Dr Cosmos will see you now – or will he? Dylan Moran is Zooming from his Edinburgh home before his show of that name streams this weekend. “Can I ask you to move an inch the other way?” he asks. I adjust in my seat, but he’s still not happy. “My photo is right on your face and I don’t know how to take it off-screen.” For five minutes he fusses with his camera, obscuring his face, so I find myself interrogating an indistinct patch of grey. “I’m so ignorant of tech,” he grumbles.
This won’t surprise followers of the Irishman’s career, which includes his role as grouchy bookshop owner Bernard in the sitcom Black Books. In his standup, he’s long traded in curmudgeonliness, albeit elevated by philosophical insight and lyricism. The blend was never more potent than in Dr Cosmos, which premiered at Edinburgh three years ago. Like all Moran’s stage work since he won the career-making Perrier award in 1996, it had no theme, give or take Moran’s promise to offer “all the answers” to the problem of life. But it had potency, and big laughs, as a newly teetotal Moran addressed mental health, midlife and Brexit, and considered modernity in light of the simpler world in which he grew up.
The streamed version, filmed in Melbourne, retains for posterity a show that took the temperature of a world at a moment of crisis – little knowing a bigger crisis lurked around the corner. “It’s pre-Covid” says Moran, then realises: “That’s a selling point: I don’t mention the virus! At all!” If you’re getting the impression of a man not skilled in the art of salesmanship, you’re correct. When I ask him what the thinking is behind the digital release, Moran replies laconically: “There’s no thinking. Or if there is, it’s nothing to do with me: I’m not the thinking department.”
Not true: Moran’s standup is marked by deeper thinking than most, as is today’s conversation, although the 49-year-old is loth to expound too much on the art of his standup. “I get nervous when people are glorying in the jargon of their profession. That to me points towards an insecurity. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, you should be able to talk about it in childlike terms with anybody.” He laughs off the idea that he has any objectives when constructing a show, other than “to connect”, he says. “And to illumine what it might be like to be alive.” He pauses. “That’s enough to be getting on with.”
Neither is there any great method to the phrase-making that distinguishes his standup. “You go through phases where you and language are in love with one another,” he tells me. “You can pick each other up and know exactly how to treat each other, you know? And there’s other days where the umbrella’s wet and upside down and you can’t find your shoes and have toothache, and you just cannot articulate what it is like.” But even then, “words are all we’ve got, as Beckett says”.
He spares few of them on my questions about the censorious atmosphere around modern comedy. This is a great time to be doing comedy, he says, because “there’s a lot of social tension around. Everybody’s getting on each other’s tits.” We’re still in that post-2016 moment, he says, where it’s like “watching somebody pull a Snickers bar apart very slowly. There are all these old ties, these skeins of connection, some breaking and some of them holding as we reset. There’s a massive realignment happening, a sense of ‘this is enough, this won’t do any more’.”
But the social tension does not affect how he creates his comedy. “I don’t give a fuck about PC,” insists Moran. “It wouldn’t enter my mind. I’m not going to take any directives from anybody. The decisions I take about what I say are mine. And I’ve got it wrong, and offended people, and I regret it, and I’ll probably do it again. But that’s destiny, that’s human existence. I don’t think any movement or social awareness is going to change that. You have to accept that. If you don’t, it’s just a sign of your immaturity.”
It’s an immaturity that flourishes, he argues, in an age of tech dependency – which may explain why he’s kept Covid-era Zoom comedy at an arm’s length. The trouble with watching standup online is that, marooned alone with your screen, he says, “you never deliquesce, you never melt into everybody else any more”. The “incursion of all this tech” into our lives has emphasised what humanness is, he says. “And that’s the stuff I go into the room to talk about as well. Next to these machines we’ve been obsessed by for the last 20 years, humanness is just incomparably more interesting.”