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.
“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.”