Dara O’Briain: ‘Don’t underpander to the nerds’

Comedian Dara O’Briain was in the hot seat at an evening of science-themed conversation at the University of Surrey this week, where he described his confusion at being a poster boy for physics. 

I popped along to the show, where the Mock the Week host was interviewed in front of a packed auditorium by the university’s Professor Jim Al-Khalili, also a TV presenter, at the latest ‘Jim meets…’ event. 

The conversation centred on Dara’s affiliation with science, but the funnyman expressed a sense of awkwardness at being held up as a role model for budding scientists. 

Dara, who has a degree in Mathematical Physics at University College, Dublin, said he was surprised whenever he was held up as an example, seeing as he ditched science to be a comedian instead. 

“I’m not a physicist as you know, as I never worked as a physicist,” he told the audience.
“You have to have clocked in at some stage and done some physics. I started it, but then the lure of the circus became too great and I ran away. 

“I am always guilty when I get called on to be like a public face of science.” 

But he went on to express his delight at being able to mix and mingle with scientists and indulge his passion for science.

Professor Al-Khalili, who last month famously pledged to eat his shorts if results from an experiment at CERN showed particles moving faster than light were proved accurate, asked Dara whether scientific arguments can be conveyed with more might when a comedian delivers them.

“If a scientist stands up and talks about evolution vs creationism, the message doesn’t come across as strongly as with a comedian ripping into it,” suggested Professor Al-Khalili.

Dara replied: “I might offer the punchy one liner that may hit the issue on the head, but it’s important to have the information from a scientist.” 

Science has come a long way since it was considered only interesting to geeks, said Dara. 

Whereas at one time, people might roll their eyes at the mention of science, saying, “this is just a bit technical, brainiac”, now he said that his fellow panellists on Mock the Week were enjoying actively engaging with subject and discussing it on the show. 

However, he warned that science shows shouldn’t dumb down in order to appeal to a mass market: “The search for cool is a false god”. 

“There’s a tendency to try and take it [science] more broad than you might do to appeal to the cool kids, but then we will bore the nerds who would be interested in it,” Dara explained. “So I think you lose the people who generally have the passion for it. 

“The really enthusiastic ones, don’t under-pander to them.”

© Melanie Hall 2017