I’ve started our conversation rather bluntly, at what I consider to be the beginning: my first awareness of the stand-up comic Matt Okine.
It wasn’t after I’d first seen him on stage. It wasn’t after I’d first seen him on television. It was a couple of years before that.
I’d first heard of Matt when another comic who had cut his teeth on the Brisbane circuit told me about two Brisbane comics – Matt being one of them – who’d made an ad for McDonald’s. The Macca’s ad, as far as comedy peers were concerned, was a bad move.
“A lot of people thought that,” Matt laughs, admitting that the thought also crossed his mind. “As a comic, you’re always going to come across situations where you have to question whether doing something is going to be good for your career or not. It all comes down to what you genuinely think of whomever you’re advertising for, I guess.”
Matt’s got no problem being affiliated with Macca’s. Why would he? They were literally his very first employer as a teenager. “After I did that ad, I landed a small part on a TV show which I since got to work on the next season of; I got a small part in an American TV show that they were doing on the Gold Coast at the time; I’ve done multiple spots on TV as a comic; I’m working right now as an actor; I’m making my own stuff… I don’t think it was a bad move.”
And of course, Matt’s worked for them again. More recently, he was in the rather cute ‘Macca’s Chef’ created as a 9-part web series created and broadcast during MasterChef. They featured Melbourne comic Michael Chamberlin alongside Matt Okine.
“Comics in general don’t like anyone doing anything that’s not ‘pure’ and ‘for the art, man’,” Matt explains. “If you do anything for a commercial company, you’re ‘selling out’. But as far as I’m concerned, I was a 20-year-old guy who had nothing to sell in the first place.”
Indeed. And because Matt’s an actor and a comic, it was the perfect move to finance his comedy, and to land more acting work. It meant he didn’t have to actually keep working in a Macca’s, or undertake any other kind of Joe Job to get by. (And who can take, or even define, the moral high ground on this one? How many comics do you know will opt for late night fast food after a gig or during a festival run?)
In fact, McDonald’s has enabled Matt to do is work on a new web series with a “reasonable budget” that enables him to spend time writing with two other co-creators. “There’d be no chance that I could put something together that is mine, that has my own voice and has everything I wanted to do, without doing ads. Not just for McDonald’s, but for anyone.”
The other point, of course, is that Matt’s been able to take the mickey out of Macca’s in the process. The Macca’s Chef ads were “pretty daring”. It’s impressive, he reckons, that a corporation like McDonald’s can take a different and funny approach to what it does.
Yeah, I know; I watched Gruen Transfer too. I saw Wil Anderson, Todd Sampson, Russel Howcroft et al deconstruct that behind-the-scenes ‘trust us’ pizza ad (the ‘cheese pull’ ad); multinational corporations are producing the statistically necessary and sufficient degree of self-deprecation required to win trust and keep making money. But if, in the process, they employ comedians to do what they’re good at – be funny – and thus enable them after hours to do what they’re good at – be funny – that’s clearly far better than if they didn’t employ comedians at all.
“If more companies were willing to make content like that, it’d be a lot better,” Matt concurs. “I – and a lot of other comics, I’m sure – wouldn’t mind… working…” Irrespective, Matt also acknowledges that, chances are, “no matter what I do, there will be some comic out there who just does not like my sort of thing, or wants to have a whinge about it.”
Acting like a comedian
Matt got the comedy bug young and tried to convince a buddy whom he thought was very funny to enter the Raw Comedy competition with him, straight out of school. Unfortunately, by the time they got around to it, they’d missed the entry deadline. So Matt went about his business attending drama school. He chose the Queensland University of Technology’s course since they offered an intensive four-week comedy workshop in the second year. Before that workshop came, Matt made sure he’d registered for that year’s Raw Comedy competition. “I wanted to get a heads-up before I did the workshop, and I’d always wanted to do comedy anyway.”
Matt did extremely well. His first ever comedy performance was his Raw Comedy heat. Which he won. His second performance was his Raw Comedy semifinal. Which he also won. And although he came second in the state final – which was only his third gig – he was selected for the national final, “which,” he says, “I subsequently f*cked up”. I know it sounds harsh; it was only his fourth ever gig, and customary though it is to do okay at your first, getting by on adrenalin and fear, and then crash and burn thereafter, it is a pity that he had to crash and burn in front of his biggest live audience while being filmed for television.
“It was an amazing experience and everything like that, but it still goes down as one of my worst gigs,” he recalls.
