Dylan Moran, 41, has had a charmed career, or at least when it’s viewed from the outside. The youngest ever winner of the Perrier Award for comedy, he scaled the heights of his chosen profession before he even knew how to identify them.
Fans in Ireland and here in the U.S. love him for his work in classic like Shaun of the Dead and Black Books, but even more than that they love his standup, which is driven by a withering contempt for ignorance in any form. (You can see for yourself when Moran appears at New York’s Theatre 80 from December 3 to 8).
Moran probably got used to being the smartest man in the room years ago, but what he may not have expected to find was an international paying audience devoted to his every utterance. But it was all an accident, he says, a career that he fell into. None of it was planned.
“I never really had a career to be honest with you,” he tells the Irish Voice. “I never in my life sat down and planned it. I have thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to do this,’ like anybody would. But I’m not the type that says if I do this it will lead to that.
“There’s no master plan, it has never occurred to me. Instead I have found myself being asked to do this or that, and sometimes it would work out, and sometimes I wouldn’t fancy it. It was never any kind of pathway or journey to somewhere in particular.”
Moran’s standup routines are unlike any other Irish comic on the circuit. They’re flamboyant and strange and acidly funny.
They’re also pointedly theatrical in the same way he is. It’s no wonder he has a reputation for being intimidatingly clever.
“I have heard that about myself the odd time, but I’m always completely stumped whenever I do. I do not walk around imaging myself to be intimidating or smart,” he says.
“I’ve seen stand up comedy and after a while you start to notice that a lot of people are doing things that are like a lot of other people. There can be a bit of a herd mentality and that’s obviously less interesting because there’s less going on. I’m just being totally frank with you.
“I’m interested in far more elaborate forms where you’re in a castle or you’re in a hot air balloon. I want to make it as elaborate and fun and as various as possible.”
Who makes Moran laugh? It’s usually writers more than stand-ups, he reveals.
“I don’t watch a whole lot of stand up. Mainly I prefer to read writers, they make me laugh the most. Something gets you when you’re alone and someone’s voice is coming through their work. There’s a different quality to it that stays with you a bit more.”
In recent weeks Moran’s been on set in writer and director John McDonagh’s Calvary, his follow up to The Guard (which was the highest grossing film ever screened in Ireland).
“The plot very much falls upon the character played by Brendan Gleeson, a local priest intent on making the world a better place until he runs afoul of the vested interests in his little town. Think High Noon in Connemara,” says Moran.
It seems certain to be the same kind of hit that McDonagh’s hugely popular The Guard was, Moran says.
“I think it’s a really good old-fashioned kind of Hollywood movie really. We were shooting in the west of Ireland, which I didn’t know growing up, and it’s extraordinary dramatic and beautiful landscape,” Moran says.
“It adds to the atmosphere of a script pregnant with history. It feels big in a way that Ireland often doesn’t.”
Moran made his name as an actor in television and film playing brilliant but unstable characters not a million miles from his own real life persona. Does he agree?
“It’s fair to say there’s a lot of me in my work, but the important word is that it’s heightened, or whatever you want to call it. In Black Books the objective was to make an entertaining half hour,” he says.
“That’s all you can do, you set the bar high for yourself. The distortion and the mangling of who you really are is inevitable and it wouldn’t really be funny without that.”
Growing up, one gets the sense that Moran must have been a handful. With all that restless intellectual energy, what was he like in his teens?
“I was quite keen to get to Dublin as quickly as possible,” he laughs. “I’m at the point now where I’ve been out of Ireland as long as I was in it. I remember registering that.
“I’m really not big on nationalism to be honest with you. I really don’t think it gets people anywhere except near a pile of dead bodies. I’m Irish, yeah, but I don’t need to get up on a soapbox about it.”
Coming from Ireland, with such a strong monoculture, he learned to have patience with other cultures, at least until he knows what’s really going on.
“Religion is a massive deal in Russia,” says Moran, who is the first Irish stand up to play a series of sold out shows there.
“You have to talk about it extremely carefully. It’s a mirror image of America in a sense, minus all the Cold War stuff.”
Like a lot of people, thanks to the recent election America has been on Moran’s mind lately. Its religious life in particular interests him greatly.
“America’s work ethic is non-stop; it’s not even enshrined in law that workers have to get their two weeks holiday money. But Americans work harder than everyone else I can think of.”
One thing he won’t be drawn into is any narrow nationalism or flag waving. There’s good reason for that he says.
“I grew up in the 1970’s and I remember the news, which was shootings. I lived in Belfast for a year and I knew people directly affected by it,” he recalls.
“It was murder, death, blood and dead children. What can you say about it that’s good? People screaming the name of their country or their province. Bringing up stuff from 400 or 500 years ago and painting it on a wall – are you out of your mind? What are you doing, you’re alive now.”
For Moran’s American shows he plans to talk about American life, he reveals.
“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. In my mind jobs, fiscal cliffs, the divide in the country, the electoral college votes, the tax cuts for millionaires.”
The possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency had terrified him.
“Romney should be on a packet of peanuts or a stick of butter. It was amazing he was even considered,” Moran reckons.
“He was like the face on a hair wax commercial from the 1950s. With regard to him having his hands on the launch codes, everyone in Europe was crapping themselves.”
But don’t think because he takes one stance on an issue that he isn’t interested in debating with people who may not agree with him.
“I’m playing New York, San Francisco and LA. I’m not playing Louisiana, I’m not playing Alaska. I would like to,” he says.
“I don’t want to just talk to people who agree with everything I say. I want to open it up. I’m an outsider. That makes me look past the stereotypes to what’s really happening.”
Dylan Moran plays Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place, on December 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. For information, visit www.theatre80.net.