Dylan Moran: “It’s a shame that people are so frightened”
Ahead of the Berlin performance of his new programme Dr Cosmos, Irish comedian Dylan Moran discusses parallels between Ireland and Germany, the Brexit saga, the humour in Baedeker guides and his respect for Angela Merkel. The man who impersonated the iconic, cranky bookshop owner Bernard Black from British cult show Black Books is famous for his observant, quick-witted stream-of-consciousness rants. He’s packed in the fags and drink that used to be the obligatory props of his first shows, but still has “all the answers to the problems of life” – a life which he summarised in four words on his 2015 tour: “Child, failure, old, dead.”
For all the interviews I’ve done, this one feels special. Dylan Moran’s work has been as as constant a presence in my life as, say, The Big Lebowski. 14 years after the last episode of Black Books aired, we still refer to Aspirin tablets as Fizzy-Good-Make-Feel-Nice in my household, or suggest we pair our socks and have a talk about Jesus when it’s time to fill in the tax return. Also, our conversation takes place against the backdrop of full Brexit chaos – British PM Theresa May having survived a vote of no confidence only days before – and we’ll have to talk about it although I have no idea how to navigate the cliché minefield.
“I thought I’d join in”
That this is going to be more of a conversation than a Q&A becomes clear when the first question comes from him. “I’m trying to figure out your accent. I’m hearing German, I’m hearing Irish, what else is going on in there?” he wonders, stating with analytical interest: “You’ve got some little Irish-isms in your pronunciation.” Language is definitely easier to figure out than life. So: How did he find all the answers? Does being a comedian help?
“No, it just came to me one day. I decided that I knew everything,” Dylan declares with the matter-of-factness with which he delivers the most outrageous lines. “So I decided I would go and save people. Now seems to be the time to go saving people because of this” – he pauses, beginning to sound less like the performer – “global political apocalypse that seems to be consuming the world. I don’t know everything of course, or indeed anything. But,” the mischief is back in his voice, “I don’t think it’s stopping anybody else from providing answers, so I thought I’d join in.”
“Brexit’s promises are Jack and the Beanstalk”
Global political apocalypse? Right, there’s clearly no way around its two leading horsemen, Trump and Brexit. Let’s get it out of the way then, shall we? He suggests we pick one because “we could talk for an hour or ten days about either one.” I settle for Brexit, but resort to letting him do the talking:
“People are trying to get an Irish passport because so many don’t want to be caught up in everything that Brexit is going to take away from them. The promises that have been made to the people are difficult to imagine. What’s being taken away, however, is very clear. The promises are Jack and the Beanstalk. They’re fairy tales. There would probably be a perfect one by the Grimm brothers to match it.” The Emperor’s New Clothes could be the Brexit master narrative, I think, but then again that might be a bit overused, and anyway it’s by Hans Christian Andersen, a fact I remember just in time to keep my mouth shut.
“They realise they’re supposed to jump into the bucket of shit 200 feet below”
Dylan continues, “The other day I was thinking that being in Britain right now is like visiting relatives when you were a small child and listening to the adults talk about something incredibly boring that nobody seems to understand. It’s clearly an act of self harm. It’s like somebody saying I’m going to stick a fork in my eye, but it’s going to take me two and a half years to do so, and I’m going to talk about it every day before I do.”
Well, for a long time I was absolutely convinced it would be called off, or someone would holler “Bazinga!” eventually and it would all have been a bad joke. “Now, I can see why you thought that. A lot of people think that!”, he exclaims, becoming animated. “Everyone is like, look, this is SO crazy, surely everybody has to agree, we CAN’T do this. It’s like someone got drunk and said, ‘I’ll do this’. Now, they’re climbing to the top of the ladder and they realise they’re supposed to jump into the bucket of shit that’s 200 feet below and they’re thinking, ‘is there any way I can get out of this? Now that I said I’ll do it.’” It sounds like the initial stages of a classic Dylan Moran rant, but he pauses and sounds very pensive when he continues, “I just hope that people can have the humility to say ‘You know what, we made a mistake here. Let’s not do this.’” He doesn’t sound too convinced.
“There’s always beauty in language”
With the Brexit box safely checked, we return to the initial subject of language. Humour is a difficult thing to translate. Dylan Moran was the first English speaking comedian to perform in Russia. Do non-native speakers react differently to his act than audiences on his home turf?
