If you are American and recognize the name Dylan Moran, or the tousled haircut that belongs to it, then you probably know the Irish comedian from his phenomenal Channel 4 series Black Books, or his supporting role in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. In the former, which is available to binge on Netflix, Moran played Bernard Black, the unenthusiastic owner of the titular bookshop who spends most of his time drinking, sleeping and generally avoiding anything having to do with work. In the latter, he plays David, the annoying friend of Shaun’s (Simon Pegg) crush who gets his comeuppance in the penultimate scene.
Long before Moran ever pursued careers in television and film, however, the 45-year-old wordsmith got his start as a stand-up in 1992. Known largely for his astute mixture of satirical witticisms and deadpan observations, the Irish entertainer has produced five stand-up specials (and a greatest hits collection) during the past 15 years. His next tour, dubbed Grumbling Mustard for a rather ridiculous but wonderful reason, kicked off its inaugural North American leg with a string of dates in New York, Washington D.C. and Boston in last September. It continues through October 12th with stops in Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans before Moran heads back home to workshop it some more.
A tired but conversational Moran spoke with Uproxx about the tour, his plans for future dates in the spring, and how he treads the fine comedic line between riffing about Donald Trump and delving into carefully prepared (and personal) material.
Did you get any sleep after last night?
I did, I did. Though I spent the evening with some whiskey, so I am currently speaking to you with one eye open.
No worries. I’m glad you got some sleep, at least. It was a very enjoyable show.
I enjoyed it, you know? It was fun last night, especially the beginning of the second half. All of the riffing was fun.
There was a moment in the second half when you said, “You guys like the riffing, but there’s all this other stuff I’ve prepared.” Do you prefer riffing, sticking to the script, or some combination?
Well, I’m trying to do it again and again after the last show that came before it. Back then I went out and it was pretty much everything, and I went everywhere. But by the end, it was set because I was playing it all over the world, so I couldn’t mess around in the way I can now because I wasn’t always speaking to an English language audience. English was a second language for them, and I want to be able to communicate with them, which meant I had to be careful with what I said. But with this, I’m enjoying messing around more with the language again.
People laugh at it a lot, and sometimes you write something — maybe because it’s in the news or whatever — and think, “Okay, these people will know what I’m talking about here,” and it works for them. Sometimes that doesn’t work at all. It’s this kind of off-the-cuff nonsense for them, really, and I’m just paying attention to what the audience wants. You do this for so many years, and in so many different ways, but this time around, I suppose, this is what I want to do. I want to mess around with the language and see what the audience latches onto. On the whole, it seems to work out. It’s a symbiotic thing. They seem to be interested in what I’m interested in.
Considering the daily deluge we Americans are currently witnessing, it seems we’re primed for current events material.
I think so, at least. Isn’t it interesting? Especially last night, toward the beginning when I was talking about wanting to give the audience a couple of Trump-free hours. There was a big reaction to that. People really are affected by the daily crap. They really seem excited for a little bit of relief, is all I’m saying, but they’re also happy when you really dig into what’s happening in the world, just everywhere.
It’s weird. Some comics seem to think audiences want to escape everything, but most audiences do love to laugh at jokes about Trump doing this or Pence saying that. As a performer, I imagine it’s a weird, but fun line for you to try and follow.
Right. That was an interesting group to perform for the other night. Like, I told them upfront we wouldn’t be talking about Trump too much, but when I brought Trump back into it they kept laughing at that. Sometimes, I think you’ve got to kind of talk it up. You have to warm the audience up for those kinds of topics. If you go for it straight on all the time, people have already a lot of that. It doesn’t always work.
This first leg of the tour ends in October, but I assume you’re planning to work on this for at least the next year or year and a half.
I’m planning on coming back in the spring and hitting both sides of the U.S. then. In between, yeah, I’ll be working on a lot of it. At the moment, I guess, there’s still a lot I have to do with this. This is nothing, really. I threw in a couple of old numbers in there, just to make sure I had enough to fill my time on stage, but no one wants me to do that all the time. I certainly don’t.
It’s early days. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I assume you’re fleshing it out. Seeing what works and what doesn’t.
