Dylan Moran: ‘Smoking or breathing, one of them had to go’
Comedian on the ‘cult’ of Catholicism, his love of poetry and giving up fags and booze
Dylan Moran: ‘Britain is embarrassed by its own behaviour, frankly, and it’s a postcolonial sulk.’ Photograph: Cate Gillon/Getty Images
“I’ve been doing this for a quarter of a century,” points out Dylan Moran. “I’m probably going to know about as much as I’m ever going to know on a working level. There’s a liberty in that.”
It’s hard to believe so much time has passed since the Irish comic first shuffled on to the stage, cigarette and drink at the ready, and appeared not to know what on earth he was doing there. In 1996, aged 24, he became the youngest person to win the Perrier comedy award at the Edinburgh festival, and embarked on his first UK tour the year after.
TV and film opportunities followed, often playing various iterations of his rumpled, grumpy stage persona: in the 1998 sitcom How Do You Want Me? , with the late Charlotte Coleman; a cameo as a shameless shoplifter in the Richard Curtis film Notting Hill ; roles in the Simon Pegg vehicles Shaun of the Dead and Run, Fatboy, Run . More recently he’s appeared in the 2014 Irish film Calvary and the TV sitcom Uncle.
But the show he remains best known for is cult favourite Black Books , co-created with Graham Linehan, in which Moran took centre stage as the operatically bad-tempered secondhand bookshop owner Bernard Black, a petty tyrant to his sweet-natured assistant, played by Bill Bailey . An extended love letter to booze, fags, dusty bookshops and stubborn individuality, it ran for three series, from 2000 to 2004, and still inspires enormous affection.
Drinking coffee in a London cafe on the same street where he worked on the show, Moran ascribes viewers’ love for Bernard to the fact that “he does what you want to do. He’s a refusenik child, he’s the child who doesn’t want to get out of bed. We all have a bit of that in us. Basically, Grumpy Cat stole my act.”
Moran’s standup act has remained much the same over the decades: bumbling, hesitating, getting snarled up in microphone leads; wandering off on surreal flights of fancy and gently charming the audience with routines about the differences between the sexes or the ridiculousness of Game of Thrones before dropping in a casual reminder that we’re all just “hot fleas in the gulping dark”. (On his 2015 tour he reduced life to four stages: “Child, failure, old, dead.”)
Over the past few years he’s been travelling widely, “riding the jetstream of English as a world language” to Scandinavia and the Baltic states, as well as becoming the first English-speaking comic to perform in Russia in 2012.
“The first few jokes were in Russian, messing around. I said, ya shpion, which means I’m a spy, vy shpion, you’re a spy too, I can tell. It’s nonsense, but you’ve got to come from nowhere, talking through the stereotypes and all the cultural baggage we have.”
Gags about homophobic laws and an imprisoned oil tycoon may have been lost in translation: “I think there was some censorship going on,” he admits.
His interest in global touring stems from seeing parallels between cultures. “I was always fascinated by eastern Europe growing up, because they were like us. A certain kind of isolation. Ireland was just this weird hangover of old-fashioned religiosity.”
As an only child in Navan, Co Meath, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, his was one of the very few families not to go to church, giving Moran an early lesson in non-compliance.
The saturation of religion – “it was everywhere, it was in your soup” – meant that he “didn’t have a great time” at school, and left at 16.
“It was very church-oriented. Once you have the education system, you have everything. I’m very anti the whole jokey ‘Ah sure, isn’t it just Ireland, and the priests were part of the landscape’. I still think there should be a lot more reparations. It was a cult! And for women it was absolutely apocalyptic.”
He settled in Edinburgh 20 years ago with his Scottish script editor wife Elaine, where they have raised two children.
Even after escaping school, Moran’s late teens were miserable. “I was trying to figure out what the hell to do. I didn’t have any qualifications and I was pretty desperate. I wrote, I read, I bit my nails. I was kind of worried that I wasn’t more worried – I was a bit of a slacker about it. But it did give me time to think.”
When he got to Dublin and tried standup, “It was like a throwing my cards in the air type of thing – trying on a suit that fits and it’s just perfect.”
And the turbo-charged reading jag of those teenage years had laid down the literary seam that nourishes his comedy. Those artful hesitations and the gleeful dyspepsia share DNA with Beckett’s rambling, rumbling voices in the dark, while the surreal inventiveness and wordplay echo the spiky humour of Flann O’Brien .
