Acting funny:
an interview with Matt Okine

Matt Okine - Photo Shoot

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.”


Black comedy

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.

Rhys in our time


“Like a lot of British, I came here backpacking,” Rhys Jones explains. “After seven months I’d run out of money and got stuck in Sydney, and just kind of gave comedy a go.”

I’d like to tell you that stand-up comic Rhys Jones – who hails from Portsmouth, England – is an interesting guy; that he’s an amazing comic; that he’s a close personal friend and it’s been a real pleasure getting to know him; but I won’t. Because no matter how true all of it is, I’m only just getting to know Rhys and I have a certain amount of jealousy that this guy can just pop up out of nowhere and be running a popular open mic room.

Okay, sure, he has been doing comedy for a few years now – paid his dues and all that – and he himself admits that he’s only really started to pick up momentum “over the last six months or so”, but this is also the guy who’ll occasionally give notice for failing to make a gig because he’s landed another, MCing for strippers. When has your excuse for ‘piking’ ever been so good?

Meanwhile, his room, ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ at the World Bar on Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, has gone from being fortnightly to weekly. And Rhys is helping program comedy for festivals like the up-coming Playground Weekender. So, no matter how good, nice, talented, decent he is, or how hard he’s worked to be as successful as he is, I have to hate him just a little bit on principle. How dare he be that cool, that good, that essential to the growing comedy scene, seemingly out of nowhere?


Long Time Being

“I’ve been here five years,” Rhys explains when we finally catch up for a chat – ostensibly to promote the Playground Weekender festival. Despite being broke and stranded seven months into his visit to Australia, now he is not so broke, and not quite stranded. Rather, he says, he’s “kind of trapped” – but in a good way: “owning things” now prevents him from heading home. Acquiring ‘big things’ like a sofa, accumulating a life, a career, and friends, he is essentially planting roots over here. “I like it,” he says – and it must be liking him back. Friends are certainly harder to offload on than the sofa, so why not stay! Especially when it was “a dear friend” that finally encouraged Rhys to take a stab at stand-up comedy.

“I was kind of  ‘press-ganged’ into it,” he insists. “She suggested it when I’d come up with a particularly witty quip at a dinner party. I kind of just tossed the suggestion aside offhand. I blame her, basically.” Being the “dear friend” that she is, Rhys's buddy entered him into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival/Triple J Raw Comedy competition. Which is a good thing. Because despite growing up a “huge student of comedy” in England, where humour was essentially “embedded” into him from an early age via sitcoms like “Black Adder, Only Fools And Horses and the rest of it”, he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to giving it ago himself. Sure, Portsmouth was a big enough place to afford a lot of live comedy – with their own Jongleurs (part of a UK-wide chain of venues) and “major acts” like Harry Hill and Steve Coogan passing through to play the Guildhall as part of a national tour, and even a fortnightly comedy room at the Wintergreen – but there was no open mic scene to speak of. So even though, Rhys says, comedy was something that he’d thought about doing, something that he’d “almost fantasised about”, where was he going to take the stage in order to learn the art?

Well, of course, there is London…

“To be honest, I found London quite a daunting prospect.” Rhys admits. “Sydney, as a city, is a really good middle ground, because it’s a cosmopolitan city, but it’s not quite as harsh and as massive as London.” It’s also “by the sea”, like his home town. So Sydney offers the best aspects of London and Portsmouth with an easier entre – if you’re willing to take it – into comedy. “Since I’ve tried stand-up in Sydney, and done it elsewhere in Australia, I think Australia’s a great place to ‘learn the trade’, as it were. Particularly in Sydney: most of the audiences are pretty attentive and have a ‘good on the newcomer’ attitude. I don’t think I’d be involved in comedy in the UK – I’d be the funny guy at the pub getting drunk every weekend. Now I’m a guy doing comedy and getting drunk every weekend. And occasionally during the week.”


Rhys in the Raw

One point I am having trouble with is that Rhys Jones was a Raw Comedy contestant in Sydney – having judged pretty much all the Sydney heats for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years, I must have judged Rhys’s. How come I wasn’t aware of him until he was doing well enough for me to be jealous of his success? According to Rhys, his two attempts “ended in a bit of a disaster” – as far as early attempts at amateur comedy go. “The first one was the first ever time I did comedy, and I lost my train of thought. The second one, I forgot the last two minutes of my routine. After a promising start, I just walked off.”

I’m kind of relieved – I’d hate to have failed to spot a genuine talent. And, better still, it proves my strongest held tenets about comedy and competitions: the point of doing comedy is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. Some of the finest talent you will ever be amused by, failed to win competitions – the comedians who make it are the ones who keep getting back up on stage. And the ones who start running their own venues so that they can keep getting back up have a better chance of that. Rhys agrees. “The only way you learn is through those bad gigs. I think I’ve come along a lot.”

Too true. In fact, you learn a lot more from a so-called ‘bad gig’ than you do from walking away from a ‘good’ one. In fact, in my limited experience, it’s easy to walk away from a successful performance a little bit proud and cocky, and then totally stuffing up the next one as a result! Again, Rhys concurs: “I think the key to getting anywhere in comedy – and I’m still just starting out –is building a thick enough skin to deal with the low blows.”

Which leads to the other golden rule of stand-up comedy: no comic has ever done their best or worst gig. There’s always going to be one down the track that could set the new benchmark! That’s just as true – possibly more so – when running the room. Again, Rhys knows this only too well. “You really get an insight how tough it is marketing comedy to people,” he says of his experience with ‘Stand Up, Get Down’. “There’s been a bit of an explosion with venues in Sydney in the last year. Some of them are doing better than others. Ours is going steady. We’ve got a particular niche… We do try and promote the little guy, to a certain extent. I’m all a bout giving headline and MC spots to guys who are up-and-coming who perhaps wouldn’t get on in a similar capacity at other venues.”

