FUNNY JIM

Aus­tralian co­me­dian Jim Jef­feries has con­quered the US and Bri­tain. Could it be he has fi­nally cracked his home coun­try? finds out

The Weekend Australian - Review - - PROFILE -

FOR a long time, Jim Jef­feries was the most pop­u­lar Aus­tralian co­me­dian Aus­tralians had never heard of. No longer. The for­mer Syd­neysider sold out sev­eral shows for his up­com­ing Aus­tralian tour, in­clud­ing three at Syd­ney’s En­more Theatre, even be­fore his pro­moter be­gan ad­ver­tis­ing.

“I used to play in Perth clubs for 10 or 20 people and I’ve just sold 6000 tick­ets in Perth, so I guess they do know who I am now,” Jef­feries says, laugh­ing. “I don’t care how it hap­pens but I guess they know.”

It still is dif­fi­cult to know how Jef­feries has snuck up on his home­land. He sur­mises YouTube clips have helped, al­though re­cent tours by Bri­tish co­me­di­ans sug­gest there are enough Bri­tish ex­pats here to mean fame over­seas trans­lated to ticket sales at home. Bri­tish comic Michael McIn­tyre, for in­stance, re­cently sold out Mel­bourne’s Rod Laver Arena with limited ex­po­sure here.

Cer­tainly Jef­feries has a big fol­low­ing in Bri­tain, and now in the US. The phe­nom­e­non of Aus­tralians find­ing fame and suc­cess over­seas be­fore home au­di­ences get to know them is not a new one in film and tele­vi­sion. Nu­mer­ous 20some­things are earn­ing roles in Amer­i­can TV with barely a home­town stage or screen credit to their names.

But the path to suc­cess in the US isn’t so easy for Aus­tralian co­me­di­ans. From afar, it ap­pears Jef­feries didn’t need to do the hard yards in Los Angeles. He is the ex­cep­tion to the rule.

The comic has just com­pleted the sec­ond se­ries of Le­git, his own TV se­ries for the FXX chan­nel — the young, male-skew­ing brother sta­tion of FX, home to Louis CK’s ac­claimed com­edy se­ries Louie.

Jef­feries also has a thriv­ing stand-up ca­reer in the US, thanks in part to his spe­cial for HBO, Swear to God, in 2009. But un­til his tour last year Jef­feries was vir­tu­ally un­known in his home­land. “I was never there for them to know who I am, I guess.”

He re­mains an enig­matic char­ac­ter within the Aus­tralian com­edy com­mu­nity, too. He’s not a mem­ber of the con­tin­gent that ven­tures to Bri­tain each year to swamp the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val — al­though he built his fol­low­ing there — yet he speaks kindly of peers in­clud­ing Adam Hills and Wil An­der­son.

Fur­ther­more, com­edy in­sid­ers don’t know what to make of his slightly ag­gres­sive, bo­gan-with-a-brain de­liv­ery of trea­tises, on topics as di­verse as athe­ism and misog­yny. The jury is un- de­cided on his ma­te­rial, de­scribed re­cently by Amer­i­can talk-show host Co­nan O’Brien as “edgy”. For “edgy”, read pro­fane, grim, con­tentious and, per­haps, mis­an­thropic. “I reckon he’s smarter than his ma­te­rial,” says one com­edy vet­eran.

Is Jef­feries a wolf in sheep’s cloth­ing? He ven­tures into some in­tel­li­gent ter­ri­tory but can de­base it with his rough lan­guage.

“I hate when you have a po­lit­i­cal comic or some­one talk­ing about re­li­gion and they’re slightly smug and maybe elit­ist about their views,” he says. “They’re sit­ting there go­ing: ‘I’m right and this is what I’ll tell you.’ I go down the av­enue of: ‘ I’m an id­iot and this is what I think and it might be right.’ ”

Jef­feries is clever; one does not achieve the level of ex­po­sure and commercial suc­cess by ac­ci­dent. And he took an un­con­ven­tional path to this suc­cess. He moved from Syd­ney to study at the Western Aus­tralian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts, first in the mu­si­cal theatre stream be­fore mov­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic. He de­cided he wanted to be­come a stand-up co­me­dian and quit, al­though that de­ci­sion was made eas­ier by the ap­pear­ance of nod­ules on his vo­cal cords.

“Look, I’m not Hugh Jack­man (the academy’s most fa­mous grad­u­ate) … but people are quite shocked when they hear what I did,” he says, laugh­ing.

