When I said Arj Barker was one of my favorite absurd stand-ups around, I wasn't sure if that was the right way to describe him, so I asked him myself.
Would you consider yourself an absurdist? "Well, yeah, a little bit. Or an idiotist. Idioist? A lot of my humor is derived from me not getting it…People ask me how I can get away with talking about gay marriage and not be offensive. The joke is about me not getting it. Honestly, I don't spend any time analyzing myself unless I'm asked. My goal is just to get laughs and do a good show."
Here's a clip of Arj Barker performing last year at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia. It's a joke about the iPod that you can hear on his great new CD/DVD, LYAO, that shows how Barker's mind works differently from the typical mainstream club comedian. I previously posted two clips from the DVD itself. Roll it!
To hear what Arj has to say about the competitive nature of stand-up comedy and show business, working in Australia and the U.K., Flight of the Conchords (where he was a regular supporting character on their HBO series) and writing funny jokes, keep reading…
"I don't go online and read stuff about myself." So you won't be reading this later, then, I take it? "I intentionally don't read about other comedians, either. Because then you go, why aren't I doing that? Why aren't I working hard? It makes me end up feeling competetive and weird. I'll appreciate their work. Zach (Galifianakis)'s a friend of mine. I saw The Hangover. But aside from his part, I didn't think it was that funny, not like a lot of other people did…I'm happy for them (the other comedians). But I don't have to read Aziz (Ansari)'s blog about he sold out this or that. But some comedians thrive on that. I intentionally avoid that."
That sounds like it goes against the grain of the competitive American mindset, although you do tour as much abroad as you do here, right? "I spend a lot of time in Australia working. Well, there is that side of me, Sean. I am competitive. I found I'm happier, the less I'm engaged, the happier and more peaceful I am. So that's the reason right there. I know guys, all they do is sit around and track what other people are doing. I just try to be happy for what I have. The crowds, they show me a lot of love down there (in Australia). They're trying to poach me. The United States better step up its fucking game or I'm out of here…I like my country."
Were you traveling globally for stand-up from the beginning of your career, or has that been something you've done more as you've progressed? "I first went overseas roughly in 95. I went to the UK, and just about every year I've been one place. Up until the early 2000s, I was UK and Europe, but then I shifted my focus. I really made more progress in Australia at a quicker rate. Now it goes against me to not go to Australia."
What was it about the Aussie crowds that connected with you? "I think it was more, I did TV spots, and I got my profile a little higher there, because of all of the places I mentioned, they have less TV channels. Less prime channels. Less comedians, to be honest, and being from overseas, I got people thinking I'm a big deal. Which I wasn't. Maybe I was a little exotic there. So I just got into that public awareness…I don't think I connected better there, but I got in the public awareness, and from there it just snowballed. You know how you all of a sudden find yourself just knowing about something or someone?"
Funny to me that you found your connection in Australia, when all of the Aussie comedians I know aren't based there (Tim Minchin and Jim Jeffries in the UK, James Smith in NYC). "Sometimes you need to leave the country you're in to get the attention you seek."
"I'm going to Edinburgh this year, my comeback tour. I haven't really spent a lot of time in the UK in the past 6-7 years. A lot of it is, the world is a smaller place now with the Internet."
I take it almost as a given that your connection with Australia and New Zealand is also what got you close with the Flight of the Conchords. Correct? "That's how I met them, touring. I was sharing a venue with them in Auckland a few years back and that's how I became friends with them…we stayed in touch a little bit. And then one day, Jemaine called me up and asked if i wanted to be in their (HBO) show." They were really great about incorporating you and other stand-up comedians on their TV show. "They really respect stand-up a lot, and try to look out for them. They're great fucking guys. You can't meet two nicer guys."
How has your global travels impacted the way you write jokes? "Going into the UK was really eye-opening, because there's such a strong scene over there, and there were some surrealists. Not that I call myself one. I don't know if you know Harry Hill. He did some stuff that really blew me away. He was getting heckled one night at The Comedy Store. And he said to the guy, 'You may be heckling me, but I've got a nice chicken cooking at home.' The audience got it and laughed. It's hard even now trying to relate it."
What about in terms of writing jokes that anyone in the world can understand, though? You don't seem to rely on American pop culture or specifically local references as much as other comedians. "To me, that's an obvious thing. No. I can't change my humor. I have one sense of sensiblities which is my own. For instance, I wrote a Sleep Mattress joke. It works pretty well." He paraphrases the premise to get to the punch: "I didn't know my sleep number, so I put it on shuffle…that joke may not travel there. I just try to write jokes." But he has San Francisco and New York City jokes, too, and mentions one of the former: "I did a joke last night that was based on one of the freeways around here. You just try to be sensible. I don't really have rules on what I do or what I don't."
What's the gameplan for you this year? "I'm booked up 'til August already. I'm going all over the damn place." That includes a return to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "This is the first time since 2000 I'll bringing a show there. Coming full circle, baby."
For more information or to get on his mailing list, visit Arj Barker's site. And do pick up his new CD/DVD, LYAO. Here are two links to do just that: