In his new Channel 4 show, Along for the Ride, comedian David O’Doherty hits the road with celebrity guests. Here he talks about his lifelong love of bikes, the paralysis in Irish politics, being relatable, and getting back to stand-up after lockdown
“In the late 1980s, Ireland had the number one and number two ranked cyclists in the world, and I was definitely going to be the next Irish person to win the Tour de France. 100pc. Guaranteed. Nailed on,” says David O’Doherty, explaining the depth and duration of his commitment to cycling. “Then a thing happened in cycling in the 1990s, where it was gradually revealed that every single one of your heroes was on drugs. So I turned away from the professional sport, but the love of bicycles remained.”
Only second to his comically tiny keyboard, bikes have become synonymous with O’Doherty. It isn’t a rare occurrence in Dublin to catch sight of the comedian zipping by on his bike, and it’s still his preferred mode of transport for gigs. On stage, the many woes of a cyclist’s life is a recurring theme.
So it’s something of a dream job that O’Doherty’s next project is to host a Channel 4 docu-comedy series where he undertakes scenic cycles across Britain with a celebrity guest.
“I don’t think there will ever be another TV show that is so perfectly suited to comedy, cycling, talking shit and beautiful scenery,” he says, now back in Dublin. “It is the intersection of my Venn diagram.”
A mooted name for the show was The Ride, specifically for the joke that was in it, “but I didn’t realise you needed a name that has never been used for anything, ever,” he says. “One of the other working titles was Let’s Ride, but that was trademarked by the Scottish government for a cycle-to-school campaign or something. Absolute Ride was one of the other potentials, and I hoped Ireland would enjoy that even more.”
Now settled as Along for the Ride, the guests include artist Grayson Perry and television personalities Richard Ayoade, Mel Giedroyc and Joe Wilkinson (“who is one of my best friends. I hadn’t seen him for 18 months, so that episode is just two old friends falling back in love again”).
As is his patriotic duty, O’Doherty did try to bring the show to Ireland, but Covid-related logistics prevented that. Instead, they took on the mountain, coastal and castle routes of Britain in an authentically filmed experience.
“Not that I thought there would be more lying in television, but we did everything that we pretended to be doing on the show,” he says. “If we go to a shepherd’s hut, we stay the night in a shepherd’s hut. And if we appear to be cooking a load of vegetables in a basin, that is what we had for dinner. In my mind, I had this idea that we would be whizzed off to the Savoy or something afterwards for the night.”
While that made for a trying production, at least bike issues were at a minimum. The worst that happened was that his chain broke while climbing up a mountain with Perry, “and good luck trying to find a new chain halfway up a mountain in the Brecon Beacons,” O’Doherty says. “Also, I nearly fell off a few times trying to impress people doing skids and stuff. Serves me right. If you crash while trying to do a skid in your forties, you deserve what’s coming to you.”
The bike that he uses in the show was one he received for his 14th birthday, which he’s lovingly maintained throughout the years. “It was the bike I raced when I was a kid, and then cycled to school after that, and then cycled to university [Trinity College] after that, and then used as a courier in Dublin. Then, when I started doing stand-up, I would ride it to gigs. It’s still my favourite bike,” he explains.
As if purposefully timed, there’s a knock on his door during our phone conversation, and it’s a courier from the show returning it to him. “The lid has ripped off,” he mumbles to himself. “I hope it’s all there.” For the rest of our chat, he’s a little distracted. Like a worried parent at work, he troops on nevertheless — after all, there’s much to discuss now that ‘normal life’ is returning.
At the start of the pandemic, once the events industry was put on hold, and spurred by the end of a relationship, O’Doherty hunkered down on Achill Island with his folks. In addition to the parental bonding, he used that time to start a podcast, release the snappily titled album Live in his Own Car During a Pandemic, and write a children’s book inspired by the island (The Summer I Robbed A Bank, currently shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards).
He left Achill in spring, when the UK began scheduling socially distanced, Covid-safe, outdoor summer events.
“The first one was in Bristol in about June, and it was the closest I got in terms of nervousness,” he says. “Not only had I not done a gig for 15 months, but it was all new material that I was doing, because I’d forgotten all of the old stuff and written new stuff about the strange 15 months we’d all had. Then you add on that it was outdoors, in front of 1,000 people in a field, and it felt like half-time entertainment at a jousting tournament. Really, what you wanted was a gig upstairs in a pub to 25 people.
“It wasn’t the ideal comeback, but I started to enjoy the gigs. The main thing you noticed was how enthusiastic the audience were. There was a sense that we all missed it, and we were feeling our way back into it. My opening line for one of those gigs was, ‘I hope I can remember how to do this… which is not what you want to hear as the dentist leans over you.’ But to use a bicycle metaphor, you don’t forget how to do stand-up comedy.”
Over his 20-odd years in stand-up — he began soon enough after leaving college — I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live a greedy amount of times. What’s always struck me is how I’ve never seen anything less than a success of a show, which is perhaps helped by his failproof style (sort of a thinking person’s slapstick) and delivery (where he could be talking about pension options and naturally make it sound eye-streamingly funny).
