I first saw Jeff Green at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2000, and though I remember laughing a lot, I also remember coming out of the gig able to remember very little of what I laughed at. Apart from that he was a kind of foppish, good-looking guy in a suit and tie, with a nice accent (he’s from Chester), a pleasant manner and – it subsequently turned out – more often than not a room full of swooning female fans, I knew very little. I still felt that way after I interviewed him not long after.
I didn’t realise Jeff had been coming to Australia since the mid-90s. Or that he specialised in relationship material, although this particular factoid did become apparent over time. Jeff has a gentler manner – he’s not a shouty, sweary kind of comic – which means, when he keeps it in character, he can actually get away with some pretty outrageous stuff amongst his material, but it never actually offends. The result of this is that he’s perceived – incorrectly, much as Adam Hills is – as somehow less funny. Not an opinion held by the multitude of fans that constitute these comedians’s respective audiences, mind; in fact, usually an opinion held by someone who doesn’t see much live comedy. See Jeff live. Among all the laughter you hear, you will often discern that loud laughter of shocked disbelief. What you never hear is silence.
Whereas Green always plays to big, full rooms in Melbourne, I caught him midweek at Sydney’s Comedy Store. He’d just completed a leg of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow – taking the funny across Australia – and had pretty much sold out his week at the Store apart from the night I went. It was still a corker of a show. Surprisingly, there were some punters who didn’t quite know who he was when they arrived. They left talking about him, better able to quote his stuff than I was when I first saw him.
I was pleased that Jeff was happy to hang around for a chat after the gig – and he didn’t seem to mind my comedy nerd questions.
Dom Romeo: I find you’re a gentler observational comic. You don’t scare an audience, you don’t threaten an audience, you almost make them laugh surreptitiously. We’re never made to feel ‘on edge’ as we may with other comics. You have a very ‘gentle’ manner about you. How did that style develop?
JEFF GREEN: It didn’t develop in any kind of conceived, concocted way; it’s just part of who I am. I’ve tried to be edgy, and I’ve tried to be angry, and I’ve tried to be shouty, but audiences just don’t like it from me. They prefer it when it’s more ‘in receivership’; when I’m the butt of the joke, rather than making fun of other people or attacking other people. So it sort evolved through audience editing and realising that’s who I am, that’s how our relationship is, and so that’s how I better write the joke otherwise they’re not interested.
Dom Romeo: You say that, but it’s interesting: if you have some rowdy hecklers you can still shut them down, still being that persona that isn’t the shouty guy. You’re in total control all the time. Even though you say it’s the audiences that helped edit and direct where you go, you’re still clearly in full control at all times.
JEFF GREEN: Well, you ‘ve got to be. The audience don’t want to run the ship. They’re like children insomuch as if you don’t know where you’re going, they get a bit anxious. So you’ve got to be in control. That’s what they’ve paid for.
I don’t get many hecklers, but when you do, you’ve got to pretty much tread on them. And there’s a difference between ‘heckling’ and ‘banter’. Heckling, when it’s aggressive and negative and unpleasant, you tread on that straight away. But if they’re responding and feeding off what you said – like tonight, I had a woman talking back to me about how these particular shorts were cut in such a way that they exposed a man’s scrotum, when he was working on construction, and it was off something I said about going to the gym – that’s actually fun. But when it’s ‘get off, you’re shit’, there’s no place for that. Not in comedy.
There’s no place for that in life, actually. You wouldn’t speak to a plumber like that who had come to fix your drains. You wouldn’t speak to anybody. Why are you entitled to speak to anyone like that?
Dom Romeo: What I get from you as a performer is that you’re a gentleman. The first time I saw you, you were in a suit, you spoke to us politely. You were still hilarious, but you came across as one of the ‘gentlemen of comedy’, was my feeling.
JEFF GREEN: Well, I got into it because I wanted to make people laugh. I didn’t get into it as an ego thing. I did get into it to get laid, obviously; everybody does. But it was never really about dominating people, and I was never bullied, so I wasn’t working off any of my own insecurities. Everybody’s creative in some way: crocheting, cooking, building model aircraft, reading books, collecting records, and mine was writing jokes and writing routines. And I love routines. That was why I wanted to get on stage and explore stand-up comedy, which is why I’ve been doing it for 20 years without taking a break.
