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Almost two decades after the wild success of Black Books, Dylan Moran returns to Australia with a new stand-up show, Dr Cosmos. He talks about finding his place in the world and what a Charlie Chaplin film has to say about modern life. “What was extraordinary to me throughout Modern Times was how inclusive it was. Chaplin was laughing in the most general sense at the way we’re living, what we’re doing to ourselves, how we’re fucking up our priorities, you know? We need a film just like that about now. I think how we live is pretty screwy right now.” By Elizabeth Flux.

Irish comedian and actor Dylan Moran

Dylan Moran.
Credit: Andy Hollingworth

It’s one of the more surreal moments in my life. One metre away from me, Dylan Moran is acting out his favourite scene from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with great gusto while a waiter is trying to discreetly serve him a coffee.

As the Irish comedian and actor describes the scene in vivid, delighted detail, I can practically see the film playing in his mind’s eye. “He’s tightening rivets on an assembly line and he’s got two spanners and he’s doing one thing and the guy next to him is hitting something and the guy next to him is crimping something and they’re all bunched up together,” Moran explains.

The waiter quietly places a coffee, some extra almond milk and a glass of water next to him.

“That’s literally all that he’s doing, this motion, on these plates that are going past,” Moran continues, putting his hands out in front and energetically making the motion of twisting two spanners, even as he turns to the waiter, “ – thank you so much, that’s terrific, thank you – and of course they’re endless, they keep coming.”

Somehow, it feels as though he is giving both me and the waiter his full attention while also throwing himself completely into describing the film. Throughout this interview I get the sense Moran’s mind is constantly full, in the best of ways; ideas, images and opinions keep bubbling over and out, filling the small hotel conference room we’re sitting in. He moves around the space (“Sorry, I’m going to have to stand up during this because I get a sore bum”) and for part of the time he draws on one of the notepads we’ve been provided – abstract and detailed shapes taking form as we speak. By the end he is sitting on the floor, looking up at me. And yet at no point does it feel as though his attention has waned or been divided. He’s completely present – something that, as it quickly becomes clear – is a priority for him.

Moran is perhaps best known for writing and starring in Black Books, a three-season television series that centres on grumpy bookseller Bernard Black (Moran), his long-suffering employee and housemate, Manny (Bill Bailey), and his friend Fran (Tamsin Greig).

There’s a scene in the first season where Moran’s character catches a student using a mobile phone in his store, despite it being against shop policy. The episode then cuts to a shot of the phone on top of a book as Bernard smashes it with a mallet.

“That felt realllllly good,” says Bernard after the phone is destroyed.

Moran’s work reflects his ideas and, almost 20 years later, he is if anything more worried about technology and the way we spend time alone, and how the pervasiveness of screens affects our imagination and contentment.

He says he finds it difficult to relate to people who always “have their platforms at hand and all that stuff”. “I find it very disorientating to talk with somebody who’s afraid of themselves. Afraid of spending any time with their own mind. To just sit and be in a room and just experience themselves. I think that’s a pretty tragic epidemic that’s kind of sweeping the world at the moment, partly because of technology. I think it does not bode well.”

Moran admits he himself is not immune. “You know there’s no resisting the tech – they’re geniuses, brilliant, by God you’ve got to hand it to them for invading your mind, they’re without compare,” he says with a small smile.

When he shows me an image on his phone, I notice he has set it to black and white – a technique used to make the screen less appealing. “This,” he says, brandishing an arm at the room we’re in, “is automatically more vivid than this,” as he holds up his phone. “And so it should be.”

He’d brought up Modern Times because we were talking about the importance of connection in comedy. “What was extraordinary to me throughout the movie was how inclusive it was. He [Chaplin] was laughing in the most general sense at the way we’re living, what we’re doing to ourselves, how we’re fucking up our priorities, you know? With this idea of being more productive and doing more and the net effect on the human in this whole enterprise.” He pauses. “I think it’s perfect for a time like now, that kind of view – we need it, we need something like that, actually. We need a film just like that about now. I think how we live is pretty screwy right now.”

 

Moran has been performing comedy since he was 19. He explains how he walked in to a Dublin comedy club not expecting much but found himself blown away by the quality of the writing.

“They were young people having a wonderful time, and they were smart and they were funny and it was irresistible, actually. And I said, ‘Please can I do five minutes next week’, and that was it. I never looked back. I got paid £5. And that was paid employment of which I had not experienced prior to that,” he says with a big laugh.

Comedy is the only real work Moran has pursued – though there was a one-week stint in floristry that much has been made of. I ask him why he thinks this detail keeps popping up and he says he has no idea: “It was literally a week to get money for Christmas presents.”

