Tell us about the second season of your maths show, School Of Hard Sums…
[As before] we have two comics, who we send out to solve a problem by hammering it out in the field, while I do it with a bit of paper and a pen. They’re getting their hands dirty while I sit down behind a large glass board to find the answer. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes I get it, and sometimes no one gets it.
Where did the show originate from?
Originally it was Japanese. The actor Takeshi Kitano, from Battle Royale, devised this show which was very Japanese. There were people shouting at different times and all kinds of stuff scrolling across the bottom of the screen. We had to tone down some of that but the gist of it is the same. It is funny but is mainly more about its subject – it’s more a popular science show than it is a comedy show.
Which guests have most surprised you?
They’re chosen as much for their curiosity as anything, so we had a broad spectrum of people like Tim Key, David O’Doherty and Josie Long, who wouldn’t be so good for Mock The Week – by their choice – as their style is too whimsical for that environment.
Long clearly does a lot of puzzles as she got everything right really quickly. Unhelpfully quickly. David was more interested in playing the, “What?! This is mad!” role. But they did all rise to the task – it wasn’t like: “Here’s round three, now tell me a funny joke about TOWIE.”
What problems did they have to solve?
They purport to be real life problems, but they are somewhat contrived. One was the idea of you being in prison where one of the guards always lies and the other always tells the truth, and how you would go about working out what was true. That sort of ‘real world problem’.
Was everyone a bit competitive?
I was – it was frustrating when you work it out and they got it right just by guessing.
Why do some people fear maths?
I have no idea as I don’t have that – it would be like asking a climber about vertigo. But I do think people are always going to have it. There are some people for whom maths is a passion – it is the fundamental language of nature – and then those for whom it will always be just a subject they hated at school.
It was a passion for you. You have a degree in mathematical science…
Yes, I wanted to be a mathematical physicist, lecturing and doing research and all of that.
Where did your tangent into comedy come from then?
Excellent use of a mathematical term there, although it was probably more of a perpendicular [turn … boom, boom]. In college in Ireland, they have debates between the students and broadcasters and politicians and the like. I was deeply in awe of the people who did them because I was a gawky, shy teenager.
So I tried it myself the following year and enjoyed it and that was the beginning – stand-up is an exaggerated form of that. I had never spoken in front of a crowd and did not know that I would find it as astonishing and addictive as I did.
Sometimes Mock The Week has found itself in hot water due to some ‘close to the bone’ comedy – do you think people are too easily ‘offended’ these days?
It is easy for people to say how they are outraged and shocked. There is a tendency to be crushingly literal with things that were not intended to be, like when Paul Chambers posted what was clearly a joke about blowing up Nottingham Airport on Twitter.
Words can be meant ironically or not and it is not up to you to decide that the irony doesn’t count. We are in danger of bleeding irony out of public discourse. Frankie Boyle was accused of racism for having a character [in Tramadol Nights] that was racist.
Your last tour was called Craic Dealer – how long had you wanted to use that puntastic title?
I had it down as an idea for the previous DVD, but some major retailer – which I hint at in the show as Tesco – said no because they said it promoted drug use. So that became a story in the show in itself and then as well as calling the entire tour that we called the new DVD that, too.
You’ve thrice hosted Empire magazine’s awards – are you a big movie fan?
Yes, as much as the next person. You get to a point in life, especially when you have kids, when have to let go of things. Music went, video games stayed in and movies just about so. I get to see a lot of Pixar films and that’s about it.
Dara O’Briain: School Of Hard Sums airs on Dave
Wednesday, 8pm, from May 1