' I don’t know what I’m doing for huge stretches of time' | Jay Richardson interviews Dylan Moran

' I don’t know what I’m doing for huge stretches of time'

Jay Richardson interviews Dylan Moran

Your new DVD, Aim Low, splices highlights of your various stand-up shows together and reiterates how often you return to the same themes and preoccupations ...

For me, the subject matter, it’s not quite irrelevant, but there is a tune to it, like a melody or refrain. The way we look at the world, everybody has their own way of seeing or hearing, so certain things strike you as important. I don’t look into it too much, though, because I don’t want to know too much. If you endlessly analyse yourself you don’t do anything, I’ve found.

The difference in your perception as time goes by – you think one way in your 20s, another in your 30s, and so on – I recognise that’s a big part of what I talk about. The fun and whatever pleasure is to be had are all in the approach. Monet painted a lot of lily pads and haystacks ... actually, Monet’s a bad example because he bores the crap out of me. But it’s about what range of sounds or squeaks or jokes or colours or whatever it is you can wring from the subject matter.

Are you worried that by putting out previously released material, albeit re-edited, some might accuse you of cashing in?

Cashing in? I don’t know, it wasn’t my idea is all I can say. It was about doing a mix-up of the different shows, a compilation of best bits or routines that worked really well. I don’t think it was a bad thing to do. Every band in the world does it.

Do you take pride in your distinctiveness, that it’s almost impossible for another stand-up to copy your act?

I don’t take pride in it. There’s nothing mediating between me and an audience, because I don’t know a whole lot about the comedy scene to be honest. I’m not au fait with a lot of the current generation of comedians, partly because I just don’t play clubs anymore. Other comics are constantly gigging to keep themselves in the game. I don’t do that, I go underground and build my rocket bath with propellers over a period of months. I don’t know what I’m doing for huge stretches of time. But at some point I begin hauling it up, taking it out and going ‘what the fuck is this? How do we make it go?’

How much roadtesting of material do you do in previews?

A couple of weeks really help. I did it for the first time a couple of years ago and couldn’t believe the difference it made. I used to write the show, would go into these big rooms and if something didn’t work it was like I was in a speeding car and I’d just kick it out the door and move onto something else.

You’ve toured North America as part of The Three Fellas with Ardal O’Hanlon and Tommy Tiernan. Were you surprised at the outrage Tommy provoked there with his supposedly anti-Semitic remarks last year?

In some ways that’s not a new thing, with any kind of art form. There was national outrage when a new Manet painting went up. Stravinsky ballets, people lost their wigs over that. It could be anything. Everybody’s entitled to their reaction.

There’s a right of reply, or complaint box now though. People demand it because they want a line to be drawn. That’s one of the functions of comedy, it often lands in hot water because the satirical voice is the one saying ‘yah boo’ to this or that pose, or boundary, questioning the structure of everything. So it’s the voice that’s accused of being obscene, overstepping the mark. That’s part of its role.

You started performing stand-up after seeing gigs in Dublin’s Comedy Cellar. A small room with no microphone, was it formative for your style?

It was much more like a performance space than a London comedy club. Not a lot of people, but a lot of people in proportion to the room, huddled together with pints of Guinness and woolly jumpers. The room was yours, nobody knew what to expect, there was a sense that anything could happen. When I moved to London, which I had to do to economically survive, I had to learn all sorts of things I hadn’t thought about before, like crowd management. Getting yours in before they could get you. We didn’t have any of that culture of aggression which is so much a part of British comedy in general.

Do you miss the club circuit?

No. But it was a very, very good assault course. The British lead the field in satire, at all levels, from fairly crude tabloid jiggery-pokery to really quite sophisticated mockery. It was a great place to learn how to survive, because you had to be fast, you had to be tougher and smarter, all those qualities that it helps if you’re in your 20s. Because when you get a bit older it gets like ping-pong. There’s not a lot of subtlety or rounded sense, there’s not a lot of compassion. City workers in Battersea, Friday night, everybody drunk super-quick because they’re tired of London and life. You kept your eyes on the lunar cycle because if there was a full moon you knew it was going to be a rough night.

Le Monde have called you ‘the greatest comedian living or dead’. Are you an artist?

I don’t really give a damn one way or the other. Although it’s how I make my living, I don’t think of it as a job. I write all the time, but not all of my time is writing, I could just start writing on this pocket. That’s what I do, every day. I don’t sit down and try to write jokes, I don’t know what I’m going to do with these thoughts. So is it art? I wouldn’t like to say, there are other people to do that. Academics and critics seem to derive tremendous pleasure from thinking that they have some sort of handle on the nomenclature and classification of whatever they’re dealing with.

But after several film and television roles, do you consider yourself an actor?

No. It’s something I would like to get better at. You can’t just turn up. You do something with the character and all that, how they would say or do something instead of how you would do it. That seems pretty elementary. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it to be honest. If I’m offered a part, think I can do it and I like the script I say yes. I don’t worry too much about back-story or all that sort of stuff.

Were you disappointed that A Film With Me In It never got a UK release?

Yeah, I thought it was a very smart little movie. I literally can’t answer that question. Mark [Doherty] who wrote it and I played opposite, he’s such a terrific, terrific talent. It got released in Ireland, did quite well in Australia, there were screenings in America... It was like an old-fashioned noir kind of caper but very tight. It was a bit like a play I suppose, because a lot of it was just the two of us opposite one another. It was a small movie, obviously, we shot it for bugger all in film terms, a million euro or something and over a month. It’s a good piece of work and I’m proud of it.

You’ve described Black Books’ antihero Bernard Black as ‘a sociopath ... one of those people who are bitter about not creating something’. Could you have become Bernard if you’d not found stand-up?

I think it happens to a lot of people actually and if affected me very badly. Comedy allowed me to not only perform and to try and make people laugh, but also to write and paint. I’m pretty much unqualified for anything else and could probably just about stack supermarket shelves. Comedy was a combination of necessity and good luck for me.

Looking back, do you think Black Books finished at the right time after three series

Yeah. I don’t need the distance either. A lot of people have asked if we’ll do it again, why there were no more. There’s nothing wrong with the American model, where if something’s successful they keep going. But only if standards are maintained. It’s easier for them because they have teams of writers and there’s a burnout rate. I was lazy, kind of leisurely really in the way we turned it out, there were big gaps between the series. I don’t know how the Peep Show guys keep going. I’ve only seen it a couple of times but the writing’s very tight, the characters are very good and it made me laugh out loud which is as much as you can ask.

But there’s a distinction in Peep Show between the writers and performers ...

Yeah, well that’s the thing. I was doing both ends and that was knackering. The character was a more extreme version of my stand-up voice and I couldn’t be too subtle and focused on my comedy because I was so busy with the show, just making sure the jokes were getting hit.

Is it true you’re writing a novel?

Yes, there’s a novel. There’s a play, there’s a film, there’s a whole bunch of half-finished somethings up on bricks. It’s slightly embarrassing really. I’ve been working on a kind of novel that seems to be turning into a self-help book, except the end result is it makes you want to do away with yourself.

  • Aim Low: The Very Best of Dylan Moran is out now. Click here to buy from Amazon. He tours the UK next year.

Published: 8 Dec 2010

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