As for ‘being gentle’ – audiences paid a lot of money so I’m not really there to shout at them and tell them off. And it makes me cringe when I see comedians do it so I’m not really gonna do that myself. Whether that’s held me back or not, I don’t know. People have said, ‘Jeff’s funny but he’s never gonna be a barnstormer’. Maybe that’s why I’m at the level I’m at. But I really think people are at the level they want to be. After 20 years, this is who I am.
Dom Romeo: But that’s deceptive because even though you’re gentle, you can still shock – and you do: the routine about watching your child being born has some elements that make an audience go, ‘hang on, that’s funny, but, it’s also a bit…’ disconcerting, I guess. There are elements of discomfort and outrage – shock, perhaps, that those words are coming out of your mouth. But the bottom line is, it is funny.
JEFF GREEN: And it’s only there to be funny. It’s only there because I find it has a genuine quality, something that I want to say to an audience night after night. So yeah, I shock the audience. But I don’t like the audience ‘tutting’ at me. I don’t like the audience going ‘oooooh!’ Because that’s not really the furrow I want to plough. But I love banging out strong punchlines: I love talking about children with big ears; I love talking about people tapping things out with their nose on a special keyboard. It’s gritty and it gets big laughs and that’s the kind of comedy you always want.
Dom Romeo: Well, what I’m saying is, there is an edge to it. It’s not always apparent on the surface, but if you listen to the material there is an edge to it. It’s almost deceptive because of the manner in which you present yourself, but those edges are there. They’re not all bubble-wrapped!
JEFF GREEN: No, no. It’s not squeaky clean. I’m filthy! I wasn’t even particularly filthy tonight – okay I was a little – but I can get really, really filthy. But people go, ‘oh no, but you’re not really, because it’s not what you do.’ Mike Willmott is a very good friend of mine, and he’s wonderful, but he says, ‘really, you’re not filthy’, and I go, ‘yeah I am’ and says, ‘no you’re not; I am. I’m really filthy’. And I go, ‘Yeah, you are! But I am, too.’ But anyway, that’s how my mind works. I can’t do a squeaky clean, clever set. It’s not who I am.
Dom Romeo: You mention in your routine, the kind of child who is a ‘blinker’ – you toss a ball at him, and as it hurtles towards him, he stares at it blinking, hoping it’ll disappear. Were you ‘the blinker’ as a kid?
JEFF GREEN: I was one up from ‘the blinker’. That was my level of sporting prowess: I wasn’t so rubbish that I was sent off to craft, but I was the kid that wasn’t much better. I was third last to be picked; then there’s the kid in the wheelchair after me; and then there was the blind kid after him.
Dom Romeo: That’s why you’re the comic; the kid in the wheelchair and the blind kid aren’t necessarily the comics.
JEFF GREEN: No. I love sports, but I’m just not very good at it. My son’s three and he can’t catch a ball. I go, ‘oh, he’s like his dad!’ I’m left-handed, but I must have been one of those left-handed people who was crap at sports as well, instead of being majestic. Is that one of your favourite bits?
Dom Romeo: Yes, for a couple of reasons – your impersation of the blinker is hilarious; and I really identify with the the routine.
JEFF GREEN: Were you the blinker?
Dom Romeo: No, but I was one of the ones picked last, and I was always made the scorekeeper as well.
JEFF GREEN: Some things I talk about only in Australia because you’ve got a sporting culture. I don’t necessarily try and write jokes about Australia, but I do try to think about what might float your boat. It’s got to float my boat, too, but it’s about where you’re at as a culture.
Dom Romeo: You’re good at telling us about ourselves. Do you go back to England and tell them about us too, in your material?
