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The Hardest Way to Make An easy living

James Robinson



I am ten minutes into my interview with Dylan Moran, star and writer of BBC’s Black Books, a show I am somewhat enamoured with. It’s 10 minutes into an interview I was pretty excited about. Dylan Moran is a funny guy – a talented star that just sold out five shows across the country.
I’ve just asked what he does for fun, outside of being funny. He lets out a quite considerable sigh. “You know they’d be things you have probably done yourself.” He starts yabbering. I revisited the tape of this interview several times, but I can’t decipher what the hell he was saying. “I eat salad, I go for a walk, I lie down, I get up. You know? I look at pictures, I play music, I pick up beach stones. That kind of thing.” This makes for more interesting reading than listening. Like many of his other replies, it is answer given without friendliness and in a hushed and muttered tone. I could be a wise ass and tell him that I don’t like salad much and picking up beach stones sounds like a pretty crap way to spend an afternoon. But I won’t. This is the hardest interview I’ve done. Ten minutes in, and I can’t wait for this interview to end.
Dylan Moran remarked once that he had done one interview and all the rest were repeats. Watching him, after I’d done my interview, bring Jim Mora to pieces on National Radio and absolutely tank on Close Up, I felt better. I accept that Dylan Moran is talented and funny. Reading the transcript of my interview with him he makes many funny comments, funny to read, but a little snide and aggressive to enjoy when directed at you. By the time this goes to print I hope to have attended, and laughed my ass at, his stand up show. But goddamn those 15 minutes on the phone were painful.
Maybe the warning signs were there. Reading over previous profiles of Dylan Moran, he doesn’t sound too friendly. The character he created and became famous for, Bernard Black, is a miserable, caustic, unsociable and bitter bastard with a hatred of humanity. I guess to create something that evil, a certain degree has to be autobiographical. “I would hope there’s not too much of me in Bernard, because he’s a nutcase,” Moran says, deflecting the question quickly.
It seems fitting that after Black Books, Moran is returning to stand up, being the arena that initially bought him fame. Moran tells me that he is in no hurry to do anything else at the moment. He’ll do TV again, he may appear in movies but he’s in no hurry. “I’m taking my time, for a living.”
His show opened to rave reviews across the globe. He’s toured it to America and they liked it so much they let him on that great bastion of all things acceptably successful in America, David Letterman’s The Late Show. British and American comedy are drastically different, and while British comedy seems a hit with slapstick weary American critics – it seems Americans as an audience, don’t get the British. I tell him about an experience I had watching The Office in California, where no one really seemed to get the joke. This gets little response from him. “Maybe it was all a little too real?” So what does he view as the essential differences between British and American comedy? “Broadly speaking, the American stuff is all about lines, sharp lines, and the British stuff is all about character observation.” If there is such a difference, how well does he feel his show was received by an American audience? “It seemed to go OK. I mean, I don’t have any sort of measuring rod. I can’t take blood samples from people afterwards to see how I did. But I think I did pretty well.” Sorry for asking Mr Moran.
He’s never been to New Zealand and our conversation starts to pick up a little bit as we fumble around musing about New Zealand. I’m embarrassed when I can’t actually recommend him anything to do here. As I spend most of my time making this magazine, as far as I’m concerned, the rest of the world is also up to fuck-all. “Yeah, but there must be some pretty good stuff there though. Immigration is incredibly tight. You have to fill out about 30 forms. They must be very paranoid that people are coming over to steal or something.”
Touring your show to new audiences and new places, it must be nerve wracking. It seems like it’d be a lot scarier than making a TV show. “It comes and goes, comes and goes. Sometimes you’re very quiet, or, you know, you’re preoccupied and you don’t know why and that’s it. You’re probably nervous.” People might not get it though. In my opinion, at least, it would be hard to write a joke that is as funny in the heart of America as it is in New Zealand. My cracking line of police jokes in the wake of the Louise Nicholas fiasco may not be as funny in a patriotic, post 9/11 New York. “People are people I find, wherever you go. The concerns that we have don’t differ much. Really, when you get down to it, everybody’s thinking about love, death, work, money…” Moran says with his voice trailing back into that illegible mumble.
