Dylan Moran: Sourpuss supreme

The dyspeptic comedian Dylan Moran is notoriously taciturn and finds talking about himself 'pathetic and embarrassing'. On the eve of a stand-up tour, he gives Ed Caesar the ultimate unhappy hour
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The prospect of interviewing Dylan Moran presents a serious conundrum. He refuses to talk about his personal life, and he doesn't much care for talking about his professional life either. His ardent distaste of the cult of personality is well documented.

"The trouble is," says Moran, in the lilt of his Co Meath upbringing, "I don't want to listen to someone who's made something gassing on about how extraordinarily complex and fulfilling and demanding and absorbing that process is. I don't really see how it's any different to someone giving you a blow-by-blow description of how they manufacture saliva."

This is the Moran of myth: the curmudgeon who brought us the wonderfully bleak Bernard Black, of the Channel 4 sitcom Black Books, and whose stand-up comedy has been thrilling audiences with its observed melancholy for 14 years.

Born in Navan, just north-west of Dublin, in 1971, Moran was first inspired to give comedy a whirl after witnessing an Ardal O'Hanlon gig. Moran was already showing hints of greatness when he won the So You Think You're Funny award for best new stand-up comedian in 1993, but his fame was assured when he became the youngest comedian ever to win the Perrier Award, stand-up comedy's greatest prize, in 1996.

Ten years after his Edinburgh Festival triumph, Moran still lives in the Scottish capital. He has written, starred in and discarded Black Books. His new stand-up show, Like, Totally... Dylan Moran, is about to tour the UK. And he is also, by rights, a film star now, having brought his maudlin charms to The Actors and A Cock and Bull Story, but you would not dare to call him so if you heard him inveigh against those who make "a career of being photographed".

Moran is, in fact, charming in person. You would not call him cheery, perhaps, but as he draws a nicotine hit and relaxes into a basement armchair in London's comedians-only club Hurst House, he seems content. The trademark scruffy mop of old has been replaced by something less unruly, and he wears a dark- blue shirt that can only be described as ironed.

But what to ask him? As luck would have it, I don't have to. Dylan Moran is a talker, a studied, nuanced talker, with an ear for the absurd and a turn of phrase that would shame a barrister. He will converse about anything and everything. Creationism, the Middle East, the co-opting of scientific research, Fifties abstract art, the New Labour project, modern American fiction, the nature of love, the worth of arguments, cornflakes - they are all dissected and dispensed with.

Moran even gasses on about his hit sitcom, Black Books, if only briefly. "I had fun in the making of it," he says. "Of course. If the only problem in front of you is how to make more than one egg land on Bill Bailey, you're never going to get too upset about it... It's all very mechanical. It was fascinating to see the workings of half an hour and what needs to happen in that time for the thing to work. I was never the kind of kid who took apart radios."

That's it. Twenty seconds, in an uninterrupted hour of talk, that he is willing to devote to his own work. Other people's work, he has always found, holds more fascination. Like his sitcom character, Bernard Black, he loves books, particularly the great American novelists such as John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Don DeLillo, too, holds a special place in his life.

"I'm a huge fan of his," Moran says with surprising vigour. "And White Noise is my favourite contemporary novel. It's a great book. The Americans are always ahead of us in one field, and that's consciousness. They're the most over-stimulated nation on earth. They've got too much to deal with. So when they do produce these great works, I suppose they have an extra fascination for us, because they are on the front line of modern awareness.

"Every conceivable anxiety, they seem to be exposed to first, whether it's mad government or exploitative industry or just people having guns in the house. To me, the whole country is hyperreal. It's always in a special gear we don't have yet - and we're glad we don't have."

It's little surprise, then, that Moran is writing a novel (though, naturally, it is "pathetic, embarrassing" to talk about it). The scope of Moran's reading has given his writing, whether for stand-up or sitcom, a philosophical bent. And he admits that, 12 years after starting stand-up comedy as a green 20-year-old, he is more interested in the mechanics of narrative than ever.

"Computer games, a sitcom, a novel, all of these things, they all function on the same basis, really," says Moran. "They are all guides, maps of particular terrains of experience. When you read a novel, you immediately make yourself all of the characters. It's never about Madame Bovary or Heathcliff. It's always about you. It's always about creating a map, which you can then negotiate."

Does stand-up work on that basis too? "Of course," he says. "It's straightforward. People want the map. They want to be told about their lives."

Moran's comedic map has always involved a certain disaffection with the world. He has, to paraphrase his stand-up routine, always preferred the blues to rap. For Moran, "I ain't got no job, I ain't got no woman" is infinitely more interesting than "I got cars, I got bitches". It is a view of the world that has struck a chord with many.

"If someone has just come back from holiday," he explains, like an impatient schoolteacher, "and they show you some photographs, and say it was all wonderful, and the sun wasn't too hot, and all that, you're bored out of your mind. Nothing could be more tedious than other people's happiness, because it happens only to them and it teaches you nothing."

"But if they tell you that the hotel was crap, how the toilets leaked, how they all got sick - it's a wonderful story. Something bad will have happened to you in the past, but it didn't this time. It happened to them. And you can enjoy it."

Happy people can be funny too, says Moran, but only if you rip their world apart.

"Love's not interesting to anyone else," explains Moran, who is happily married with children. "But it doesn't have to be, to work. It's interesting, though, if you take all those reaffirming things that couples say to each other apart, you find intriguing things going on there. That's what comics do very well.

"I really admired Dave Allen as a child. He was really good at describing a perfectly ordinary thing that people did every day and taking it apart and showing people how absurd it was. It was about the inherent lunacy of the things you take for granted. Arguing over the bill at a restaurant, for example. It was, and is, a great method: just to stop and look longer than other people."

The willingness to stop and look longer at things than other people serves Moran well both as a comedian and a conversationalist. This will be nothing new to anyone who has seen him perform. But what is arresting about the string of characters and profiles that Moran conjures during our conversation is that so many of them are political. His act contains few overt references to politics, so it is strange to hear the brutality with which he pulls apart the leading figures of our age.

A self-described "liberal peacenik", Moran talks about the "sheer quality of performance" of New Labour, and about how the Bush administration is impressive for the "implacable nature of its edifice". Furthermore, geopolitical discourse, is not, as it was in the cold war, "about the right way to live, but about the righteousness of how you live".

But Moran saves his most acute profile for George Galloway. "Whatever else you might wish to say about the man," says Moran, "he can string together an interesting sentence, an arresting sentence, and deliver it with the kind of panache, that, if he had chosen to use it, he could have been a theatre actor that people would have paid money to see. He has this excess energy that you associate with recovering alcoholics or people who are involved in dangerous sports. He has this static fizzing around him, but it's a directionless drive. He has totally questionable control over it. His appearance on Big Brother, which I didn't even see, is the most staggeringly obvious example of hubris."

Time's up. Moran has other pressing engagements: other cigarettes to smoke and other journalists to wrong-foot. He has been an odd pleasure. In the current self-congratulatory, PR-driven environment of the well known, Dylan Moran is strikingly unaffected. The best thing you could say about him is that he asks more questions than he answers - an unusual quality for a self-painted misanthrope. The number of times he describes his own endeavours as "pathetic", too, is heartening. It is easy to see why people pay to spend an hour in his company.

Touring 3 May to 28 June ( www.mickperrin.com/dylanmoran2006_dates.htm)