While the standard has been consistent, he’s expanded the topics he brings to the table over time.
“I was just doing non sequitur weird jokes at the start, whereas now I talk about my own life and how my life has changed. Probably the only good thing about the last 18 months is that we have all gone through this experience together and, as much as it was awful, it was a shared time,” he says.
As such, his set now incorporates a sideways look at society and the world around him. In this year’s Beefs — the annual song in which O’Doherty’s topical annoyances are crammed into the space of three minutes — alongside his usual whimsical observations, billionaires are lampooned (“Here’s a cool experiment though: if all of the billionaires just took one million and gave it to me, maybe I would have a different opinion on billionaires!”). Elsewhere, electoral systems are given the comedy treatment. So a bit of politics creeping in too?
“Inasmuch as I’m getting older, and whereas a lot of my twenties were a fun, silly party, you can’t but be living in Dublin particularly and not think about the changes you’d like to see in the city and in the country at the moment,” he says, temporarily losing his comedic tone.
“I’ve always found the humdrum, horse-racing news of Irish politics so boring. The runners and riders, who’s up and who’s down. But during lockdown, Dublin suddenly stopped being a city for tourists and it became a city for the people who live here. So you did dare to dream it could be better — and politics is how that changes.”
Growing up, “Ireland was always on the verge of falling to bits. But you didn’t really look past the fact it’s a young country and that our grandparents all remember the chaos that they lived through, so we knew it could be a lot worse,” he continues (his great-grandfather was a leader of the IRB). “That put me off even thinking politically for a long time. Now, I think it could be so much better.”
As many residents found, changes made during lockdown like bike lanes and pedestrianised streets made a tangible difference to our quality of life, although the housing crisis clearly rolls on. “The housing situation is just so preposterous,” says O’Doherty. “The idea that the market is going to solve it… it’s been the same chat now for 20 years. You go to cities where that just isn’t an issue and you do start to think, ‘Hey, why is Dublin this way?’ It’s because it’s always been that way, but it doesn’t have to always be that way.”
Is he optimistic that the city and/or country can improve?
“I’m optimistic inasmuch as we have proportional representation, so there is opportunity,” he says. “We’re not stuck in the two-horse race like they are in Britain. At this time, the Coalition are wondering why they are so far down in the polls, and yet they’re not making changes in the country that would cause people to see things are getting better. I’m struck by how there’s this paralysis in Irish politics and everyone’s just waiting for market solutions to fix everything, and in the experience of my lifetime, that hasn’t happened. In fact, in 2008, the opposite happened.”
He acknowledges that comedy isn’t necessarily an engine for change, “but it is still some sort of social barometer”. And a left-leaning outlook is inherent in the comedy industry, says O’Doherty.
“There’s a Stephen Colbert line that truth has a left-wing bias,” he says. “In the history of comedy, I can’t think of anyone who emerged fully formed aged 20 the way a footballer or pop star would. It takes years of sitting on trains, and living in bedsits, and dying at gigs, and nights of despair, and meeting nice people, and meeting awful people, and having good gigs and having bad gigs, and just being out in the world. It’s not even like being in a band, where you’re cloistered together in a bus and the tour manager does everything. You’re kind of a sole trader, where you buy a train ticket then get to a venue and then talk to the nice light and sound people and the person who booked you for it, and then you go to find the hotel where you’re staying. That gives you a view of how the world is.
“There are undoubtedly arena comedians that earn hundreds of thousands for doing enormous gigs, but most comedians reflect a fairly relatable life on stage, and you’re not a million miles away from everything going arseways and finding yourself back on the dole again. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been active for a while now, so I do have some money, but I come from a family of artists. My father [Jim Doherty] is a jazz musician and he has spent his life performing upstairs in pubs, and my brother [Mark Doherty] writes strange books, plays, movies and stuff. We all know it’s a tough existence. So I wouldn’t call it a left-wing bias, I would call it a reality bias built up from a lived life.”
Once Along for the Ride wraps up, the many strands of O’Doherty’s career will continue. He’s in the early stages of another children’s book, and is also readying his new show, Whoah Is Me, which will tour indoors in Ireland next year. But as we take our first tentative steps back into the world of live events, he’s all too aware that it’s subject to change.
“[The return] is happening slower in Ireland than it is in the UK, which is probably sensible. I never thought I would have to associate words like fume and droplets with what I did for a living, but that’s just the reality of it,” he says. “Hopefully things continue to get better and soon we can go back to those sweaty basements where everyone’s laughing and spilling pints at each other. You can take your 3Arena or your Albert Hall, but the gigs on a Tuesday night where you’re trying out new material and it goes quite well and you have three pints with strangers — they’re the most fun.”
There may or may not be another series of Along for the Ride, depending on how it’s received. “There’s loads more cycles that I would like to do and loads of people that I’d love to go cycling with,” he says. “Hopefully people will enjoy it. For me, this was as close as I’ll ever get to being paid to cycle up mountains. I’m virtually a professional cyclist now.”
‘Along for the Ride’ with David O’Doherty begins on November 22 at 10pm on Channel 4 and All 4