Black Humour with David O'Doherty

The Dublin comic talks Belfast hecklers, heartache and honing his craft. 'Children's books warp your mind'

The first time this writer saw David O’Doherty, the Empire Music Hall was packed with fans enjoying the Dublin comic’s trademark brand of musical whimsy – until a group of women, clearly either on a hen night or blessed with a particularly odd taste in headgear, began roaring unintelligible nonsense stage-ward. ‘Drunks are tricky,’ O’Doherty groans. ‘You can’t reason with them.’

Still, the 36-year-old funnyman insists it’s a rare occurrence at his shows. ‘I don’t think I have a reputation as one of those comedians you go and see with ten of your mates, all with penises on springs on one of those plastic things around your head with flashing lights on it,’ he says.

‘A lot of the heckles I get are pedantic people picking me up on inaccuracies. Like, I have a song about a dog getting neutered and somewhere in the song I say the “female” dog, and someone at a gig said, “That’s not neutered; that’s spayed.” That’s a classic O’Doherty heckle – and that always seems to happen a lot more in Belfast than anywhere else.’

Indeed, over the years, O’Doherty has come to understand the Belfast audience. He’s played 'up north' many times, whether on tour with Tommy Tiernan or Dylan Moran, or headlining his own gigs at the Empire or the Ulster Hall. His next Belfast visit comes on October 20 and 21, with two performances at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, and he knows what to expect.

‘Belfast in my mind is synonymous with people coming up to you after the show and telling you in no uncertain terms that their friend enjoyed it a lot, but they did not enjoy it at all,’ O’Doherty laughs. ‘But that’s absolutely fine. My dad is a jazz musician and my brother writes weird plays, so as a family we have a collection of things people haven’t enjoyed but feel they have to say something about afterwards.’

David’s contribution to the O’Doherty oeuvre ranges from his Casio keyboard-driven stand-up to several children’s books, including the popular (with adults as much as their offspring) 100 Facts about Pandas.

But despite recent live dates featuring equally false Facts about Sharks, we may be waiting some time for a sequel. ‘Children’s books warp your mind,’ chuckles O’Doherty. ‘For their intrinsic stupidity, they take so long to write, and your brain goes into a very funny place.’

Instead, the workhorse artist is planning a ‘top-secret’ project, which happily he lets CultureNorthernIreland in on. ‘I always liked audio tours,’ he explains, ‘so we’re looking at doing something in that direction, maybe releasing it as an Audioboo that people could download onto their phones and walk around a city with an absolutely nonsense audio tour with fake history.’

If this all sounds rather quirky and upbeat, O’Doherty has his dark moments, too. His current set features material inspired by the unhappiness in his personal life, from splitting up with his girlfriend to being punched in the face by strangers in the street. ‘I got quite depressed last winter due to a variety of factors, and was trying to write stand-up to cheer myself up,’ he reasons.

Does O’Doherty subscribe to the theory that comedy takes the sting off tragedy? ‘Certainly there have been times when I’ve been feeling terribly sad, but I find some sort of comfort from watching really stupid comedy, or listening to a Mitch Hedberg record of one-liners,’ he muses. ‘What on the face of it feels deeply inappropriate somehow seems vaguely appropriate.’

He notes the cult writer Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the subject: ‘He always said that when they came up from being underground in Dresden [Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during World War II] and thought the whole city was gone and everyone was dead, all they did was laugh. I guess the Belfast black humour thing comes from the same place.’

But never mind East Germany in 1945; the stand-up circuit can be a desperate and harrowing enough landscape.

Since first taking the mic at Dublin’s Comedy Cellar in 1998 and winning a Channel 4 newcomer award at the following year’s Edinburgh Festival, O’Doherty has stuck out the notoriously cutthroat world of comedy for nearly 15 years. Even his brother, the playwright Mark Doherty (‘He’s never used the “O”’), threw in the towel despite a promising career on stage.

‘He was a brilliant stand-up comedian in the 1990s,’ recalls O’Doherty. ‘Then on a train platform in 1997 in Newcastle, having died two nights and got an encore the third night, he just decided, “I’m wasting everyone’s time and they’re wasting my time.”’

The younger sibling feels fortunate to have come on the scene at a time when there’s an infrastructure of venues and a following for more left-of-centre acts, or as he puts it, ‘all these people managing to make a living doing weird comedy’. The likes of Flight of the Conchords, Daniel Kitson, John Oliver, Josie Long and Andy Zaltzman came up at the same time as O’Doherty and remain close friends.

He recalls working alongside these ‘fellow lost travellers’ in Edinburgh in the early 2000s: ‘We all must have looked at each other and gone, “I think you’re doing something right here.” We were playing in tiny rooms in front of zero to 12 people every night for a month, and you kind of get better from doing that.’

Indeed, O’Doherty reckons his talents have come on enormously since those early shows. ‘They were probably not great were I to listen to the C90 recordings now,’ he chortles, before getting back to the laptop to further milk his misfortunes for funnies.

David O’Doherty plays the White Room at Queen’s University, Belfast, on October 20 and 21.