Known for his dry wit and ever-present glass of wine, Irish comedian Dylan Moran has been referred to by Le Monde as “the greatest comedian, living or dead.” An international superstar, Moran recently became the first professional English-speaking comedian to perform in Russia. He’s also been on seen on-screen in Channel 4 sitcom Black Books (which he co-created and starred in), and in films like Shaun of the Dead and Run Fatboy Run.
In December, he brings his international tour Yeah, Yeah to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I recently got the chance to chat with him about double positives, New Yorkers, and trying to articulate the ethereal.
I remember hearing the story behind the title of your show a long time ago. Will you remind me?
Okay, it goes like this. There was a British philosopher who was doing a talk. He was a Cambridge guy, his name was [J. L.] Austin. He was doing a talk about language; he wrote a famous book called How To Do Things With Words. And he said, during the course of this lecture — I should mention there was an American philosopher also in the audience. I think he was from one of the Ivy Leagues places, and his name has flown out of my head, but he was a very funny guy. [It was Columbia professor Sidney Morgenbesser. -ed] Austin was on stage and he was saying, in any language, you can make a positive from a double negative. Like you might say, “There’s no way I’m not going to do that.” But there’s no language in which you can make a negative from a double positive. And from the back of the room, [Morgenbesser] just said, “yeah, yeah.”
And this inspired you?
Well I thought it was a great title. I was working on a show and you’ve got to call it something.
So is there a theme to the show?
Well yes, but it would be lost on me. I wouldn’t know what it was. That would be too much of an outside view. I am in it, in the middle of the complex of nonsense and observation and statement and inquiry and whatever the hell else it is. A lot of the time, when I’m speaking to people, they’ll ask questions, perfectly ordinary legitimate questions like the one you just asked. You know, “Does it have a theme?” or “How do you try to do this?” And the answer to all those questions is always the same. It’s just, I don’t know. Because if I had that kind of birds-eye view of what was I was doing, I would crash to the ground. I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s so all-consuming to be performing this stuff that you’ve written, and trying to make it come to life. Trying to get it across, trying to get whatever the joke or segment or expressions. More than anything, the expression of what it is you’re after, it’s like being on a hunt. You have the quarry and you just want to get it. So if you stop to think about it, you trip and you fall into a hole.
Do you sit down to write a show every year, or do you just evolve your material over time?
I write every day, and I write much more than I say on stage. I have a truckload. You don’t do an architectural plan. It’s like a kid making a little pile of pebbles on the beach. But only if it works. It has to be a nice pile of pebbles. It has to be an organically satisfying pile of pebbles.
I know you’ve toured around Eastern Europe. How was that?
It was a blast. It was absolutely fascinating and terrific to be involved in the culture over there, rather than just flying through as a tourist, because it meant I was with these great professional guys, who were able to plug the enormous chasm of ignorance that I have about the place, and encourage me to read more about it. [Russia] has always exerted a fascination on me, and I think on a lot of people in Western Europe because that side of Europe, they’re our near neighbors but they’re very mysterious to us. And we are only now finding out more about their experience, some of it absolutely harrowing obviously, over 70 years of the Soviet Bloc. In terms of history, the recent past is always had a special kind of throb because it’s accessible in way that obviously reading about Ancient Rome is not, because you may know somebody who was directly affected by it, and you will have seen as a kid, newsreels and so on of the time, whether that was going on in your lifetime or not. It has a stronger kind of gravitational pull, I think, than history that’s very, very remote from you.
And how were the crowds?
I mean, I was in Kiev in Ukraine, I was in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Latvia and Estonia and Kazakhstan, so all of these places are very different. And people came. We had 800 people in Moscow, so I was just, I was so thrilled. The first time I played St. Petersburg, people had the option of using headsets, so if they were having a problem with the language, they could hear it in a simultaneous Russian translation. And that worked pretty well for the people who wanted to do that. But then, the next time out, because I’ve been a couple of times now, we didn’t do it. We just went for it. So I would slow my delivery a little bit, because obviously everybody has their own vernacular, I’ve got an accent and all that. I wanted them to get it, and they were great. You know, they would listen, and then there would be a very, very slight pause, a fraction of a second, and then they would laugh, and then they would clap. And that’s sort of how it went for the whole night. I felt a bit like a Victorian lecturer.
Do you find crowds in the US to be particularly different from crowds in say, the UK or Australia?
