David O’Doherty: interview

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If.comedy gong winner David O’Doherty tells Time Out how he’d never have made a good jazz musician and why he’s suspicious of awards

  • David O’Doherty: interview

    David O'Doherty

  • Within three seconds of stepping off the train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, I’m soaked through.

    Not just a little damp – sodden. The sky is bruised and brooding. The clap of thunder that rolls around Arthur’s Seat welcomes me to the wettest August in this fair city in living memory.

    As I settle down to watch the first of more than 90 shows that I’ll devour during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2008, I squidge my toes around in their thick soggy socks, inside my so-called waterproof walking boots, and feel decidedly sorry for myself. It’s hard to laugh when you’re worried about the effects of chafing and trench foot, especially when you’re stuck in some shitty municipal social club on a seat that feels like it’s been stuffed with hedgehogs.

    The lights go down and David O’Doherty’s soft, drawling Irish brogue asks from the darkness, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, are you prepared to have your brains penetrated by laser beams of comedy?’ I was more prepared for a hot bath and a bit of a cosy-up with a duvet, a Jack Daniels and an old film. But such is the power of a great comedian that within minutes, all my worldly curmudgeonliness seems like a distant memory and I’m happily chuckling away on a cloud of his ethereal, dreamlike humour for the whole hour.

    It set the comedy bar very high and by the end of the festival nothing else had quite matched it. It utterly charmed me and I was very happy to watch O’Doherty slope on to the stage at the If.comedy Awards three weeks later, with a wonderfully humble, sloppy, hangdog expression on his face, to accept the gong for Best Comedy Show.

    However, unbeknown to me, his festival had started out about as inauspiciously as mine had.

    ‘I hadn’t seen the room I was meant to perform in before I got up there. When the promoter showed it to me, my heart just dropped. "Oh no," I said to myself, "this isn’t a venue, this is just a room! There is no sense of theatricality or pomp or any of the things that people conventionally want from a night out." I had about two hours of thought to work out how the hell to make a gig out of this place. The only way to make it work was to acknowledge it and use it. I made a truly awful banner to hang on the curtains at the back, put books under the stage to raise it up by six inches and decided to give myself a massively over-the-top, five-minute, off-stage intro to drive home the irony. I didn’t try to disguise the fact that we were in a dingy youth club but deliberately made some bad showbiz attempt to enhance the working-men’s-club naffness. It was basically me and the audience saying at the same time, "I can’t believe he is getting away with this." ’

    If anything, there was something about the inert atmosphere in that room that appeared to lift O’Doherty to new performance heights. He was forced to grab the space by the scruff of the neck, as it wouldn’t allow him to be as reserved and whimsically introverted as he is accustomed to being in more comfortable, intimate spaces.

    ‘I also think it sort of suited the aesthetic of my stand-up, in a similar way to the way having a gig in a park or a bedroom has in the past. They all worked better than they would have done in a run-of-the-mill, functional comedy club.’

    O’Doherty has always been idiosyncratically lo-fi, from his handmade backdrops and props to the old-school miniature Yamaha keyboards he uses to accompany his exquisite songs. But none of this feels affected or overly deliberated. What you see is what you get with DOD. Why does he think he won this major award this year rather than in previous years?

    ‘That’s a tricky one. I haven’t really reflected on it that much. I’d like to think that I’m getting better at stand-up maybe. I’ve done six shows now, and each time I’ve done a new one I think: This is definitely better than the last. But growing up in my family, with a jazz musician for a father, I think I have a bit of an inbuilt suspicion of awards, so I’d never really thought about winning one and what it might take to do that. It’s a bad idea to try and think about why your comedy works anyway; I think you should just keep on writing stuff – it’s like vivisecting a fairy to try and figure it out.’

    Did he always want to be a comic?

    ‘I had wanted to be a jazz musician like my father, but the thing about jazz is – there’s a particular realisation you have when you’re about 18 or 19 – if you don’t have a certain harmonic ability and capacity, you’re never going to learn it. You can be a crappy jazz musician if you just learn all the scales, but there’s a whole other level above that. My dad once said to me as he
    listened to me practise: “You can’t polish a turd.” ’

    Was that as harsh as it sounds?

    ‘Not really. I was aware that there were people who could just hear a song on the radio and that evening play a five-minute version of it and I certainly couldn’t do that. I was waiting for the moment that it happened, but it just never came. Besides, it was my dad who introduced me to comedy in the first place, by playing me tapes of Monty Python and hipster jazz comedians
    of the ’50s and ’60s like Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce. So it all ended up for the best in the end.’

    Jazz’s loss is comedy’s gain.

    David O’Doherty will be at the Soho Theatre November 24-December 6.

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