guy who was here 15 minutes ago, 15 minutes and 30 seconds ago. But it was a success. They didn’t mind. People who work in record stores aren’t trying to preserve the integrity of the charts. They love the idea of someone messing with it.
So you had to make all these CDs, and then buy them all back?
We copied 400 on my laptop and printed out a Times New Roman terrible sleeve, and then, yeah bought them all back. So it took some investment, but I have had a hit. I’ve had a number 30 single in the Irish charts.
I have no desire to be on a TV show that I don’t really, really like. I’m lucky in the UK in that I get to go on some panel shows. But then, I wouldn’t go on shows that I wouldn’t watch, certainly. I don’t watch very much television, but I watch those shows sometimes. But, no, I don’t aspire to being the host of anything. It literally doesn’t figure in my consciousness, that sort of stuff.
You wouldn’t even be interested in something more scripted, like a Conchords-style show?
It’s very hard to do anything after you’ve done stand-up, because in stand-up, if you have a stupid idea as you’re drifting off to sleep, and record it as a memo in your phone, you say it the next night on stage in virtually the same form that it came to you. Whereas, I’ve written books, and even in that, you’ve still got some crappy editor who makes a balls out of the font you wanted for the cover. So, it becomes very difficult to work with anyone when you’ve had the control of that. Also, nothing makes me happier than going to a really good stand-up show. It doesn’t happen very often that I see something that just takes my breath away, but that never happens with TV.
I know you wrote some children’s books. How did you get into that?
I wrote some children’s books years ago when I was in university, and then I wrote some cartoons along the way. Just some small things that my friends were working on. Then, I wrote a show for kids about three years ago, a live show called I Can’t Sleep, which I’m still incredibly proud of. There were two beds on stage, me and my friend Maeve. And I couldn’t get to sleep, and she was asleep when the audience come in. And then, I wake her up, and we ask the audience how to get to sleep. And whatever the audience suggests, I try. And then by the end, I’ve fallen asleep, and the audience have to tip toe out then.
That sounds adorable.
Well, adorable is one way of putting it.
Not the word you want?
No no no, it’s fine. You get a very visceral response from kids. As in, if they’re not enjoying it they just walk out, or they come over and kick your bed.
[Laughs] Did that happen?
Oh yeah, every possible thing happened in that show. I got punched in the balls, you know…
I’ve always hated show biz, and the idea of someone being a star, or having earned the right to live a life that is better than other people lives. That all just seems desperately dull and unfair and creatively dead. My father was a jazz musician when we were growing up. I always liked the fact that, in jazz, you just went out in front of a small audience and used your all of your skill to try and re-design the wheel once again, or just re-conceive, to go out without that plan. I find that quite exciting. So I think that was probably an influence in the sort of thing that I ended up doing.
Yeah. I have a friend who’s a genius of Photoshop, and whatever you think of, he can draw an entirely believable realistic photograph of it, or manipulate a photograph to make it look like that fact is true. And we’d done it together on a few birthday cards for our friends and things like that. And then, I’ve always liked animal facts, so my friend Claudia O’Doherty, who’s got the same surname as me but is from Australia, we’re not related, we started writing these facts that sort of sound like they might be true. And Mike then made these unbelievable pictures, just took it to a completely different places. And they’ve proven to be strangely popular, at home, or vaguely popular anyway. But, there again, if you read the Amazon reviews, 50% of the people are just absolutely furious that they bought this, believing it was to be actual facts about pandas or sharks.
And you recorded an album in your apartment to 40 people?
Yeah. I used to live in a bedsit, you’d call it, I guess, a studio. The idea was to record the record in the place where I’d written all the jokes, I thought that’d be a fun thing to do. So, I borrowed chairs off all the neighbors, got about 40 chairs. I couldn’t even bring my friends because they knew my jokes too well, and they wouldn’t laugh, in an audience that size where it’s critical that every single person laughs. Because if like, half the audience don’t get the joke, suddenly that is 15 people or 20 people laughing.
So, [we] put word out on the Internet, and all met at the local corner store. And my friend was in a banana costume, so he was easy to spot, and he walked everyone back to the apartment. And I think at this point, they all must have thought that I was going to just kill them all. And it would almost have been a perfect crime. And, yeah did the show, and then it just turned into a party then afterwards. And people made out and had an argument, so yeah, it was really fun.
You seem to tour almost constantly. Do you get tired of touring?
I’ve been on the road for probably four months of this year, so far. It’s tiring, certainly, but, jeez, it’s alright. It’s not bad at all. I don’t know if I’ll keep doing it forever, but just seems like such fun, at the moment, and then to get to come here and spend a few days here now. To be able to have the freedom to do a stupid interview like this during the day and not have to be rushing back to do work.
Although I haven’t had a proper job since 2000, I still remember exactly what it was like, and I still remember temping. Like, really vividly remember the pain of having to telemarket someone else, you know, pushing the buttons on that phone, and I am really happy to be doing this. So I’ll keep doing this for another while, until it becomes boring, and then, I don’t know. I’d definitely like to write more for kids. I’m working on fake audio guides at the moment, fake audio tours. I’d like to do some more of that.
Fake audio tours of specific places?
Yeah, sort of walks I do around Dublin and around London and around Edinburgh. The way you do when you do a walk a lot, you kind of make up history on some level. You stare at a building and wonder what happens in there, and then you decide that’s where they invented Lego or whatever it is. I think it’s a funny idea to put a bunch of those together so that other people can do the walk then and share in the strange geography of your mind.
One more question. Is there any logic or themes to the way you name your shows? [Previous show names have included It’s David O’Doherty Time and Somewhere Over The David O’Doherty.]
No, no. My show titles have, I mean, there’s been a few bad puns, but then there’s been ones that just don’t make any sense. Let’s David O’Doherty was a record. I would like to be a verb, basically. How successful do you have to be so that your name becomes a verb? You have to become really successful for that. That, like, people go “O’Doherty-esque.” Not even for comedy. Imagine if someone pointed at a building one day and goes, “Oh, that’s vaguely O’Doherty-esque.” I would like my surname to become a verb for something good. I make incredible scrambled eggs, so maybe that could be the verb. “He O’Dohertied the shit out of those eggs.” Something like that would be good. I seem to have forgotten what the question was.
So have I. Oh, is there a logic to the way you decide…
On no, this one’s called Seize the David O’Doherty. Originally the idea of the show was something about trying to live in the moment. The full title of the new show is Seize the David O’Doherty (Carpe D’O’Diem). [Laughs] Which, I am pleased with. And the nice thing about shit puns is they really sound like a claxon to people who like shit puns. Like, I said this in my show last night, but I’m pretty sure I would like my show. I’m pretty sure if I saw a show that was called Carpe D’O’Diem, Seize the David O’Doherty, I would go, “This is gonna be brilliant.” And that’s all you can really do. I think maybe if you’re a TV show, you’ve got try and figure out what other people like. But I have never tried to figure that out. I just attempt to talk about things that I think I would find funny.