“The advantage of English speaking performers is completely unfair,” he admits, “because it’s an accident of history that I’m able to perform in English all over the planet. I’m interested in language. I don’t speak German. But what I do try to be aware of is how the language my audience are speaking is constructed.” He elaborates: “It makes a difference that the verb always comes at the end of the sentence in German. You know how important the end of the sentence is when it comes to humour. That means that the grammar does make a difference to the way people’s minds work.”
The comedian behind one of the most damning reviews of the sound of the German language (“Whatever is happening to you from behind. How can we make it stop?”) then unexpectedly admits to his secret love for it: “German is like a harpsichord. The sound of it fascinates me. I was listening to someone reading Goethe the other day, and there’s pleasure just in the music of it. There’s beauty in all languages. I happen to like the sound of Russian. Some people don’t. But there’s always beauty. And of course,” he adds, “German is famous for these totally necessary concept words.” Oh yes. Who else would have come up with gems like Torschlusspanik which notoriously make for great fun when translated?
“There’s a parallel between the Irish Republic in the 70s and 80s and the GDR”
In that same epicly hilarious rant from Like, Totally, Dylan’s 2006 stand-up program, he managed to slam the German, the English and the Irish within the course of three minutes.
He sounds apologetic: “I thought people might take that the wrong way.” It’s one of my favourites, I assure – “Don’t mention the war!” is no longer imperative when talking to us. “The truth is I’m fascinated by Germany,” he continues. “I have been for a long time and for lots of reasons, one of which is that I always found there was a huge parallel between the Irish Republic of the 1970s and 80s that I was growing up in, and the GDR.” Is he thinking of the inner German border and the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, which is threatening to become a “hard” one once more?
No, he has something else in mind, namely the saturation of everyday life with religion and the resulting state dominance: “When I grew up in Ireland, the church was very dominant. I saw big echoes of that in GDR where the doctrine was that the party was always right. Ireland was a theocracy. Church and state were one, and therefore doubly powerful. It is impossible to be a functioning, mature adult in such a society or live an authentic life because you have this ridiculous supra state above you. It was very Orwellian. That’s the obvious comparison everybody makes, but that’s the feeling. It’s a rigged game, it’s a false consciousness. The citizen is very much oppressed by both systems.” He pauses and sounds almost sad when he goes on: “I used to think about Germany a lot then.”
“There’s quite a dry humour in Baedeker if you look carefully”
He’s bringing up the dark side of a country whose culture is fêted around the world. Ireland has a long tradition of satire, and Dylan Moran has been called the Oscar Wilde of comedy. Reversing that idea: Might Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw be doing stand-up if they were alive today?
He considers it briefly. “I could definitely imagine Flann O’Brien doing it.” His take on the form of delivering stories and humour is pragmatic, though: “Writers have to live. I think they do whatever it takes. A hundred years ago, people were writing travel guides to Europe. The Victorians did some quite funny ones. Baedeker was German, wasn’t he? There’s quite a dry humour in Baedeker if you look carefully. Stand-up is just a modern form of this.”
“You have to make your own culture”
Born in London, Dylan grew up in the Irish town of Navan from when he was two years old (“I get the magic passport which allows me to travel Europe still”). “Growing up in small towns, you have to make your own culture. You need some quiet and some time to find out what you’re interested in. And then you start writing, you start drawing, you join a band, you start making your own culture. You have to.” In his case, Ardal O’Hanlon and a few other artists he describes as extremely talented prompted him to give stand-up a go. He made a fast career from there, becoming the youngest person to win the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award in 1996.
I confront him with a line from a recent BBC Radio 5 appearance that went viral on the internet. “Your children hate you because they look at the world and they know it’s completely unmanageable. How are they supposed to cope when you don’t know what to tell them because you’ve never seen this kind of nonsense before either?” “Oh, it must have been a bad day!” he laughs. What do his own children make of the nonsense, then?
“Merkel is the last grown up in Europe”
He doesn’t hesitate on this one. “Well, they’re bored, you know! They’re a whole generation of ‘bored of listening to this crap’. We thought we were done with a lot of it. Now we’ve gone backwards twenty years. Newer groups are being able to make their voices heard, people who are campaigning for equality within gender identity for example. That’s extremely important. But we thought we’d reached a unanimous understanding that Europe has broadly liberal views, and that idea is being very tested right now. People are so scared! I think it’s a shame that people are so frightened.”
And with good reason. 13% of my fellow Germans voted for a right wing populist party that has left no doubt about its intentions. Dylan sounds encouraging when he admits to his love for our Chancellor: “But Germany still has a very good post-war political record. I mean Merkel is a hero as far as I’m concerned. She’s the last grown-up in Europe.”