Big bright Green pleasure machine
Friday, June 05, 2009
I first saw Jeff Green at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2000, and though I remember laughing a lot, I also remember coming out of the gig able to remember very little of what I laughed at. Apart from that he was a kind of foppish, good-looking guy in a suit and tie, with a nice accent (heâs from Chester), a pleasant manner and â it subsequently turned out â more often than not a room full of swooning female fans, I knew very little. I still felt that way after I interviewed him not long after.
I didnât realise Jeff had been coming to Australia since the mid-90s. Or that he specialised in relationship material, although this particular factoid did become apparent over time. Jeff has a gentler manner â heâs not a shouty, sweary kind of comic â which means, when he keeps it in character, he can actually get away with some pretty outrageous stuff amongst his material, but it never actually offends. The result of this is that heâs perceived â incorrectly, much as Adam Hills is â as somehow less funny. Not an opinion held by the multitude of fans that constitute these comediansâs respective audiences, mind; in fact, usually an opinion held by someone who doesnât see much live comedy. See Jeff live. Among all the laughter you hear, you will often discern that loud laughter of shocked disbelief. What you never hear is silence.
Whereas Green always plays to big, full rooms in Melbourne, I caught him midweek at Sydneyâs Comedy Store. Heâd just completed a leg of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow â taking the funny across Australia â and had pretty much sold out his week at the Store apart from the night I went. It was still a corker of a show. Surprisingly, there were some punters who didnât quite know who he was when they arrived. They left talking about him, better able to quote his stuff than I was when I first saw him.
I was pleased that Jeff was happy to hang around for a chat after the gig â and he didnât seem to mind my comedy nerd questions.
Dom Romeo: I find youâre a gentler observational comic. You donât scare an audience, you donât threaten an audience, you almost make them laugh surreptitiously. Weâre never made to feel âon edgeâ as we may with other comics. You have a very âgentleâ manner about you. How did that style develop?
JEFF GREEN: It didnât develop in any kind of conceived, concocted way; itâs just part of who I am. Iâve tried to be edgy, and Iâve tried to be angry, and Iâve tried to be shouty, but audiences just donât like it from me. They prefer it when itâs more âin receivershipâ; when Iâm the butt of the joke, rather than making fun of other people or attacking other people. So it sort evolved through audience editing and realising thatâs who I am, thatâs how our relationship is, and so thatâs how I better write the joke otherwise theyâre not interested.
Dom Romeo: You say that, but itâs interesting: if you have some rowdy hecklers you can still shut them down, still being that persona that isnât the shouty guy. Youâre in total control all the time. Even though you say itâs the audiences that helped edit and direct where you go, youâre still clearly in full control at all times.
JEFF GREEN: Well, you âve got to be. The audience donât want to run the ship. Theyâre like children insomuch as if you donât know where youâre going, they get a bit anxious. So youâve got to be in control. Thatâs what theyâve paid for.
I donât get many hecklers, but when you do, youâve got to pretty much tread on them. And thereâs a difference between âhecklingâ and âbanterâ. Heckling, when itâs aggressive and negative and unpleasant, you tread on that straight away. But if theyâre responding and feeding off what you said â like tonight, I had a woman talking back to me about how these particular shorts were cut in such a way that they exposed a manâs scrotum, when he was working on construction, and it was off something I said about going to the gym â thatâs actually fun. But when itâs âget off, youâre shitâ, thereâs no place for that. Not in comedy.
Thereâs no place for that in life, actually. You wouldnât speak to a plumber like that who had come to fix your drains. You wouldnât speak to anybody. Why are you entitled to speak to anyone like that?
Dom Romeo: What I get from you as a performer is that youâre a gentleman. The first time I saw you, you were in a suit, you spoke to us politely. You were still hilarious, but you came across as one of the âgentlemen of comedyâ, was my feeling.
JEFF GREEN: Well, I got into it because I wanted to make people laugh. I didnât get into it as an ego thing. I did get into it to get laid, obviously; everybody does. But it was never really about dominating people, and I was never bullied, so I wasnât working off any of my own insecurities. Everybodyâs creative in some way: crocheting, cooking, building model aircraft, reading books, collecting records, and mine was writing jokes and writing routines. And I love routines. That was why I wanted to get on stage and explore stand-up comedy, which is why Iâve been doing it for 20 years without taking a break.
