It’s a funny time to be a comedian. Seriously.
There was a time when a comedian’s job was simply to make people laugh. It’s not quite so simple now. Political correctness, freedom of speech and collective hypersensitivity are landmines to hop, skip and jump over. And around.
Insightful social commentary is expected from a routine almost as much as a laugh. And in some cases a comedy routine is more shocking and upsetting, thought-provoking and personal, than traditionally humorous.
Arj Barker tries to avoid trends. He understands that humour – and what is offensive and what is not – has always been subjective. His stand-up routine, though, has still evolved over the years.
“The bottom line is I’m a comedian, I want to make people laugh, but over the years I’ve found I can’t help but have certain opinions that become part of the show,” he tells Weekender.
“When I first started out I would say anything for a laugh. Now I have a hard time saying something just for a laugh if I don’t feel that there is some truth in it, just a little bit, you know?
“Years ago I had a joke about the sun. Everyone was talking about the earth being damaged by the sun, that’s why the weather was so hot, and my punchline was ‘Well why don’t we just blame the sun? Last time I checked that’s where all the heat was coming from’.
“I’m not doing it justice now, but that joke had some strong punchlines and sometimes people still ask me about it. But ultimately that joke, today, sounds a little too much like climate change denial for my taste and I’m not a denialist. I’d have a hard time doing that joke now but when i wrote it I was just trying to think outside the box.
“The point I am trying to make is that I would like to stand behind what I have to say on stage to some degree.”
Barker has won the coveted Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has performed regular sell-out seasons at the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy festivals.
He has made numerous appearances on late-night US talk shows and has his own show on Comedy Central. Barker also plays Dave on the hit series Flight of the Conchords and is a familiar face on shows like Thank God You’re Here, Spicks & Specks and Have You Been Paying Attention.
There are three chapters to Barker’s new We Need To Talk show. The first looks at today’s technology and the smart phone; the second his personal life and “newly acquired marital status”; and the third is a take on life in general.
“I talk about how life is not predictable and no one is immune to suffering. And if we’re honest about that, the more supportive we can be to each other.”
That sounds serious.
“The subjects are serious,” he replies, “but when you put it in a show you find the humour. You find a way.”
This leads to a discussion about comedian Hannah Gadsby’s thought-provoking routine, Nanette, now showing on Netflix. Barker admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he hasn’t watched it but has read stories that suggest it has re-defined comedy.
“Look, I don’t really get involved in the debate about what a comedian’s job is because I think a comedian’s job is to do whatever the hell they wanna do, and if people want to watch it, they can watch it,” Barker says.
“Look, I don’t really get involved in the debate about what a comedian’s job is because I think a comedian’s job is to do whatever the hell they wanna do, and if people want to watch it, they can watch it."Arj Barker
“Some may love it, some may say it’s not comedy. Either watch it or don’t. No one is forcing you to watch. There are unlimited choices out there.
“Personally I go more for more laughs per minute. I think people come to my show expecting a laugh and I don’t want to deprive them of that. But she has her fans and is doing great – you know, she’s probably doing better than great at this point. Good on her.
“I don’t want to put extra pressure on myself by being a spokesperson for society or anything like that.
“Some articles make it sound like a comedian’s job is to speak for humanity. That’s fine if you say something meaningful, I just don’t think you should be beholden to that.
“You should do whatever you want. If you just want to get laughs and help people forget about their day job or whatever for an hour, that’s fine too. It’s not my job to fix the world.”