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