I can’t help wondering if there was a bit too much ‘riding’ on the gig; beyond the fact that it was the national final, Matt did mention he was selected for the national final despite not winning his state final. Indeed, the state winner didn’t make the national final.
“I still don’t know why exactly,” Matt says. “I can only assume why, but I can never state why.”
I think I can guess why. Or at least, guess what Matt’s thinking, but not wanting to say. And I’m having a bit of a problem saying it, too. Perhaps he fears there was some affirmative action at work – that he got through so he could be the ‘member of a racial minority’ on the bill. “Totally,” Matt says. “I’m sure that helped…”
Yeah, being different from most people, but as talented as the other person who’s the same as almost everyone, does make you stand out. And if you think about it, guys who are totally the same, competing with others for a prize, stand less chance than guys who are very different, because they don’t stand out as much. Perhaps Matt got through to the final because he is black. (There. I said it.) But I doubt it. He more l likely got through because he was good. And not comedically ‘samey’.
Promoters the world over will program a comedy night to make it appeal to the most people and there’s any number of reasons they’ll select some specific comics over others. Usually it is so the audience doesn’t have to sit through two comics doing the same shtick. You don’t want to see two musical folk singing comics on the same bill, or two impressionists, or two anythings (unless it’s a festival specifically celebrating folk singing comics or impressionists or the anything subgenre of comedy, in which case, take a bunch of the best and hope they stand out from each other for some other reason) because the second one’s rarely even close to seeming as funny as the first, even if the second is as good as the first. Unless, of course, the second one is better than the first. In which case, ditch the the first, go with the second.
But if you do perceive yourself as a member of some subgenre, and you are put on a bill, there’s more to be said of making the most of it, of taking the stage time and making it matter, rather than wondering why. Far better you just ensure you have your shit together enough to make the most of such a situation, should you ever be part of it. Because all stage time is good stage time. Particularly when you’ve won each round of a talent contest because you’re good. Maybe Matt didn’t win the state final because he had an off night, or didn’t bring as much of an audience, or any other number of reasons that would have been taken into account before putting him into the national final. It doesn’t matter anymore.
And anyway, it’s not like affirmative action – if that’s what it was (and I don’t believe it was) – can’t work against the minority, either. Matt knows this from his acting experience. “Instead of being one in 2000, I’m one in 20,” he explains, which is good. But, he adds, “the amount of roles that come up for those 20 is about 80 to 90 percent less.”
And what of those roles that do come up? I can’t help thinking of Margaret Cho, the American comic of Korean descent who, before she made it as an internationally successful comedian, would get offered television parts all the time. Mostly as ‘the Asian prostitute’ in a police drama.
“I always get to play the homeboy or the guy’s best friend,” Matt laughs. “But I don’t care if I’m playing the best friend; I’ll take that.”
The reason I don’t mind writing about this is because Matt has to deal with it, time and again, as a way of life. Indeed, the first routine I ever saw him do was one about how he is perceived: people asking him where he’s from – (it’s Queensland) – when what they really want to know is why he looks different. Point is, in the process, Okine revealed some of my own inherent racism to me. Not an overt hateful bigotry, just a tendency towards preconceived modes of thinking and behaviour in which, to be honest, I’d otherwise have kidded myself I don’t indulge. And that’s what good comedy can do: reveal truths about yourself and your world that you didn’t realise were the case. Or truths you knew, but didn’t actually realise or acknowledge that you knew.
“That’s why I still use that joke, three years on,” Matt says. “I do a little bit of ‘black’ material in my set, but I try not to over-saturate my material with it. I like opening with that joke because generally, when I walk on stage, it’s just natural for the audience to go ‘here’s the black guy’, and I just address it and get it out of the way and it’s over.”
In other words, there can often be a level of trepidation in the audience that dissipates as soon as Matt has dealt with it. It’s not so apparent in busy cities where there are lots of different people. But in regional towns boasting a more homogenous populace, you can “really feel it in the audience, people watching you, going, ‘I wonder what this is going to be like’. And then after I do that opening joke, you can really feel the audience warm and relax.”
And of course, in the big cities where the audience is less homogenous, punters will step up to Matt after a gig and tell him that they experience the behaviour he described – people asking where they’re from and not meaning ‘where in Australia’ – all the time.
That opening routine is one of many I can quote, having seen him perform several times. But when I think about it, I can’t actually encapsulate what his comedy is about or what it is he does. In fact, Matt hasn’t quite found a pat description for his comedy either.
