Interviewed by: Luke Hickey
We caught up for a quick chat with international comedy sensation Brendon Burns as he returns to his Perth roots for a three-night performance as part of the Freo Royale, an independent festival that brings a little slice of Fringe World to Fremantle.
Q1. Thanks for your time, Brendon. As an Australian comedian who mostly performs in the UK, there’s probably a whole bunch of people who have heard of you but, now that you’re performing at Freo Royale, are just coming to see you and your stage show for the first time. How would you describe your comedic style to someone who perhaps hasn’t seen a Brendon Burns show before?
That’s not entirely true about the UK thing. I live there sure, but I’m largely on the international scene: performing in a different country at least once a month. Comedically I guess I’m a 44-year-old man with a lot of stamps on his passport, speaking without filter. Sometimes I mean what I say, sometimes I don’t. People that can’t tell the difference tend to get upset.
Q2. Since you started off your comedy career in Perth, how much has the comedy scene changed since you were a young lad doing open-mic nights? Is there more “room” for someone to get into comedy now? (more venues specifically doing comedy nights, is there more opportunities to make a career out of doing comedy etc.)
Actually, my first gigs were in London as well. In the UK the boom has subsided. My younger comic friends say it’s pretty brutal open mike wise. In terms of the Perth scene, I understand there’s comedy 6 nights a week there now. For a city in the middle of a desert that’s fairly remarkable. But in order to get any good you always need to keep moving. My friend, Paul Provenza calls it running with thoroughbreds. I think in order to get any better you always need to find yourself on bills with comics higher up than you. You should be saying to yourself “How the fuck do I follow that?” or “What am I doing here?” at least 3 times a month.
There’s a reason New Yorkers and LA guys stay so match fit because they’re forever dropping in and doing spots where there are other superstars and hungry young guys on the bill. The reason guys like Louis CK, Chris Rock and Bill Burr continue to generate such good stuff is they make a point of gigging with each other. Iron sharpens iron so to speak. Yet you look at some guys who only gig with their entourage and their massive touring schedule and the act stagnates. Audience adulation starts to mess with their filter. If I could fly to New York to work at the cellar once a month I would. You don’t know how funny you really are until you’ve had to go on after a Jerry Seinfeld or a comic of that calibre. And in turn the younger guys keep them relevant.
I guess that’s why the US is generating such good comics right now because there was no money in it in the nineties. So you now have a bunch of people who have been going for over twenty years that got into it for the right reason. The fewer opportunities in stand up, the better the stand ups. During a boom you get people getting into it as a short cut to something else, the quality goes down and the audiences dwindle.
Q3. In addition to crushing it as a comedian you’ve also had some pretty big acting gigs, notably in Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver”. Just wondering what it was like working on-set in that capacity under an acclaimed Hollywood director? Was there a pressure to “put on your serious face” while working with Guy or did you find that you could still be a comedian and break people’s balls while working on a movie?
I was up all night on a late shoot for my own project and my car broke down on the motorway, so I arrived there with my car on the back of a tow truck. I was expecting a heroes welcome but the assistant director made sure nobody knew the extent I went to get there as he viewed the whole thing as “bothering Guy”. I was so tired I slept on the floor until I was needed. Consequently neither he nor Jason Statham took much of a shine to me. They made a convict joke and I just growled, still half asleep. I think if the AD had just said, “This guy drove all night in a pick-up truck to get here” it would’ve been a completely different experience.
I only recently managed to sit through the whole thing to find my part got cut but I’m still billed.
Which was just as well. I think I dodged a bullet. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t stomach it. You know a movie’s bad when you’re in it and you still can’t sit through it. To be honest, it was so incoherent I couldn’t even tell you where the hell my part was supposed to fit in.
Q4. As a wrestling fan myself I have to ask, how did the connection with the wrestling world begin? From appearing on Colt Cabana’s wrestling podcast to actually going on tour with WWE Hall-Of-Famer Mick Foley, you’re probably the only comedian I can think of that has strong ties to the wrestling world. How did that all happen?
Actually there’s a comedian called Jim Smallman who has his own, hugely successful, promotion called Progress Wrestling in the UK. He had a wrestling talk show and said he was opening for Mick that night (Which was booked by comedian Chris Brooker) anyway when I arrived Mick had already read my book, we hit it off and the rest is… well fairly underwhelming history. But it is odd, these days about a third of my income is somehow wrestling related. It’s funny how these days in any creative industry, how you spend your time when you’re not working actually ends up being a huge part of how you make your living. Wrestling fans make good comedy fans too. They’re used to things not being what they seem, they enjoy reading between the lines and actively suspending their disbelief. It’s odd now that if I go to a wrestling event of any kind I’m 100 times more famous than I am in real life. As it turns out, Me and Colt are something of a double-act now, so he’ll be a little upset if I don’t throw in a little plug.
Q5. (Follow-up to Q4) And was Mick Foley in-person as awesome as I think he would be?