You have to keep on changing it, even after you finally decide to record it for an album or a special. It’s kind of like a plateau because at the time you’re recording it, you’re doing it that particular way for a while. But then you might start doing it another way for a while. What ultimately happens is, you can’t do it anymore. You go, “All right, get this thing off of me!” So you start doing something else. Something that’s hopefully entirely new and different. Really, all the time before you reach that plateau, you’re still messing with to one degree or another.
It only settles with time. I’d say it takes several years before that ever happens. There’s definitely a hard period, of a few months at least, where you’re still cooking with that material. You’re putting things in, throwing things out, trying entirely new things and so on. I mean, obviously, from a comic’s point of view, that’s probably… When it’s nearly right, that’s probably the most fun time. It’s almost exactly what it’s going to be.
It’s like the old, popular stories of famous writers, such as Ernest Hemingway. Apparently, he would find his books in bookshops, grab them, and edit sentences long after they’d been published. Or at least that’s how I remember the story.
Though it’s important to say that, it’s not like everything else that precedes something is not as good. That’s not the case. Sometimes, you just prefer the way you were doing it at that time. So for one or two nights, a whole week or as long as a year, you did your act a particular way that you enjoyed during that time. Sometimes you wish you had recorded the special then. It’s always in motion. You tape it that one particular night, and that’s the one you put up, but it’s not a fixed thing really.
Some comics stick to the same subjects over time, whereas others tailor their act to wherever they are in their lives. Considering Grumbling Mustard‘s focus on relationships, parenting and getting older, I suspect it’s the latter for you.
I’ve got teenage kids, they’re beginning to make their way in the world, and we live in crazy times. I think, inevitably, I’m coming at it all from what I know as a parent. What happens to your worldview when you’re thrust into that position’? I think the reason people who have kids get anxious is, they remember what it was like when they were that age. My mind is in both camps. I remember being 20 and looking at the world as it was then. Now I’m thinking about it in terms of the world we have today. So I think about what it’s like to be 20 today, and compare it to my experiences at that age.
Those are the crazy years where everybody goes, “Whoa, how did that happen?” It’s a fast period of time, especially when you’re raising people. You’re not looking at time changing around you, you’re looking at them. The clock hand is spinning around and you don’t even feel it or see it, because you’re so busy with this young person. You’re too busy trying to make sure they’re okay and have what they need. Then you look up and 20 years are gone, and you go, “Hang on, what the fuck?” That’s when you start going, “What happened? What the fuck was I thinking during those 20 years? Those were mine and now they’re gone.”
My brothers and I are in our twenties and thirties. Our parents are in their sixties. When you joked about your teenage son, I thought, “This is probably what they thought of us when we were teenagers.”
I’m doing more material like that with this new show, but last night was the first time I’d ever performed that bit. There was a lot of stage talk last night. That was one thing I really liked, and it’s very true for me. It’s very fresh to me as well, so I’m going to do more of that with this tour because it’s hilarious. When you see this freak child suddenly come down and grunt at you repeatedly. Despite everything, they still demand candy-colored cereal and other treats in those moments.
Do you record your live shows?
I do record them. Everybody in the business normally says they do, but don’t listen to them. I will actually listen to my recordings a couple of times, especially if something good happened there.
Some comics record, others write things down.
You’re putting different things together, because the truth is, I’ll go out tomorrow night and try out most of the same material at a different venue. It’ll be different again. You’ve got to kind of let it evolve over time. It’s only by doing this, over and over again, that you can figure out, “Hey, there seems to be a pattern here.”
Grumbling Mustard began with five straight shows at Theater 80 in New York. It’s a tiny 160-seat venue. The Wilbur here in Boston, however, seats between 1,000 and 1,200. Do you prefer the smaller theaters? The bigger ones?
The smaller places are great for trying things. They’re good for getting on stage and talking people again after finishing another tour and taking a break. It’s a good thing to do. You want to do that somewhere smaller venue on occasion, for your health. It’s like starting a conversation with one or two people that ultimately explodes into a larger group. You chitchat, then you get into it with those first people and a few others, and then you’re really talking. But it’s so much more intimate at the beginning, and so much more helpful for determining the flow of what you’re trying to make. That’s when you expand and hit the ground running. You start thinking, “Fuck!” You’ve already been talking, so you start talking even more. This is good for comedy. It’s good for anything, really.
The North American leg of Dylan Moran’s Grumbling Mustard tour is happening now. Tickets are available for purchase here.