Comedy Young [g]’uns



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“I graduated on Thursday, so no more school forever!” Nina informs me, which comes as a surprise. Not for the reason you might think.

First time I saw Nina Oyama perform, she was in her school uniform, school bag in tow, evidently having come directly to the gig from school.

“Actually,” she says, “I’d come via work. It was a choice between the work uniform and the school uniform.” The work was Maccas, and Nina had already gigged in the Maccas uniform; clever and dedicated from the beginning, she was keen to see whether the same material got a different response with a different uniform…

Next thing I hear, Nina had dropped out of school. And was hanging out with that Phuklub crowd. Suddenly I’m acting even older than I am, since an old man rant build. Because – not that it was any of my business – to me, that’s clearly a mistake.

Not just ditching school for a life of comedy (cos that’s likely to be extremely lucrative!), but ditching it for a life of comedy where, as a newbie, you’re plunging headlong into the world of alternative-and-not-necessarily-funny comedy. (I’m not having a go; the Phuklub comedians are hilarious and what they’re doing is important – see my write-up.)

I’m just saying: breaking all the rules in comedy is all very well. It’s certainly better than breaking all the rules in school – more advantageous dropping out if that’s the case – but as in all art, in comedy, it’s better to have learnt the rules before you break them, because then you know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t quite know where you’re going, you can have the faith that you’ll come back safely, and the audience are aware of that even if they don’t realise it, so they go with you, and everybody has a fun adventure.

Consider, for example, the discordant notes that Mike Garson plays in David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’: they work as music despite being all over the place rhythmically, melodically and harmonically because there is form and technique to the mess. As opposed to someone just hitting random notes heavy-handedly. Those years of learning scales and technique pay off.

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I’d say the same is essentially true in comedy.

Except, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps learning stagecraft while being polite and predictable is less valuable than learning how to fly blind, to jump and hope the net will appear.

But there’s no need to deploy the old man rant. Not just because Nina has been sensible enough to spend as much time in more traditional comedy rooms as she has in experimental variety, honing her craft to a great degree for such a short time at it. Also because, as she puts it, she “went back to school, tail between my legs, and completed Year 12 successfully”. Oh, she’s still got to sit the Higher School Certificate examinations, rest assured. Which means buckling down and studying almost immediately. But not before one spectacular ‘last hurrah’. Which is why we’re talking. Before she hits the books with a vengence, Nina’s performing in a show she put together for the Sydney Fringe Festival, featuring a bunch of fellow kid comedians.

“It’s called Barely Legal – The Best Young Comedians,” Nina says, and it consists of some of the NSW-based shining lights of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clowns program. (Class Clowns brings stand-up comedy to schools and some of the people it has unearthed include wunderkind Jack Druce, a Brisbane dancer-cum-comic called Sarah McCreanor, currently dancing around the world as a castmember of How To Train Your Dragon, and of course, everybody’s favourite comedian, Josh Thomas.)

“I wanted to do a Fringe show but I didn’t think I was able to do it by myself,” Nina reckons. Having made the Class Clowns final this year, she figured, “man, there is just so much talent and people who are young have so much cred,” so she put a show together around some of her Class Clown peers.

Well, I say ‘peers’; at the ripe old age of 19, Nina is the senior member of the group. They’re already being noticed by people who matter in the industry, but what’s most important is that they’re funny. I’ll let them speak for themselves through their own press bios.

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Neel Kolhatkar (18) – With titles under his belt such as Winner of Class Clowns 2009 and a performance at the Melbourne International Teen Gala 2011, Neel is definitely one to watch. A master of impressions, reviewers have described his stand up as warm, casual and current. Neel’s other passion is gangster rap, which he writes and performs. Neel has never been to jail but considers his tight knit Indian family a ‘gang’.

Jordan Sharp (16) – Student, skater and self-confessed serial masturbator, Jordan’s stand up encompasses what it truly means to be a teenager. Based in the Central Coast of NSW, Jordan’s laid back storytelling style lead him to become one of the youngest Class Clowns National Finalists in 2012.

Nina Oyama (19) – When she was seven, Nina ate bugs as a dare and secretly liked it. Ten years later, she tried stand up comedy as a dare and secretly liked that too. Finding it easier to make people laugh, Nina gave up her dream of becoming a professional bug eater. A Class Clowns State Finalist 2012, her act combines both music and traditional stand up. Nina has entertained both locally and interstate. She was recently selected to perform at The Sydney Comedy Store as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase. She also writes for the Australian comedy website BonVivant.com.au. (I'd link to this, but it defaults to the 'Gourmet Explorer' homepage - Dom)

Aaron Chen (17) – Breathing heavily and pacing nervously across the stage, Aaron doesn’t feel comfortable until he knows what toothpaste the audience uses. At the precocious young age of 16, Aaron became one of the youngest paid performers in Sydney. Aaron’s killer punch lines and savage wit have earned him the accolades of Class Clowns State Finalist 2011, Winner of Class Clowns 2012 and Quest for the Best Finalist 2011. Most recently Aaron was given the opportunity to perform at The Sydney Comedy Store in the Best in Live Comedy Winter Showcase.

Madeleine Stewart (18) – Despite growing up in the notoriously rough outer suburbs, Madeleine is one classy young lady, complete with a sharp dress sense and a penchant for opera singing. Her clean-cut one-liners and political stylings have had her talked about everywhere, most notably on Wil Anderson’s podcast, TOFOP. Madeleine was a Class Clowns National Finalist in 2011 and State Finalist in 2012. She also only has one arm; her mother was forced to keep her because the hospital had a ‘you break it, you bought it’ policy.

 

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Fine print:

Barely Legal is playing Thurs 27 to Saturday 29 September from 18.30 to 19.30 at the Laugh Garage Comedy Club, Cnr of Park and Elizabeth Street Sydney 2000 (Ph 9264 1161).

Registration for Class Clowns 2013 opens October 5.

Just Another Misfit:
Cam Knight gets back on the horse

Cam Knight Misfit

If you were a comedy lover digging the local scene around five years ago, give-or-take, you know Cam Knight very well – and, in addition, virtually every other Aussie stand-up gigging during that period – because of the time Cam spent fronting Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel. “That’s where just about everyone in Australia got a good show reel!” Cam insists, because there were 120-odd hour-long episodes, each featuring four comedians. But stand-up is not all that Cam’s known for: he’s also an actor. Which is why, on the eve of the taping of his first comedy DVD at Sydney’s original Comedy Store, it’s worth asking Cam which came first – the acting or the comedy?

“I was always the smart-arse in class,” Cam says, “but I guess you could say the acting came first because I was studying acting before I got into comedy.” Yeah, but only just, it turns out. Still, the comedy was kind of inevitable, since the young Cam was “always drawn to it” – his parents buying him a copy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian on video when he was 12. “They were pretty much setting me up for comedy,” he reckons. They must have had a sense of humour; they gave their 12-year-old the most Christianity-lambasting of absurdist satires – before going on to send Cam to a Lutheran boarding school for his high school education. But more of that later…

Cam went straight into acting classes after school, and that’s when the comedy bug bit. One of his classmates, Dave Williams, was already doing comedy, and Dave’s ‘boss’, Dave Flanagan – from Adelaide’s Comix Comedy Cellar – went to see a first year play both Dave and Cam were in, after which, Cam says, “he offered us all jobs”. Although it was mostly ‘pre-show entertainment’ – “while people were eating their meals, you do some sort of cabaret bullshit; I played a chef who thought he was Elvis and sang Elvis songs!” – Cam and Dave were soon doing improv. But it wasn’t until they’d relocated to Melbourne that Cam did actual stand-up comedy. “Dave booked a gig behind my back and said, ‘You’ve got to go do some stand-up now’. We walked to the gig that night and I did it, and that was it: it just sort of stuck.”

 

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Stand-Up Australia

You wouldn’t guess, from so casual start to his career, that Cam would host such a seminal show as Stand-Up Australia. But he did. And it was seminal – people you wouldn’t expect to have any knowledge of bona fide gigging comedians got to see them in action. How it all happened was, Cam auditioned for the hosting role of a Fox 8 show called Chain Reaction, and got it. “After I shot that, I went home and didn’t think anything of it,” he says.

But three months later Cam was offered another hosting gig, this time for a Comedy Channel ‘gong show’ called We’ll Call You. “Of course: I’m young and I’m broke, so I say yes. It’s a ‘gong show’, so it’s not an amazing piece of work… but it’s work! So I went and did that.”

And then Cam was offered fulltime employment at the Comedy Channel, “because apparently they liked what I did”. This led to further hosting duties, including taking over from Adam Spencer for the second season of Hit & Run, in which comedians were inserted into ‘fish-out-of-water’ situations and made to write material about it.

“Then,” says Cam, “I just got told, ‘we want to do a stand-up show, it’s gonna be called Stand-Up Australia, it’ll be on five nights a week and you’ll front it’. I was like, ‘Okay’ and that was it. That’s how it came about.”

Suddenly comics had an ideal opportunity to showcase their work, and while it was “a good platform for a lot of people”, it was hard work for Cam: he was a relatively new comic still finding his voice, having to come up a heap of new material on a regular basis. “I got Dave to help write for me most of the time,” Cam says. “There were a couple of other helpers: Michael Chamberlin and Sam Bowring helped me, and I think Fox Klein submitted some stuff. But we had to write 8 to 10 minutes of material a week and we weren’t getting to test it out anywhere. So if it failed, it really failed cos it went to air.”

Most comics take a few years to ‘find their voice’, but get to do it more-or-less anonymously, on the open mic stand-up circuit. You only start seeing them on the telly when they’re good enough to be considered worthy of that opportunity. (And, let’s face it, Cam’s employers knew Cam was worthy – even if his peers and detractors felt otherwise.) However, rather than his lesser gigs being seen by a mere handful of people in the back room of a pub, Cam had to do it in front of a dedicated viewership. This baptism of fire was, for Cam, as stressful as it was exciting: “I was very young. I’m still cutting my teeth and finding out what I want to do, which way I want to go, what I want to say, and we were just sitting down and going, ‘right… what’s funny?’ By the end of it, you don’t know anymore.”

Having to create so much material produced “a good work ethic”, but, Cam reckons, it didn’t necessarily make him a better comedian. “It made me self-conscious for a long time. I felt like I had more to prove,” he says. “What made me a better comedian was when I left the Comedy Channel and forced myself to work and gig my arse off.”

Although, I reckon a well-paying gig early on makes having to fail publicly a better proposition. Doesn’t it?

“It’s kind of nice to have that security – but it’s still humiliating when you’re out there,” Cam says. “You do kind of cop it. You go out and people come up to you and go, ‘you suck!’ You don’t want to suck. You want to go out and you want to get better. And just because I’ve made a lot of money doesn’t make that go away. It doesn’t make anybody’s opinion change; it might actually make it worse.”

Indeed, Cam argues, the money doesn’t make you good; if anything, it probably makes you worse. “You need to actually need it. You need to crave it and you need to want to get better and challenge yourself. Money can sometimes make you complacent.”

If complacency was ever a threat, it was a while ago: Cam’s challenged himself. Constantly. As well you’d know, if you’ve seen him live over the last five years. He’s just kept getting better and better. All the hard work has paid off. So much so that it’s hard to believe that, save for Just Another Misfit – the hilarious show he did at Sydney this year – it’s been so long since Cam’s taken a show to any of the country’s comedy festivals. But it’s all down to timing, he says.

“It just didn’t work out this year. I was all set to go to Melbourne and Adelaide but I just had a bad feeling; my wife and I were trying to have a kid, I’d travelled so much last year… I probably should have hit Melbourne and smashed that out, but it just didn’t sit right. I felt like I should stay here with my wife and respect what she wanted”.

It’s hard to fault a relatively new husband – who’s had a successful career thus far – choosing to put his family first. But at this point, I’ve got to – sheepishly – ask an obvious question or two. And here are the answers: no, they didn’t have a baby. But it’s not a ‘touchy’ subject, or a sad story.

“It’s fine,” Cam says. “It’s just annoying. I wish I could say ‘yes’.”

Oh, but, Cam, here’s the perfect scheme: you want a kid? I can guarantee you’ll have one. Here’s how: start planning next year’s festival circuit. Once you’ve locked in firm seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, you and your missus will almost certainly be expecting. And it’s July now – the baby will be due just in time for you to have to cancel all those festival seasons again.

“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” Cam laughs. “I will. I’ll do that. I need to do it again. But the timing has to be right.”

Truth is, Cam’s pretty much ready to go:

“I’ve just been working really hard, even with the old stuff, making those routines stretch out into bigger pieces. I don’t just do ‘joke’ jokes; I’m quite physical, I move around a lot. There’s going to be a lot more improvisation that’s gonna make them bigger…”

Yes, that’s all part of what marks Cam Knight as being at the top of his game. And again, it reminds me of some of the cr*p he would have had to face early on. Along with the ‘successful too early’ resentments of a seemingly less proficient comic landing an awesome gig, there’s the intolerance of the ‘actor doing comedy’ that seems to divide open mic-ers in particular. Which is a cute irony that – should the comic persevere as Cam has – results in a nice poetic justice: the acting that appears to be a handicap to a comic early on makes them so much better down the track when they are so adept at ‘showing us’ rather than merely ‘telling us’ the joke.

“I find that taboo so hypocritical,” Cam agrees. “You’re not allowed to be an actor going into being a comedian, but you can be any other profession, and it doesn’t matter. You can be a lawyer, right – a f*cking lawyer! – and turn into a comedian. But an actor? No way!”

The taboo seems virtually non-existent in the United States, Cam rightfully points out. All the good comics head towards sitcom and feature film, remember? “They want you to be a triple threat. They want you to be good. They want you to be talented. They wanna work with you. They want to find someone who can do all those things…”

 

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Knight Rider

Rest assured, Cam Knight does other things apart from comedy and acting. You may be aware that he pedaled 1600km from Brisbane to Cairns in 10 days, a little while back, with Tour de Cure, helping raise a million dollars for cancer research in the process.

“I did that very close to leaving the Comedy Channel,” Cam says. “I wanted to do something that made me feel good. I wanted to put my money into something else that wasn’t for me. My mum had breast cancer and I just felt like that was something that I needed to do and get out of my system.”

Again, I ask the delicate question. Cam’s mum’s fine. “She’s a survivor!” he says. She beat breast cancer back when he was in high school. Boarding. At a strict Lutheran school. And again, more of that later; back to the bike ride…

“I had very little training before we went into it,” Cam says. “I guess I was trying to train; I gave up smoking about four months before I started training, so I wasn’t very good at it…”

Although the Tour de Cure continues to take place annually, Cam has not been involved in subsequent rides. “I just wised up after the first one and went, ‘I don’t think I could do it ever, ever again’,” he says. He kept his bike, but has ridden it all of twice since then. “I jog. I just can’t get on the bike anymore. I’ve put it in the shed now, cos it just kept looking at me, making me feel guilty.” One day he’ll do something “of a similar ilk” in terms of the personal challenge, for charity, he says. But it’s not likely to involve cycling!

So back to Cam’s mum: she was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cam was 14 and away at boarding school. “I thought my mum was gonna die and I just wanted to go home,” Cam says. “So I got expelled from boarding school. On her birthday. While she was going through chemo…”

That’s quite noble, acting up to get expelled in order to be home with his mum during her illness. But Cam corrects me: he didn’t actually decide, “right, I’ve got to get booted out of here’; rather, it happened subconsciously. “When I look back on it now, I think ‘you misbehaved a lot, mate!’ I think I was just worried that my mum was gonna die.”

There was a lot of misbehaviour and Cam used to get into a lot of fights, but the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, Cam explains, isn’t actually that bad. Well, not nearly as bad as the stories that made it back from the school to his home town fast than he did.

“The rumour was, I threw a chair at a teacher and it went through a second storey window, crashing through the windshield of another teachers’ car below. Which sounds awesome, and Breakfast Clubesque, right?”

What really happened was, after dinner one evening, all the boarders had to return to the school block to do homework and study, as they did every evening. “There was a guy giving me a whole bunch of sh*t, and I just screamed at him to f*ck off, and went ape sh*t at him. But I didn’t realise there was a Parents & Friends meeting going on in the AV Room and I was pretty much right outside it. So the principal was there and all the Lutheran mums and dads were there and they were like, ‘that’s not very good Lutheran behaviour’ and blah blah blah.”

Though not officially ‘expelled’ as such, Cam’s dad was called and recommended that he pull Cam out of the school. They won’t have to put ‘expulsion’ down on his official school record, but he still got kicked out.

“Doesn’t sound too hardcore. I wish I threw a chair at the teacher. It would have been so much cooler!”

True. You know what would also be cool? Cam Knight doing a festival show around Australia next year. Does he reckon it’ll happen?

“I don’t know mate. I’d love to say yes, but I just don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I need to make a decision about it really soon.”

 

Certified male


Certified Male

One of the deciding factors is the current season of the stage play Certified Male, which Cam’s about to be appearing in. Glynn Nicholas, who created the show, did it years ago with Pete Rowsthorn. This time round, Cam’s in it with Mike McLeish, Dave Callan (the beardless, Sydney-living Dave Callan who excels at improv, as opposed to ‘hairy’ Dave Callan, from Melbourne) and, in some cities, Glynn Nicholas himself. In other cities, Glynn will be replaced by Barry Crocker. So next year’s festivals won’t even be a consideration until Certified Male is over.

Meanwhile, Cam’s set to record his current show, Just Another Misfit – which he describes as his “favourite” – at the Comedy Store. “I feel it’s the tightest. I feel like it’s a good, solid hour, and this is the one I want to record.” Cam’s taken time developing the material, and been very careful about ensuring nothing from it is already up on youtube. “I’ve made a conscious decision not to put any clips up,” he says. “I wanted to wait. I’m a big guy about biding my time for some reason.”

For some reason? I’ll tell you the reason you’ve made a point of not having stand-up footage out there, Cam Knight: because you got some big breaks before you were quite ready for them; you jumped in a little fresh, copped more criticism than you deserved, and you are cautious never to be in that position ever again.

“You’re absolutely right, I jumped in fresh and I’m very conscious about what’s out there. But I feel very good about this show, and we’re gonna shoot it. Hopefully we’ll have a full house on Saturday night and it’ll look great.”


Daniel Townes is recording a DVD

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Daniel Townes is finally recording a DVD.

If you’re not familiar with the comic or his work, it’s your loss – Daniel’s one of the truly awesome blokes of comedy. If you ask his opinion, he’ll give it honestly. If you ask his advice, he’ll give it sincerely. But none of that matters if you’re in the audience watching him perform. If Daniel Townes is on stage, talking, you’re pissing yourself laughing.

Daniel’s a kind of contemporary urban philosopher, his stories, anecdotes and observations reminding you how people are and life is, but without any of the high-falutin’ bull – just heaps of deftly delivered punchlines. If you don’t already know this, you just haven’t been paying any attention: Daniel hit the scene in 2003 as a hot comedy prospects and didn’t waste any time taking his gags global, establishing himself as one of Australia’s youngest international comedians by making them laugh in Singapore, Germany, Spain, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, Holland and all over the UK. It wasn’t long before he became a regular on the local and international comedy festival circuit – Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Edinburgh, as you’d expect, as well as Montreal’s prestigious invitation-only Just For Laughs Comedy Festival.

Even if you don’t get out much, you must have seen him on Good News Week or the Cracker Comedy Festival Gala or Stand Up Australia or The NRL Footy Show or Good News Week… but fact is, you should get out more often.