I would have said before, well, comedy’s comedy and humor’s universal and that’s true, to a degree. But an American life, a New York life — where are you calling from, by the way?
You know, if you’re a New Yorker, chances are you’ve been around, as well. You’ve been out of New York, you’ve been to other places in America and I would imagine you’ve been to Europe. Am I right?
So you know that New York life is New York life, and you might say it’s vaguely comparable to life in London, but even then, it’s only superficially. I think it’s very different to life in downtown Kansas, or even Los Angeles, which is, although it’s still a big city, it’s a totally different environment. New Yorkers are famously sassy and savvy and quick-witted and everybody is, they’ve got easy access to their tempers. And they’re very informed and they keep their eye on what’s going on all the time, and they don’t — this is the crucial point — they don’t just live with a glass bubble above them. And that is maybe a difference that you would notice in, let’s say LA. You’ve got less of a sense of that. Yes, people on the West Coast are looking out upon the world as well, but I would say, even in San Francisco they would seem to me to be more interested in the world around them, whereas LA, some sort of entropy goes on there, it just collapses in itself and everybody talks about movies and TV.
Do you change your material at all when you travel?
Well, I will talk about where I am, wherever I am. But obviously, I can’t change my show around completely. I don’t want to. I want to do my show. I worked on these things, I think they’re funny. I want to talk about them. So I talk about where am I, but I do my show.
And do people ever react negatively to your material about them?
Well, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t care either. Because, this is my job, this is my work. If I was to go around censoring or pre-censoring myself to that degree, I would get nowhere. I wouldn’t be able to do it. What I try to do is be awake. If I go to Manhattan, and I talk about the intricacies of British politics, why would I do that? What I try to do is be culturally sensitive to where I am.
I’m trying to understand, right now, and for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been surrounded by American books and newspapers. I’m trying to switch on to what’s going on in America right now, and why is it happening now. Why was the election so close? What does it mean about where the country is going? There’s no end of stuff, obviously. I’m reading histories of the presidents and religion in America and anything, anything that I can use to have me get a clearer picture of what America thinks about itself and about the world.
That’s an impressive amount of research.
Well, it’s completely natural to me. I mean, why wouldn’t you do this? I’m not just going there to tell people something; I’m going to find out as well. It’s an exchange. It’s a conversation. I don’t want to just go and say, “Oh you know, my pants fell down on Wednesday.” I want to find something out.
A lot of your comedy, I would describe it as kind of existential. Would you say that’s fair?
Well, can you unpack that a little bit for me?
Well, you’re talking about big things. The meaning of the life, or the lack of meaning. It’s fairly deep, and I was just wondering what draws you to that?
Well, I wouldn’t know what else to talk about. I do talk about big stuff, if you like, or abstract stuff, but I try not to talk about them in an abstract way. I try to make what’s ethereal or nebulous, real and palpable. That was one thing I definitely do want to achieve. What I want to do a lot of the time is — when you’re talking to your friends, you’re having coffee or a drink or something, and you saying to one another, “Well, you know he was a little bit, you know, like, he was just, you know what I’m, you know he was a bit weird, you know.” I want to take that section, “he was a little bit, you know…” and I want to just use that, and actually translate it into something more definite, more comprehensible. These strange feelings that blow through you like wind from somewhere very far away. You know, I want to die all of a sudden [laughs] or I’m suddenly elated to be alive. Where do these come from?
You seem to have an incredibly devoted fan base. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s very hard for me to know. I don’t tweet or any of that stuff. People who do what I do sometimes do it to keep in touch and sort of get a sense of, you know, are people gonna come to their shows. I don’t. I just do it, you know? And I’m always very gratified when people come, wherever I am in the world. I don’t go around all the time thinking the theater will be full. I never presume, so I’m very glad when it is. I played San Francisco before, and I’d never been to the place in my life, and 600 people showed up, so that was a thrill. And it was a great show, and it was hugely exciting and enjoyable. And going to New York, and San Francisco and LA, it keeps it all fresh. Because I’m surrounded by all these entirely different viewpoints, and I’m looking to see how we can exchange those and talk in the middle of all that. And also, it’s just such a crazy country, how could I resist?
Dylan Moran will be in New York from December 3 - December 8, Los Angeles on December 11 & 12, and San Francisco on December 14 & 15. More details can be found at DylanMoran.com.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City, where she practices being sassy, savvy and quick-witted with easy access to her temper.