It would be difficult to imagine going through the landscape of Australian comedy without noticing one particular comedian sticking out. Australia’s favourite adopted son Arj Barker has painted himself in with permanent marker, and we’re all the better for it.
The favourite son of programme after programme, from 'The Footy Show' to 'Rove', 'Spicks And Specks' to 'Flight Of The Conchords', Barker fits in everywhere, and his self-deprecating humour wins over not only us Aussies, but the likes of Letterman and Leno back in the US of A as well.
Barker knew early that comedy ran in his veins thanks to a chance occurrence.
“The earliest comedy that I remember watching was 'Monty Python' when I was a little kid, that really tickled me. I probably didn't get all the jokes, but because it's so absurd, it could appeal to a child too. I think I accidentally did something funny from an early age, that's my theory, and thought that felt pretty good.”
“And so I started trying to get laughs, but also that proclivity got me in a lot of trouble through school, and made me quite unpopular early on, cause kids don't like when you're different and weird. But I did stick with it and tried stand-up much later, about 19 or so. I tried it, not expecting much, but I loved it so much I went back every week for the rest of my life.”
More than just an income, comedy has also provided a constant in Barker’s life, and at times although unintentionally, a mental escape.
“I definitely have performed when I wasn’t good physically or psychologically, when you have personal things going on. I was still doing shows through my divorce. But the thing is, when you're on stage, it's an incredible distraction if you're in the moment. I think it might be akin to meditation, because in meditation, one form you just focus on a candle or your breath, and you give the goal your singular focus.”
“They say, if you reach a certain level, you won't feel any physical discomfort because there's no room, your mind is one-pointed. On stage, when you're focusing, there's not much space to think about, ‘oh I'm lonely’, ‘oh my elbow hurts’. All that falls away, I'm not really thinking about anything. And then right after I get off stage, I remember what I'm supposed to be worried about. It’s waiting for you off stage.”
“It's very much an escape. It's well-known that if you have some physical symptom, a lot of times it disappears on stage. Like a cough, you go on stage, suddenly you can get through an hour barely coughing once. Some people call it the Comedy Doctor, Doctor Theatre, a magical doctor that treats you.”
Besides the medical laugh factory, Barker reflects on other elements of his life that he engages in simply for joy, such as his strikingly stunning photography.
“It's really rewarding. It’s important to do things, because they're enjoyable. I love nature, and it gives you the added thrill of hunting without really having to ever harm anything, I’m hunting birds with my camera. It's just fun. Among other things, I love playing music. And I have some music in this show with the harmonica.”
Barker’s new show ‘The Mind Field’ broaches the philosophical and scientific ground where other comedians would fear to tread, all while balancing a cocktail of ridiculousness and light fun in the other hand.
“'Mind Field' refers to the idea that everything is deeply intertwined with consciousness. I talk about how there's nothing you could possibly know about or experience without your consciousness, that is your whole experience. It's tricky when you have these deeper, really fascinating ideas, and you feel that there's a lot of truth there. It's fun to talk about with your friends, but on stage, it's tricky to turn them into jokes, because it's out there.”
“I have found a way to have that in the show, and it's a balancing act. I always put funny as the priority. I assume people come to my show to laugh and have a good time, not to understand the deeper questions about reality, but if I can offer some interesting ideas, great. There's definitely some really interesting stuff in it, and some incredible science.”
“We're gonna discuss how people assume their eyes are basically cameras, but I'm going to dispel that as not entirely true, because while the eyes do work like a camera, they send the brain an electrical current with all the data, and then the brain is creating what you see. Everything you see and hear and taste and smell, it's all a creation of your mind. So it's really wild when you think about that. I think it's an awesome show, I hope people like it. And we’ll go through a lot of ridiculous stuff too. There's some wacky stuff in there about Airbnbs and AI and tech, we cover a lot of ground.”
Never one to shy away from an intellectual question, Barker graciously discusses free speech, political correctness and the inability to remain entirely offence-less.
“I think it's up to each comedian. I'm a proponent of free speech, and I feel like if you find a comedian offensive, don't watch their show. It's pretty simple. But I don't advocate hate speech and I do think people should take responsibility for what they say in public. If you have millions of fans, there's a bit of responsibility there. I've done stuff in the past that at this point probably isn't woke or whatever, but I think I've also grown and stopped doing the jokes that I thought don't feel right. It's always been my own inner compass, and I don't really want to get laughs at somebody's expense. Unless it's harmless laughs, like making fun of people in general, because we're altogether pretty goofy.”
“But I don't wanna go after a marginalised group, I’ll definitely try to punch up. My favourite target is myself, about what an idiot I am. I don't care, because I'm the one saying it. I can take it. Eventually you'll upset or offend somebody, of course that's happened, but I'm not trying to provoke. I'm not trying to be controversial. I'm just trying to be funny. Because I'm not really worried about how I need to cross the line so I could be edgy.”
“I think pretty hard about my jokes, and if any of them are near the edge. I have a reference to fentanyl in my show, and the joke is implying that a friend's trying to kill me so they sent me homemade fentanyl muffins. I’ve been very affected by drugs because of friends, so I understand that could possibly be really upsetting. But the joke, I stand by it, because the joke’s implying that my friend's trying to kill me. The joke’s not so much offensive as it is precise.”
“I can't promise I would never hurt or offend anyone, but that's not what I set out to do. When I'm the butt of a joke like ‘I sweat a lot at the gym, because I don't have a membership’. That's a joke about me trying to sneak into a gym, but there’s no victim there, is there? Except unless a gym owner could be there and say, ‘that's not funny. Sneaking into gyms costs our industry $2.3 billion a year’ or whatever. So you can never 100 per cent say you're not gonna offend somebody.”
Barker will be gracing Adelaide Fringe for an extensive run of what is sure to be a mind-provoking and belly-busting night of laughs, mostly at Barker’s own expense.
“Adelaide is particularly enjoyable, the crowds down there are pretty up for it. I think we’re gonna have a great time, and the venue’s superb. I think it's the best venue in the Garden, if not in the whole festival.”
Arj Barker plays The Spiegeltent at The Garden of Unearthly Delights (Adelaide Fringe) 16 February-9 March.