So how about this Sunday, 7pm? If you get in touch with the Comedy Store, you might discover there’s the odd ticket left!

But if you’re too late, don’t fret – he was recording a DVD, remember. You get to see it in your own loungeroom soon enough (or whatever other room you take your laptop into… yeah, whatever, I don’t wanna know, ya sicko!)

Meanwhile, if you did miss out, you might consider seeing Daniel’s all-new festival show, Murphy’s Law, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, or the Sydney Comedy Festival.

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Ryan to get to the top

Ryan Stout is at the Comedy Store this week as part of their Spring Comedy Carnival. Here’s the conversation I had with him after he arrived in Australia:

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“I went to see a show the other night,” American comic Ryan Stout tells me. I’m not sure which venue he was in, but it was before his Comedy Store run had started, and he describes it as “a smaller room, really packed” so I’m guessing it might have been the Fringe Bar. Anyway, he says, the audience was “loud and boisterous”, but once the show started, “everybody shut their mouths and paid attention.” Even though the comic on stage appeared, Ryan reckons from his experience, to be trying out new bits, the audience remained engaged, and didn’t try to heckle. “That’s something that doesn’t happen as often in America,” he says. “People have forgotten how to be an audience in the States. I’m really looking forward to performing to people who seem appreciative.”

 

Please stop hating me

Since he was born in Cleveland, Ohio,  my first thought is to ask Ryan why it was comedy and not rock’n’roll that grabbed him at an early age. Because he did start early. And Cleveland has strong claims to being the birthplace of ‘rock’n’roll’, what with DJ Alan Freed allegedly coining the phrase while broadcasting raucous ‘race records’ there, and, more recently, becoming home to the Rock and roll Hall of Fame. But Ryan’s family moved from Cleveland to the west Texas town of El Paso when he was four, “and that’s why it was comedy, and not rock’n’roll,” Ryan tells me. Not because comedy was the far superior option than, say, country – given that ‘El Paso’ is the title and setting of one of the greatest gunfighter ballads recorded by singing cowboy Marty Robbins – rather, because El Paso is predominantly a Latino community. Long before he could even appreciate it, young Ryan had been plunged into the “instant irony of being raised a straight, white male in America, and yet still being a minority”. His was “a frustrating childhood”, he insists, having to explain to people, “I know you think I’m the majority, but in this context, there are a lot more of you than me. Please stop hating me.”

So what choice did Ryan Stout have? Being the ‘fish out of water’ or the ‘innocent abroad’ is a familiar scenario for the production of comedy. Imagine being one all your life, in your own neighbourhood. “I was the target of a lot of the ‘white man hate’,” Ryan says. “Minority people who wanted take out all their frustrations about the world, took it out on me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t communicate to them: ‘I’m eight years old; I’m not the problem. We’re in the playground and this is kick ball. I can’t tell you how I’m harming the world in any way.’” So Ryan did what a lot of people in a similar situation eventually do. He turned to comedy. But he did it a lot earlier, discovering stand-up comedy on television.

“I watched a ton of stand-up on TV when I was 8, 9, 10 years old and was immediately drawn to the idea of these people getting up and discussing their frustrations with the world, and getting instant recognition from crowd. The audience would recognise what they were trying to communicate and respond with laughter. The point was being made, all parties involved knew the point was being made, and so you could move on to the next topic.” Ryan began writing down his favourite jokes and performing them. He cites Larry Miller’s classic ‘five levels of drinking’ that he memorised for his babysitters. “Clearly, I’d never had a drink in my life, but I understood that alcohol makes you goofy and gets you into trouble.”

By the time he was a teenager, Ryan was reading books about stand-up and, instead of compiling his favourite comedians’ gags, had started writing down his own. Unfortunately, despite being a populated city, El Paso had no comedy scene. There was no opportunity for Ryan to try his material out on stage. Not until his seventeenth birthday where, at his high school’s talent show, he performed for the first time.

“It was really positive, mostly because the venue was packed and there was a lot of energy in the room,” he recalls. “When the crowd knows you and they already like you and they’re pulling for you, it’s such an easy situation.” It was certainly much harder, Ryan acknowledges, the first time he got up in front of a room full of complete strangers – which was a year later, having moved to San Francisco, where he could ‘dive in, head-first’.


Comedy community college

“I started doing shows every single night, writing a plethora of material and learning that, despite writing a lot of material prior to getting there, I still wasn’t writing enough.”

The lesson Ryan learnt was to be systematic and dedicated, writing an hour or two every day and getting on stage up to three times a night at different venues.

“Since there was no ‘comedy industry’, per se, in San Francisco, the only concern was becoming better as a comedian,” he says. “Nobody was worried about getting on late night television or booking a sitcom. The only goal was to become a headliner and have an act.” Thus, comedians critiqued each other, letting each other know if what they were doing was similar to what other comics had done. Or if the material was just “old” or “stale”, and hence, not as interesting or as funny as something newer and more original might’ve been. “You appreciate that sort of advice and honesty and you go back to the drawing board and try to get better. San Francisco was a real big learning scene – a comedy university, almost”.

Sounds ideal. Doing three gigs a night every night is almost a luxury. You can’t help but get good, working that hard, surely.

“The problem,” Ryan claims, “is that they tend to be shorter sets – five to ten minutes. Sometimes you might get a 15-minute set. Getting anything longer than 15 minutes is really rare in those first two to three years…”

Yeah, but still! You’re lucky to be doing three gigs a week sometimes, in Australia…

“If you were trying to structure anything longer – which everyone was,” Ryan continues, “you had to get road gigs, and hop in the car and go out to terrible little bars where people may not be willing to sit and politely listen. If you try to do anything thoughtful or heavy, you have to battle drunks to get that across. Or you could take the easy way, and just write dick jokes, and kill at those gigs. Which people did, but they never really advanced as far as the San Franciscan scene went.” Ah… that’s kind of the same here, too.


Comedy condominium

There is some historic comedy folklore surrounding Ryan’s early career. He lived, for a time, at the so-called ‘Comedy Condominium’, an apartment on 21st Avenue in San Francisco, where Alex Reid (future producer of Malcolm In The Middle) and Dana Gould (future writer of The Simpsons) moved to in 1986, soon joined by Lizz Winstead (future co-creator of The Daily Show).

“The three of them were in this little apartment,” Ryan says. “One of them moved out and they needed someone to take their place, so another comic moved in. And then somebody else moved out; another comic moved in; then somebody else moved out; another comic moved in; somebody else moved out; another comic moved in. Eventually it was just this revolving door of new comics moving in as old comics moved out. We did this to keep the apartment under rent control.”

Ryan joined the household in 2003 and says “the place was absolute utter hell. If you turned one thing on, you had to turn something else off first or it would blow a fuse; some of the windows were so old the San Francisco moisture they had swollen them shut; the one back room didn’t get any air so it was just freezing cold all the time…” Given that people, when moving out, tend to leave stuff behind if not forced to take it with them, Ryan recalls “an entire storage closet of other people’s stuff”, some of it having been there for nearly two decades.

“I was 20 years old when I moved in and it was just the best thing that had ever happened to me,” he says. As there were always comics passing through, crashing on the sofa, he got to hang out with people he’d normally never get the chance to meet. And the comics inspired each other to work harder.

“My buddy John Hoogasian would knock on my door at noon and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this joke?’ and we’d talk about it for a little while and he would leave, I would continue writing out my jokes and I would knock on his door, we’d critique and then we’d go back to work. It was an on-going thing. There was a pressure there to keep up: John’s in his room being prolific writing 50 or 60 jokes, you feel that need to be just as prolific. It was great – probably the best way to be a comic is to just work.”

What there didn’t seem to be a lot of, despite the situation, was resentment of each other’s success. Although, as the household was progressing at the same pace, there was no opportunity for it. “There was general frustration: ‘I’m not getting work at this club, I wonder how I can get in there’. But there was nothing against each other,” Ryan says. Besides which, he and Hoogasian, for example, were at different stages of their respective careers. “He had been doing comedy longer than I had so we weren’t in competition. I recognised him as a peer, but he was a generation above me.”

Thus, there was pride and excitement of each other’s breakthroughs, rather than envy or annoyance. The resentment came, however, when other comics outside the family got to the next level – longer late-night stand-up spots in LA; management; television. “That whole process was foreign to us,” Ryan explains. “It was like, ‘How come this guy gets to go on TV? How come the rest of us don’t get to go on TV? How come comic X gets on TV but comic Y, who has been doing comedy for much longer and is much funnier, isn’t on TV?’”

For Ryan and his comic peers, it was all about ‘funny’; they were yet to learn that for Hollywood, and television in general, ‘look’ and ‘type’ and ‘swagger’ were more important than ‘funny’. “That just baffled all of us,” Ryan admits. “And so we would get resentful about it, but it never came to a head. There was never any falling out of it. There was never any real bad blood that lasted because of those things. It was more the confusion with the world outside of our tiny community.”

 

Another tiny community that proved beneficial was Boston, a kind of sister-cty, Ryan explains, to San Francisco. It shares a similar relationship to New York as San Francisco does with Los Angeles because of its similar proximity to an important city. It is similarly supportive.

“You can get better at comedy under the radar, without anyone ever knowing about you,” Ryan says. Thus, by the time you’re “discovered”, you might have a good six or seven years of experience and 45 minutes to an hour of material. This suits a comedian far better, than being discovered in LA or New York earlier in their career, when they only have seven minutes of killer material.

“I’ve seen plenty of comics forced to do a 35- or 45-minute set grasping for anything they can possibly talk about, trying to fill time. It’s because the industry is pushing them ahead too quickly. But Boston seems to have the attitude hat you need to work on your jokes and just get better and everything will be okay. I appreciated that a lot while I was out there. I saw a lot of comics who put a lot of energy into their writing and a lot of thought into their performance, and it was some of the best stuff that I’ve seen.”

The Boston Comedy Festival – which is in fact a comedy competition designed to present new talent to the industry – has been running since 2000. Ryan won it in 2005, and despite Boston’s enlightened approach to comedy, he still found it as “weird” as every festival and competition is. “I know that there were people upset that I won that year,” he says, “but you can’t do anything about that.”

Ryan had his own enlightened approach to comedy.

“That was the first competition I’ve gone into where I’ve said, ‘Look, whatever happens, I’m just going to stay really positive and really appreciative of the fact that I’m in a city that I’ve never been in; a city that has a comedic history; and I’m not gonna get sucked up in all of that shit talking that goes on in competitions. I’m just gonna do my set and stay positive and try to make some friends.”

A sensible approach. Far more beneficial, instead of directing negative energy at others, to direct positive energy at yourself.

“Whenever I felt myself being pulled into a conversation about ‘What do you think of that comic? His joke a bout whatever is really stupid’, I’d be like ‘stop, stop, I can’t do this. Let’s talk about it after the competition.’ I tried to stay positive the whole time, and I hate to say this, but it worked.”

And because it worked, Ryan has attempted to maintain a positive attitude, despite being a cynic. But we don’t need to be worried about him, he insists: this attitude so unbecoming a comedian “still hasn’t taken over” his life.


Pre-empt TV?

In 2006 Ryan moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he immediately auditioned for MTV. The first role they gave him was as host of a game show pilot. “They really liked me, and I had fun making it,” he says, “but it was not stand-up. It was TV made to impress 14-year-old girls, a demographic I absolutely have no interest in.”

The pilot “ended up going nowhere” but Ryan was retained for another game show. “They booked me for another thing. And then they booked me for a reality show recap series… MTV just kept using me as a host, which seemed to make sense to me, because early on, other comics would tell me I was a great stand-up host – I had a great instinct for keeping a show moving and keeping the audience involved.”

Keeping the audience involved is the key, according to Ryan. He says it has “driven” his writing, as he “mines out ideas” that people wouldn’t necessarily put together on their own.

“For instance, in self-defence classes in the States, they teach people that you should never yell ‘help!’ when you’re being attacked. Instead you’re supposed to yell ‘fire!’ because most people will come to your aid if there’s a fire, but if you yell ‘help!’ they tend to shy away and not get involved. But I thought, if you’re meant to yell ‘fire!’ if you’re being attacked, what if the guy’s holding a gun? That brings a brand new context to the situation and that always appealed to me: take a clichéd situation people are already aware of and twist it slightly, give it a new context, so that the knowledge we already have is no longer true.”

It’s a clever approach, as is his decision to use more ‘broadcastable’ language. “I always tried very hard not to swear on stage,” he says. “I didn’t use any profanity.” Unfortunately, despite the absence of profanity some of his jokes just won’t make it to television. Ryan has a ‘tendency’ towards being “somewhat controversial”, and networks balk at broadcasting controversy. A recent example is what he calls a “stupid one-liner”, as follows:

“I was devastated when I found out that the tooth fairy wasn’t real. Because that means it was my parents who molested me.”

Ryan couldn’t say that on television because, he was told, they “didn’t want children to hear that there’s no tooth fairy”.

“That kind of logic just baffles me,” Ryan says. “What sort of censorship battles are they playing with there? I can’t win – they have the strangest loopholes that I have to jump through every single time, and I just can’t do it.”

The long and the short of it, according to Ryan, is people don’t quite get what he’s about. They see him as ‘a little too edgy’ without realising he’s the victim of the joke. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, but we’re worried that the whole audience might not recognise that and they’re gonna write us letters.’ ‘But if they’re wrong, why do you care if they write you letters?’ They just don’t want to deal with any criticism.”

Not one to ‘adapt’ jokes to suit different audience’s Ryan’s approach has always been to do his act, “and if the crowd is not into it, just continue to shove it down their throats” while he maintains his position: “I know these jokes are funny, I know that I’m right, and I don’t know how to give you what you want, so I’m just going to keep doing what I do.” And if television isn’t the way forward, the Internet certainly is, with Ryan’s goal now to tape his act as often as possible, uploading the jokes they wouldn’t let him tell on television. Or, he says, jokes that are hit-and-miss:

“There are jokes that will get an applause break,” – the audience bursts into spontaneous applause, they like the joke so much – “five out of ten times I tell it, and get absolutely nothing the other half of the time.” It’s that “inconsistency of comedy” Ryan seeks to address. “The joke is funny; you can see it being funny. I don’t know why it isn’t funny every time, but here’s one of the times when it’s being funny”. The “inconsistent” jokes, and the ones they won’t let him do on television – they’re the jokes Ryan would like to “let live” online.

That’s not to say Ryan Stout hasn’t appeared on television – he debuted on the small screen with Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham in 2007, and his own Comedy Central Presents half hour special was broadcast earlier this year.


Stout out and about

What brought Ryan to Australia was the good rap it gets from American comics back home. “I’d just heard so many great things from people like Eddie Ifft, who comes here often, and Arj Barker who was the top guy in San Francisco when I started there. It’s great to experience what my elders have experienced.”

Ryan claims he only left the United States – for comedy purposes – for the first time a couple of months ago. (That’s not taking into account his appearance at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival, but we get the point.) He had gone to Johannesburg, South Africa, to perform at the Nando’s Comedy Festival there. “I was amazed,” he says. “Every night, 18 hundred people would pile into this theatre and they would sit and they would listen and they would clap. At intermission they would go out and discuss what they’d seen in the first half. Then they would come in and watch the second half. After the second half they would still stand around in groups, talking about what they had experienced.”

Talking to a local comic, Ryan realised why the audiences enjoyed it so thoroughly: there may be two shows taking place of an evening throughout of South Africa. They value the opportunity to see a show. Whereas, Ryan explains, “you can walk out your door in LA and you’ve got ten different options. And because you’ve got ten different options, everything’s free because they’re all trying to compete. So there’s nothing special about it. There’s nothing special about something you can get anywhere.”

According to Ryan, “the proliferation of comedy in the States” – since, if you don’t even bother to go see it live, you can see it on television; you can see it on YouTube; you can follow comedians on Twitter… – “means people take it for granted,” and as a result, “the audiences have an ego after seeing so much comedy. It’s been pumped into their lives, so people are going to think, ‘I know comedy, I’ve seen a lot of it’. Just because you’ve been shown what TV has chosen to show you doesn’t mean you are fluent in the language…”

There you have it, appreciative Aussie audiences: the perfect case to get out and see live comedy, even if you watch it on telly all the time.


A nifty conversation with
John Robertson

  John Robertson

“You know what I looked up today?” John Robertson asks down the phone line, joy in his voice as he adds, “this is fun!” What he’s looked up today – and I’m not sure whether he knew what he was looking for, or if he stumbled upon it – is a Wikipedia article about a serial killer. “It’s a guy called ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’, which is now my favourite serial killer name ever.”

Okay, don’t get the wrong idea. John does appear a little too happy to discover the existence of The Servant Girl Annihilator, revelling in the description of America’s first documented serial killer who slightly predates Jack the Ripper and whom some believe was in fact one and the same homicidal maniac as Jack. But John Robertson, a fine comic who has been doing stand-up some seven years, is currently touring a show that happens to be called A Nifty History of Evil – which one promoter has astutely summed up as “the comedy of your nightmares; a manic journey through history’s biggest  bastards, with the icky bits left in!’ With that kind of description, you not only already know you’re gonna like the show, you also know that ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’ is likely to inspire more material. And if you do like the show already, you should also know that you’re in good company: A Nifty History of Evil recently won ‘Artists’ Choice’ and ‘Critics’ Choice’ awards at Perth’s recent Wild West Comedy Festival. So you can understand the comic’s joy at discovering that such a thing as ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’ exists.

“My favourite element,” John says of the Wikipedia entry, “is that centuries later, some anonymous dickhead is attempting to claim, for the glory of America, that they had serial killers before Britain; there’s a more obscure and less lauded serial killer more worthy of attention.” John likens it to the story of Jim Shepherd, publisher of superhero comic book The Phantom, having once written to Bob Kane, creator of Batman, and accuse him of being a hack for stealing Lee Falk’s work and Ray Moore’s character design – since the Dark Knight is clearly the Ghost Who Walks, Man Who Cannot Die with ears and a cape…

The reference is a little obscure, even for me, but it sums up the essence of John Robertson: extreme knowledge of precise minutiae, delivered entertainingly. It’s part of what makes this Perth comic such an interesting proposition.


Acting funny

On first blush, John’s clearly an actor turned comic. Not because, like most actors-turned-comic, he declaims his routine on stage like a well-rehearsed script; no, he’s one of the good ones. But you guess he’s an actor because everything John says off stage could well be dialogue perfectly scripted for the character he happens to be in real life. Or, to be more accurate, the character he happens to be, in larger-than-real-life.

As a comic – and indeed, as a frequent host of sci-fi conventions – he keeps an audience equally spell-bound with hand puppets and ukulele-accompanied songs as he does purely with words. But before you even get to that point of the on-stage – or off-stage – performance, you might be struck, as others have, by John’s resemblance to other people. Like Melbourne comic Danny McGinlay, for example.

“Oh, that’s nice,” John says. “You can mistake me for Danny McGinlay if I was a foot-and-a-half taller, and his voice was three feet deeper…”

Actually, if you knew either of them well, you wouldn’t mistake one for the other… unless you were dealing with them over the phone – since John’s voice isn’t three feet deeper than Danny’s. There’s probably only a couple of inches difference and it’s hard to call who’s actually ahead. However, if Danny’s sideburns were a couple of feet broader, you would have trouble telling them apart. John’s sideburns are, after all, part of the source of the other comparison he frequently receives, to Wolverine of the Uncanny X-Men. “Yeah, if Danny had sideburns that stretched from here to the Tasman Sea… although our shoulders are reasonably the same breadth…”

It’s hard to tell if John is merely doing the comedian’s thing – taking an idea that’s been offered and running with it, turning it around to look at it from various angles, to see which bits of it catch the light and so can reflect a new twist leading to new humour – or merely running through thoughts that he’s toyed with previously.

“I’ve only met Danny once, actually,” John continues. “It was like, ‘Aha…! Two years ago someone told me I was a little like you, and now that I’ve met you, I wish I were. Because you’re quite handsome, you devil-may-care devil…’”

I doubt they were John’s exact words to Danny, even if they had actually met. But Robertson insists they’re certainly his sentiments. “With his well-developed chest, and me at five-foot-eight and slightly overweight, I’m so glad people think I look like him!”

John also accepts the allegation that he “can’t not have been an actor before he was a comic”, adding the proviso that “it doesn’t mean I was a good actor”. Rather, he says, as a stage actor he found the “artifice” of live performance to be “absolutely ridiculous”:

“A comedian will walk out onto a stage – which is an area purpose-built so that a large group of people can look at you – and will look back at the crowd and talk directly to them. Whereas an actor has to go through this ridiculous contrivance of pretending that somehow the audience isn’t there, while at the same time talking to someone who’s next to them in a highly intimate manner – and by ‘highly intimate’, I mean, they’re standing at an angle and in fact yelling at the top of their voice, so all the people that they can’t see because they aren’t there, can actually hear them.”

Clearly, stage acting had to be jettisoned for comedy – John’s ability to see the absurdity in life wouldn’t allow him to actually live that absurdity daily without being able to call it, as a way of life. “I’m too logical to be an actor. I like the idea of, I walk out, I look directly at you, and I communicate directly to you. And if you like what you hear, you let me know immediately.” That arrangement works best for John, he insists, because he’s “an impatient, ‘only child’ sort of a chap” who likes his feedback directly.


Playing himself

John doesn’t quite engage with the suggestion that he’s ‘playing himself’ larger than life off-stage, although he agrees that he does “adapt” who he’s going to be, depending on what he thinks of the crowd. I reckon it’s as true of the people he’s with off stage, but I know he’s speaking particularly of audiences. “You can tell how high I think a crowd’s IQ is – or to be fairer, how drunk I think a crowd is – by whether or not I roll up my sleeves before I go on stage”. 

According to John, rolled up sleeves means “g’day, I’m your everyman! I’ve just finished doing some heavy physical labour, and here I am now, to communicate to you”. With his sleeves down, John just looks like “a reasonably well-dressed boy”. It’s the difference, he says, between giving a ‘happy-and-fun’ audience happiness and fun, and a rowdy, aggressive audience, some aggression. As we’re discussing this over the phone, I can’t tell if I’m chatting to the reasonably well-dressed boy or the physical everyman, but I remind John of one such gig where he had to roll the sleeves up; he talks about it on stage: a horror gig before an audience of pissed-up Yorkshiremen.

“There’s a whole subset of comedians from my town who were there that night,” John recalls. He relates the story in a tone that almost sounds like warm nostalgia – and it may well be, now that time has passed. “Everyone has a war story from that evening.”

The story goes, a “lovely” Perth promoter – a luv-er-ly cockney lad who used to book the comics for club gigs and corporate gigs, and whom John ‘does’ in character when telling the story, phone the comic up with the offer of a “lovely, lovely” gig to a “lovely, lovely young crowd”, replacing the original MC who had dropped out. The ‘young crowd’ happened to be an audience of 80-year-olds at a golf club.

“They were all old Yorkshiremen and women who had been members of the club since they emigrated to Australia 20 years before. Every comedian on the bill was 40 to 60 years younger than them and they hated us.” 

Rest assured, the gig commenced as normal, with both sides trying to make the most of a bad situation. They respectfully sat through John’s opening slot, despite not really ‘getting’ him; they tolerated the first act. But the second act was an American, at which point, John says, “they lost their shit”. A guy up the back yelled out, “Ah don’t lahk yanks!” It was followed by 20 minutes of “deathly silence and Yorkshire grumbling”.

Another comic – whom John describes as “basically like an Umbilical Brother” – got up and did sound effects, and while the agéd Yorkshirefolk didn’t like him either, they eventually applauded him out of respect “for the sweat he produced”. 

It was during the interval, while John was taking a leak, that revelation came. “I heard a large voice behind me say, ‘Oh, aye, a comedian. Ah lahk you. Some of your jokes are funny. You know who Ah lahk? Ah lahk that Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.’” It was at that moment, John says, that he realised they’d been booked for the wrong gig. “At the time, none of us were punchline merchants. We are now. That’s what we learnt that evening: ‘Whattaya know? We should write some jokes. People like those!’”

True enough, although the extent of damage wrought by lack of punchlines was yet to be unveiled. Somewhere during the night an old-school open mic-er got up and delivered sub-book gag routines like “…She asked me to kiss her somewhere dirty, so I took her to Battersea Power Station…” which went down a treat. So when the headliner, who was meant to do a fifty minute set, told an internet joke, which the agéd Yorkshirefolk loved, followed by another internet joke, which they also loved, and then promptly ran out of material agéd Yorkshirefolk like, things were bound to come unstuck.

“I can’t tell you his name,” John says of the headline act that night, “because I’m certain he doesn’t want to remember this. But he said, ‘I’m out of internet jokes; wouldn’t you people rather be asleep? Or dead?’”

And that’s when the crowd – on the verge of hostility all night – finally cracked: four minutes into a 50-minute set. He said, ‘Are we all tired of stand-up?’ and they said ‘Yes!’ and started booing.” The audience booed the headline act offstage, and then started chanting for the old-school open mic-er to return. So John got back up, thanked everyone for coming while the booing and the chanting continued, and then all the comedians fled from the venue, fearing for their lives. “And three of us pissed on the side of the building,” John adds. “That’s how aggrieved we were. And off we went.”

John recalls that he happened to be sitting next to the promoter’s daughter while the headline comic was busy asking the audience whether they wouldn’t “rather be watching Gardening Australia? Or Matlock? Or just rotting in the ground?”, and she turned to John, demanding, “What is wrong with him?” According to John, “there was nothing to say. It was an age war. And we lost. We were the Germans in this encounter. It was Perth comedy’s Gallipoli: an Englishman sent us to the wrong beach.”


Close-knit fraternity community

The metaphor of warfare – a battle waged between the comics on one side and… well, and everyone else on the other – is telling. Perth comics are a closely bonded tribe, particularly evident when they’re interstate.

“This was one of the incidents that cemented the brotherhood,” John insists, before getting sidetracked by trying to correct ‘brotherhood’ with ‘fraternity’ and realising that ‘fraternity’, like ‘brotherhood’, appears to overlook the female Perth comics. “This is one of the problems with the English language”, he says, hoping to opt for ‘community’ but deciding against it since ‘fraternity’ at least implies ‘family’ whereas ‘community’, he argues, “could be anything”.

“Yes, you are a close-knit family,” I agree, “but don’t change the subject. I want you to talk about it.”

“Yeah, let’s do it!” John insists. What I want is the story of how the Perth comedy circuit built itself up from nothing; how it is comedian-based, since they set up and run the rooms as a collective and – Shock! Horror! – everyone gets paid. Instead, John wants to concentrate on “that incident” that took place a few years ago at the Yorkshirefolk golf club. “We were all younger then,” he reminisces – as though he’s the one who’s hit the other side of 80 having died in two World Wars. When I point this out, he cites his own old age and physical decrepitude: “I’m 25 now, and my thighs are going”; having just hosted a scifi convention in Sydney, his body is “absolutely covered” in bruises, the provenance of which he cannot trace; his legs ache. “I’ve no idea what I did,” he says.

“You need to regenerate,” I offer. Lame as the Dr Who reference is, it’s the best I can offer. Like a properly trained out-of-work actor who plays a lot of theatresports, John knows better than to turn down the ‘offer’: “I think I will,” he says, “but the adamantium in my system is corrupting my body.”

Ah, a Wolverine reference. How apt.

“I was so delighted to find that out: the only reason Wolverine is not immortal is because of the adamantium in his body. There you go. There’s a fact.”

John receives comparisons to Wolverine far more than he does to Danny McGinlay. But, I point out, it is Wolverine whom Robertson resembles; not Hugh Jackman, who played the character on the big screen.

“Hugh Jackman is from my town,” John says. “We’d all like to look a little more like Hugh Jackman.” At this point, he realises the interview has mostly made him sound “particularly ugly”. But that’s down to John; it’s come out in his answers, not in my questions.

 “Ah well, you see, that’s humility,” John replies. “If I were to be fair to my own self-image, I’d have to say that Hugh Jackman styled that look on me. I am a tremendously attractive deep-voiced soul, all 5-foot-8 of me. I have the build of a rugby player who doesn’t play rugby anymore.”

“Yes,” I add, in a downright un-Australian and cheeky manner, “but you just haven’t had your ‘alleged’ marriage of convenience yet.”

I regret the cheap and nasty Perez-Hiltonesque remark before it’s even finished coming out of my mouth, but John – ever the gracious professional – keeps moving in a different direction. “I can’t imagine a convenient marriage,” he counters. “I had a look at the two men from whom we get the term ‘sado-masochism’, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade, and both of them had some good ideas, just that they were really shit at using them.”

According to John, “all Leopold wanted” was for his girlfriend to sleep with other people, but she was reluctant. “It was illegal at the time, and she would probably be shot, so he had a nervous breakdown”. Meanwhile, all the Marquis de Sade wanted, apparently, was to have orgies, but “he was such a dickhead about it that he kept telling everyone that he was doing it, which was unheard of at the time, so he kept going to prison”. John’s conclusion? “I should find some nice bohemian combination of the two, and then never mention it to anyone, ever.”

I know it looks as though John’s taken the opportunity to chase down another tangent in order to side-step discussing the nature of Perth comedy, but what he’s actually done is deftly led us back to the topic of show he’s doing, A Nifty History of Evil. Still, in the process, it does look as though he’s having a much better conversation with himself than with me.

“That’s what comes of being an only child,” John counters: “a need to respond to a simple question with a nine-part answer, none of which parts are inter-connected”. Indeed, he concludes, “I’m the Old Testament version of my own life story”. 

 

Raymond and Cat Cat

There is the tinge of the Old Testament to John’s life just at the moment, an example of the Good Lord who giveth, taking away. A key point of his performances has been the appearance of two adorable puppets – a sad guinea pig and a hideous cat. “I don’t know what it is about them,” he says, “but audiences find Raymond the Manic-Depressive Guinea Pig and Cat Cat the Munt-Faced Cat utterly enchanting.” 

Turns out John found Raymond on the floor of the children’s entertainment centre where he used to work. “He just looked so miserable and so desperately sad that I took him home. I literally stole him.” John used to walk around the place with the guinea pig on his hand, speaking with in its voice all day. “I absolutely loved the idea of a sad hamster. It was just so much fun. You could make it look like he was cutting his wrists; he could cover his eyes; it was just this great moment of pathos. It could make an audience so sad.…”

How sad? The way Raymond was first incorporated into the act was, John says, in the middle of a stand-up performance where all of the various lines, jokes and act-outs worked, and everyone was having so much of a “generally crazy time” that he decided to take the gamble and ask the audience if they’d like to see the puppets. The drunken audience loved the idea. So John pulled out Raymond the Manic-Depressive Guinea Pig and made him start talking and covering his eyes. The crowd was utterly hushed, until a man broke the silence by shouting, with tears in his voice, “Make us laugh! Make us laugh!”

“It was a nice moment,” John says. “That was Raymond sealing his part of the deal: girls would squeal in delight when Raymond came out, and then they would be moved with intense sadness. This is something I think we could do more of.”

You don’t need to do more of it if you can do it well. The moment of sadness in a comedy show – if done properly by someone who knows what he’s doing, is magical. It makes the release of the funny, when it returns, even funnier, because there’s been some patently ‘not funny’ (but no less powerful) to compare it to. After all, if everything was uniformly hilarious, how would you know? And it’s worth noting, Aussie comics do pathos very, very well. Consider Grahame Bond and Rory O’Donohue’s ‘singing tramp’ characters Neil and Errol on Aunty Jack, or Paul Hogan’s wino…

“It’s true,” John agrees, “and we handle it well, too. But we treat it like a foreign concept whenever it appears.” So much so, that it only works if the performer is totally committed to it. In fact, he adds, the lesson he’s learnt is that, with everything you do, “you have to really commit to it, or it doesn’t work. That seems to be the secret to the universe.”

Having reached the point where Raymond had more-or-less reduced an audience to tears, he’d pull out Cat Cat the Munt-Faced Cat, another item purloined from that place of work. “He’d been touched and played with by some 40,000 school children, so this once beautiful cat had been rendered almost black with dirt; his face was pushed in; his eyes were just blazing and sinister.”

Before an audience wracked by sadness, the repulsive cat did the business. “Cat Cat could scrunch his upper lip into his lower lip and then flap out his mouth, whereupon he would speak like Jabba the Hutt: ‘Waka jawaka, Solo. Bring the Wookie to me. Waka jawaka jawaka.’ The release in the room would be amazing every time.”

I have experienced this firsthand, but what didn’t quite twig that time – and I’ve no idea how or why I missed it – is that Cat Cat spoke like Jabba the Hutt. The Han Solo reference should have been a give-away.

“I don’t think anyone remembers it. That’s the nice thing about puppets: they get a biological response. Who gives a crap what the puppet is saying, providing it’s moving, and looks funny?”

John has used these puppets, he says, in places where it should almost be unreasonable to use them. There’s a YouTube clip of him entertaining a 1,200-strong anime convention with a kid’s story featuring Raymond and Cat Cat in prominent roles. “They lose their shit,” John says. “A little girl yells out, ‘everybody loves Raymond…’ They love it.” He also pulled Raymond and Cat Cat out while doing the support slot for Wayne Brady. “That was 2,500 people. And I learnt something that day – visual jokes don’t carry to the back of the room!” Three tiers of people laughed while the fourth tier – who had been making a lot of noise up to that point – fell silent. John knew it was time to put the puppets away and pull out the ukulele.

Unfortunately, John lost Raymond and Cat Cat during the most recent Melbourne International Comedy Festival, on the way to a sci-fi convention. “I hadn’t pulled them out for the whole festival because they’re not part of this year’s show,” he says. “I was taking them to the sci-fi convention I was hosting. I got off the tram and realised I’d left them on it.” John ran through traffic to catch up to the tram, but couldn’t reach it. He jumped onto the next tram, and had that diver contact the driver ahead, but to no avail. “By the time the driver on the first tram looked, they were gone. I rang my girlfriend and we wept. It was like losing some kids. Except that now, it’s months later, and it’s like losing some kids we didn’t really care about. I loved those guys, but I don’t burst out crying. Anymore.”

Well-meaning friends have sent John replacement puppets, but they know they’re not the same. The new kitten puppet is far too adorable. Even though it can be very funny when you “make it a Nazi and give it the voice of Christoph Waltz, from Inglorious Basterds”. Indeed, John says, it’s amazing how many puppets can do the Nazi salute. “It’s one of the first things people do when they grab them. ‘Can I make it touch its dick? Can I make it do a Nazi salute?’” Those things are hilariously funny, clearly, but it’s the pathos that the other puppets presented, that made John’s onstage shtick what it was. “I like my pathos,” he explains. “I like my animals weird and munted.”


Better acting as a musician

The puppets may be gone, but John still has his ukulele, which, like the puppets, doesn’t exist for what it is, so much, as for what it isn’t. “It’s not even there, necessarily, to be a musical thing,” John insists. “It’s just a point of difference. ‘Look, I’ve just done however minutes of high-energy stuff on stage, maybe we’ve gone a few places, maybe we’ve done some weird shit, maybe I’ve yelled a whole bunch of jokes at you; now let’s see what I can do with this happy instrument.’”

What John usually does with the ‘happy instrument’ is perform three songs, two of which “appear” to be “very happy” – although, when you listen, he points out, “neither of them are” – and the other one, really depressing. The ‘depressing song’ is mostly conveyed through John’s facial expressions. He finds the “face work” to be liberating. “Playing a slow, sad song where you don’t sing and all you do is look out into a large crowd as if you are dying on the inside is one of the most enjoyable things you can imagine,” he insists.

“But a lot of the time you can’t see the crowd,” I offer.

“I can,” John argues. And in a way, he can. Because “it isn’t about ‘seeing’ the crowd; it’s about ‘hearing’ them. If you’ve got a really large crowd and you walk across a stage looking incredibly sad and you’re singing a song that is amazingly pathetic, and you’re looking out at people, it’s amazing to hear a ripple of response go through them.” And, he reiterates, “having it carry through the entire room as you walk the length of the stage is a really gorgeous thing. It also makes you think ‘Christ I must look sad! I’m a better actor than I thought!’”


Nifty history of the show

We’re almost back to the point where we began: John Robertson, the actor-turned-comic – except that we actually began with John’s infatuation with serial killers and evil, which he’s turned into a live show, A Nifty History of Evil. I quite like the poster graphic – John as a cross between the Nosferatu vampire (from the film of the same name) and that character Ron Moody played – or rather, that character Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh plays, based on a Ron Moody character, that has ‘Polo mints for eyes’. It also reminds me of Screaming Lord Sutch, an English rock’n’roll character from the ’60s. But John reckons it’s accidental that he looks as though he might want to talk to me about eels; rather, the look grew out of the costume, first and foremost. “I just thought, ‘Hey, let’s put on all of our steampunk gear today and see how we look. Oh, I look a little like an aristocrat…’”

The ‘steam punk’ clobber comes from Gallery Serpentine, a ‘goth shop’ that sponsors John by slinging clothing in his direction “every once in a while”. So, he says, “I’m wearing one of their frock coats. I’ve got one of their corsets on, I’m wearing their shirt… the hat was mine.” As to the poster image for the show, John’s feeling was, “how good would it be if I were to have these really horrifying distended fingers?” His buddy Mel, “this tremendous graphic designer” that John insists is on par with Shaun Tan (Tan is “a more dream-like, less photo-realistic version” of Graeme Bass, according to John), ‘knocked it up’ for him with little effort.

“It’s the finest piece of graphic design I’ve ever been associated with,” John says. “Mel’s been my best friend for years and she really hates it. So much. Tim Ferguson wrote to me and told me that he likes it. I told Mel, and she was so embarrassed. She would have preferred if he’d seen any of her body of work that wasn’t that.”

The show A Nifty History of Evil itself, according to John, is about “marketing, blood and style”. It’s an historical journey through “obscure moments of evil mythology”. So it features “Philippino vampires, a puppet show about the Marquis de Sade, a happy song about Stalin’s Purges which is basically Goldilocks and the Three Bears retold from a soviet perspective…” – a little bit of everything, really. If it’s inspired by anything, it’s the facts gleaned as a kid from children’s encyclopedias.

“I really liked those entries you’d stumble across that would end, ‘and then he massacred all of them’,” John says. “When it’s been divorced from context by about 400 years and then phrased in a children’s encyclopedia, it usually tends to be great. I basically wanted to put together a horrible history of the world, and some of these things are just excruciatingly funny.”

What sort of things are excruciatingly funny? He offers the possible alternative endings to World War II as an example. Both the Russians and American were working on secret weapons that would finally bring the conflict to an end, once and for all. The Americans were developing the deadly ‘Bat Bomb’, essentially “a bat with dynamite strapped to it,” according to John.