As for âbeing gentleâ â audiences paid a lot of money so Iâm not really there to shout at them and tell them off. And it makes me cringe when I see comedians do it so Iâm not really gonna do that myself. Whether thatâs held me back or not, I donât know. People have said, âJeffâs funny but heâs never gonna be a barnstormerâ. Maybe thatâs why Iâm at the level Iâm at. But I really think people are at the level they want to be. After 20 years, this is who I am.
Dom Romeo: But thatâs deceptive because even though youâre gentle, you can still shock â and you do: the routine about watching your child being born has some elements that make an audience go, âhang on, thatâs funny, but, itâs also a bitâ¦â disconcerting, I guess. There are elements of discomfort and outrage â shock, perhaps, that those words are coming out of your mouth. But the bottom line is, it is funny.
JEFF GREEN: And itâs only there to be funny. Itâs only there because I find it has a genuine quality, something that I want to say to an audience night after night. So yeah, I shock the audience. But I donât like the audience âtuttingâ at me. I donât like the audience going âoooooh!â Because thatâs not really the furrow I want to plough. But I love banging out strong punchlines: I love talking about children with big ears; I love talking about people tapping things out with their nose on a special keyboard. Itâs gritty and it gets big laughs and thatâs the kind of comedy you always want.
Dom Romeo: Well, what Iâm saying is, there is an edge to it. Itâs not always apparent on the surface, but if you listen to the material there is an edge to it. Itâs almost deceptive because of the manner in which you present yourself, but those edges are there. Theyâre not all bubble-wrapped!
JEFF GREEN: No, no. Itâs not squeaky clean. Iâm filthy! I wasnât even particularly filthy tonight â okay I was a little â but I can get really, really filthy. But people go, âoh no, but youâre not really, because itâs not what you do.â Mike Willmott is a very good friend of mine, and heâs wonderful, but he says, âreally, youâre not filthyâ, and I go, âyeah I amâ and says, âno youâre not; I am. Iâm really filthyâ. And I go, âYeah, you are! But I am, too.â But anyway, thatâs how my mind works. I canât do a squeaky clean, clever set. Itâs not who I am.
Dom Romeo: You mention in your routine, the kind of child who is a âblinkerâ â you toss a ball at him, and as it hurtles towards him, he stares at it blinking, hoping itâll disappear. Were you âthe blinkerâ as a kid?
JEFF GREEN: I was one up from âthe blinkerâ. That was my level of sporting prowess: I wasnât so rubbish that I was sent off to craft, but I was the kid that wasnât much better. I was third last to be picked; then thereâs the kid in the wheelchair after me; and then there was the blind kid after him.
Dom Romeo: Thatâs why youâre the comic; the kid in the wheelchair and the blind kid arenât necessarily the comics.
JEFF GREEN: No. I love sports, but Iâm just not very good at it. My sonâs three and he canât catch a ball. I go, âoh, heâs like his dad!â Iâm left-handed, but I must have been one of those left-handed people who was crap at sports as well, instead of being majestic. Is that one of your favourite bits?
Dom Romeo: Yes, for a couple of reasons â your impersation of the blinker is hilarious; and I really identify with the the routine.
JEFF GREEN: Were you the blinker?
Dom Romeo: No, but I was one of the ones picked last, and I was always made the scorekeeper as well.
JEFF GREEN: Some things I talk about only in Australia because youâve got a sporting culture. I donât necessarily try and write jokes about Australia, but I do try to think about what might float your boat. Itâs got to float my boat, too, but itâs about where youâre at as a culture.
Dom Romeo: Youâre good at telling us about ourselves. Do you go back to England and tell them about us too, in your material?