Clearly, I’d suggest, Rhys must be getting right, seeing as ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ has gone from a fortnightly room to a weekly one.

“Yeah, we changed that in December, the reason being that it was impossible for people to keep track of what weeks we were on. The idea to go weekly is just so people know every Wednesday there’s comedy at the World Bar, instead of having to faff around trying to work out which week the night falls on.”


“The weekly comedy room at the World Bar is attached to a night called ‘The Wall’, run by my business partner Dan Chin. Every week he has a different artist exhibiting upstairs and we run the comedy out of that room. ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ is also known as ‘Comedy At The Wall’ because it’s affiliated with this art space night.”

Oh, okay. So Rhys Jones in a nutshell: came to Australia to realise the lifetime of comedy embedded into him, hitherto only fantasised about, and contributes significantly to the local stand-up scene. But there’s more: in the process he also starts helping establish some of the cooler aspects of the UK comedy scene Downunder. The Playground Weekender festival, now in its fourth year, is the prime example of that.


Playground Weekender

“Playground Weekender is a festival started by English expats,” Rhys explains. “They started up Good Vibrations a few years ago before selling it on. The whole ethos is a British-style festival, so it has a lot more of a laid-back aesthetic than, say, your Big Day Outs or your other music events; the whole ethos is fun. I’ve been to every one and seen it grow, which has been great.”

From barely 2000 attendees that first year (still a significant start, of course), the Playground Weekender festival had quadrupled in size by its third year: 8000 people. This year they’re expecting 12,000. Not only that: this year there’ll be comedy. Using the British model, where every festival has a comedy venue, Playground Weekender is offering two hours of comedy on each of the festival’s four nights, in ‘The Shack’.

“Dan and I are both extremely chuffed that they’ve asked us to host the comedy stage. We’ve got one of the main stages to run. It’s a beautiful setting as well: the Del Rio resort at Wisemans Ferry, on the Hawkesbury River. It’s just a really laid- back ‘anything goes’ attitude, really. Like any music festival, it’s what you make of it. You can go for the quiet time, or you can go crazy.”

Furthermore, there are live art installations that culminate with a charity auction at the end of the festival, hosted by Rhys. “We did that a few years ago and it was a huge success,” he says. I’m impressed. More so, when I ask Rhys if he was instrumental in ensuring comedy become a part of the festival. “All the legwork was done by Dan,” he says. “I’m just clinging onto his coattails and sorting out some comics and getting the word out, I guess.”

Talented, successful and humble. Rhys, I really want to like you, but you make it so difficult… And it gets worse:

“Our grand vision is to introduce this format to other weekend festivals around Australia. In Britain it’s a given: there’s always a comedy tent in every festival you go to, which generally runs all day, every day.  If we could introduce a scaled-down version, and perhaps, further down the line, have the financial backing to get some really big names out, It could be something we take around Australia with us.”

Um… Rhys, mate, I’m just wondering… is there any more room on those coattails?



Playground Weekender runs for a four-day weekend at Wisemans Ferry, from Thurs 18 Feb to Sun 21 Feb. A four-day ticket is $219. A three-day ticket is $199 (plus booking fees). There are day tickets available as well.

Musical artists include Orbital, Lupe Fiasco, The Polyphonic Spree, The Cribs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jamie Lidell, Steve Lawler, Bluejuice, Bjorn Again, Gui Boratto, OK GO and LTJ Bukem.

More importantly, here are the comedians appearing – in Rhys’s words, “our favourite performers of 2009:

Eric Hutton – Stand Up, Get Down’s favourite headliner and  a highly original funny man. The Voice of Barry White with the delivery of a highly accurate postman [I’d say he’s the illegitimate product of an illicit tryst between The Chaser’s Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen, but whatever – Dom], this strawberry blond dynamo is a truly originally comic / the best freestyle rapper in town!

Nick Sun – Fresh from a tour of the States supporting Doug Stanhope, and on the verge of a fourth show at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, Nick is a unique comedian who eschews the artificiality of traditional stand up for a more insightful, honest and god damn, sharp as a knife hilarious brand of comedy…

Shane Matheson – Highly unconventional, brilliantly inventive and always hilarious, Shane is about to venture to Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his third festival show. Superb improviser and great “randomist”, Shane combines the fearlessness of Sam Simmons, with the characterisation of those British legends Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

Ryan Withers – Natural born funny man, armed with a rapier wit and rather girlish looks, Ryan Withers aka DJ Randy Winters, is a regular performer, and organisational contributor at Stand Up Get Down. About to burst forth at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with his first solo show, Ryan has supported the likes of Arj Barker and Jamie Kilstien here in Sydney. 2009 was a massive year, but it looks like 2010 is truly going to be where this young Maestro really hits his stride. For an insight into the truly unique mind of Ryan Withers read this recent column where he interviews himself, wow, crazy fun! 

The Cloud Girls aka Carnovale and Culp – Past performers at Sydney Cracker, Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe festivals, the Cloud Girls are truly unique character based comedians. Taking the everyday mundane and turning it into great sketched routines, the C and C laughter factory is going to be one not to miss! For a tiny taster check out this clip

With ample support coming from the likes of Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank, Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from Sydney’s best alternative comedy collective!

For more information or questions on Stand Up, Get Down please contact Rhys Jones at [email protected]