“They were going to release these over Tokyo. They never did it because the first day they were experimenting with the bats in a secret army base, they flew up into the roof and, when they exploded, took out the base.” The historical consequence of this was the Americans developing the more cost effective nuclear fusion. “It was cheaper to develop the atom bomb.”

At the same time, John says, the Russians were developing the ‘dog bomb’ – a dog with a landmine strapped to it. Dogs were being trained – no doubt via Pavlov’s classical conditioning, to run under German tanks, by putting food under tanks. “But the Russians didn’t have any German tanks for the dogs to practice on,” John reports, “so the dogs would go out into battle, look at German tanks and freak out, then look at Russian tanks which they associated with food, run back to them, and explode.”

These ridiculous historical factoids are great, but better still, for John, are the moments in the show when people hear about stuff they already know, but weren’t aware others were into.

“I’ve seen a large guy dressed in footy shorts cheer when I mention Countess Elizabeth Bathory,” John says. And why shouldn’t an apparent rugger bugger cheer at in recognition of the horrible Hungarian ruler who used to bathe in the blood of young virgin women – since beauty products containing the stem cells of discarded fetuses weren’t yet on the market – in order to remain youthful? 

Likewise, “troupes of young women high five each other” when John begins to discuss Lilith, the first woman. Well, she’s the first woman according to the Kabala and variations of the original myth from which the Adam and Eve story is reportedly derived. Apparently, Lilith was banished from the Garden of Eden by God because she refused to acquiesce to Adam as husband and boss. Depending on the version of the story, Lilith disappears, becomes a howling wind, or becomes a vampire who preys on children and pregnant women. No guesses which version of the story A Nifty History of Evil deals with…

This has been a long conversation, admittedly, John concludes, but it’s the last chance we’ll get to have one for a while. “The minute I finish the show in Sydney,” he says, “I’m flying home to Perth where I’ll spend four hours changing my bags over so that I can fly to Edinburgh and do 44 shows in 22 days. Then I’m doing club work in the UK until October.”


There you have it. If you want to see A Nifty History of Evil in Sydney, John’s doing it at the Comedy Store, Sunday July 25th. Until then, he’s featuring in the Store’s season of ‘Heavy Weights of Ha Ha’ featuring Bruce Griffiths, Chris Wainhouse, Smart Casual, Jackie Loeb, Joel Creasey, Amelia Jane Hunter, Rhys Nicholson, Umit Bali and Emma Markezic. Oh, but during August you can see A Nifty History of Evil in Edinburgh!


Jim Jefferies: No Regrets

Jim Jefferies is back at the Comedy Store this week – YAY! But if you’re not familiar with his work, at least read this earlier blog entry about him and watch the clips before proceeding.

 

 

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 “It still bugs me a little bit that I’m not famous in Australia,” Jim confesses. “There’s an argument that I’m probably the biggest Australian comic in the world right now – except for in one country…”

I’m catching up with Jim Jefferies, an expat Aussie who has not only made a name for himself in the UK and Europe, but who, in the last year, has cracked the United States. He has returned to Australia for a season at Sydney’s Comedy Store.

The last time I spoke to him, he was back for the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival; I’d spoken to him a decade earlier, when he was starting out, but by the time he was playing MICF 2009, there was a massive buzz about him among other comics. A buzz not always shared by audiences. For example, the MICF 2009 Gala audience met his set with, as far as this writer’s concerned, a kind of indifference you’d only expect from the truly ignorant.

Sure, he did do his ‘awkward rape’ routine, but that’s funny. Jim wasn’t fazed, of course. He’d just signed a deal with HBO, the terms of which entailed exclusivity. Jim’s set wouldn’t make it to the screen, so neither the rest of Australia nor the rest of the world would get to scratch their heads in bewilderment over a theatre audience’s inability to appreciate the brilliance of Jim Jefferies.

Meanwhile, the audiences going to see his actual Festival show, Hellbound, were hip to who he was and what he did – if not before the season began, then certainly, by word of mouth throughout. (My favourite night was the one with the grannies – not his, mind – right up the front, laughing at everything!)

Since that Festival, the HBO special I Swear To God has been filmed, shown a heap of times and released on DVD in the US. “It first aired a year ago, and then it came out on DVD in October,” Jim says, adding that in between first airing and DVD release, there have been “weird things” – like it  being show on aeroplanes for a while. “HBO have their own channel on all the US airways. The only time I watched it was on a flight, to check to see if they’d censored it in any way. They hadn’t. It was all right. But they put a warning label on it.”

Since its first airing, I Swear To God has been repeated “anywhere between 20 and 50 times”, according to Jim, “usually at some strange hour, like 2am or 4am or midday”. The reason he knows this is because each time, he suddenly receives more attention online. “More people will be writing to you or writing about you on the internet because it’s just aired…”

Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it yet; a UK company has just secured the rights to release it on DVD throughout the rest of the world. So, in all, Jim Jefferies appears to be doing very well indeed. Although, he says, his life hasn’t turned out exactly as he’d anticipated. “I guess I’m famous but it’s happening a lot slower than I expected”. Where he imagined the television offers would be pouring in, instead, he’s got a multitude of fans wanting to see him live. “It sounds like a bit of a guilty trap when I say something like that,” Jefferies acknowledges. “That’s all I ever wanted a few years ago, and now I want to be in television. It’s never good enough!”

Oh, Jim Jefferies certainly has crossed the media divide since hitting the big time. Only, it hasn’t been from stage to telly, so much. “It’s weird now,” he says. “I used to just go to towns and do gigs, but now I’ve got to do a lot more radio, a lot more newspapers and stuff like that.”

It’s probably good that it’s happening slowly; what would Jim do once he got a regular television gig? What would he want next? “It’d be movies. And then I’d want to be president. And then I’d bitch, because they wouldn’t let me, because I’m not an American citizen…” In all, he says, “things are going well. I’m happy with all the work.”

Now if you’ve seen Jim’s material – and do go check the clips that accompanied my last interview with him – you might consider that it’d be a bit ‘too edgy’ and ‘in your face’ for America. “Not at all,” Jim corrects me. “This is the place of Richard Pryor and George Carlin. The edgiest comics in the world came from America: Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks…” All true. But there’s no way Jefferies will be able to take all of that onto television. Sitcoms are going to require Jim Jefferies-lite, surely…

“Yeah, but you can water things down on TV and still be who you are on stage,” Jim points out. “Richard Pryor made a lot of films that I enjoyed as a kid before I even knew he was a stand-up comic. Richard Pryor was in The Toy. You’ve got Eddie Murphey in Daddy Daycare and Dr Dolittle, and he’s Donkey off Shrek. But if he went back to stand-up, he’d still be the same kick-arse stand-up he always was. Being who you are doesn’t have to be so one-dimensional.”

No, of course not. Besides which, I Swear To God is Jim Jefferies being his full-on, stage self, on television. But it’d be foolish to think that’s the only pace, volume and level he can play at. “I always find it funny when I list on my fanpage on Facebook that I’m coming town,” Jim says. “They always go, ‘We’ll have the hookers and drugs ready for you’. I’m like, ‘Ah… I just wanna relax this weekend…’”

So what’s changed now that Jim’s gotten to this current level of success? Has he gotten to meet some of his own big comedy heroes? What do you say to them when you finally meet them? Are they still heroes? “I met Slash at a barbecue the other day,” Jim says. “His kids were there. We talked about pinball for a bit. We both like pinball.”

However, even though you do “just pass people in the street” a lot more in LA, you don’t necessarily get to meet them. When you do, it’s usually because you’re at the same event, or you share the same management. Otherwise, Jim says, he doesn’t meet “the big acts” because even if he’s not quite one of them, he’s big enough now to be gigging as a headline act; the only other comics he regularly meets are his support acts – people on the way up.

The exception to that is a comedy festival gala. “Straight after Australia, I’m doing the Montreal Comedy Festival, and then Edinburgh Festival,” Jim reports. “In Montreal I’ll be doing the gala hosted by Steve Martin or the gala hosted by Cheech & Chong. So I’ll get to meet Cheech & Chong and Steve Martin the week after Sydney. That’s kind of exciting.  But you very rarely talk comedy with anyone – these guys are movie stars; I’m still a comedian. I just get on with what I’m doing.”

Getting on with the job of being a comedian seems incrementally more difficult as you progress further up the food chain – as your success contributes to you becoming more of a ‘celebrity’ . The more successful you are, for example, the more your everyday life differs to that of most other people. There’s less common ground to draw from. But that’s not an issue for Jim Jefferies. Not yet, anyway.

“I have the privilege in the US of being a new face and a foreigner,” Jim explains, “so I get to deliver the ‘foreign’ point of view – as a lot of American comics do when they come over to Australia.” Not that Jim does ‘the difference between Americans and Australians’ material; rather, not having as vested a interest in the country yet, he can talk objectively – “which for my type of comedy, is a lot better” – about American politics and social issues, employing a deceptive ocker naivety that renders his killer punchlines all the more potent, having lulled the locals into a false sense of security. “I’m not big on the ‘Oh, you guys eat a lot of hamburgers, don’t you?’ type of comedy,” Jim adds. “I mean, they do appear to eat a lot of hamburgers, but so do I.”

What has changed for Jim now, since doing the deal with HBO, is people know who he is and so know what to expect. When working the circuit as just another comic, Jim’s candour had the tendency to shock. At festival time, there’d always be advertising pointing out that he is a so-called ‘dirty’ comic, so that an ignorant audience wouldn’t be jarred by an unexpected level of fankness in the comedy. But now, having had his material broadcast extensively and released on DVD, the audience knows who Jim Jeffries is and what he does; they go to his live performances knowing exactly what to expect.

“It gives you so much more freedom than if you have to prove yourself on stage in the first couple of minutes,” Jim says. Because a cold audience have to be on your side before you take them into dangerous territory – otherwise they turn against you and get offended, rather than laughing. “When I play a room where they haven’t seen who I am, sometimes I can’t just be irreverent and a little bit flippant about such harsh subjects,” Jefferies agrees. “I have to get them to like me before I can just say my cancer joke, for instance.” It’s not like that in the United States anymore; before heading to Australia, Jefferies played to a 1200-strong Boston audience – twice in one night – who were chanting Jim’s name as he took the stage. “You just don’t think when you’re starting out that you’ll ever walk out to people just calling your name, all that sort of stuff”.

Indeed. What exactly was Jim expecting when he started out? He never imagined being a star in the United States, that’s for sure. But, he says, his dream “was always to be a full-time comic”. But the problem Jefferies has encountered, having become one, is that “you just never seem to be happy. I’ve reached every goal I ever wanted to in comedy, and some goals I never even thought I’d reach, but now I’m thinking, ‘Ah, f*ck! I’m not rich yet’. I’ve got to have more money.’ It never ends. You’re always looking over the horizon.”

Don’t think that Jim Jefferies has totally lost touch with reality. Some things do keep him grounded. “I need to smell the roses a bit,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes I just sit here and think, ‘F*ck, how did I get here?’ When they’re sneaking me into a place through a back door ’cos there’s queue of people out the front, I think, ‘That never happened before!’ You’ve gotta be thankful for things like that – of course you do. It’s thousands of comics’ dreams to have something like this happen to them. I never thought – especially with my type of comedy – that I would be embraced on such a large level.”

This makes me laugh – given the first time I met Jim Jefferies, he’d graduated as an opera singer from Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts left Perth for Sydney because he’d gotten as far as he could on the Perth circuit – the only people more famous than him in Perth were news readers.

“There’s no use being a big fish in a small pond,” Jim says.” I will give myself this amount of credit: I know a number of comics who over the years have bitched about me or said that the only reason I’ve done something is because I got punched on the internet or because I moved over to England or whatever. But I did all those things…” A lot of comics prefer to bitch about the lack of opportunity rather than seeking those opportunities out, Jim says. A prime example might be a gig in Sacramento, six hours out of Los Angeles.

“When I’m up there, they’ll give me some comics to support me who are local guys, and they’ll be talking about how they haven’t had a break yet. And I’m like, ‘Well, you’re only a six-hour drive from Los Angeles…’ I had to get a plane and move from Perth to Sydney, from Sydney to London, from London to LA to keep seeing how far I could push this thing. And if at any time I just kind of stayed stagnant in a town, it would never have happened.”

There is, of course, a price to be paid, Jim acknowledges. “I’ve never been married or had kids or anything like that because I’ve never had a relationship that’s lasted long enough through all this travelling to contemplate something like that. I know a lot of people who get tied down with things like family, or they don’t want to leave their day job before a certain time. But you never know in this life unless you give it a go. I can say for sure, at the end of this career, I won’t have any of those, ‘If only I’d done this…’ regrets. That’s something to be happy with.”

The regret, if there is one, is that age-old issue that all stars who push themselves to find the opportunities, ultimately face: international success often means homeland indifference. Jim Jefferies is massive around the world, and relatively unknown in Australia. It is, as ‘American’ Australian comic Tommy Dean once pointed out, a characteristic that comedians share with prophets: they’re never embraced in their homeland, but need to preach in foreign lands to gain acceptance.

“I appreciate that completely,” Jim says. “I understand that. I live with Eddie Ifft in LA in a house on the beach. He talks about how he’s struggling to get work in the United States, and I talk about how I’m struggling to get work in Australia. And we have a laugh about it on our couch, watching the TV.”


Jamie Kilstein and Challenging Intellectuals

Man, this always happens: interview someone you’re kind of indifferent to, and it’s easy to tell the story. Interview someone you like, and you talk for an hour and as much of a pleasure as it is to transcribe, no narrative article will do the conversation justice. So here is my hour-long chat with Jamie Kilstein. We talk a heap of politics, a lot of process, but hardly any piss-funny. Yet, if you don’t mind being challenged to sometimes think about the stuff you’re laughing at, if you like seeing good comics because of the opportunity it provides to see the world from their point of view, if  you want to see an American who understands irony and sarcasm, see Jamie Kilstein this week at the Comedy Store.

Jamie hat

Dom Romeo: In your current show you talk about the internet and modern technology, and how it’s making it a lot easier to interact and communicate a lot less. I’m a little bit disappointed by it all. There was a time when the  internet gave a voice to people with an alternate point of view. Now everyone seems to have a voice, but they don’t have to be saying anything interesting.

JAMIE KILSTEIN: I think it’s like anything that big, where for as much good as it does, you’re going to get an equal amount of shit. Unfortunately, I think it’s up to people who use it to do research, to find out what’s a viable source and what’s bullshit. And I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that people who may be uncredible or crazy can have their voice heard – they need to have it heard somewhere. I still think it does more good than bad.

Like television: for every Two and a Half Men, there’s a Simpsons; for every hack CNN ‘Meet the Press’ news show, there’s a Bill Maher or real investigative journalism. You’re always gonna have the good with the bad, and it’s not like people who watch Big Brother on TV are going to go on the internet looking for Chomsky. They’re gonna go look for they’re dumbed down shit on the internet, just like they look for it on TV, just like they look for it in their comedy, just like they look for it in their radio… I think it does more good for people who actually care about critical thinking because if you really do have an inquisitive kind of mind and you want to learn and educate yourself, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet that you can’t find anywhere else, that you can’t find on TV, that your’e not gonna see…

I’ve interviewed Chomsky three times and I’ve never seen him once on TV. But clearly, he’s available, because he did my podcast when it was nothing, so it’s not like he’s not around. And he’s totally willing to debate on TV, but you’re not gonna hear voices like that on TV because he threatens the corporate status quo. So the internet’s more important to have a place where you can hear these great intellectuals who are being censored, but yeah, just like anything, there’s gonna be a done of shit which is just unfortunate. But in a perfect world – it may take a while – but this shit will get weeded out and discredited and then we’ll have social Darwinism on the internet.

Dom Romeo: We can only hope! You also mention radio as a dying medium. That’s what I’m fearing: that the internet will go the way of radio. That someone powerful will own the outlets and you’ll have to fight to hear the good stuff.

JAMIE KILSTEIN: That’s the only time I would get scared. Luckily, something called ‘Net Neutrality’ passed in America. It was being threatened under the Bush Administration, which was going to let companies take over big chunks of the internet and charge for it. So you’d have to pay a phone company like ATNT for service. And then they could block out sites they wanted. They were indighted for illegal wire tapping under George Bush – so if you wanted to find articles about that through their webservice, you probably wouldn’t. ATNT probably wouldn’t publish articles about ATNT illegally spying on American citizens. So then it would be an issue.

Already you’ve got Rupert Murdoch who owns MySpace – we’re kind of getting there. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s going to be a threat until businesses come in, because that’s the problem with the news. We have a station called MSNBC, and that’s supposedly the liberal Fox News, but it’s not, because it’s owned by General Electric, and General Electric makes weapons and they sell weapons that we use in Iraq, and so it’s not in their corporate interest to report both sides of the war, because as long as war’s going on, they profit. So I like your point, but if businesses like GE got into the internet, then we’d be in trouble.

And as for radio, back home, it’s all owned by the same companies and those companies have certain interests in certain record labels, and those record labels aren’t interested in promoting new, independent music, so they will just repeat the same recycled trite garbage over and over again. And actually, the internet right now is sort of a solution to that: my show, Citizen Radio, is on something called Breakthru Radio – btr.com – and it’s totally free and they have all these different stations with totally different genres, and they pay their DJs to pick out independent, unsigned music. There’ll be like a jazz/fusion channel and an indie rock channel and whatever, and you just listen to it all day, and they never censored our content. We’re the first comedy/political show on there and it’s amazing. That’s kind of the ‘fuck you’ to radio: the internet is coming in and filling a really big gap, and there’s no commercials and we don’t have to appease anyone like corporate sponsors.

How long that’ll last, I don’t know. Radio used to be that. And then radio sold out. If the internet sells out, then we’ll have to find something else.

Dom Romeo: Campfire songs!

JAMIE KILSTEIN: You know what? God I hope so! I really do hope so. Because I do think that’s a problem with the internet. I mean, the whole Facebook and MySpace – and I’m guilty about this – it really breeds this kind of narcisism. Especially Twitter – everyone needs to know precisely what I’m doing right now – I’m eating breakfast; I’m doing this. You paint yourself into a Truman Show, where the whole world is watching me and it all revolves around me. We’ve turned into this ‘reality TV’ culture, where we just always imagine that we have cameras on ourselves and there’s a soundtrack. If you break up with a girl and you’re driving, you have to find that perfect song…

Dom Romeo: I know what the song is!

JAMIE KILSTEIN: What’s yours?

Dom Romeo: ‘Broken Hearts Are For *ssh*les’ by Frank Zappa.

JAMIE KILSTEIN: Oh, that’s a good one. That’s far cooler than me. I find, like, the cheesiest, most like abominable one… no, that was actually a cool one.

So Facebook and Twitter really does encourage that. But the good is, I’ve hooked up with activists all over the world through the internet radio show, and I’m really open through all the emails and stuff. We have people listening to the show, like 16-year-old gay kids from Texas, who’ll email us and say, ‘I thought I was crazy!’ and we can talk to them. Or there are people who are like, ‘I live in Montana, what do I do?’ and we can be like, ‘go protest this!’ It really has been great for activists and for left-wingers – especially the literate ones. The internet’s really good to communicate and to organise. Left-wing people, our biggest problem is organising so we really need that place where we can all get together and whatnot… I don’t remember what the question was.