JEFF GREEN: I do. I take the piss out of Australia and I take the piss out of England but I make sure that I do those jokes in England and I make sure I do them in Australia because it’s important to me not to be doing it behind anybody’s back. So I go, ‘Could I do this joke in Melbourne? Yes. So then I’m entitled to do it in London.’ I had a joke about Australians – I might have done it this year, or maybe I did it last year – it went, ‘Everyone says, when Australians come to England, they always get a job behind a bar; I go, “yeah, they were behind bars when they left the country; they come back, they’re behind bars again”.’ It gets a bit of a laugh in London, as you can imagine. But then I went, ‘right, I’ve got to do it in Melbourne,’ because I always do the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. You’ve got to find a way of doing it, and if you can’t do it, then you’re not allowed to do it behind their back. It worked; it got a ‘boo’, and I took the boo, but it was important to me that it work in Australia if I’m to do it in England.
Dom Romeo: I’ve just remembered a bit of routine I saw you do back in 2000, that I’m sure I heard someone refer to recently – about madmen and hands-free mobile phones…?
JEFF GREEN: It’s on my DVD, Back from the Bewilderness: ‘I hate those hands-free mobile phone kits because they make the real nutters so hard to spot’. Those jokes occur to you seeing someone walking down the street talking and going, ‘he looks a bit odd’ and you realise, ‘if I think he’s a bit odd, everyone else in that room is going to think he’s a bit odd’, and then I just float it out on stage and they go, ‘we’ve all spotted it and you’ve just articulated it’. And that’s really what observational comedy is about: it’s about not filtering out stuff; it’s about observing everything and not taking anything for granted that you see out on the street, or that you feel. And it’s quite difficult because very often we operate and we tend to let things happen in the background. Whereas it’s my job to raise the background noise to ‘loud enough’ and then take it out on stage.
Dom Romeo: You’ve married an Aussie, and you talk about the wedding and family in the material…
JEFF GREEN: Did I talk a lot about that tonight? There was a big, long bit about kids…
Dom Romeo: We’ll get to that. There was stuff you did tonight that I didn’t see in Melbourne – newer stuff, I felt, about kids.
JEFF GREEN: Or old stuff that you hadn’t seen before!
Dom Romeo: The party stuff, I thought was new.
JEFF GREEN: The party stuff was… not new.
Dom Romeo: I shouldn’t be so naïve! Anyway – the point I wanted to make is that you’ve always done relationship material as part of what you do, and the fact that you’ve married an Aussie brings it closer to home for us. I think we’re more aware of it because of that. Was it important, because that was a big life event for you, or was it just a matter of you being a comedian and finding the funny side of it as a part of every-day life?
JEFF GREEN: The latter. You’re always looking for stuff, and you don’t know where you’re best jokes are coming from. You think it’s gonna come from your wedding because it’s a big, important event, but sometimes the best jokes come out of seemingly small observations. I’ve had comedians crack me up talking about their cutlery drawer. Just because they’re big topics, doesn’t mean it’s gonna be the funniest material that you come up with. But part and parcel of the stuff that I’ve done over the years, which is autobiographical, is relationship stuff – and so the wedding was always going to get mentioned. And now I’ve done it, and so I’ll have to go and think of something else to talk about it.
Dom Romeo: Okay. So the party stuff, that I thought was new that you tell me is old…
JEFF GREEN: It’s not that old! I mean, I know comedians that are doing their jokes from 15 years ago. I don’t know how they do it – I’d be going out of my mind! My oldest kid is only three, so that material might be about 13 months old, but to me it’s old.
Dom Romeo: Could you have written that material before you had kids?
JEFF GREEN: No. But I don’t want to tell you any more about my material; I don’t want to show you where the rabbits are hidden.
Dom Romeo: Nor should you! People should just come and laugh.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah. I love the craft of comedy. I’d be happy to talk about how I write and how routines come about and how they’re honed and how an audience plays a part in taking a routine from an idea to a finished bit, but maybe that’s for a different time. I don’t want you to come to the show and know how it all came about. But equally, I understand why you would be curious about that. And one day, I’d love to tell it. I’m not a great writer. I work hard. A lot of it’s perspiration. I don’t find it easy, writing stand-up; I find it very difficult. And I write in binges: I don’t write every day – I’ll write for six months. I wish I could write every day. But I’ll write for a point – like if I’ve got a new show to do. But I’ll bring stuff back, the same as other comics. I see Rich Hall or Mike Wilmott or Billy Connolly and they bring stuff back. You know, it’s like, ‘I saw that ten years ago… maybe he doesn’t think I saw him ten years ago.’ I’m sure there’s people like yourself, going, ‘I saw that bit he did this year from ten years ago…’ but that’s just us trying to keep it fresh. And we run out of ideas sometimes.