JEFF GREEN: I do. I take the piss out of Australia and I take the piss out of England but I make sure that I do those jokes in England and I make sure I do them in Australia because itâs important to me not to be doing it behind anybodyâs back. So I go, âCould I do this joke in Melbourne? Yes. So then Iâm entitled to do it in London.â I had a joke about Australians â I might have done it this year, or maybe I did it last year â it went, âEveryone says, when Australians come to England, they always get a job behind a bar; I go, âyeah, they were behind bars when they left the country; they come back, theyâre behind bars againâ.â It gets a bit of a laugh in London, as you can imagine. But then I went, âright, Iâve got to do it in Melbourne,â because I always do the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Youâve got to find a way of doing it, and if you canât do it, then youâre not allowed to do it behind their back. It worked; it got a âbooâ, and I took the boo, but it was important to me that it work in Australia if Iâm to do it in England.
Dom Romeo: Iâve just remembered a bit of routine I saw you do back in 2000, that Iâm sure I heard someone refer to recently â about madmen and hands-free mobile phonesâ¦?
JEFF GREEN: Itâs on my DVD, Back from the Bewilderness: âI hate those hands-free mobile phone kits because they make the real nutters so hard to spotâ. Those jokes occur to you seeing someone walking down the street talking and going, âhe looks a bit oddâ and you realise, âif I think heâs a bit odd, everyone else in that room is going to think heâs a bit oddâ, and then I just float it out on stage and they go, âweâve all spotted it and youâve just articulated itâ. And thatâs really what observational comedy is about: itâs about not filtering out stuff; itâs about observing everything and not taking anything for granted that you see out on the street, or that you feel. And itâs quite difficult because very often we operate and we tend to let things happen in the background. Whereas itâs my job to raise the background noise to âloud enoughâ and then take it out on stage.
Dom Romeo: Youâve married an Aussie, and you talk about the wedding and family in the materialâ¦
JEFF GREEN: Did I talk a lot about that tonight? There was a big, long bit about kidsâ¦
Dom Romeo: Weâll get to that. There was stuff you did tonight that I didnât see in Melbourne â newer stuff, I felt, about kids.
JEFF GREEN: Or old stuff that you hadnât seen before!
Dom Romeo: The party stuff, I thought was new.
JEFF GREEN: The party stuff wasâ¦ not new.
Dom Romeo: I shouldnât be so naÃ¯ve! Anyway â the point I wanted to make is that youâve always done relationship material as part of what you do, and the fact that youâve married an Aussie brings it closer to home for us. I think weâre more aware of it because of that. Was it important, because that was a big life event for you, or was it just a matter of you being a comedian and finding the funny side of it as a part of every-day life?
JEFF GREEN: The latter. Youâre always looking for stuff, and you donât know where youâre best jokes are coming from. You think itâs gonna come from your wedding because itâs a big, important event, but sometimes the best jokes come out of seemingly small observations. Iâve had comedians crack me up talking about their cutlery drawer. Just because theyâre big topics, doesnât mean itâs gonna be the funniest material that you come up with. But part and parcel of the stuff that Iâve done over the years, which is autobiographical, is relationship stuff â and so the wedding was always going to get mentioned. And now Iâve done it, and so Iâll have to go and think of something else to talk about it.
Dom Romeo: Okay. So the party stuff, that I thought was new that you tell me is oldâ¦
JEFF GREEN: Itâs not that old! I mean, I know comedians that are doing their jokes from 15 years ago. I donât know how they do it â Iâd be going out of my mind! My oldest kid is only three, so that material might be about 13 months old, but to me itâs old.
Dom Romeo: Could you have written that material before you had kids?
JEFF GREEN: No. But I donât want to tell you any more about my material; I donât want to show you where the rabbits are hidden.
Dom Romeo: Nor should you! People should just come and laugh.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah. I love the craft of comedy. Iâd be happy to talk about how I write and how routines come about and how theyâre honed and how an audience plays a part in taking a routine from an idea to a finished bit, but maybe thatâs for a different time. I donât want you to come to the show and know how it all came about. But equally, I understand why you would be curious about that. And one day, Iâd love to tell it. Iâm not a great writer. I work hard. A lot of itâs perspiration. I donât find it easy, writing stand-up; I find it very difficult. And I write in binges: I donât write every day â Iâll write for six months. I wish I could write every day. But Iâll write for a point â like if Iâve got a new show to do. But Iâll bring stuff back, the same as other comics. I see Rich Hall or Mike Wilmott or Billy Connolly and they bring stuff back. You know, itâs like, âI saw that ten years agoâ¦ maybe he doesnât think I saw him ten years ago.â Iâm sure thereâs people like yourself, going, âI saw that bit he did this year from ten years agoâ¦â but thatâs just us trying to keep it fresh. And we run out of ideas sometimes.