Dom Romeo: Neither do I, but I’m enjoying the conversation! One thing I want to bring up – GE used to own the Bertelsmenn Music Group, or BMG, which is now part of Sony/BMG; it’s also a finance company in this country that sponsors the news…

JAMIE KILSTEIN: I don’t think a lot of people realise how tangled a lot of these corporations are. A lot of times, left-wing people are given a bad rap and you hear the word ‘corporation’ and you automatically think that it’s a conspiracy because you hear the one crazy dude that the news always shows when they cover a protest. They won’t show the tens of thousands of Jews who are marching against the war crims in Gaza, they won’t show the outcry against the war in Iraq, but they’ll find the one crazy hippie who’s having a weed-in to protest whatever. So a lot of times, when you hear these key words like ‘corporation’, it just sounds very conspiratorial because you’re used to hearing ‘the corporations were behind 9/11, they’re all on an island…’ or whatever. But the reality is, there are something like under 20 giant corporations that own almost everything. You think of Rupert Murdoch just with Fox News, but he also owns giant publishers and tons of newspapers and MySpace; and he’s slowly chipping away at the BBC, trying to get less public funding for it because that’s a threat to him.

There was a time when the news wasn’t supposed to just be a soundboard for the government; it was supposed to be a check on the government. And if you have these giant corporations that profit when the government f*cks over the poor, they’re not going to investigate or call the government out. They’re gonna use their newspapers, they’re gonna use their books, they’re gonna use their social networking sites, they’re gonna use their music labels, they’re gonna use everything they have to come out against it. That’s what Rupert Murdoch’s doing right now in the UK against the BBC. He’s publishing all these anti-BBC articles that are factually inaccurate. Seventy to 80% of people in the UK love the BBC and say they would pay more for it out of their tax dollars, and and he’s having all of his newspapers run this giant propaganda smear against them, and that’s the kind of power they have. And yes, GE, if they’re selling weapons to the war effort, all of their other media outlets are going to promote what makes them money.

Dom Romeo: So are you suggesting that the man who runs the media in the three big western countries that came out in favour of going to war with Iraq, that he might have had some influence in getting certain parties to power in the lead-up to the war?

JAMIE KILSTEIN: The billionaire who profits from the war? He may have done something about it. I mean, see what’s happening right now with Iran – these same stations are having the same people on, who were wrong about Iraq, who were wrong about Afghanistan, and they’re having these “experts” come back onto these news shows and say the exact same thing about Iran that they said about Iraq. And that’s okay? Those people should be fucken shamed. Over a million Iraqis are dead. We killed more Americans than Osama did on September 11 – so he won. If anyone’s wondering who won out of Osama and America, Bin Laden won. And they’re having these same f*ckin assholes who have never served in the military, whose families have enver served in the military, come back on to pedal these wars because wars are profitable. That’s what’s scary: it all comes down to class war; it all comes down to profit. Not giving people health care in America is profitable. War is profitable. That’s the problem with the free market and that’s the problem with capitalism: you can’t have life-or-death situations lead to profit. When people make money off sick people or off weapons that murder people, it’s a f*cked system.

By the way, we should mention: I am a comedian!

Dom Romeo: Good point. But I’m enjoying this discussion, and these are important political issues; how do you make them funny?

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Tears.

I don’t know, man. Me and Glenn Wool were talking about this on the radio the other day. It’s not like when I see something bad happen, I look for the joke. You’re like one of the – may the only journalist – most journalists will be like ‘Jamie, as a comedian, is there part of you that misses George Bush? Not as a person; that’d be retarded. But as a comedian, don’t you wish Sarah Palin was Vice President, and then John McCain died from heart failure, and then Sarah Palin became president… as a comedian, do you wish for that to happen?’ And I always have to be like, ‘what sort of f*cken monster do you think I am? That I can only write jokes when there are war crimes being committed, or any time a wedding’s being bombed in Afghanistan, I’m like, ‘honey, bring me my funny pen and hilarious pad!’ It’s not like that. Here’s the honest answer, which unfortunately also isn’t funny.

The honest answer is, the reason I’m a comedian, like all comedians, I had a f*cked up childhood, and comedy happened to be my defence mechanism. Some people’s defense mechanism is drugs or alcohol, and mine happened to be that. So when something really bad happened with my parents, me and my little brothers would run upstairs and would be in our bedroom. It would be really awkward, and we’d be scared and sad and we wouldn’t know what to say, and then once somebody made that first joke – and it would always be inappropriate because the situations were so bad that there was nothing polite that could have been said, so it would be some really heartbreaking joke – that’s when all of us snapped back into it, and not only did we laugh and not only did it break the ice and not only did it cut the tension, but it also just broke us out of that kind of trance, and then we were like, ‘okay, what can we do, how the f*ck do we fix this? Let’s go, let’s figure it out’. And I always thought that was really cool, that humour could diffuse the situation enough that you could finally talk about it.

I have conversations with dudes after every show who disagree with me, and we find out we have more in common than we thought we did, and the media won’t have you believe that. The media just has the right-wing guy and the left-wing guy just scream at each other. And you’re not taught to have conversations, you’re taught to just yell at the opposition. I think humour is one of the tools you can use to get someone on your side just to chill the f*ck out long enough to start a conversation. So that said, I don’t see something terrible happen and then write a joke, I see something terrible happen and I write because I’m angry, and once I start writing, my go-to when I’m angry, subconsciously, is humour. It just kind of comes out that way. And then I’ll start yelling about it on stage and see what gets the laughs, and then start chipping away that way.

Dom Romeo: Sometimes you remind me of when I discovered Jello Biafra’s spoken word albums. Only, he’s not as funny. You’re a comedian, whereas he’s talking politics to a punk rock audience.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Yeah. I wish I had his audience. His audience is awesome. I totally stand for what he did. There’s a book coming out soon and I haven’t read it yet, but we’re in the same book, called Sataristas. Paul Provenza, the dude who made The Aristocrats. It’s one of Carlin’s last interviews, and Colbert’s in there, and Jello’s in there and I’m in there. I’m so excited to read it; it’s all about people who like political satire and came out and spoke like that.

I love that culture and I wish that I could figure out how to find that culture. Because it’s not really happening for me with comedy clubs and two-drink minimums. It’s much better here, in Australia, at the Comedy Store – it’s much less corporate than the places I played in the States. But just to be mentioned in the same breath as him is cool.

Dom Romeo: That’s interesting because there’s stuff I saw you do at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival earlier this year that I didn’t find as funny as when I saw you do it now. Did it evolve for the Australian psyche? Do you know what makes it funnier here, on your second visit, than elsewhere?

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
You’re giving me much more credit than you should be. Probably subconsciously I do. I wish I sat down and figured it out more, but I do that on stage.

Here’s what I don’t do: I don’t change anything from place to place. So the jokes you saw last night are the same way that I did them the week before in New York, and the month before that I did them in Edinburgh. So when I go place to place, I don’t go, ‘let’s tailor it for the Australians’. It’s the same.

Dom Romeo: Okay. I have another theory then. Maybe I’m better attuned to you now, having seen you once before. Maybe I’m getting better at appreciating you.



JAMIE KILSTEIN: Maybe. I’m not denying that the jokes have changed.  They probably have, but they haven’t changed in the sense that, I’m not good enough to have different sets for different audiences. There are some people who have a different set for every different audience – they have a club set, they have a corporate set…

Dom Romeo: (I wasn’t fast enough to interject with ‘they have a television set’!)

JAMIE KILSTEIN: … I have the same set, and it’s either going to work really well or it’s going to go down in flames. There’s no ‘Plan B’. When I started, I had a ‘Plan B’ – I had a bunch of stuff on the war on drugs, which I still think is an important issue, drug prohibition. But a lot of dumber crowds could just see them as ‘weed jokes’, and I stopped doing that. But those were always the jokes I did if the political jokes weren’t working.

Dom Romeo: I love the fact that, because you’re a lefty intellectual, your ‘weed jokes’ are the ‘dick jokes’.

JAMIE KILSTEIN: Exactly! ‘I guess I can do jokes about the prison-industrial complex and how we lock away minorities on drug charges while we let white collar criminals get away…’. Yeah, that was my dick joke! But now I don’t have that. Now it’s like, ‘well, if they don’t like the abortion joke, I guess I can do the war crime joke’. There really is no ‘Plan B’, which is kind of cool. But I’m f*cked. I’m stuck. If I’m obligated to do an hour, and 20 minutes in, they hate me, I know that it’s just gonna get worse. But it is interesting, trying to win over audiences and trying to re-work the set around, doing stuff in a different order or whatever.

But place to place, I really don’t change anything. The jokes have probably changed, and the jokes have probably have gotten funnier because I’ve had time with those jokes, but they’ve changed for me, they haven’t changed for any audience.

If I came over here and did a different set than I did in America, it would be like, ‘here’s me in another country, getting away with making fun of America’. Which is why I don’t do that. And I think, so many of the issues are global. Like religion: here it’s easier because it’s a much bigger chunk of people who are openly secular. But at the same time, I still have people walk out. People still walked out during my Jesus joke at the Opera House. People still get pissed, people are still homophobic. Just because your politicians aren’t as openly homophobic, doesn’t mean you don’t still have the f*cken douche-bag guys who are threatened by their own masculinity and they still have to call everyone a faggot, or they still have to call everyone gay. It still exists here, it still exists in the UK.

Yeah, we started the war, and that’s bad, but people went from Australia, Tony Blair was just as bad as George Bush, Howard was bad. These are definitely issues that effect everyone and I almost think that it needs to be talked about here a lot too, because it’s so easy to point at America as the ultimate bad guy – which we are – but I don’t think that scape-goating America is an excuse to be apathetic in other parts of the world.

Dom Romeo: Having the ability to make these important thoughts funny is brilliant, and you’ve explained how that process began for you, but getting into comedy and the comedy circuit, a lot of people start with autobiography and self-deprecation – that’s how a lot of people start out. Did you have to go through that? Did you have to go through the ‘popular topics’ before you found your voice and found the way to do the stuff that matters to you that you do so well?

JAMIE KILSTEIN: I have a friend who’s an amazing journalist and he wanted to do stand-up. He sent me some stuff and it was exactly what you said: it was self-deprecating and it was personal. Which is weird, because when he writes about politics he’s hilarious.

Yeah, there are people who just assume they can’t talk about that stuff on stage, so they start with self-deprecation and whatnot.

With me, it was much sadder than that. I wasn’t into politics when I started in comedy. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew that my gay friends shouldn’t be discriminated against, I knew that we probably shouldn’t be killing people all over the world, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world we were killing people, and I couldn’t tell you why, legally, my gay friends were being discriminated against, or which clause in the Constitution was being violated. I just didn’t know about any of that stuff.

I started when I was 17. I dropped out of high school. I was a young *ssh*le. I was high all the time. I probably started writing about the drug material, but not because I thought the war on drugs adversely affected minorities, but because I wanted to get high. So I was like, ‘fuck that!’ I just wrote about what I knew, which was nothing!

What ended up happening was, when I dropped out of high school and ended up living in the real world and not in White Middle Class Land, I started becoming friends with more poor people, and friends with minorities, and friends with more gay people, and talking to more people and finding out how badly they were being f*cked. I met this guy in America called Cornell West. Cornell West is a huge black intellectual, probably the biggest black intellectual of our generation, and he’s a professor at Princeton University. You’d recognise him: big afro, he’s always on Real Time with Bill Maher and every news show. He’s awesome.

I met him, and we had a really long conversation at this book store about Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks and comics. I told him I was thinking about being a writer, and asked him what advice he had, and he said, ‘read voraciously’. That was the only advice.

Dom Romeo: Good on him! Nobody tells kids that anymore. You can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader, and people don’t read anymore. So they’re not gonna write.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Absolutely right. I had a complex after dropping out of high school, where I just thought I was really dumb, because the stuff in high school I was given to read, I just didn’t give a sh*t about. So up until I was 25, I literally thought I couldn’t read. It’s so funny. I would read the pages, and I knew what the words were, and I could sound out the words, but then I would get through a page and go, I don’t know what the fuck that was! So I was convinced I couldn’t read.

So Cornell tells me to start reading, and I start reading stuff I actually cared about, and I remember looking at my girlfriend one day and saying, ‘I can read!’ She was like, ‘You’re 25, of course you can read!’ It was great. That just started informing me.

And it’s hard at first, and I think even a lot of people who didn’t drop out of high school will have that same problem. You watch the news, and the news is geared towards rich white people, and you read newspapers and they’re geared towards people who already have a grasp on current affairs.

I knew more about war crimes that were committed in East Timor than I knew what the three branches of government are in the US because I was so stoned out of my mind through high school that I missed a lot of the basics. So how am I supposed to learn about foreign policy if I don’t know about the basics? But it just takes time. You start reading and becoming more informed and that gives you more information and more things to be angry about and I think it’s really good, because a lot of passionate liberal – or ‘left wing’ people, here – are disenfranchised and feel dumb, or feel there’s nothing they can do, and that’s what the opposition wants you to feel. They want you to feel helpless. The more you arm yourself with that information, the more seriously people will take you and the more outraged you’ll become, and you’ll find that it’s much more important to go out there and protest than go to the pub and just drink and bitch about how fucked up the government is.

Conservatives are out there every day with their crazy signs and their ‘Obama’s Hitler’ and calling people socialist and telling them they’re ‘being gay’ or saying ‘you’ll go to hell’. They’re crazy, but they’re organised. I’m like, ‘we’re right, but we’re high’ and that’s why they’re the ones who get all the media coverage, and we can just sit at home and be pretentious and self-satisfied and be, like, ‘those idiots!’ But those idiots are in the street and they’re actually doing stuff. I started going to the gym again because I found out that Condalisa Rice would wake up at four in the morning to go to the gym and read all the newspapers before she went and took on her Secretary of State duties. I’m like, ‘if they’re up at four in the morning, I need to be up at four in the morning!’ Me and my girlfriend Allison started going to the gym, and any time we’d get tired on the treadmill, Allison would be like, ‘I’m coming for ya, Condie!’ That was our motivation. I hate to say this, but I think a lot of lefties don’t have that republican drive. Because we’re right, so why the f*ck should we have to? But we do.

Dom Romeo: When you’re on stage saying that you’re family hates you because you never went to university, I’m sitting there going, ‘that’s hard to believe, that you don’t have a tertiary education’. But now you’re saying you got your knowledge by  reading, that’s education for education’s sake; that’s more important than, nowadays, going to a tertiary institution funded by a corporation looking for their next tier of employment…

JAMIE KILSTEIN: I think it’s a matter of ‘find what you love, and study that like it’s your job’. I think that that’s not given enough credit.

It’s sad. Two of the smartest dudes that I knew, who were the best musicians I knew, were talked out of playing in bands because ‘that’s not what you do’. So one of them joined the military right before the Iraq war, so he could get money for college, and came back with a drinking problem, came back a mess. The other one went to business school, and let’s face it, they have their own war going on right now, and I was the outcast, I was the one who was shit on for dropping out of high school.

This isn’t a ‘go me, I made the right decision’ because at the time it was dumb, but there is certainly something to be said for – ah, don’t say ‘following your dreams’ – but, following your dreams. Everything else is just as risky.

Dom Romeo: I forget the name of the new-wave psychologist, but ‘finding your bliss’ is how he expressed it.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Yeah, that’s a much better way of putting it.

The world will make you feel dumb if you don’t believe their bullshit. It’s not fair. I felt dumb for so f*cken long. But it’s just because I didn’t have access to the right people, or to people I believed in, or to people who shared my ideals. And I think once you find that, I think so many people will be amazed at how much they can do and how many of their thoughts that they thought were crazy will be validated and how much new information they’ll learn.

I can’t say it enough: you’ve got to just find what you care about and if you’re learning about something in school and you disagree with it and the teacher says you’re supposed to agree with it, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid or wrong, it just means you disagree with this one guy. It means you should go find the counter-argument to that and study that, or whatever. That’s what schooling’s supposed to teach you. It’s not supposed to teach you to memorise what circle to fill in for standardised tests, it’s supposed to teach you how to think critically and how to question authority.

Calvinhobbescalf

Dude, Calvin & Hobbes – do you remember that comic strip? I learned more from that than I did from any text book. That was constantly teaching you. It taught you about the environment, it taught you to question religion, it taught you to question your education system, it taught you about love, it taught you about friendship, it taught you about music, it taught you about nature, about taking care of the earth. And it was a f*cken comic strip about a dude and his imaginary tiger. That was more educational to me than most of the sh*t I was pedalled in high school. Does that make me an idiot, because I read comics?

I also just got this really big Calvin & Hobbes tattoo on my calf and so I was researching Bill Waterson, just because I got reall nostalgic just thinking about it. Bill Waterson, author of Calvin & Hobbes, the only dude who never sold merchandising rights. They never made t-shirts, they never made Hobbes tiger dolls. He completely refused to sell out. His publishers were furious. They just did this piece on him on BBC, where he got very reclusive. He didn’t do interviews, he just disappeared and it’s awesome. That’s so bad-ass. That’s a hero. He could have been a billionaire, if he sold the merchandising rights, and he didn’t. That, to me is so much heroic…

…I don’t know where I’m going. I’ve gotten lost in Crazy Digression Land. Oh, here, I can make that make sense.

With that said, I’m not telling everyone to drop out of high school. My best teacher in high school actually convinced me to drop out, which he would have gotten fired for. But he took me aside and said, ‘you’re really smart. You’ve a 14 in this class.’ To get an F was a 50 or below. I had a 14. He just kind of told me that school’s not for everybody. ‘If this isn’t what you love and you know what you want to do, bail. But don’t stop learning.’

I think the mistake lots of people make is, once they drop out or decide not to go to university, they kind of just wait for opportunities to come to them. I think you need to finding what you love – some guitar player will be reading this and going, ‘Done! Easy!’ – but the hard part is treating that like a ‘job’. And I use the word ‘job’ loosely. Because if it’s what you love, technically it’s a job, but it’s f*cken easy.

Dom Romeo: That feels like an ending, but I’ve got a couple more questions. Do you mind if we keep going?

JAMIE KILSTEIN: Go ahead.

Dom Romeo: At some point, someone who’s writing about comedy is going to ask you this question. I’m sure you’ve answered it a number of times, and I’m certain I know what the answer is. But I want to know what your answer is.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
I hope I’m right!

Dom Romeo: Can comedy change anything?

JAMIE KILSTEIN: Yes.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

And so many people say ‘no’. Comics I really admire, who wouldn’t consider themselves political comics, but have some really hard-hitting stuff about politics, they always say, ‘if I could write dick jokes, I would write dick jokes, I just happen to like politics and it doesn’t influence anybody, and comedy comes before the message, and blah blah blah’, but no. I’m the complete opposite. I know I’m supposed to say that comedy comes first, and I’ve been screamed at by managers and whatnot, but it is one hundred percent my agenda first. Because it does work.

It’s like I was saying before: dudes come up to me after shows I do in the South, in America, and they’ll be like, ‘I disagree with everything you said, but you were really funny,’ or ‘I’m a Conservative… but you were really funny,’ and instead of me saying, ‘oh, thanks buddy, see you later’, I will say, ‘why are you a conservative?’ And they go, ‘well, you know, the gay rights thing doesn’t bother me that much, that’s more like old school; I have a gay friend and he’s pretty cool’. And I’m like, ‘all right, but what if someone comes back from the war in Iraq and they need government help and they don’t have any money and they have post-traumatic stress syndrome?’ and they go, ‘oh, well the government should totally help then’. And you start going through all these issues and by the end of it you’re like, ‘so why are you conservative?’ and they’re like, ‘my dad is!’ That’s really it.