Moran was also an obsessive play reader, forging his dramatic sensibility and sense of timing without leaving his bedroom (“comedy is all about the division of time, rhythms, the fall of language”). He remembers his father handing him Pinter at 15; he then flew through “all Ibsen, all Chekhov, Edward Bond – I’d even read all Noël Coward”.
“Publishing should wake up to the fact that people’s attention loops are shrinking by the second,” he says. “Sell poetry as a hit, the way you sell coffee or chilli: you get a linguistic bang off this thing.”
He has put out pamphlets of his own poems (“vanity publishing, self-published, whatever you want to call it”) and also posts them on Instagram , along with the trippy cartoons that form the backdrop to his live shows. “They’re just jingles and doodles, but people like them. It’s like a clearing desk. Every day I write, every day I draw. It’s all I’ve got.”
The verbal fun of standup is much more like poetry than prose, he says, “because a lot of it is about elision, suggestion, inference, the white space around the words. They’re much closer than people think, poetry and jokes. Look at haiku, koans … dense, rich word forms. That’s where I live. I live in that.”
In fact, Moran spent a long time feeling guilty that his love of standup was getting in the way of a literary career. “For years, I thought oh, this is terribly annoying, I’m on stage, I should be writing books, I should be staying at home and not leaving the house.”
After decades of promising that a book was in the pipeline, he has finally realised that “I don’t have to write novels. What a terrible problem to have, eh?” He laughs at his own ridiculousness. “‘I feel so liberated now I’ve cast off that yoke of having to produce novels!’ My novel hell, I should call my memoir.”
Out of a rut
At 46, he feels “out of a rut” in more ways than one. Booze and fags were fuel for his early standup and louche persona, the drunken Irishman act a way to grab audience attention as well as calm his nerves. But now, having quit cigarettes four years ago – “smoking or breathing, one of them had to go” – he’s recently taken a “little holiday” from alcohol, a dry January that has kept going into May (and enabled him to “lose 485 pounds and extend each day to last 385,000 hours”).
“You’re sort of embarrassed that you’re still the same person because you invested so much of yourself in the vice,” he says. “It’s incredible what you can give up, really.”
The new show, Dr Cosmos, which is touring the UK this autumn (no dates are currently scheduled for Ireland), is about “the bonfire of now. The blazing relentlessness and the effect it has on you. How do you sit still without coming apart at the seams?”
Middle age tends to accelerate the conviction that the world is going to hell in a handcart, but Moran points to “a massive consensus: we’re all agreed that the world is indeed f*cked right now. Everyone knows that the American president is a ludicrous person, in [BRITAIN]we’ve got two zombie political parties having a pretend show of political debate that’s never going to lead to anything, and Britain is going through this extraordinary act of sending itself to its room and not coming down as a show of – what? You shat your pants in front of the whole world and you’re sulking?
“It’s embarrassed by its own behaviour, frankly, and it’s a postcolonial sulk. Everybody’s just looking around, waiting for the embarrassment to fade. But Britain has this tradition of carrying on resolutely, because you’re committed to something, and is therefore locked into a position where it has to be seen to execute the absurdity it doesn’t want to go through with. These are desperate times.”
Whereas in the past he often wrote shows out “like a book”, this year, “for the first time really, I’m not banking on having everything written up. I’m realising – and I really am just realising this now, I’m very thick, really –that I really am working in an oral tradition. So I am going to talk it. It’s like going back to when I began: sometimes I just talked because I didn’t know how you did standup.”
Moran has always been unwilling to “dissect the fairy of comedy”, but with 25 years of experience under his belt he underlines that it’s about recognition – “people are amazed if you anticipate their experience” – and heart.
“People forget how much gut is involved in it, how much your kishkas are involved. All this frontal, verbal, parlour game bullshit in British comedy is so boring and sounds like f*cking Punch from 1850. It’s oppressive to any vigour and having a voice. If you listen to new British music, grime, how younger people speak: where’s the mainstream comedy reflecting those voices?
“What really makes me laugh more than anything in the world,” he concludes, “is when somebody you love impersonates you. You are seen. You are shown back to yourself 3D, in the round, in motion, the dynamic of you. That’s what I want for an audience. I want them to feel that they have been seen. And I want to show them back to themselves.”
• Dylan Moran: Dr Cosmos will be at the Edinburgh festival fringe in August, and then touring the UK from September 2018. dylanmoran.com