Monday 23 September 2019

'Prison is weird... if the gig is awkward, you can't leave'

In creating Lock-In, Danny O'Brien performed in Mountjoy Prison. He talks to Liadan Hynes about addiction, stress and making it

Danny O'Brien has no Plan B - 'As long as I can stand up, I can do stand-up'. Photo: David Conachy
Danny O'Brien has no Plan B - 'As long as I can stand up, I can do stand-up'. Photo: David Conachy

Liadan Hynes

Danny O'Brien was 23 when he first considered becoming a comedian. In Melbourne during the Comedy Festival, he found himself watching acts performing at the bar where he was working, thinking he could do that. "I could be that atrocious at least," he laughs now.

That was over ten years ago. Now 35, O'Brien has worked as a comedian for the past decade. This year he supported Bill Burr, widely considered the world's best currently working comedian, at the 3Arena. He is the host of the Comedy Crunch in Dublin, and enjoyed a sold-out month-long run at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he debuted his new show Lock-In.

While seeking material for his new show, Danny performed in prisons. "It's just a weird environment. It's during the day. It's sober. You've to give all your stuff in and you're like 'what if they hate me?' If the gig's awkward, you can't leave." The Mountjoy set took place in a church. "It was surreal. There was a big stained glass window, and the prisoners are all in pews, and I was on the altar, like a preacher."

None of his success happened by chance. One glance at O'Brien's Instagram account reveals an almost punishing work ethic. After arriving home from his travels ten years ago, he took a writing workshop before doing his first stand-up gig; seven minutes in Doyle's pub in Dublin's city centre. "I was having anxiety attacks beforehand," Danny recalls now. "I thought I was going to die. I was nervous about it for weeks; pacing around my bedroom, saying the set over and over. I have a DVD of it somewhere but I couldn't watch it. It's horrific." At his second gig, he won an audience choice award. "I thought 'that's it, I've made it'".

His third gig was "one of the worst things I've ever done. There were about nine people in this awful tea and coffee room in a Dublin city centre hotel. My Mam came in. It was just horrendous. Then you realise that's the reality of it. And it doesn't let up either. People always say there's nothing like the Edinburgh Fringe. Edinburgh's great, don't get me wrong. But on a raining Tuesday, when you're on week three, you haven't slept in a month, have done millions of gigs, and the audience just aren't going for it," he says, shaking his head.

To begin with, there was unpaid work. Travelling to England to do open spots, eventually getting booked for paid work. "Making a living out of comedy is the hardest thing. I've only been doing it properly, with no other income stream, for the last three or four years," he reflects. "Even when you get breaks, it's still constant hustle. I like to work hard. Everyone keeps going 'how did you get that, how did you get that?' Just be busy. If you're sitting round waiting for the phone to ring, you'll be waiting. There are a million comics out there. And a lot of them that are exceptionally funny, but they don't have any hustle. And if you don't have any hustle, you're not going to go anywhere."

Danny used to be a youth worker, working with young teenagers, before moving into care work in homeless addiction services, in supported temporary accommodations around Dublin. "Shelters, but for people with really high needs, really high addiction issues," he says. "Pretty much the most marginalised people in society."

The job involved dealing with client issues including fights, drug use, drug dealing. Often after finishing a 13-hour shift he would shower, then drive straight to the Laughter Lounge to do a comedy set.

Danny had gone to college at night, studying addiction. "I have kind of an interest in it. It's been an issue in my family. I dabbled with the best of them when I was younger; I worked in hospitality for years. Ireland is probably one of the easiest countries in the world for going off the rails with anything, either alcohol or drugs. I was quite hedonistic when I was younger. But when you work in social care, not that I'm suddenly some preacher, or that I don't drink, but social care gives you awareness of where it ends. It makes you check yourself. With alcohol in Ireland we're very good at hiding things."

Now working full-time in comedy, he doesn't miss his previous job. "I lost faith in the system. When I went into it, I thought I was going to be able to make a big change. After a couple of years you realise you're not fixing anything. The problem just gets moved around. And it gets very disheartening."

Danny, who grew up in Wicklow, seeks inspiration in doing things rather than observation. For a previous show, RaconTour, he rode a motorbike around Ireland in search of his father, who "wasn't around at all" when he was growing up. "He's still kind of missing. Not in a went-out -for-milk-and-didn't-come-back kind of way. My parents split when I was only one. My dad was living in the UK, and contact faded as the years went by; I only saw him a handful of times."

He last spoke to his father when he was 14. "It was just awkward; Irish men don't know how to deal with things at the best of times, let alone when you're 14, on the phone to your estranged father."

Having inherited an old motorbike, he found a picture of his dad on an almost identical bike, which inspired the quest. Raised by his mother, O'Brien, who has an older sister and younger brother, was, in his own words, "a little head wrecker as a kid, an absolute melter. I remember my mother gave me runners when I was really young, three or four, and I just kept running in them, constantly, because they were runners. I gave myself an asthma attack, had to go to hospital. I was two months premature when I was a kid, so I was in and out of hospital a lot when I was really young."

Family and friends say he works too much, but as a freelancer the fear is ever present. "If I take the pressure off now, maybe it'll wipe out everything I've been working towards." The hard work is paying off though, the venues are getting bigger. "It's really stressful," he says. "The dream is to be able to just show up and do your show. But that is never the case. There's a tech issue, or a sound issue. I just did two shows in Barcelona, and both nights I had drunk hecklers, abusing me and wrecking the show. It's horrible. I don't mind a heckle, because you can deal with it. But there's no dealing with a drunk person, because they don't understand that they're interrupting the show."

He also runs the Castlebar Comedy Club in Mayo, and is passionate about his work. There is no plan B. "Absolutely not," Danny laughs. "I put too much into it at this stage. I couldn't do the amount of running around and travel and all that when I am older. But as long as I can stand, I can do stand-up."

Twitter/Instagram @dobcomedy For 'Lock-In' tour details see

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