Dom Romeo: Also, the context changes. That joke that I brought up earlier that I saw ten years ago was in a different context and it fit just as well in this show and probably had more meaning because of where it came in this show this year.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah. Part of my problem as a stand-up who was writing a lot about relationships is that when I started doing relationship jokes, there was nobody doing them. It was just me. It was good â I had it all to myself. And now, unfortunately, if Iâm on a bill, the compere talks about marriage and âhow long have you been going out?â and girlfriends and Iâm like, âthis is all the stuff I was going to doâ¦â Now Iâm boxed into a corner: I have to talk about other stuff because thereâs very little left when I go on stage and I have to make my jokes better than everybody elseâs when I go onstage. I canât be lame. They do keep me on my toes. But I do love talking about women; always have, and probably always will.
Dom Romeo: Iâve observed that women love to hear you talking about them, too.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah, and I donât think itâs because of what Iâm saying â they probably feed off my fascination. I donât find it hard to get into that mindset because I do find them incredibly interesting to understand. Iâve got four sisters and my mother, who brought me up, so I was brought up pretty much in an all-female household. And Iâve also had three fathers through my mumâs marriages, but I was brought up for long periods just by my mum on my own, and my sisters, so Iâm a bit wary of men. I always have been a bit wary of blokes. I find them a bit scary.
Iâve got two sons, which is a big head-fuck â I thought I would have been better off with daughters, but theyâre actually forcing me to be a man in a way that I never had to. So Iâve never been a fan of big groups of blokes. I just donât like them. So I always find talking about women more of a comfort for me than talking about men but Iâm coming out of it now. I talk about going to the gym, I talk aboutâ¦ thereâs a lot more âmanâ stuff â being a man. Itâs a bit less feminine, my show now, possibly. And thatâs part of having boys in my life, as opposed to all girls.
Dom Romeo: Yes, early on when Iâd see you, there would be more women in the audience than men. You are a good-looking man. You look very dashing in a suit.
JEFF GREEN: The suitâs gone!
Dom Romeo: The suit has gone, but I do remember you as the best dressed comic for a long time.
JEFF GREEN: Yeah, and then you have to evolve. You do have to evolve. I donât know why, but I just thought, I want to wear something different now, that feels more âmeâ, as people change. Billy Connollyâs not wearing the big banana boots anymore â you just donât need it anymore. Itâs not part of the crutch.
Dom Romeo: You speak very knowingly about your experiences in Australia. Thereâs stuff that Iâve learnt about this country from seeing you live. Is that part of the comicâs job? Is it almost part of your âdutyâ to âreport backâ?
JEFF GREEN: No, I donât feel an obligation to be a âtravelogueâ. Itâs your country; Iâm seeing it through very fresh eyes. I feel itâs something that Iâve got to address. I canât just do the act that Iâd do in England. Iâm an Englishman in Australia and Iâve got an obligation to talk about what Iâm doing here, and what Iâm seeing. And people want to hear about themselves. If you live in Lismore, you want to hear about that bloody shop down the street selling crap thingsâ¦ Iâm in Australia so Iâm going to acknowledge where I am and get as many jokes in as I possibly can.
Dom Romeo: Not to give any jokes away, your analysis of how Sydney is, is pretty accurate. When you make some comments about observing Sydney, they are valid observations. Theyâre also very funny â thatâs the bottom line.
JEFF GREEN: I didnât even do any Sydney jokes, did I?
Dom Romeo: You did! And Iâm not going to repeat them because people should come and see you do them and laugh, without having already heard the punchline.
JEFF GREEN: Oh, yes! All right. Thank you.
Dom Romeo: Jeff Green, thank you very much.
JEFF GREEN: Thank you.