Comic and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain finds space to write a children's book

As TV presenter and comedian Dara Ó Briain launches his first book for children, he talks to Hannah Stephenson about his fascination with space, and reveals why he chose comedy as a career

Co Wicklow comedian, TV presenter, would-be scientist and now children's author Dara Ó Briain with his debut children's book, Beyond The Sky

DARA Ó Briain loves the unusual, the quirky, the absurd – and this is clearly demonstrated in his first children's book, Beyond The Sky, about the weird and wonderful world of space.

Unlike other comedians who have written books for children – David Walliams, Russell Brand, Julian Clary and Adrian Edmondson spring to mind – Ó Briain has followed a different course, amusing nine-to-12-year-olds and curious adults with this dip-in treat of fabulous facts which should have them laughing out loud.

Did you know, for instance, that the European country astronauts always recognised at night was Belgium because it had a law that every road must be lit at night? Or that Russian astronauts used to urinate on their transfer bus tyres before boarding their rockets?

These, and other interesting facts about space, planets, astronauts and the stars, are featured in the book.

Ó Briain (45), currently writing material for a mammoth stand-up tour, says he didn't try the space material out on his own kids.

"I never even thought of doing it for the same reason I don't try out new material on my wife. As a comedy performer you don't try out your jokes on the person nearest to you, because it wears them down and puts tension in the house."

The book may at first sight seem a lighthearted look at space, but the fast-talking Wicklow man is a heavyweight when it comes to science. He studied mathematical physics at University College Dublin but gave up the chance of an academic career for stand-up comedy, which then expanded into TV presenting, hosting topical panel shows like Mock The Week and The Apprentice: You're Fired.

So, why didn't he choose a scientific career?

"It was the sheer thrill of performance," he muses. "It turned out, to my surprise, that I was a trouper, I wanted to be in front of an audience, which was a major surprise to me, because I wasn't a class clown or anything.

"I stood in front of an audience at university doing debating and the laughs just created a surge inside. Suddenly the dialogue felt good and created a rush. I still feel that now, but it takes more effort – three to six months of writing a two-hour show, but it's a more substantial kind of a feeling now.

"I still get fidgety sitting in a theatre, and think I'd rather be in front of this crowd than in this crowd. That's a performer's thing."

In the six month gap between tours, he admits he becomes restless.

"I'm happy to portray this as an appalling need for validation. I haven't been told 'I love you' by strangers in a while, so I have to get out in front of a crowd."

Yet he still gets nervous before a show.

"You write the stuff when you are nervous and your brain goes into a different mode of flinging ideas out, so a lot of the show is predominantly written in previews, where you are standing in front of an audience with a half-formed idea.

"There's no risk when you're sitting in a room with a piece of paper. But you have to stand in front of an audience at a gig with that piece of paper and an audience will quickly tell you if it's funny or not. It's a strange process driven by failure and fear, and your brain panicking and delivering something funnier in the moment.

"But you do get better at writing it, and develop a skill for it, like any writer."

He may be reaching out to youngsters with this book, but he's given talks on stargazing at schools, including his own children's school, so he's fairly familiar with his audience.

Switching from writing for children to writing for adults wasn't too arduous.

"I was a kids' TV presenter for a couple of years. I used to do the live kids' programme at 5pm on RTE [the bilingual Echo Island] and then hopped on a train to Cork to host a comedy club. Your brain switches from one to the other."

The stand-up tour material is getting there, slowly, he says. He will feature Brexit although he's steering clear of Trump and North Korea, he says.

"When you're writing a stand-up show, you're writing it for a two-year tour. The same show will finish in Oslo in 2019 or in Melbourne in 2020. You can't do this week's Trump story. The subjects have to be strong enough to withstand being told 150 times."

He's hoping to do another series of BBC Two's Stargazing next year and is hosting another Robot Wars, but won't be doing any more series of The Apprentice: You're Fired!

"It was a fun show to do, but you can interview enough people in shiny suits who want to be on The Apprentice, and I think I had my fill with 84 of them."

:: Beyond The Sky by Dara Ó Briain is published by Scholastic, priced £12.99.

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