Jef­feries gigged in front of hand­fuls or people at the Brass Mon­key in Perth’s Northbridge for a cou­ple of years and es­tab­lished his own com­edy room in Clare­mont on Tues­days to guar­an­tee more stage time. Then he moved to Bri­tain in his mid-20s to travel and work a lit­tle.

“I thought I’d be there for two years but was out there for 10,” he re­calls. He was be­ing paid for his com­edy in Aus­tralia but he was of the view, and is still, that to make it in com­edy you have to leave and come back.

“There’s just not the amount of com­edy clubs and the amount of people in­ter­ested in go­ing to com­edy clubs to war­rant be­ing an on­the-road comic,” he says. “You can make a healthy liv­ing in Eng­land and be com­pletely un­known. You can’t do that in Aus­tralia. Aus­tralia’s very sup­port­ive of com­edy when it’s be­ing played in the­atres ... but it’s very hard to get people to come to the com­edy clubs.”

He doesn’t know why — the weather, a small pop­u­la­tion in which “a lot of people want to do the job but not enough want to see it” — but he wasn’t go­ing to stay in Aus­tralia to test a the­ory.

“I heard about all these comics who had gone to Eng­land and were mak­ing a liv­ing and I’d never heard of them so I thought I want to do that.”

The Lon­don scene is a vi­brant one for comics, and the tour­ing cir­cuit, from work­ing men’s clubs to the­atres, is strong.

Jef­feries built his rou­tine and per­sona, re­turn­ing to the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val for eight con­sec­u­tive years, be­gin­ning in a 50-seat venue and build­ing up to a 1000-seater.

“For me, that was the only bench­mark I had on how I was go­ing and whether people were get­ting into what I was do­ing,” he re­calls. “It seems odd. There’s a lot of Aus­tralian acts in the UK who are fa­mous, big acts in Aus­tralia, like Adam Hills. I find it bizarre I’d be do­ing these big venues over there but still couldn’t get ar­rested in Aus­tralia.”

In 2008 his Bri­tish pop­u­lar­ity surged af­ter he was punched by an au­di­ence mem­ber while per­form­ing on stage in Manch­ester. He re­turned to the stage briefly — “You want to see more of me, I’ll be get­ting my head kicked out in the al­ley­way” — the video went vi­ral and he turned it into a rou­tine: “Now, who’s watched me get punched in the head on the in­ter­net?”

In 2009, Jef­feries per­formed at the Mel­bourne Com­edy Fes­ti­val. “No­body came and saw me so I thought maybe I’ll just … fo­cus on my UK ca­reer,” he says.

But things pro­gressed quickly. Af­ter he per­formed at Mon­treal’s Just For Laughs fes­ti­val, North Amer­ica’s ma­jor show­case for com­edy talent, Hol­ly­wood agency CAA signed him and took him to the US to per­form, in­clud­ing a stint sup­port­ing De­nis Leary.

Then, apro­pos of very lit­tle, he was of­fered his own stand-up spe­cial on US ca­ble net­work HBO, the home of Game of Thrones and The So­pra­nos. It records a hand­ful of such spe­cials a year and they’ve be­come a co­me­dian’s holy grail: the oth­ers fea­tured that year were Robin Wil­liams, Chris Rock and Sarah Sil­ver­man.

“I was un­known. They put me on to the spe­cial and I just went, ‘ Oh, I guess I’m liv­ing in Amer­ica now,’” he says. The US hadn’t been part of the game plan.

The HBO spe­cial was well re­ceived but any sub­se­quent ideas for TV fell flat.

“In the end, the sit­com I sold was say­ing how about we base a TV show based on my stand-up sto­ries?” he says.

“I told them a cou­ple of sto­ries and they said all right. My suc­cess­ful pitch was me do­ing stand-up in front of five people in an of­fice.”

It was the ba­sis for Le­git: the en­hanced tales of a sin­gle bloke not averse to get­ting down and dirty but who can still show some heart.

Jef­feries lays on thick his Aus­tralian­ness but in­sists he doesn’t play it up. He de­spises Aus­tralian comics who make hay over­seas talk­ing about cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

“Of course we’re all dif­fer­ent, we live in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. I feel point­ing out the dif­fer­ences be­tween us is a bit of a cheap way of do­ing stand-up,” he says. “So I don’t bank on be­ing Aus­tralian, nor do I talk a lot about be­ing Aus­tralian. But I’d be stupid to say hav­ing this ac­cent doesn’t help me get away with things.’’

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