I’ve had conversations where they’ve emailed me after – I have the evidence saved on my Facebook – where they have changed their mind on an issue. I did this show in Indiana and these three giant white dudes in fatigues, one wearing a crucifix, were sitting in the front row. I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to fight them’, and I did the drug stuff first and it went really well and they really liked me for that, and they really liked the stuff on the war and the stuff on religion, and they stayed with it, because they were cool kids. So we stayed after the show, and they had beer and I had my water, and we started talking and it was right during the election, and they said they were going to vote for McCain still, and I said, ‘why are you going to vote for McCain?’ It was really sad and sweet. They go, ‘well, he was the only one who came to visit us in Iraq, and he was a soldier; he fought in Viet Nam.’

What they didn’t know, because they weren’t told this while they were overseas, was that literally that week – and I got lucky that it was that week – John McCain was one of the only people who voted against the new GI Bill. And the new GI Bill was similar to what happened in World War II, which was, if you serve for four years, you get a free ride to college. That’s part of the reason there was this economic boom after the war, because these people came back and they could get an education and they could get great jobs.

And John McCain, whose campaign was based on ‘I love the troops’ – he said, ‘I served, Barrack Obama didn’t serve, blah blah blah blah’, he voted against it. That seemed crazy, particularly since it had been passed by an overwhelming bipartisan support, too. So most Republicans voted for it, but McCain didn’t. And the reason McCain didn’t vote for it was he put his own bill forward, that said, if you serve for 12 years – 12 might not have been the number, but it was more than 4 – you can get a free ride. People go, ‘why would you do that?’ and the reason is, if John McCain was president, John McCain was planning on a lot more war, so he didn’t want to lose good soldiers leaving after four years because then the military becomes depleted, and if you’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, possibly Pakistan, possibly Iran, you need all of the soldiers you can get.

So I told them that and offered to send them whatever they needed, to prove it to them. And then one of them goes, ‘f*ck that guy!’ and I go, ‘yep, f*ck that guy!’ And that was it. His vote changed. All he needed was the information. Now, I’m not saying I’m this genius, the only one who can give you the information, but I am saying, comedy disarmed him enough to talk to a giant lefty like me, and then I told him a fact that he didn’t hear on the news because the news didn’t want report on that because you can’t question John McCain’s patriotism because John McCain got kidnapped like an *ssh*l* and so that was it.

Every journalist should have reported on that. Every journalist should have said, ‘how can you say that, and then you’re not going to fund their schooling?’ They should have run on that, but they didn’t because they’re all in the pockets and they just want access to the Whitehouse.

Another piece of evidence I can point to, of comedy changing somebody – I hate bringing this up; it makes me more uncomfortable than anything else on the planet, but I don’t see how I can possibly not bring this up or not mention it and make this point, which I think is more important.

A lot of reviews of my work have mentioned Hicks. I don’t agree with it at all, and I think it’s weird. But they have. So a lot of people will subsequently ask me if I was influenced comedically by Bill Hicks. I’m so used to that question that I’ve just sort of tuned it out. But for some reason, somebody asked me in Edinburgh, when I was doing press, and I actually had this moment where I stopped to think about it. And the answer is ‘no’. We talk about the same issues, but comedically, we’re very different. In the sense of religion, I’m an atheist and I think that people aren’t living their lives to the fullest. Whereas Hicks believed in god, believed in a higher power and saw all of these extremists destroying the thing that he believed in the most; that’s where his outrage came from. Which I can actually see being angrier in his sense. It’s like when Barrack Obama f*cks over progressives – I’m more mad at Obama than I was at Bush because I’m like, ‘you say you f*cken represent me, but you f*cked over my friends’.

Dom Romeo: And his friends, one would have thought…

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
I know, totally. ‘You grew up as a community organiser and now you’re f*cking over the poor while appeasing Wall Street?’ Awful. But what I realised about Hicks: he didn’t influence me comedically; I had all of his albums when I was 16, I listened to them, but I never sounded like Hicks. Although lots of comedians have this thing where instead of writing prolifically like Hicks, what they’ll do is they’ll just get up and yell at the audience before even trying to joke. They’re like, ‘yeah, I’m like Hicks!’ Really? That’s what he did? He just yelled at audiences? Hicks put a f*ckload of work into the jokes, and then when they didn’t get the jokes, he was so outraged comedically and politically; that’s what would make him snap. These people are forgetting the essential middleman: the joke! You write the jokes first, and try to make the jokes work, and then you yell at the audience.

I probably had that phase when I was 18: you’d bomb, and be like, ‘Hicks bombed; I’m like Hicks’. It’s like, ‘you *ssh*le!That’s what Hicks wanted to do: he just wanted to bomb every night.

I listened to him a lot before I did comedy, and my comedy never sounded like him. But I must have been influenced somehow. And here’s the really neat realisation that I made: when I listen to him now, I don’t even laugh. I kind of nod along. But what my girl friend and I realised when we weren’t laughing was that he didn’t influence me comedically, he influenced me to care about politics. When I wanted to care about politics, I’d listen to the news and think, ‘this is boring’ or ‘this is bullshit’; but then I listened to Hicks, and how he talked about the war and how he talked about religion, and I thought, this makes me care about politics. He didn’t make me wanna do comedy, he made me care about politics. So I can say absolutely, from firsthand experience, that comedy can change you. Because it can phrase things in a way and a language that I understood.

Even a crowd that mostly agrees with you: if I got up and was pretentious or just yelled my beliefs, they would’t give a shit. It’d just be boring. Because as much as those people agreed with me on the war, on torture, on gay rights, maybe ten of them are active, so they don’t have to be preached at, necessarily. I at least hope I taught somebody something. People will talk about ‘coming to Australia and preaching to the choir’. I think Penn Gillette said, ‘sometimes the choir needs preaching to’, and you have to rile them up a bit.

Dom Romeo: But then there’s the aspect of comedy where people only go to relax and unwind and laugh without having to think.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Those people are always disappointed when they see me.

Dom Romeo: But the ‘trick’ that a good comic gets to play, and I say ‘trick’ in inverted commas, is that you do make them relax and entertain them, and you just happen to make them think. It’s almost a sleight-of-hand when you’re a good comic who’s got something to say.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
I got really lucky with that. I think I found out, when I was younger and I was trying to be the angry comic, it never worked. And then I realised it was because I wasn’t being myself. Which is weird. You spend your first 10 years of comedy not being yourself, and then you realise that all you had to do was just be you – you try to manufacture this character, not purposefully, you just assume that this person you happen to be offstage has to be different.

But it’s also a way of learning how to relax enough to capture whatever it is that they have when they’re just being themselves, to present it on stage. Some of the funniest people I know, who happen to be comics, are hilarious on Facebook and Twitter, but haven’t managed to learn how to be that funny person on stage. They don’t know how to make that person that they are, when they’re relaxed and in their element, come out in front of an audience when they’re on stage.

One of my best friends is the best writer, and he makes me laugh harder than anyone, but he just hasn’t figured out how to put it on stage. It’ll happen.

It was weird for me, because I was yelling at the audience, and I realised I don’t yell in real life. I am kind of shy and nerdy. If you can combine your flaws as a person with your passionate thoughts on stage, it’s this really cool juxtaposition, where they see the humility and you as a person and they see that you’re still thinking stuff and still questioning things and still not sure of yourself, and that you have strong convictions, which I also think they admire. If I walked up there all cocky, it wouldn’t work.

And here’s the thing, man: a lot of people disagree with me. They disagree with me on the subjects, not because they’re idiots, but because they’re scared, or because they’ve been given the wrong information. There probably are a lot of people who just want to kill brown people, but a lot of people who supported the war were really scared and they were tricked that they were gonna be nuked or that they were gonna be attacked, or that there’s this Islamic revolution coming, like New York. I understand that. I’m so protective of my girlfriend – not that she needs it – that I can see if you had children, you’d vote out of fear.

On the news, people say torture works. So if people say torture works, and you think, either we torture that guy or my kid might die, I can understand where people are coming from.

Dom Romeo: But torture doesn’t work. Torture makes people say what they think you want to hear, once you’ve broken them.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
And that’s the key. Finding those arguments that appeal to selfishness. That’s what I’ve been trying to do recently. If I find someone who’s pro-torture, there’s no point going, ‘we’re better than that as human beings’. They don’t give a shit. That answer, ‘not only does it not work, but it produces false information that then takes away time for pursuing the actual evidence – so you’re actually putting yourself in more danger pursuing these false leads when you could be spending that time actually find the bad guys or whatever…’ that’s what you have to do. Once you realise we’re all selfish, you have to appeal to a person’s selfishness to convince them the other way. Those are the arguments I’ve started to look for.

Dom Romeo: You’ve finally found the antidote to Murdoch: you have to appeal to a different selfishness than he does, to undo his work.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Yeah. And I think it’s honesty. I think a lot of left-wing people think we’re better than we are, and that’s because they’re not honest with themselves. People are selfish. Lots of people are selfish. And you have to fight being selfish. And it’s not a good thing. You shouldn’t just accept it. But once you realise that, you can realise how to appeal to other people. Maybe.

Dom Romeo: Was there a comedian who influenced you? Because you appear kind of sui generis.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
It was other people’s stories. There are comedians now who I see, who blow me away. Glenn Wool’s bit about going after the bankers. That blew me away. But that doesn’t man I’m going to go write about bankers. I see that and I think he did that perfect. Other comedians who are nothing like me… Daniel Kitson’s made me cry three times during his stand-up set. As an artist, I can watch that an appreciate it.

You don’t want to be inspired by it. That’s probably why I don’t watch as much comedy as I probably should, because then you run the risk of emulating it. I really try to find comedy in other things. I’m inspired by musicians, I’m inspired by artists, I’m inspired by Calvin & Hobbes. I’m inspired by people who listen to our radio show and email us their stories of how they stood up for themselves against a teacher, or a police officer or a military recruiter.

That shit inspires me, and that’s what moulded me and that’s what got me into comedy: just telling stories with my friends. Quoting from The Simpsons. You know, The Simpsons inspired me more than any comedian inspired me.

Dom Romeo: Do you ever want to be able to make a television show? An animation or something that gets the message across through a different medium?

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
Yeah! I would totally do that. I wouldn’t be in someone else’s show or sitcom or commercial or anything like that, but we’re actually working on an animation right now that we’re gonna start pitching to networks when I go home. There are a lot of ways to do it and I think it’s cool to attack from all sorts of mediums… – that sounded militant! – but I’m working on stuff. And there’s the radio show – radio really is an under-appreciated medium and it’s really intimate and great.

Me and Allison started Citizen Radio for fun, and then it blew up and we’ve got this global audience and it’s great. We’ve had Chomsky on three times, and Howard Zinn’s doing it, and we had Garofalo on a bunch. Just really cool people. And what we do, like with Chomsky, we tell him our audience is young and new to politics, so we had Chomsky talk about drugs, and talk about religion, and then that’ll get people into Chomsky and they’ll start reading Chomsky, and next time we had him on, we had him talk about South America and headier topics. And our audience just went with it. That’s something I could not do on the stand-up stage, but I can do it through radio. So now it’s ‘what can I do on television that I can’t do on radio?’ And if it’s nothing, if it’s just for a paycheque, I’m not gonna do it. But if there’s stuff that we can do – an animation that can be really subversive, then we’re gonna do it. If we pitch it to a network and they do what networks do, which is say, ‘we love everything about it, now let’s change it’, then we’re gonna walk away, and stay underground on the radio show.

Unless we get fired from BreakThru, we’re gonna keep it there. We’ve had meetings with CNN, we’ve had meetings elsewhere, but we’re not gonna do it. We’re gonna stay underground. It’s worked, only because of word of mouth. Only because our fans are really cool and will burn CDs for each other and whatnot.

But any medium that lets us stay true to ourselves, we’ll do.

CD cover

Dom Romeo: You’ve got a great CD out called Zombie Jesus. Tell me about the great cover art.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
The artwork is Jesus, holding a flaming brain. It’s a zombie Jesus, but not in a cute way; it’s a decaying corpse. It is so filthy.

Dom Romeo: But it’s classic parody, because it’s based on the Catholic iconography of the ‘Secred Heart of Jesus’, where instead of a flaming heart, it’s a flaming brain.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
It sure is. It’s one of my favourite things ever, and kudos to the people at Stand-Up Records for doing that. I like the cover too, because I didn’t realise how offensive this CD was until I listened to it.
 
I gave it to Germaine Greer, and I realised, there’s the anti-war stuff, and the anti-religion stuff, that she loved, but oh my god, I think I advocate for political assassination and it opens with ‘abortion’ and ‘c*nt’; it’s so f*cken filthy that I don’t think I can get away with giving it to any more intellectuals. I also trash a bunch of comedians on there, so it’s just going to hurt me more in America, so it’s just ridiculous.

Dom Romeo: Intellectuals are allowed to be challenged, too, though. And by stuff they consider is beneath them.

JAMIE KILSTEIN:
That’s actually a f*cken great point! Let’s roll with that. That makes me feel better. That’s a very good call!


A Wool, and he’s funny…

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Q&A with the legendary Glenn Wool, prior to his Comedy Store residency. See him whenever you get the chance, he’s brilliant.



Dom Romeo: By the time I first saw you live – in Edinburgh in 2003 – you had already established a reputation as a great comic, even though I didn’t get to see you in Australia for a few more years. How did you come to comedy?

GLENN WOOL: I was always funny as a human, and I thought, ‘I’ll make some money off of that!’ So you go to open mic nights and they tend to laugh or not laugh. Thankfully, they laughed.

Dom Romeo: Did it take going to the UK to establish yourself, or were you already a known quantity before that?

GLENN WOOL: Not really. I was doing road gigs in Canada and was just sort of learnin’ my chops but it was good to come to the UK with no expectations – I could really blossom over in the UK. I sort of count myself as half English and half Canadian because it was so much of becoming man – it was over here, you know?

Dom Romeo: Why was that? Why didn’t that happen back in Canada? Canada does have the Montreal Comedy Festival, after all. Why did it seem to take Edinburgh to make you?

GLENN WOOL: I didn’t get to the Montreal Festival until three years ago. Canada’s a great place to learn your trade, but you kind of have to leave; it’s hard work, trying to make a living from comedy in Canada. England is definitely the place to be for the International Comedian. It’s just got so many gigs. I mean, I’m standing outside of a gig called ‘Old Rope’ here tonight, and it’s just f*cken wonderful. We had guys who are doin’ theatres and stuff just tryin’ out new material… it’s a really positive scene and everybody really supports each other. Not that they don’t in Canada. It’s that the upside to doing well in the UK is bigger than the upside to doing well in Canada. So I came here. But I’m moving to America soon, anyway, so we’ll see what happens there.

Dom Romeo: Why is that?

GLENN WOOL: I got signed to CAA, which is a big agency, and they said, ‘Come to America, my friend! Give us your poor, huddled masses, and we will make you a STAAAAAAR!’


Glenn_2


Dom Romeo: Since I’ve known you, or known of you as a comic, Glenn, you’ve always looked like a Fabulous Furry Freak Brother to me. You know, the hat, the moustache.

GLENN WOOL: Hahahahahahahaha. I’ll take that!

Dom Romeo: Are you going to California?

GLENN WOOL: Yeah, man.

Dom Romeo: You’re gonna fit right in.

GLENN WOOL: I know! I’m going to try and start a Crosby, Stills & Nash cover band, and play all the roles myself!

Dom Romeo: The person you are on stage doesn’t seem to self-censor. Are there any limits to what you can or will talk about?

GLENN WOOL: No. I don’t think there is any subject matter which is out-of-bounds. If you’re going to talk about a subject matter which has a possibility of offending somebody, you better be saying something about it. I don’t like to be gratuitous, you know? If I talk about something, there’s going to be a joke there and an angle and a point of view. If I can keep all those things together, then no, there are no limits. Don’t get me wrong – on stage, off-the-cuff, I’ve said things that I don’t agree with, that I wish I could have back, but that’s the beauty of the live performance – that you always have the possibility of doing something like that. And in the end, if people really want to get offended, well it’s a comedy gig, and I’ve always said this about offense:

If you can understand the joke, if you can understand why somebody thought it was funny, it means that in your head, you could have thought of that yourself. So really, when you get offended, you’re actually offended by your own brain. Which is never a strong stand-point in an argument.

Dom Romeo: Looking at your material – hilarious, clever – there are times when, if I’m to be honest, it can be reduced to ‘difference between men and women’ or this religion versus that religion. Of course there’s so much more going on – because you’re bringing your experiences and your unique world view into play…

GLENN WOOL: I try to not bring up a situation and then have the joke be, ‘so you could imagine what I would do in that situation…’ unless you actually have a structured joke and punchline. You can put your persona into a joke, but I always like to keep an actual joke there. You have to write a lot if you’re gonna be a stand-up, and a lot of the time it’s one of the lazy traps other comics can fall into. Me myself: I’ve got jokes I can’t stand that get a laugh, so I keep them in. Not that I think they’re offensive – I think they’re beneath me. But the crowd likes them, so f*ck it, you know? You give it to ’em.

Dom Romeo: Is it too much to ask for one example of such a joke that gets a laugh so you keep it, even though it’s beneath you and shouldn’t be in the routine?

GLENN WOOL: Don’t do that to me, man; this ain’t a trial! I don’t want any of my jokes to know which ones I don’t like. They’re sensitive, and they’re like my children. They are my children; I don’t have any children.

Dom Romeo: There’s a moment that comes up, time and again, when hanging out with certain friends, when a quote comes up: ‘I don’t care that the Jews control the milk!’…

GLENN WOOL: Hahahahahahahaha. I know what you do with your friends.

Dom Romeo: You know exactly what I’m talking about.

GLENN WOOL: Yes I do, man, oh yes I do!

It’s funny. It’s jokes like that, that are really fun to tell because people come up afterwards and are just happy that somebody’s talking about that sort of thing and not demonising the person. Yeah, we’ve all got vices; we’ve all got problems. Or maybe it’s not a problem; maybe it’s just something we do, and we can just laugh at it and go, ‘that’s observational about a new sort of thing that people are doing’. They’ve always done stuff like that, you know; it’s like old jokes about booze.

Dom Romeo: Well that’s another example of you taking an old topic and turning it into something spectacular as a routine: the Drunk Glenn/Sober Glenn routine.



GLENN WOOL: Yeah. That is an Australian favourite because I did that on the Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala.

Dom Romeo: Yep!

GLENN WOOL: And I’ve had Aussies all over the world pulling over in their cars and going, [in broad Aussie accent] ‘Is that sober Glenn or drunk Glenn?’

I was back in Vancouver visiting a mate – kind of the guy that, when I started out in comedy, he sort of tutored me. He’s a great dude. It was a really weird experience: I was just walking through the mall with him. I see him every once in a while, but I was saying, ‘I’ve got so much to tell you… so many things have happened. I’ve been all over the world…’ and this dude came out of nowhere – he was working in the shop – an Aussie kid with big dreadlocks. He was like, [Aussie accent again]‘omigawd, you’re Glenn f*ckin’ Wool, I never knew you even came here!’ To me, it looked to my sort of ‘teacher’, ‘you see, Teacher? It seems to be going well.’

You’ve been to Australia a lot. Have you been to Sydney before?