Amidst his aggression to journalists and his general disinterest his fame kind of seems a bit like an accident. Moran talks of being famous in a bewildered tone. He doesn’t get the obsession, when I ask him about appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman he remarks simply, “why does everybody ask me that?” When asked to describe his ascent to fame, he simply quipped – “Well I don’t think about it too much James, I just sort of did stand up for five minutes and it snowballed from there.”
I tell him about an online petition for him to be the next Doctor Who and for once he laughs. “I wasn’t aware of that particular movement.” But when I ask him what it’s like to have such a slightly famous profile, the gruff Moran reappears. “I don’t know. Do I?”
Well does he get stopped on the street? Does he notice it? “I do get stopped on the street but I don’t hear them. I’ve got special bullet proof glass insurance around me at all times as I travel around in a case, breathing in my specially flavoured oxygen from a tank as my sashimi chef works behind me preparing lunch.”
Even if Moran does slide back into obscurity, sitting at the door of his London home warding off journalists with a shotgun, he’ll always have 18 episodes of Black Books for the world to thank him for. I could watch the adventures of Bernard, Manny and Fran in that crappy bookstore all day.
Moran’s Bernard would be a horribly unpalatable person to actually know, but surprisingly, according to Moran he has met many like Bernard. “There are loads of these grumpy guys that work in these run down shops. That was the inspiration for the show. I noticed that they all seemed to wear the same thing, and I was just amazed that they were allowed to run a business. They really looked like what they really wanted to do was throw themselves off a bridge.”
The show revolves around Bernard, who, despite being a clearly horrible person, we are instinctively drawn to. If Moran created a character that he himself describes as a “nutcase” (and in one interview remarked at how he had come to loathe him) why is the audience so instinctively drawn to him? “Probably because of the pleasure you get from watching someone say something you’d like to say yourself.” Aha, am I drawing him into some sort of commentary here? Are humans too repressed? “I think repression on the whole is a very good thing. Maybe sometimes I think people have too high a tolerance for polite waffle.” I can’t help but feel that this comment is some sort
of jab.
We press on, and the interview draws to a close. A book is maybe on its way – Moran entertains illusions of himself as an author – and the product of this illusion may see the light of day sometime between “now and my death.” He claims his favourite films are Devil Indemnity and Jaws, he likes the Kings of Leon and Fiona Apple and thinks Steve Martin and Chris Rock are funny. But talks about them with as much passion as I reserve for geometry. It’s his mention of Steve Martin that gets me thinking. Moran is in the early stages of his career, relatively speaking. He’s made his name and set his own benchmark that whether he likes it or not, he will always be measured by. Comedians have a trend though of starting out strong and fading into soft film roles. It’s mind blowing to examine the difference between Raw and Dr Doolittle. 20 years really took the wind out of Eddie Murphy’s sails. So will we ever see Dylan Moran playing alongside an animal in a Disney film? “Maybe – if they’re still alive and I’m eating them. Or being eaten by them possibly, I don’t know, I certainly don’t have any plans to do Dr. Doolittle.”
And the interview ends. I go about my day, a layer of sweat across my brow and I assume Moran returned to his wife and kids and cowered at strangers who approached him.
About midway through the interview when I asked Moran if he felt akin to the Bernards of this world, he tells me that he doesn’t, but “I can see what they’re getting at though. I can see what it’s about. It’s sort of a comfort zone that they occupy, and they’re not prepared to leave. But they have to make a living so this is the way they do it. They sort of sulk in public.” I can’t help but feel that this is apt. I wonder what Bernard would do if he was out on the promotional circuit, and realise it would probably be a more extreme version of the same thing. As I mentioned earlier, to a large extent, writing always contains elements of autobiography, and in that sense, he and Bernard are probably two sides of the same coin.
Moran may fit in a bit better, but they’d both make journalists just as miserable.