Dom Romeo: Also, the context changes. That joke that I brought up earlier that I saw ten years ago was in a different context and it fit just as well in this show and probably had more meaning because of where it came in this show this year.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah. Part of my problem as a stand-up who was writing a lot about relationships is that when I started doing relationship jokes, there was nobody doing them. It was just me. It was good – I had it all to myself. And now, unfortunately, if I’m on a bill, the compere talks about marriage and ‘how long have you been going out?’ and girlfriends and I’m like, ‘this is all the stuff I was going to do…’ Now I’m boxed into a corner: I have to talk about other stuff because there’s very little left when I go on stage and I have to make my jokes better than everybody else’s when I go onstage. I can’t be lame. They do keep me on my toes. But I do love talking about women; always have, and probably always will.
Dom Romeo: I’ve observed that women love to hear you talking about them, too.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s because of what I’m saying – they probably feed off my fascination. I don’t find it hard to get into that mindset because I do find them incredibly interesting to understand. I’ve got four sisters and my mother, who brought me up, so I was brought up pretty much in an all-female household. And I’ve also had three fathers through my mum’s marriages, but I was brought up for long periods just by my mum on my own, and my sisters, so I’m a bit wary of men. I always have been a bit wary of blokes. I find them a bit scary.
I’ve got two sons, which is a big head-fuck – I thought I would have been better off with daughters, but they’re actually forcing me to be a man in a way that I never had to. So I’ve never been a fan of big groups of blokes. I just don’t like them. So I always find talking about women more of a comfort for me than talking about men but I’m coming out of it now. I talk about going to the gym, I talk about… there’s a lot more ‘man’ stuff – being a man. It’s a bit less feminine, my show now, possibly. And that’s part of having boys in my life, as opposed to all girls.
Dom Romeo: Yes, early on when I’d see you, there would be more women in the audience than men. You are a good-looking man. You look very dashing in a suit.
JEFF GREEN: The suit’s gone!
Dom Romeo: The suit has gone, but I do remember you as the best dressed comic for a long time.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah, and then you have to evolve. You do have to evolve. I don’t know why, but I just thought, I want to wear something different now, that feels more ‘me’, as people change. Billy Connolly’s not wearing the big banana boots anymore – you just don’t need it anymore. It’s not part of the crutch.
Dom Romeo: You speak very knowingly about your experiences in Australia. There’s stuff that I’ve learnt about this country from seeing you live. Is that part of the comic’s job? Is it almost part of your ‘duty’ to ‘report back’?
JEFF GREEN: No, I don’t feel an obligation to be a ‘travelogue’. It’s your country; I’m seeing it through very fresh eyes. I feel it’s something that I’ve got to address. I can’t just do the act that I’d do in England. I’m an Englishman in Australia and I’ve got an obligation to talk about what I’m doing here, and what I’m seeing. And people want to hear about themselves. If you live in Lismore, you want to hear about that bloody shop down the street selling crap things… I’m in Australia so I’m going to acknowledge where I am and get as many jokes in as I possibly can.
Dom Romeo: Not to give any jokes away, your analysis of how Sydney is, is pretty accurate. When you make some comments about observing Sydney, they are valid observations. They’re also very funny – that’s the bottom line.
JEFF GREEN: I didn’t even do any Sydney jokes, did I?
Dom Romeo: You did! And I’m not going to repeat them because people should come and see you do them and laugh, without having already heard the punchline.
JEFF GREEN: Oh, yes! All right. Thank you.
Dom Romeo: Jeff Green, thank you very much.
JEFF GREEN: Thank you.