To the uninitiated, (though quite frankly, where have you been?) US stand-up, Arj Barker, is touted as Australia’s favourite adopted comedic son and household name. This perennial California slacker with a drawl, who’s prone to bouts of sarcasm and loudness, is a fixture at the world’s most celebrated comedy festivals, and idolized (and not just by me) as “indifferent” Dave, from Flight of the Conchords.
He’s an observational comic who believes, according to his Balls DVD blurb, that “it’s a noble pursuit.”
Catherine Della Bosca spoke with him recently to discuss all things “Organic” (and then some) in the lead up to this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Given that Organic is the title of your show, should we, the audience, expect that it’s all about stripping away the BS and just getting back to the basics of good jokes and storytelling?
Well, when I do a show, I just really want it to be funny … there are messages here and there in my comedy, but opinions, I always try to put fun in it, ahead of that. I don’t mind if somebody walks away and says, damn that was hilarious, though I have no idea what his point was, that’s ok…I think people just want to laugh primarily. I’m not trying to change the world, just provide some relief.
The press release promises free-range topics. What are they?
The show’s about fun; it’s silly and yes, there are some references to organic food and living organically, and living off the earth is addressed in a song, titled “Organic”, that I wrote and which I’ll play on a guitar and sing, as a little treat at the end of the show.
How long did it take you to develop the concept and in turn, the show?
It’s a combination of a lot of things, but I would say, I’ve been working quite intensely on it for 8 months. Some of the jokes I’d thought of ahead of time, others were jokes that I could never quite get to work or had never got around to using. That, combined with my 26+ years experience as a comedian, go into making each show what it is.
You’re currently touring with Keeper or Crapper, where the audience are essentially crash test dummies. Are you finding there’s much more keep than crap? Is the audience reaction what you expected, or rather hoped for?
It’s been a good experience. I started with what I thought were the best jokes I had and nearly all of them did survive – though I’ve been constantly changing and editing them.
For the last 3 weeks I’ve been taping the show and being really careful to listen to it everyday so I can see what’s changing and how I can fix it. It’s been a great exercise to make the show a lot better and a lot more consistent.
For me, to have a great show that keeps people laughing – you have to cut all the excess fat off…and not over set-things up. It’s much harder to think of a joke when you have everything to choose from but if you have a situation where you need a laugh and you have to think of a joke to put in there, it becomes a targeted writing session, and that’s something I can do when I have perimeters.
How long do you spend each day procrastinating?
About 89% of my day – less in Adelaide “I really buckle down there.”
Do you tend to tailor the performances at all for local audiences?
Not as much as you’d think. There is some Australian commentary but if I show up in some city and something strikes me as worth joking about, then I’ll do that.
Last year in Adelaide (see, he is one of us) he said, with regards to the new hospital, “I see you guys are building an intergalactic space station” – stuff like that – people love that. Of course I’m going to do that – but I don’t go to any particular place relying on that – I know people love it, but for me – it’s more rewarding, trying to find stuff that’s universally appealing and maybe, that’s a bit more challenging? But you can go and take the piss out of a city and they love it and I wouldn’t shy away from doing that.
Any taboo subjects? Where do you draw the line?
No, I don’t think a subject should ever be off limits – I think that amounts to censorship – even if it’s self-censorship; but I do have my own personal boundaries.
At times I have done jokes that I wasn’t completely comfortable with saying, not that I thought they weren’t funny, but I knew on some level, they were wrong or offensive to a degree – but often it comes down to – what are the chances that someone in the audience will feel targeted or hurt by this (and if I feel that’s a likelihood, then I’m probably not going to do the joke). I don’t want to get 85% of the audience laughing at the expense of the other 15%. Though having said that, there’s always a chance that you’re going to offend someone with anything you say. There’s no insurance against offending people – except, not doing comedy.
Do you think the comedy scene here in Australia has changed since you started touring, and if so, how?
There’s been a dramatic change – there are so many more visual guys getting into it – so many more international acts, I’m very thankful that when I got here, I was able to carve out a little niche.
Will there be a best of compilation?
I’ve played with the idea. It would be fun – I’m just not sure if the public would want to see that.
Really? I’m genuinely surprised you’d say that.
I’ve done a couple of benefits to raise awareness about the bears in Asia, it’s a really sad situation, and it was a Greatest Bits Tour and it sold out and was laughs from beginning to end. It did make me wonder, if it’s not such a bad idea.
So whether you’re an Arj Barker aficionado or a novice, the man has a reputation for being entertaining and damn good value for money. Organic or not. Arj Barker is now touring – see his website for his 2016 Australian tour dates»