“It’s a real thrill to be here in Grahamstown. You have too much of everything here. Every kind of lunatic on the planet comes here to rehearse whatever kind of thing they’re going to take to all the other planets.” Including this lunatic, it seemed. Dylan Moran appeared just about how everyone expected he would: baggy jeans, glass of red wine, and medium-long unwashed hair flopping about his scalp in no discernable style or shape.
Such was the rabid excitement in the Guy Butler Theatre that Moran walked onstage to a partial standing ovation. From his first word – a hesitant “Molweni”, responded to with bewildered laughter from the sell-out crowd – a faint electric buzz settled over everything. In the end, almost two hours of stand-up would pass in a flash.
At only 43, Moran is possibly the quintessential modern European comedian. The pacing of his sets, his rhetorical strategies, even his subject matter would – in the hands of almost any other comedian imaginable, certainly at this Festival – be suicidally dull. But this slightly morose, slightly rambling, slightly shambolic Irishman turns even the most well-trod comedic tropes – television, travel, modernity, hipsters, 50 Shades of Grey, getting old – into something fresh, thrilling and delightfully unpredictable.
This was his first performance of his latest touring show, Off the Hook, for over a month. Adapting his show to a South African audience for the first time initially seemed to throw him, to force him to regress, in his words, into a “liberal European” mode. But only after a few moments, he flipped his disorientation into the kind of localised quip that would get any audience on his side: indeed, Afrikaans does sound “very Star Wars-y”.
And then began the kind of mile-a-minute, thought stumbling- on-top-of-each other- too-fast monologuing that has become Moran’s trademark over his already 23-year-long career. A selfmade warning that “everyone would end up offended” at the end of his show never really materialised: apart from one off-colour accent, he only spouted good banter, with himself his greatest target, whether by admitting that his attempts to speak Xhosa almost resulted in himself dying “by swallowing the roof of his mouth”, or that he was as painfully white “as Taylor Swift, naked, carrying two cats in a snowstorm”.
It was the kind of performance that might tempt every would-be stand up in a fifty kilometre radius to buy an ill-fitting blazer and attempt an Irish accent in the morning. Moran’s is a style – filled with astute observations with an improvisational quality – that is often imitated and just-asoften badly realised. My own experiences following around underground South African comedians at the beginning of my writing career made me realise that comedy is among the most referential and cross-pollinating genres in live entertainment. Unlike a guitarist who fluffs her chords, however, or a photographer with a perspective problem, a funny-man who isn’t funny is something profoundly depressing. A bad singer still sings. A bad painter still produces a painting. A bad comedian, however, fails at conjuring comedy.
Stand-up is the ultimate high-risk act. Lesser comedians tend not to realise that comedy is as much – if not more about – writing than performing jokes. Someone can focus on delivering all the tropes of commercial comedy – shouting, accents and expressions – as much as they want; but if there’s nothing of value to deliver in the first place, it just doesn’t work. And this is why Dylan Moran is one of the best comedians of his generation: because he is one of the best comedic writers of his generation. His seeming impulsive, impetuous demeanour is an illusion: everything he does has a coherent narrative backbone, allowing him to flit at will between puerility and profundity, politics and piss-taking.
Moran is best known – both in South Africa and overseas – for his heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking character Bernard Black in the cult sitcom Black Books. But the power of his character flowed from his creative partnership with fellow Irishman Graham Linehan at least as much as it did with his on-screen chemistry with co-stars Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig.
And so it remains with his act in Off the Hook. And I say “act” deliberately, because the Dylan Moran on-stage – a rope-a-dopey intellectual athlete – is no doubt a very different man to the wraith that was allegedly spotted dodging through a gauntlet of admirers at Pick ‘n Pay yesterday evening. It’s rare to be treated to a performer blessed with such consistency over two 45-minute stints, with fantastic one-liners seemingly plucked from the air, delivered with the intensity of someone blithely putting out a cigarette.
Although, on saying that, as much as Moran was immediately recognisable, he looked a little fatter, too. “Not American fat,” he defended himself, “more sophisticated European fat”; someone who would “eat a piece of prosciutto while walking down to the docks to see if the donut ships had come in.” It turns out the once-famously heavysmoker gave up smoking last year, and has replaced it, by his own admission, by putting everything food-esque he can see in his mouth. Much of the material in Off the Hook is a bit more personal than his earlier stand-up work, and is laced with insights into his family, marriage, and his unfamiliar, newly-saggier body. And interspersed with some political material from his older repertoire, it’s an immediately accessible evening out, crafted by someone who has been at top form for over two decades.
It’s perhaps bad form to suggest it, but, with today and tomorrow’s shows sold out, this is perhaps the one show at Festival this year for which it’s worth trying to scalp a ticket. So often is comedy a little so-so. Come across an act like Dylan Moran, however, and comedy becomes a tonic. An emotional reset. And that’s a valuable thing. As Moran says, “Life has four stages: child, failure, old, death”. We could all do with a little respite from it.
Guy Butler Theatre,
By Nick Mulgrew
Loved this write-up – captured it so well. Really wish i could have been there…
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