“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.”
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.