Comedian Danny O'Brien discusses his career during COVID, his time spent with a Mayan deity in Guatemala, and why he believes that the city of Galway holds the soul of comedy.

At the beginning of 2020, I sat down with Danny O'Brien to discuss his then-upcoming tour, Reformer.

Galvanised by a knee injury, which he got while dancing to The Cure's Close to Me on an Australian dance floor, the young comic's show centered entirely on his pursuit of healthiness.

Determined to treat his body like a temple, O'Brien cut sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and meat from his diet, only to find that the vice with the tightest grip on his health was something far more insidious - stress.

Speaking in January of last year he said: "Genuinely – and this is something that I've been trying to work on, that's why I did the meditation stuff – what I'm going to die from is stress, if I don't address it. That's a fact."

Two months later, a global pandemic reached Irish shores.

With the coronavirus decimating the country's entertainment industry, bringing live comedy to a standstill, and adding substantial stress to all our lives over the past eighteen months, Danny O'Brien is, unsurprisingly, no longer reformed. In fact, he's doubling down on his vices.

"Since I've last seen you, I've gone back to eating everything I quit," he tells me over a mug of fully caffeinated tea. "I put on a stone and I've never been more stressed in my life. That's the truth. But I don't think I'm alone!"

Having spent much of the pandemic setting up an event company called Garden Gigs Ireland alongside comedian Damo Clark, the Bray man launched a series of successful outdoor gigs, corporate Zoom events, and school workshops that kept him exceptionally busy through various lockdowns.

When restrictions began to ease towards the end of 2020, however, O'Brien jumped at the chance to visit Guatemala with some old friends. Performing a series of gigs while travelling the country (and donating the proceeds to a number of local charities), the former reformer was inspired by his unfamiliar surroundings.

"I got a new gig out of it," he tells me. "It's called the God of All Things Bad, and it's about this deity. Over every bar over there, there's a puppet with a smoke in his mouth - they light the cigarette and have a shot glass between its thighs - it's everywhere. That's Maximón."

"If you do something bad in Guatemala, you talk to Jesus. But if you do something real bad, you talk to Maximón," he surmised.

sculpture of Maximon
Wooden sculptures of Maximón

According to the National Geographic, this chain-smoking, rum-swilling folk saint "represents light and dark", and is often sought out by those praying for "miracles, good health, and love". Popular offerings made to the trickster's effigy are said to include moonshine, hand-rolled cigarettes, and money.

"Basically, whatever you want to do in life, you go and tell him your problem and you buy him a drink," Danny explains. "You have a drink with him and that's it. There's no penance, there's no nothing. And the brotherhood that stay with him for the year (he gets moved every year), they just drink with him all day, every day."

"It was the best craic religious thing I had ever seen in my life," he laughs. "This is the kind of church I can get behind. It gave me a really cool basis for a show, and it's totally different than anything I've ever done before."

From denouncing the "hedonism" surrounding Irish comedy in January to travelling across Central America to drink with a mischievous Mayan god in December, the comedian's material has done a 180 and may well reflect just how acutely the pandemic has effected us all.

Whether it's for better or worse is yet to be seen but, for Danny, the results will play out on stage regardless.

With restrictions easing, the stand-up has no plans to slow down and will be filling his calendar with forthcoming shows at the Wild Duck in Temple Bar, various Christmas gigs across the country, and two nights at the 2021 Galway Comedy Festival.

"The soul of comedy is in Galway," he says. "It's called the city of the tribes for a reason and I think that holds true when it comes to the festival because you're getting someone from every kind of tribe in stand-up comedy, all performing at once."

"There's an amazing camaraderie there," he adds, praising the late-night comedy KARLnival hosted by comedian Karl Spain, who he lovingly refers to as his "comedy husband".

"His late night show, for me, is one of the best things about comedy because I've been at shows where I've seen Andrew Maxwell on the same line up as the likes of Kevin Bridges and Zoe Lyons. And Karl is ripping all of them and everyone in the audience. And John Bishop is dropping in to do a ten minute set."

"I've done festivals all over the world and you never get that caliber of comic in those intimate gigs and they're only doing it for one reason - they absolutely love it. I think that's why Galway is different to others."

You can see Danny O'Brien at the Galway Comedy Festival on Saturday, October 23 and Sunday, October 24th. Just don't ask him if he's stressed. He is.