Irish comedian Dylan Moran has a striking way of making broad, abstract concepts oddly understandable. He once described the mind-body split, that most basic human dichotomy, through the metaphor of an eagle “tethered to a fridge full of dodgy ham.” The language is precise, the visual is wonderfully strange and the point is immediate. All of our noble intentions are forever weighed down by something rotten and carnal. It’s surreal and visceral at the same time.
Many fans know him from appearances in movies like the drama “Calvary” and the horror comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” or from three seasons of the U.K. sitcom “Black Books,” which is now on Netflix. But stand-up is where he shines brightest. When reached by phone for this piece, Moran was in New York getting ready for the first night of his “Grumbling Mustard” tour, which comes to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Wednesday, Sept. 27.
He’s building a new show, the follow-up to his “Off the Hook” special. “I’m still transitioning but I’m a good way out,” he says. “I’m not doing anything from the last show. … It’s developing or it’s a hot mess, depending on how you like to put it.”
What the show will be is “still kind of bubbling,” he says. Moran is game to try to answer questions about the process of putting his act together, but a lot of it is mysterious, even to him. “It’s quite hard to describe it,” he says. “Especially on a day like today because I’m so in it. I’m in the middle of the cloud, I can’t really tell you what shape it is.”
He’ll likely address trends and technology, like the ubiquity of cell phones. “I think, sometimes you look around and you think, 'Oh, people look like parasites on their phone at this stage,' ” he says. “They look like support systems for phones.” But Moran isn’t as concerned about how the technology makes people looks as much as the fact that it has destroyed their ability to concentrate. “I think you’re going to have more people falling off the grid because the grid is getting hotter and more oppressive,” he says. “It’s an absolute thought masher, you know?”
It’s also hard for a comedian not to address daily headlines. On the day I spoke with Moran, headlines were preoccupied with President Trump’s address to the U.N. in which he said it might be necessary to “totally destroy” North Korea in self-defense. “I saw that headline earlier today,” says Moran. “I mean that’s obviously a hell of a headline, but it doesn’t necessarily win every day, the headline. Especially not with him. I could hang out with the guy for another 10 minutes, he’ll have a better headline. He must be a newspaper editor’s dream. He might singlehandedly save some media empires just because we’re so addicted to his f------ nonsense.”
While the headlines Trump generates might be tempting fodder for a quick joke or two, Moran has a bigger picture in mind. “I do talk about him,” he says, “and I do talk about contemporary events and the media environment we live in where you get some cataclysmic event, everybody knows about it, pretty much as soon as it happens, and then you go onstage that night. But you’ve got to remember, there’s going to be another cataclysm tomorrow. And there was one the day before today. What’s unchanging, what’s integral, is the person up there. They’re the one reacting. I mean, I’m not just a processing machine for the news, because I don’t really think that’s what my role is.”
The point isn’t what a stand-up comedian says, according to Moran, it’s how they say it. A comedian could talk about trends or current events or a personal story, but if it doesn’t have a broader point, Moran gets bored. And if he is bored by a comedian, it’s usually because they are too focused on themselves. “Here is a person with a name, and they tell me, ‘I live in a flat and I have a cat,’ ” he says. “That’s not the point. The point is how they’re going to tell me this stuff. Somebody who really knows what they’re doing is never talking about themselves. Never, really. They’re always talking about the audience, as far as I’m concerned, if they’re any good. They just use themselves as an example.”
The other part of this approach is the language. Moran grew up in a household full of books, and he’s an avid reader of fiction and poetry. He loves language, and it shows in his act. It is, after all, the main tool of the trade. “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s not everything I’ve got when I’m up there onstage, but it’s nearly all of it.” That is clear even in the evocative name of the tour, for which Moran has a clear inspiration. “It’s a reference to being up late at night when shadows are jostling in the corner of the room and you’re sitting up alone with some bottle of terrible liquor thinking about your life, and your life looks back at you and makes a face at you,” he says. “That’s the general idea.”
Moran doesn’t consider himself a satirist, and no matter how philosophical he may sometimes get onstage, his intentions are humble. “The notion I have is that people come to the building, they’re standing there, I make them laugh as much as I can and they go home,” he says. “With any luck, they’ve had a good time. That’s the sum total of what I’m setting out to achieve. I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind or give them earth-shattering insight to capsize their view of the world and drag them into another portal. I’m just trying to give people a good time.”
Dylan Moran brings his “Grumbling Mustard” tour to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Wednesday, Sept. 27.