Mick makes you forget how famous he is within fifteen minutes. On some level you feel like you’ve always known him. They say never meet your heroes? No, Mick is not a letdown. Don’t stay at your hero’s house though, ‘cos his kids treat him like shit. That’s the joke I tell anyway. His kids are actually a hoot. But they do hassle him like anyone’s kids would. A lot of people with some celebrity do tend to ride on goodwill a lot. But Mick has busted his arse to get good. It feels odd to say it as I am, and forever will be, a fan of his, but I am proud of him and the work he’s put in. A lot of celebrities can get up and the crowd will shower them with adulation leaving them thinking, “Hey stand up’s a doddle” not realising that the reason it worked was the audience’s expectations were extremely low. Mick saw it was hard, kept at it and now works on having a new hour every year – same way a professional comedian would. I can now safely say, that if you go to a Mick Foley show, even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll have a really great time.
Q6. There’s been a lot of talk in comedy circles about the effects of PC-outrage culture. South Park recently did a vicious parody of the outrage-mindset, and other comics have likewise renounced overbearing political correctness as it pertains to their act. I would love to hear your thoughts, as a fairly controversial and edgy comic yourself, on how PC culture has changed the comedy landscape for you and others (if it has at all), as well as how you see the future of comedy unfolding in light of it.
I only just recently learned to fully appreciate South Park this season. When they opened with the Jimmy Fallon segment with Donald Trump only a few days after it had actually occurred. I had no idea they were that topical. When you consider they’re an animated series that’s an astronomical achievement. In terms of writing, producing the whole nine yards.
Thing is, the more PC the culture, the funnier South Park is. Because they have something new to say “fuck you” to. Comedy will always upset someone and it should. Regarding PC the whole thing is cyclical and essentially it’s about control. People want ultimate control. We are currently raising a society of sacred cows and once you expose how completely selfish that is under the staggering conceit of altruism the cries get smaller and smaller.
We had a thing here in the UK that went viral – a pub that was known for having joke signs out front read, “No slag wellies” (Which is the slang term for Ugg boots in the UK) had people up in arms. Mothers claiming, “How am I supposed to explain to my daughter that we live in a world where women are blah blah blah” And that may have been a tipping point for some people where they just went, “Hey how about fuck your daughter? How about that?” How about it isn’t society’s job to bend to your every whim and spoil your child like you want to? How about you raise your fucking kid yourself. Because if you get your way and we surround your kid with cotton wool you know what? They’re gonna be a dull c*** whom nothing’s ever happened to and they will be as boring as you.
Thing is – outrage creates funny. That’s where it lies and as a comic once you’re told you can’t go somewhere you try to find a way to get away with it. Because that’s what all comedy is, getting away with something you’re not supposed to say in polite company. It’s generational – spoiled parents make spoiled kids and they think the worst thing that’s ever happened is hearing a joke they didn’t find funny. Because, essentially, nothing has happened to them. Meanwhile, the rest of us who are broken and damaged will be underground somewhere laughing our arses off.
No comedian sets out to offend. None of us, even the ones deemed provocateurs. Every joke is told or made to get a laugh. That’s why I think it can be the ultimate in communication. You’re never really saying what you’re saying, people have to read between the lines and laughter is the sound of comprehension. And that’s what we’re really looking for: to get a laugh and be received.
But that is something, someone outraged by a joke will never ever understand. Not because they can’t, because they won’t. No matter how much you explain the joke you will never get them to budge. Because the last thing a selfish person wants to admit while they’re being self righteous is that they’re being selfish and self-righteous. Because, on the whole I play to my strengths and I’m not good at set up punchline or surrealist humour and I’m definitely not a “look there’s a unicorn” guy. I’m more a “does the unicorn have AIDS?” guy. Actually that’s not true, I’m more a “What the fuck is this guy talking about unicorns for? I’m not a teenage girl. This is bullshit…. Now! AIDS!”
My skill set seems to lie in that I can make people laugh about bad things. For instance – two years ago I set out with the sole intention of writing a bit about rape that would make a rape survivor laugh. That was my intention and I had rape survivors coming up to me after the show saying it was the first time they’d laughed about it and it made me feel useful. There are a lot of people that would tell me to never go there but I did and it helped some people and, selfishly, it gave me a sense of fulfilment. I’m not about to defend every young male comic going, “And then I raped her” as a catch all punchline. But a lot of people that listen to my podcast or come to my shows have been though some shit and they want a release. I guess to answer your first question is, if you’ve been through some shit – albeit divorce, heartache, racism or mental illness and you want a safe place to laugh – I’m probably your guy. If you’re a racist misogynistic homophobe I’ll be a huge disappointment. And if you have a whole list of what suitable topics for comedy are? I’m definitely not for you.
Brendon Burns will be appearing at the Fremantle Town Hall as part of Freo Royale from Jan 28-30