GLENN WOOL: I’ve been there. I’ve never done a show there. I’ve got an old buddy from high school in Canada. He actually now lives in Sydney. I was able to go fishing with him. Did some rock fishing with him. He was like, ‘yeah, yeah, it’s fun’. Then I heard the statistic: [Aussie accent again] ‘you might get pulled out to sea’. I just thought, ‘that looks dangerous, but there’s other people here fishing’. Little did I know…

Dom Romeo: Well – that’s part of the job, isn’t it? Doing something dangerous and then talking about it onstage after surviving?

GLENN WOOL: Yeah. I was just talking to Eddie Byrnes about it last night. We were talking about writing new shows, and we were saying you just wait for bad shit to happen, you know? That’s how you write a new show. Sometimes, instead of going home and watching a movie, you have to stay out and hope that something humorous might take place.

Dom Romeo: When you come to Sydney, are we gonna see the best of what’s been, or are you working up material for next year’s Festival circuit?

GLENN WOOL: You’ll see the best of what’s been, but a lot of it won’t have been on the net or on television because it’s from my Edinburgh show this year, and that has not been performed at all in Australia. I’ll probably throw in a couple of the old classics just because people like to hear them, but it should be a pretty new show.

And that’s the other thing, too: if you want an entirely fresh show, stay off the internet. I get people going, ‘I saw that on the internet!’ I’m like, ‘yeah! For free! So pay this time, you prick!’

Dom Romeo: Last time I saw you in Melbourne you were selling a very good DVD.

GLENN WOOL: Yeah man, I’ve just about sold out the run of that one. I’m about to shoot another one. And I’ve got an album coming out in the States in February. It’s through Stand Up Records. Make sure you print that, they’ll be happy with me that I’ve mentioned it.


Come try and work out which of Glenn Wool’s hilarious jokes might be beneath him at the Comedy Store - until October 10.


An edgy, hilarious, American comedian who ‘gets’ Aussie comedy, and whom
Australia ‘gets’? As Ifft!

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“It frustrates me, sometimes, that nobody really wants the truth. They say they want the truth, but they try to hide from it constantly. Look at the most popular comedians: they usually aren’t the ones that are that edgy.”

Eddie Ifft, a comic hailing from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, late of Los Angeles, California, and frequently calling various parts of the world ‘home’ for significant periods of the year, speaks the truth. Ifft is a comedian who doesn’t like to hold back on stage, and while he doesn’t begrudge any working comic an audience, has been known to react to some comedians’ material much like that annoying emoticon on the banner ad that used to grace MySpace pages: “Just say something!”

Eddie has plenty to say. But it’s not just outrage for outrage’s sake. The shocking statement will convey a message. More importantly, it will be a joke: a remark that isn’t necessarily what he thinks about the subject, but certainly makes you think about it from somewhere other than the popularly held notion, by making you laugh either at his position or the truth he’s revealed to you about your position. But I’m sure this is too high-falutin’ a concept for you to deal with a mere few paragraphs into an interview, so let me give you an example: Eddie’s take on Michael Jackson.

I’m so sick of people going, ‘He was the greatest entertainer of all time’. You’re forgetting about the fact that he was a child molester. And people always go, ‘He was alleged; he was only alleged, he was never convicted’.

OJ Simpson was never convicted, either. He was never convicted of murder. But we’re not gonna be celebrating him at his funeral.

You like Michael Jackson because you like his music, and he didn’t touch your kid. He f*cked kids, and the only reason he didn’t get convicted is because he paid the families 25 million dollars. Twenty-five million, to each family. And I will tell you this: for 25 million dollars, I will drive my entire family and let him have sex with them. I would drive them in a bus, drop them off at Neverland Ranch. I’d be like, “Granny, get off! I’m going to Cambodia and buying a whole new family!”

(c) Eddie Ifft

“I like to get the audience angry, and then turn it around on them and make them laugh and realise they were being jackasses for their opinion or perception,” Eddie explains. This Michael Jackson routine is a prime example. Kiddy-fiddlerage is no laughing matter. Or it shouldn’t be. But if it’s impossible to discuss anywhere other than in sensationalist media reports, broaching the topic under the guise of ‘comedy’ enables issues to be raised and considered – giving the weaker-willed an ‘out’ to dismiss it (it was ‘only a joke’ or ‘a rude joke, not to be repeated in mixed company’ or ‘something that oughtn’t even be joked about’), but those with stronger convictions to acknowledge ‘actually, there’s something in that…’.

Eddie’s happy to report that audiences mostly fall into the latter-most category with this Michael Jackson joke. “People go, ‘You’re right; twenty-five million dollars is enough money to wipe those sins away’. Everybody likes to think, ‘No, no, no, I would fight that to the death; there is not a price you could put on it…’ But then, when a guy has you outside court and he’s going to give you twenty-five million dollars, you’re going, ‘Well, you know, we can put the kid in therapy; he already did f*ck him, so, uh… yeah… let’s take that…’.”

Truth is, it is the comedian’s job to explore this territory. Sure, there are audiences who don’t want to forced to think about this stuff; the ‘I paid to be entertained’ crowd, who are seeking a genuine escape, who are not paying to be reminded what’s wrong in the world. The truly talented comedian let’s you do just that: pay for the escape, lull you into thinking this is the escape, and yet revealing truths about the world – the way that comic sees the world – to you. And because it’s done with humour, you are genuinely entertained, discovering the truth about how the world is. Well, that’s the ideal. It can, and often does, get watered-down a little along the way. And it sometimes has to be: the pure, unadulterated message can be a bit hard to handle for audiences who think comedy is only that funny stuff recorded, edited and packaged for television. But that stuff is only one part of comedy. There’s stuff that happens live on stage that is amazing – that you’d never know about if you never went out to see live comedy. The work of Doug Stanhope, for example, that Eddie finds hilariously inspiring.

“I watch Doug Stanhope and just go, ‘He’s right…! He’s right…! He’s right…!’” Eddie says. “You’re  laughing because you’re going, ‘How f*cked up is the world?’ And ‘Why aren’t more people revelling in this?’ I think what happens is people just shut him off and go,‘I don’t want to listen to it; I know it’s the truth…’ It’s like someone getting a bill in the mail and not opening it. ‘I know there’s a bill  in there but I just don’t want to open it.’”

I’ve suggested there’s more ‘comedic truth’ on the live stage than on the screen, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There are times when comedy is captured well for movies or television, usually in a documentary that mixes performance with a look behind the scenes, like in Paul Provenza’s masterpiece, The Aristocrats. Eddie’s working on a documentary at the moment called America the Punchline, and he quotes from  comedian Lewis Black in it – on striking the balance between delivering a message and making an audience laugh:

“At the end of the day I’m trying to get the laugh,” Black tells Ifft, “and the joke might start out preachy but it doesn’t stay in the set unless it gets a big, big laugh. The important part is, ‘How do I get the point across initially?’”

Chris Rock, who also appears in America the Punchline, says, “I write down what I want to talk about, then I make it funny.” Eddie’s approach is the same:

“I put down all the subjects I want to talk about and then I find what’s funny in them. I was probably talking about Michael Jackson for two weeks, saying, ‘Why are we celebrating him?’ And then I finally found that angle about driving my whole family in the bus to Neverland Ranch and dropping them off, and getting massive, massive laughs. I’d found their ‘hot’ button: once you paint the picture in their head of something so silly, and me being so honest – that I would give up my entire family for money – by then the whole idea becomes funny.”

It’s the idea that’s funny, not the underlying issue – which is an important one. Comedy enables the serious topic to be broached in a way that it can be discussed, and – you’d hope – that leads to  reflection and debate. “People go, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t joke about that stuff’,” Eddie acknowledges. “Yes, you should. You should joke about it. You should talk about it. You should make points about what is right and what is wrong.”

At the moment, Eddie’s working on a routine about a current trend of incarcerating teenagers for having sex. The inspiration is the case, outlined in a recent issue of The Economist, of “a 17-year-old girl who gave a 16-year-old boy a blow job, and went to gaol for it”. Meanwhile, argues Eddie, “you’ve got a guy who is eighty-something years old, who’s got a mansion, and we watch a TV show where he bangs 18-year-olds. That, to me, is a lot creepier than a 17-year-old giving the 16-year-old a blow job. Where are our moral standards there? It’s okay for Hugh Hefner and we celebrate him? Why?”

Another one of the inspirational comics Eddie likes is Louis CK, a “phenomenal” comic who “can say anything and it's funny”. According to Eddie, Louis likes to take “the edgiest route you can go”. He had a routine about how most people mistakenly believe molestation to be the worst thing that can happen to your child. “I have two kids,” Eddie says, paraphrasing Louis, “and if somebody called me to say my child had been killed, that would be the worst thing ever. And the child molesters kill them because they don’t want to get caught. I would much rather get the phone call from the guy going, ‘Hey, ah, listen – I got your kid, I just molested him. I know he’s got football practice, so I’ll drop him off there. You can pick him up.’” As Jim Jeffries, a fellow uncompromising comic, has pointed out, “Louis has this way of taking a subject that if not done correctly, you could walk an entire audience out of the room on a joke”. As for Eddie, he has his own take on the situation: “When you see someone who is so amazing, you walk out and go, ‘I'm a fraud’.”


Who’s your Father!

Of course, Eddie Ifft is authentic, and always has been. His whole life has been about challenging authority with funny ideas. And although he reckons he turned to a life of comedy because he “couldn’t do anything else”, I’m not so sure.

“I was a failure at everything, I really was,” he insists. “I wasn’t good in school; I wasn’t particularly good in sports at a young age. Those two really are your only options. To get attention I turned to making the class laugh and being the class clown.”

Possibly. But there was intent in the boy’s actions. Raised “your typical, hypocritical Catholic”, Eddie clearly had ideas about how to make that funny. Because, as an altar boy, there is a clear path to getting ahead without having to be good at sport or academia – just toeing the religious line. Not Eddie. Dressed in those vestments an altar boy wears, he knew, “if I stood over the fan, my gown would blow up and make everyone laugh in the church”. Sure, the priest got angry and Mama Ifft got angry, but Eddie loved making the congregation laugh.

Despite playing his faith for laughs, Eddie somehow persevered until he was “nearly 30”, going to church every Sunday. “I was always a typical, hypocritical Catholic,” he says. “I’d get up and go to church on Sunday, after having been on stage to tell a story on Saturday about having a threesome with two girls in a tent at a music festival.”

Hmm. A threesome with two girls in a tent at a music festival isn’t necessarily typical of Catholic hypocrisy; in fact, nor is telling a story about it. But, taking the point, you can only assume the priests must have relished their turn hearing Eddie’s confessions, surely? Not so, according to Eddie, who recalls his last attempt at confession, as an 8th Grader:

“There were two priests who would hear confessions: the nice priest and the evil priest. They divided us up, one group to go to one priest, one group to the other. I was on the side to go to the evil priest. His name was Monsignor Kraus. He was a mean f*cker. I was a little bit nervous: ‘Why did I get this side?’

“I went in and I kneeled down on the kneeler to start telling him, and the nun came in and pulled me out and walked me over to the other side, knowing that otherwise, you were never gonna see me again!”

Good on the nun, who possibly saved two souls with that one action. Still, not a lot has changed since Eddie Ifft’s days as an altar boy. The authorities, responsible people, powers that be, might all prefer he didn’t say the stuff he says, to the people he’s saying it to. But Eddie still makes congregations laugh. Indeed, there are parallels between the stuff priests do and the stuff comics do, as Eddie knows. He used to be a volunteer ski patroller, and one of his fellow volunteers was a Catholic priest who confessed to watching “a lot of comedy” in order to come up with ideas for his sermons.

I know! Eddie was dumbstruck, too. But the priest had an explanation:

“If you think about it, comedians have their finger on the pulse of the nation and the pulse of the world. They have to. They have to know what’s relevant. So for me, watching comedy, I get my idea of what my sermon should be and how to relate to the people. But I’ve been watching Def Comedy Jam a lot. Those guys say ‘motherf*cker’ way too much.”


Stand-up Downunder

Eddie Ifft has been coming to Australia at least since 2006, and returning frequently – a couple of times a year. “I love it here,” he says. “I love the people, I love the surfing. I love everything about it. I’ve got an Australian cattle dog back in LA named Noosa.” That’s pretty Aussie. But Eddie can go a step further: he’s been coming here for so long, he’s getting aspects of our humour that you virtually have to be Aussie to truly appreciate. At the recent Sydney Doin’ it for Dave show (an all-star fundraiser for Oz comedy stalwart Dave Grant, one of a handful of local comics who understands the art of comedy intimately and loves passing the knowledge on), Eddie finally understood Carl Barron.

“I found myself laughing hysterically at Carl’s stuff,” Eddie says, fittingly describing it as “an acquired taste” not unlike another great cultural icon Australia holds dear. “You know when you’re young and you drink beer, and you almost don’t like it?” Eddie offers. “You drink beer, and you drink beer, and you drink beer, and then, all of a sudden, it clicks and you’re like, ‘I love this stuff!’ Carl came together for me like that, that night.”

Proof that Eddie is, pretty much, one of us. But that was already obvious: it’s why he keeps coming back. Although people back home don’t quite understand. They reckon he’s “hurting his career in America” by spending so much time downunder. Eddie’s answer? “What? The career you want me to have? How do you know this isn’t the career I want to have?” Eddie likes spending time on both continents. “The truth is, I’d much rather be in Sydney in Australia than in Branson, Missouri,” he explains, and although I can only commend Ifft’s decision from a parochial position – why wouldn’t you prefer Sydney? – he has a far more logical rationale:

“American comics are working hard in all the shit towns in America so that some day they become really successful and have enough money to vacation in Australia. I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Chris Rock just got to come to Australia; I’ve been here ten times!’ So I try to make my life the life I want. I surf and I ski a lot, so I try to get as many gigs as I can in ski resorts and places with good waves.”

Ah, I’m quick – and foolish – to point out, you can get both of those here…

Yeah, well…” Eddie begins. “Let's not talk about your skiing…”

Yeah but – isn’t there a snowfield comedy circuit? Jindabyne, Perisher Blue, Thredbo…

“I’ve done the snow,” Eddie explains. “For an American with the Rocky Mountains, it’s kind of insulting to call that ‘skiing’, just as I would call our waves ‘surfing’ compared to the amazing surf you have here.”

Well, okay – I’ll grant him that. But only because he added the bit about the surf. Which makes me a bit kinder than Eddie’s Aussie ‘snowfield’ audiences. When he kept making fun of “the snow – what they call ‘the mountains’,” the punters were a little proud and got somewhat restless. “I was like, ‘Aw, c’mon, you call this rock with a dusting, a sprinkle of snow, ‘skiing’? You’re kidding yourselves.’ And they’d boo me for it.”


Rules (and Laws and Regulations) of Comedy

Despite the typical negative reaction of an ignorant and prejudiced crowd to a comic admitting he’s American with malice aforethought, it’s quite an interesting position to be in: travelling the world, speaking the truth not just about America but also the parts of the world you’re visiting. That’s essentially what Eddie does – not quite ‘innocent’ abroad, more like ‘guilty, as charged’. Fact is, we love it when he speaks the horrible truth about his culture and country, even more than when he speaks of ours (although there are times when the differences between ‘his’ and ‘ours’ are virtually nonexistent). He’s been doing that for a while now – Eddie’s show for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival a couple of years ago was called Anti-Septic Tank, playing on our rhyming slang, ‘septic tank’ for ‘yank’, and setting the record straight.

“It was all about the perception of Americans around the world and why people feel the way they do and what it’s like to be an American and travelling.” Subsequently, Eddie’s expanded the idea, and has started to turn it into that doco he’s making, America the Punchline (currently in post-production).

Last year’s show was Disorder to Chaos, in which he was drawing on what it is, the broadest sense, that he does: whereas laws attempt to bring order to the world and prevent chaos, Eddie’s job is to question that process. “I go ‘F*ck off! I don’t have to abide by your rules, all I have to do is live and die and pretty much make myself happy’. All my jokes involve me questioning authority and questioning rules and laws and regulations.”

This time round, Eddie’s working up his next festival show to be called either I Shouldn’t Have Said That or Evolution to Revolution. And, as you’d expect, he’s doing what he does so well: questioning authority. “Here we are at this point in history and we haven’t evolved as human beings,” Eddie explains. “We’re still abiding some of the stupidest religions and the stupidest regulations. We fall into these dumb, stupid laws and we haven’t evolved. And the only way to evolve is to revolt. This is the basis of that show that I’m gonna do at the next Melbourne International Comedy Festival.”

Eddie loves the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. We’re lucky we are to have such a wealth of festivals, given also the upcoming World's Funniest Island Comedy Festival and Adelaide Fringe. There are no equivalents in America.

“We have the Aspen Comedy Festival – that’s an elitist thing – and we have the Las Vegas Comedy Festival and that, in a sense, is an elitist thing also because it’s $150 a ticket to most events and there’s no real variety. If you go to New York there are a million comedy clubs, but you're gonna see a lot of the same.” Go to Australia's comedy festivals, though, and what you see is “a lot of variety”. Just as you can love different types of music – and Eddie does – you can also love different kinds of comedy – and Eddie does. “I can enjoy David O’Doherty and then walk across the street and enjoy Jim Jeffries and then go enjoy Tim Minchin or go enjoy Arj Barker...”

And of course, you can enjoy Eddie Ifft. Because when he first came to Australia, he pretty much hit the ground running (perhaps ‘landed on his feet’ is a better metaphor for a stand-up comic), doing material about us, to us, that was insightful and hilarious. Although, there are still gags in development and transition. He tells me about the Crocodile Hunter – how, years ago, Steve Irwin material was ‘hacky’ in America, no matter how good your impression was, or astute your observation.

“I always found it funny that, coming to Australia, people would think everyone in America loves the Crocodile Hunter. So one time somebody asked me on the radio, ‘Are you a big fan of the Crocodile Hunter?’ – kind of like taking the piss out of me. And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I watch the show every day, but for different reasons. I watch it hoping every day will be that day!’”

That’s a brilliant take on the Croc Hunter. Or at least, it was, until that day arrived. “Now, people boo me,” Eddie says. “When I said that before he died, hilarious! Now when I say it, even though I tell them, ‘I said this before he died, not knowing he died’, people shut down on me. To me, it’s a real study of the mentality of people. Even though they know I was just joking and didn’t mean it, the fact that it just happened…”

Again, the role of the comic. Risking your life foolishly and getting away with it makes you a hero, and it’s okay to make fun of heroes ’cos they’re invincible. But once the foolish hero risks his life that last time, only someone as foolhardy as a comedian can take the risk of mocking. Even though the hero’s behaviour didn’t change, nor that of the comic knocking him, for some reason, once he’s gone, the hero attains a status some feel should be beyond the probing light of comedy. It’s true of all the media’s duffers. Remember the reverence afforded Ronald Reagan? Much greater in death than during life. Eddie’s got a theory about that.

“In America, it’s all about ‘branding’,” he explains. Regan “branded himself as the guy who ended the Cold War and made peace”. The theory is, America bankrupted Russia “just by building weapons and building weapons and building weapons – Russia couldn’t keep up and eventually bankrupted their entire country”. But, Eddie points out, look at the current state of the American economy: “America spends 51 cents of every tax dollar on defence. We had a trillion-dollar war because we have to justify all the weapons that we made. Who’s bankrupt now?”

This tendency, to rewrite society’s attitude towards people after they passed away, is what got us to Michael Jackson in the first place, so we’ve essentially come full circle. A good place to end our interview. But just to make sure, I ask that one last ‘housekeeping’ question: is there anything I’ve overlooked, that fans might need to know?

“Um… let’s see… What do fans need to know?” Eddie thinks aloud. “Well, I’m in room four-fifty-… No!”


What fans need to know is that Eddie's at the Comedy Store, Tue September 1st to Saturday September 12th before heading to Adelaide.



“A Funny Thing Keeps Happening In Front Of Me…”

Eddy_left


I had the pleasure chatting to Eddy Brimson early into his two-week run at the Comedy Store, and had put a truncated Q&A up on a page that now just directs traffic. Here’s the story in full.

“My father gave me two bits of advice,” Eddy Brimson informs me. “One: Don’t work for anybody else. And two: If a woman says ‘no’, she means ‘no’. However, if you’re both naked just tell her you’re an orphan and start crying. They’re the only two bits of advice he ever gave me and they’ve both stood me in very good stead over the years. The second one got me laid more times than I ever deserved to get laid.”


Hearing Papa Brimson’s advice in Eddy’s cockney accent – reminiscent of Michael Caine’s “work a fiddle; don’t be greedy” advice in Alfie – is making for an excellent afternoon of conversation, and I’m not in the least bit surprised. I was, somewhat, when I first met Eddy Brimson, having only just seen him live for the first time. Because onstage, bald pate and ‘do what you muppet I’ll cut ya’ cockney geezer accent, coupled with the publicity info that he is a ‘former football hooligan’, you can’t help considering him a bit of a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-type villain. Intelligent and uncompromising, Brimson is a loud, shouty, brash lad on stage. But he’s hilarious, even at his most shocking. Initially, you expect jokes to stand over you and demand laughter with menaces. Instead, laughter flows effortlessly because each story has you seeing the world through his eyes. But he’s less boisterous in real life if you meet him backstage after a performance, his eyes shining as a truly sweet, soft-spoken and sincere bloke shakes your hand with both of his. You can’t help but wonder how he was ever a football hooligan. “People always say the same thing,” Eddy confesses: “‘You’re a totally different person offstage to what you are onstage.’”

The “football stuff” was just “normal, angry young lad” behaviour from a long time ago, he insists. “I was a bit of an idiot, as most people are at that age. I’ve calmed down a lot since then. I’m a lot more soft spoken. I’m quite shy in a lot of ways.” Yeah. So. How was this man ever a football hooligan? Well, Eddy’s been lots of things: graphic designer, publicist for an anti-fox hunting collective, actor, television presenter, major suspect in a terrorism investigation. And with all that under his belt, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s also an author
.

BWLaugh


Soccer to ’em


“I usually get very bored, so I ended up writing seven books – four with my brother, and then three on my own about following England abroad – not about the football, but about the fans, because any sports fan will tell you: it’s not just about the game, it’s about everything that goes on with it.” However, as good as being a sports fan can be – going to brilliant places, being in great situations, having great fun – Eddy still managed to burn himself out and need a change of career. “I’m one of these guys who can’t work for anybody else,” he says, in keeping with his father’s advice.

Growing up watching football from the late ’70s, Eddy was in the thick of it in the late ’70s and early ’80s when being into football in England was very different to what it is now. There was a lot of “trouble”, which he likens to the ‘mods versus rockers’ clashes of the early ’60s youth subcultures: “lads” needing to join gangs, flex muscles and discover manhood. “Young lads like to belong to something so it’s very easy to get drawn into that kind of thing. And when you’re a lad, it’s exciting.” But it got stupid when people started carrying knives. And then there were tragedies at Heysel (39 dead, over 600 injured after Liverpool supporters attacked Juventus supporters) and Hillsborough (96 dead, 766 injured from a human crush as too many fans tried to fit in too small a space).

“Hillsborough wasn’t to do with football violence, as such, but it kind of made people sit up and we felt at the time that something needed to be done, because they didn’t really understand the problem,” Eddy says. “There was a stereotypical image of what a football fan or a football hooligan was like and the reality of it was very different. I had my own business doing graphic design, and my brother, who was also involved in it, was a sergeant in the RAF. People who got involved in it weren’t just idiots.”

Eddy and brother Dougie not only learnt from their experiences of hooliganism, they wrote books about them. Their first effort, Everywhere We Go, “blew the lid on what football is really about in the UK,” outlining just how organised football violence was. They also suggested ways in which the violence could be brought to an end. “Most of the stuff we suggested has been implemented,” Eddy reports. “We had meetings with people high up and said what would have stopped us, and it worked.”

Eddy’s later solo efforts – books like Tear Gas And Ticket Touts and God Save The Team – were tour diaries of his following England abroad. “They’re funny, because following football is funny. That’s why blokes do it: to have a laugh.” Literary success led Eddy to the telly, with the documentary Teargas and Tantrums. “The media have their own agendas before they set out,” he insists, so he took the opportunity of 1998 World Cup final in France to tell the real story. It became a top-selling release and led to other TV-presenting gigs. By this stage, Eddy had also established himself as an actor, having played a Hare Krishna devotee in Alas Smith And Jones and a proper scary villain on EastEnders with sundry appearances in Absolutely Fabulous, The Thin Blue Line, Hale & Pace, The Bill and Silent Witness. Although he scoffs at the term ‘actor’. “I’ve only ever played three things: a thug, a gay guy or a Hare Krishna,” Eddy begins, anticipating my next foolish question: “Not all three at the same time!”

Eddy made a promise to himself early on: “As soon as someone says, ‘you’ve got a bald patch at the back,’ it’s coming off.” And so it did. It was the late ’80s and Eddy was 23 when he started shaving his head, “before Right Said Fred and all that malarky”. At that time, hardly anyone had a shaved head. So when Eddy, a martial arts enthusiast, started getting work as an extra, baldness and fitness set him up for thuggery, fight scenes and subsequent typecasting. But before the roles grew in significance to the point where he’d actually consider calling himself an actor, Eddy got bored with it, and with presenting. And then, he says, “stand-up comedy came around – by mistake.”

BW-Promo-FL


Gotta be joking


“I never in a million years thought I would be a stand-up comedian,” Eddy Brimson insists. “I’m not actually a genuinely funny guy.” I beg to differ, but I’m willing to hear him out. Brimson reckons when he told his mates he was gonna do stand-up, their response was, “Ed, you ain’t funny!” Even when he’d gotten good enough to invite his martial arts dojo to come watch, the response of the dojo master was, “I’ve seen Eddy before and he’s nothing like the person you see in here; he’s actually funny onstage”. Anyone who actually does it will tell you: being a stand-up comic is very different to being the funny guy down at the pub. Eddy Brimson knows this. But he’s not afraid of an audience – as a former musician (bass player with The Morgans, one of the many mid-’90s English indie ‘bands most likely to’) he’d had a lot of stage experience. And Eddy’s dad was a folk-singer who kept company with the likes of Jasper Carrott and Billy Connolly, so Eddy had been able to pick up the finer points of telling a good story and imbuing between-song patter with gags. Still, he insists, he’s not a naturally funny guy. “I’ve got some very, very funny mates. When we’re in the pub, they’re the ones telling the stories. I’m listening.” And yet, a situation arose that get him interested enough to consider it: “Caroline, a friend of mine, had a leaflet she picked up at a local arts centre for a comedy course. One day in the pub, she said, ‘Oh, you think you’re funny!’ and gave it to me as a joke. And I thought, ‘I’ll take that!’ and slipped it into my back pocket, and managed to get onto that course.”

The comedy course, taught by a ‘resting’ stand-up, essentially demonstrated a process and discipline to create humour out of everyday life. “It taught me to sit down and start scripting comedy, to get the most out of the situation – which is why I like to do stories rather than ‘gag, gag, gag’.” Lesson one was “write down ten topics that you find funny, whatever they are – farting, old people, kids – and then just write down why they’re funny.” Lesson two was “now stand up in front of the other ten people in the class and tell them.” That was the turning point: “actually being up there”. That’s how stand-up comedy is essentially different to “being funny with your mates in the pub”: being able to make strangers laugh. “When they’re not your mates, they might not get it”.

At the end of the course, the class performed before an audience of family and friends. “We all did a five-minute slot and it went really well. All of a sudden I’m the new King of Comedy: go out and do some more gigs.” Many who’ve actually done it will tell you – if they’re honest – the first gig is usually successful. You get through on fear and adrenalin. The audience, reminded by the MC that it’s the comic’s ‘first time’, go easy on you. You cane it, and you’re over the moon. Quite possibly, you convince yourself it’s a doddle and you relax before your next gig. Which is when you’re brought back down to earth. That’s certainly how it happened for Eddy. “Second gig, in a little pub in Islington in London, audience of eight people, four of them with their back to you, not caring at all. I totally died in the arse.”

The pretenders give up at this point. Not Eddy. He was adamant that he had to prove to himself that he could make people he didn’t know laugh. And he did. “And then once it gets hold of you, that’s it. You’ve had it.”


(In)famous for 15 minutes

By “You’ve had it,” I assume Eddy means he’s utterly addicted to the ‘high’ of having an audience  laugh at things you’re saying to them. It’s pretty addictive. But no, that’s not the case for Eddy. “This is quite a weird one for me,” he confesses, “because I don’t think I see it in the same way as most people. It’s a fantastic feeling, but for me it’s more a relief feeling that I’ve done what these people have paid to come and see. Don’t get me wrong – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I was driving around this morning, thinking, ‘This is mental: I’m on the other side of the world talking to people and I’m getting paid.’ This is how I earn my living. I still don’t understand how that actually works.”

I reckon it’s from the years of football hooliganism – the ‘rush’ of surging energy of crowds united with a common mindset – that diminishes the buzz of live performance. And perhaps the addictive aspect of performing, for Eddy, is more like the addictive aspect of, say, carnival rides like the rollercoaster: it is truly scary, and what people who ‘enjoy’ those rides actually ‘enjoy’ is the cessation of fear. They are addicted to having survived it. Because Eddy admits to having nerves before every performance: “I pace up and down and, without being too crass about it, go to the toilet quite a bit before a gig. It really scares me!” But he won’t relax during a performance, even if, he says, he knows he’s “got the crowd by the nuts”. Instead, he’s every vigilant because the gig “could go tits-up at any moment”. It’s only after he’s come off stage that he can heave a sigh of relief, relax, and have a drink.

However, no matter how nervous beforehand, no matter how horrible the gig during, Eddy Brimson will deliver. He proved this not just to himself by enduring the most horrible gig he’s ever had, at the most significant point of his career. It was in front of 360 people at a big club in England. The MC had just announced him. He came on stage. “I hadn’t even got to the mic and someone shouted out, ‘You’re gonna be shit!’” Somehow, the entire audience like the sound of this and managed to reach consensus in next to no time at all joining in with the chant. “I hadn’t even started,” Eddy says, “and I had to stay up there for 15 minutes cos I thought, ‘I can’t walk off; I’ll never get a gig with that promoter’.” After he’d finished his set, Eddy walked straight out the door.

The gig was for one of the Jongleurs venues – Jongleurs being a chain of comedy clubs that still thrives in Britain. At the time, they were also a management company. So of course there were Very Important People in the audience. And Eddy wanted to impress them. Instead he clung tenaciously while an audience hated him for a quarter of an hour that seemed to last an eternity. “That’s a big kick in the nuts for the career before it’s even started,” Eddy says. “I thought, ‘I’m never gonna work for them again, ever’.” Two weeks later, they called him into a meeting and said, “we’ve seen you; we know you’ve got potential and jokes, but if you can stay up for 15 minutes in front of that, then you’ve got the balls to go with it. We’d like to manage you.”

“That was it,” Eddy smiles. “Career take-off.”

BWHead 1


Shock of the nude


The Jongleurs gig might have been the most horrible, but it wasn’t the scariest gig Eddy’s ever faced. Surprisingly – given the man’s pre-performance nerves – Eddy’s most challenging gig, instigated by a group from Boston at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was a performance undertaken “stark bollock naked,” according to Brimson. Eddy was in Edinburgh doing his own show, but this mob were inviting different performers to take part in their showcase-type revue. “They were struggling to get people to do it, for obvious reasons.” That Eddy was willing to bare all before a Guilded Balloon audience of 260 people “surprised an awful lot of people”, but his thinking was, “if I can do this, I can do anything”.

So how did it turn out? “None of them were naked,” Eddy says, a little disappointed to discover the female performers not only wore clown wigs, they also hid their nipples behind boas (perhaps this prevented him from being able to cry and declare himself an orphan?) What was more likely to reduce him to tears was the realisation that he’d be the only performer actually 100 percent totally nude. Still, he got through his ten-minute set, somehow, even if it remains “the most surreal experience I ever had in my life.” Not least of all because the 260-seater venue contained an audience of merely six. With only a couple of them laughing

“One bloke was quite obviously a pervert,” Eddie recalls. “This old boy, must have been about 65 years old, cravat and smoking jacket, with his legs crossed, sitting all on his own at the front. The first thing I said to him was, ‘Mate, there is no one within eight rows of you. Did you know people were going to be naked?’ He looked right back at me and said, ‘Oh yes!’ A proper perve! He’d just come to have a look. Fair play to him!”

Not everyone was as keen as the 65-year-old perv in the smoking jacket and cravat, though. Eddy’s wife, back in London, for example, did not take the news well. “When she realised I was serious, she really was not happy. But she was so far away that there was nothing she could do about it.” Apart from his missus, Eddy only told the people he was sharing a house with that he was taking the gig. Other people were disappointed when they found out, saying, “Why didn’t you tell us you were doing it? We would have come! We thought nobody was going to do that gig, otherwise we would have been there.” Eddy’s response? “That’s exactly why I didn’t bloody tell you! I didn’t want you lot coming around, seeing what I ain’t got!” But he’s glad he did it. “It’s one of those things. It’s a life experience, isn’t it!”

Despite the experience, and the 15 minutes of Jongleurs hell, there are, surprisingly, still aspects of performance that faze Eddy Brimson. He’s not so keen on getting heckled, for example. It doesn’t happen often, though – probably given Eddy’s physique, demeanour, subject matter and manner. But when it does get rowdy, he’s got an amazingly effective though very unorthodox ‘comeback’: “I usually go, ‘Shhhh – let’s all be quiet, then we can listen and get on with it’.” It works very well, Brimson insists: “It’s the best heckle put-down I’ve ever heard because all of a sudden everyone goes, ‘Oh, okay, what have you got to say, mate?’”

The reason it works, the reason Eddy doesn’t get heckled, is because Eddy is in control, and he lets the audience know that. That don’t necessarily consciously realise this – but the fact that potential discomfort is dispelled leaves them able to continue enjoying the show rather than interrupting it or ignoring it. Here’s an example: the first night I see Eddy Brimson, he opens with a simple statement. “I’m a rude comic,” he says. “We’re all adults, you don’t mind a bit of rude stuff.” This is to prepare a cold or unfamiliar audience for a hard-hitting joke that may well be a little hard to take early on. “Then if they go, ‘oooh!’ the get-out is very simple: ‘You said you didn’t mind rude stuff!’ And everyone will laugh, because it takes the blame off me. All of a sudden, the doors open and you’re in. It sets the tone and at the same time says, ‘this is a comedy club; these are jokes; let’s not take it too seriously. But you’ve let me in, so here we go.’ You’re away because everyone’s comfortable.”

Given all of that, how can anything ever go wrong on stage? This is comedy. There’s always something. “You know what it’s like,” Eddy concurs. “Every comic will tell you this: you can make 260 people laugh, but if there’s one sour-faced bastard sitting in the corner you’ll come off stage and say, ‘Did you see that geezer who wasn’t laughing…?’ Forget about the other 259. ‘Did you see that geezer…? Cheeky sod!’ And that’s the one you walk away thinking about. Forget the rest. We must all be depressives; there must be something wrong with us to do this.”


Just kidding?

There wasn’t anything wrong the night I saw Brimson. And if there was one geezer not laughing in the Comedy Store that night, I didn’t spot him. Eddy took the stage confidently, asked us if we could handle his rudeness, did the gag, shocked us, pointed out that he’d warned us, made us laugh, won us over and took us on that journey, sharing his disdain for kids and the way they ruin parents’ lives, regretting you can no longer punch them – yours or someone else’s. A later routine had him jumping out of the bushes in a gimp mask in order to scare kids – his re-enactment involving him striking a pose somewhere between Steven Berkoff’s impersonation of a skinhead and Berkoff’s impersonation of a skinhead’s Rottweiler. Later still, he confessed his own shock, surprise and disappointment about having to come to terms with aging because – although you won’t believe it to look at him – he reckons he’s now 45 years old and feeling every year of it.

They’re great jokes. Hilarious. The funny thing is, there is so much truth to them. Hard to believe, but Eddy really is 45. The story of him leaping out of the bushes in a gimp mask to frighten the kids, is also true. What he exaggerates, to a degree, is how much he dislikes kids. He doesn’t hate them. He just doesn’t want any.

“I’m genuinely happily married. I’ve been married for 13 years now and my wife and I have always been in a position that we’ve never wanted kids. But I get on really well with kids: I come from a big family and all that. It’s just a decision we’ve taken, and we get a lot of pressure about it, because we’re happy together and well set-up.”

The routine about hating kids came as a reaction to comics who have kids and end up doing material about it. “I thought, ‘no, hang on, let’s have a go at this from the other angle’,” Eddy explains of his material about not having kids. “The weird thing is the amount of parents that get it. It’s not an anti-kid thing, it’s an anti-parenthood thing. So many parents come up to me at the end of gigs and say, ‘that stuff’s spot-on; you must have kids to know that stuff’, and it’s like, ‘no, I just observe how bad your life can be at times’. That’s where that all comes from.”

Kids “wind up” Eddy “something rotten” – but it’s mostly down to “bad parenting”, he reckons. “I see so much of it around. It’s there in front of you and it’s what a lot of people are thinking. Even parents think about it. Of course you can’t punch kids, but even parents get annoyed at other people’s kids.” Eddy liken kids to farts – “your own ones are great” – but he actually gets on fine with them. “People think if you haven’t got kids you can’t have a relationship with children When my goddaughter tells me she loves me, my heart strings go. But ten minutes later, if she starts playing up with her mum, I can just go, ‘You know what, Anita? I’m gonna shoot down to the pub, have a beer and leave you to it!’”

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Telling it how he sees it


Of course Eddy has an entire show about “the joys of not having children”. It’s called Kids! I Couldn’t Eat A Whole One and he hopes to tour it in Australia next year. But there's more: Kids!… was a recent London show. Back in 2005 his debut Edinburgh Fringe show was called Up the Anti, and would also like to bring that show to Australia.

“It’s about a true thing that happened to me – I was raided by the police at home once, because I was very politically active. It’s about MI-5, being under surveillance for over a year, and all the stuff that went on behind that. I was actually arrested on suspicion of terrorism. That was the charge. Obviously, I didn’t do it…”

I have a theory as to why Eddy Brimson was under suspicion: with bushier eyebrows, he’d be a dead ringer for ‘The Hood’ – the bald villain that features in so many episodes of The Thunderbirds.

“Could be,” Eddy says. “I’m certainly not an Osama Bin Laden look-alike.”

While the’re the two shows he’d most like to tour, it still is only the tip of iceberg, according to Eddy, who has “a lot more stories to tell”. That, he says, is why he’s a storytelling comic rather than I think that’s why I’m a storyteller rather than “a gag-merchant”: because “a lot of stuff happened”. Clearly, Eddy always has been a teller of funny stories – from his books about his life as a football hooligan, to the stand-up comedy about his life. As far as he’s concerned, his material is forever revealing itself to him. “It’s all happening in front of you. If you open your eyes, all of a sudden you see it.”

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