“People ask me what my comedy’s about all the time, and you know what? I don’t really know. My comedy is about me. It’s very self-indulgent, but I just talk about things that I’ve done and the way that I see things in the world. That’s all I really talk about. Put simply like that, I sound like some kind of egomaniac, on stage with a microphone, letting loose about whatever I think is funny – but that’s pretty much what I do. I don’t try to hide that with one-liners or anything. What I talk about is my point of view. I’m just talking about shit that I’ve done and seen.”
There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s pretty much what every good comedian you care to mention does, in the end.
Disco Matt MC Esquire III
Given that Matt continues to act and to do comedy, the question is whether acting and comedy are parallel careers for him. Because some comics trained as actors but really just want to be comedians. Other comics are doing stand-up in the hope to ultimately get into movies. In Matt’s case, the two will continue, together.
“From very early on, I’ve wanted to something like Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld,” he says, “where I can write and act in my own sitcom or show. It doesn’t have to be The Matt Okine Show. I’d like to be part of the writing team and act out a character I’m writing for.”
Matt’s already started: late last year he worked on a pilot for television, but by the time they cast it, there wasn’t a character for Matt to play. “I didn’t want to write a new one, I just enjoyed working on it. But I’ve done the writing thing; I’ve done the acting thing; I’ve done comedy; I’d like to meld it all together, whichever way it works. I really like the idea of writing a show and then acting in it.”
The first step towards the master plan is a web series that’s due to launch in November, entitled The Future Machine (one of those proejects Matt is able to finance through doing ads for the likes of Macca’s). In fact, here’s the trailer for it, hot off the press:
There are, of course, other creative projects he’s undertaken, in order to hone his skills and pursue his creative bent. Like the video blog he maintains, as Disco Matt MC Esquire, III. It began as a hobby.
“When I was 18 I started making music in my bedroom. At first it was acoustic music, me stuffing around with my guitar. Then I discovered how to make rap beats in my bedroom. So I just started making hip hop EPs with a friend, and I went under the name Disco Matt MC. The first one was me learning how to use everything.”
The second one was more creative. Entitled The Bling, it was a take-off of The Ring: “If you listen to the EP you’ll die in seven days,” he says. “It’s got a narrative that goes through the five songs.” The third one, The New Start, was more serious, dealing with his “move to Sydney… and stuff”. In the process, the Disco Matt MC character developed.
“I really like the character,” Matt says. “I think he’s fun.” Ideally Matt would like to put Disco Matt MC Esquire III in a sitcom. In the meantime, he appears in funny sketches on YouTube.
“The video blogs are there to see what other people make of that character. I really like him. I’ve done a couple of live performances as him, but not many people know about him. I want to see what people think of him.”
Of course, the EPs are still available for download from Matt’s homepage, should anyone want to listen. But he’s quick to point out that, unlike the comedy and the acting, the music is just a hobby. “Don’t expect Ice Cube or Ice T,” he says. “It’s more like Ice Coffee. Or Vanilla Ice.”
Whatever you think, it’s an impressive body of work for relatively young comic to have behind him. Although Matt insists that it’s a “pretty weird experience”, his career thus far. Two days ago we were chatting at the Laugh Garage Comedy Club, where he took the stage first as a member of Man Choir, the a cappella group consisting entirely of male comedians, and then as a solo stand-up comic. But for this interview, I’ve phoned him in Far North Queensland, where he’s spent the day “on a boat, sailing between the islands off the coast with a full navy vessel” behind him, filming scenes that will appear in the second season of Sea Patrol. At the end of the week he’ll be headlining at the Laugh Garage again.
“It’s really cool,” Matt says. “I like acting, I like comedy. I don’t have anything else to fall back on. This is my one thing that I’ve done pretty much since I left school and I’m going to make it work, regardless.”
So, chances are, there’ll be more comedians bitching about Matt Okine soon!
‘Matt Okine’ is a difficult name to make one of my customary cute, punning title out of. The closest I could come was to use a phrase with ‘ok’, and substituting ‘Okine’ in its place. They kinda sucked (try it yourself if you don't believe me). In the process, however, I discovered a theory that ‘Okine’ is a Scottish surname, not too far removed from ‘Atkins’ and ‘Aitken’. And that the family motto is ‘Strength and Vigilence’. See for yourself.
The hilarious and absurd Shane Matheson (who presides over something called Mrs Funberries with the equally hilarious and absurd Ryan Withers) has suggested a corker of a title: Close Encounters of the Okine. I'd have used it, but when Shane gave me permission, he said that he’d previously given it to Matt as a show title. That’s where it really ought appear: as a festival show title. But I like it a lot.