He describes his start in comedy as finding his place in the world. “It’s really important when you’re that age – you want a role. I got kicked out school, so all my friends were going to university, everybody was going to university, it wasn’t job time yet, Ireland was in a recession, there were no jobs to be had. So everybody was quite sensibly going for uni or art school or something and I was, you know, writing crazy shit, and scared. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Moran has been exceptionally successful in his field, but is wary of that success. “There’s a terrible danger,” he says, “of becoming far too self-important about whatever it is you’re doing. We all get obsessed, locked into our own little corner of the world.”

With Black Books having been so beloved, I start to ask him: “Is it sometimes, I can’t think of the word…” He can see me scrabbling around a dark well of my own making.

“A millstone?” he offers. “I think there probably was a period a few years ago when I was thinking, ‘Jesus, I wish people would shut up about this ’cause it’s making me think I’ll never do anything else’ – but I don’t feel like that anymore.” He says he’s busy writing another series now, and thinks that partly explains why he’s more relaxed. “I’m thrilled anybody enjoyed anything I’ve done, to be honest with you. If I made anybody laugh, or made a half-hour more endurable, I’m glad.”

I previously saw Moran about 10 years ago, when he was touring a stand-up show in Adelaide. At that point his stage presence was somewhat grumpy, but it has evolved in the years since. “I change, you know, like everybody else,” he says. “I’m wound different on Monday than I am on Wednesday in one degree or another. Time goes by and life changes.”

His stage presence isn’t a character or a persona. “I am myself, but I am an edited version of myself,” Moran explains. “Because if I bring everything, too much of it is extraneous. It’s not to purpose. Comedy is musical. It’s musical. There’s certain notes you want to be hitting, there are certain rhythms you want to play in. So I have to leave some stuff aside. You don’t go out and play all the notes at once, you know?”

He feels the same way about acting. In addition to his stand-up and writing work, he’s had comedic film roles in Notting Hill, Run Fatboy Run, The Actors and A Film with Me in It, as well as a more sombre part in Calvary, a film about a priest who receives a death threat in confession.

For Moran, moving between different roles is all about selection and performance. He says, “The whole thing is drawing out of yourself what you know and turning that into this presentation of another person, but you’re drawing on whether you’re expressing something frivolous or funny or something heartfelt and difficult.”

Our discussion covers a surprising amount of ground. The turnover rate of Australian prime ministers: “Yeah, you chop your own head off here pretty often.” Moran’s love of White Noise by Don DeLillo: “DeLillo is like nobody else, there’s nobody out there who’s as unnervingly accurate about what it feels like to be alive now and as funny.” The terrible adaptation of DeLillo’s Cosmopolis: “Yeah, do not be put off his books by David bloody Cronenberg.” Television: “Did you see Fleabag? Oh, you gotta see Fleabag … When good work like that comes along it’s really heartening for everybody – it sort of reminds you of what’s possible, you know?” At one point he is disappointed that I want to talk about his films rather than films in general: “Oh shit, I thought we were going to talk about other movies,” he says with a laugh. It’s the first time I’ve walked out of an interview with a reading list and homework.

It’s fascinating to watch Moran draw as he speaks, seeing the shape of his mind in that moment translated into black and white. For a while he posted his artwork on Instagram, tagged with his 2018 show, Grumbling Mustard, and the one he is now touring in Australia, Dr Cosmos. But the account is now dormant – “I thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t do this anymore’” – and the originals are hidden away, boxed up in a cupboard.

Moran describes how he “went mad” with painting during the Grumbling Mustard tour. “I was drawing and doing these watercolours at a rate of dozens a day at one point because I was so busy trying to avoid writing.” He laughs. “This deadline of a [new] show kept coming towards me at this crawl pace. I could see it … so I furiously displaced all my nerves into drawing and produced a lot of weird artwork that I really enjoyed doing.” He pauses. “I only realised about three months ago what an incredible index to the subconscious it is. I wasn’t thinking about that at all at the time but that’s of course what it is. I was trying to figure out what the show should be about and the drawings were telling me but I was too busy doing them to notice.”

 

In some ways we are all Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times – holding two spanners and simply going through the motions. When I go home and start on Moran’s list of recommendations, I watch the scene. He’s right – it’s hilarious. At one point Chaplin quite literally becomes trapped in the cogs of a machine. This worry comes through in Moran’s writing, his performance and his art. He is concerned that we are becoming more malleable, more distracted – that what is happening is a “modern iteration of bread and circuses”.

I ask him if, doing what he does, it sometimes feels as though everything is work – that his mind is constantly running.

“Very recently I have found that I had to work at… being here, I suppose is the best way to put it,” he says slowly. “Because if I allow the endless bulging crowd of fantasies and figments to carry on thronging through the little turnstile of my attention in my mind, it just becomes this unstoppable tumble or scramble from one possibility to the next. There’s something very passive about that. So you have to actively seize your own attention and try and direct it a little bit.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 26, 2019 as "Moran back home". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.