Have you heard the one about the rabbi, the duct tape and your mom’s gynecologist? Neither has Arj Barker, but he’s still the subject of this week’s “Why So Serious?” column!
The affable, San Francisco-bred comedian may be best known as Dave, the half-lidded shop owner on HBO’s beloved series “Flight of the Conchords.” And even though the show wrapped in 2009, it allowed Barker to open for the Grammy-winning Conchords — the New Zealand musical-comedy duo — at such legendary venues as Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Barker has grown his own considerable following, and he’s back to touring his stand-up act around the world, including headlining sets at Comedy Works downtown this weekend. We caught up with him in advance of his July 1-3 shows there.
What was your first time doing stand-up like? What made you want to go back?
It was a long long time ago in a galaxy… No wait — that’s something different. I started in the early ’90s in San Francisco at a place called the Holy City Zoo. It was just a hole in the wall, but had a pretty rich history, as many big names such as Robin Williams and Dana Carvey came up there in the ’80s. Anyway, there were about 20 people at my first show and it was a massive rush! That was that intensity and adrenaline which had me immediately hooked. I never stopped doing it or wanting to do it for one minute since that night. OK, that’s not true. Sometimes I fantasize about quitting, and becoming a reclusive dog owner.
What’s a joke you used to love to tell but now can’t stand?
Many jokes end up like this unfortunately, because when you first write a joke it’s new and exciting, but after touring and telling the same joke and literally hundreds of different venues, while it is new to each audience, you begin to despise it. The antidote for this, I find, is to stay in the moment and not think about the situation outside of the joke. By that, I mean that I strive to stay in touch with what I’m saying and not switch onto autopilot. When I achieve this, the joke can still be meaningful and funny even to me — even after telling it perhaps hundreds of times. Having said that, it’s a good thing that jokes get old because that’s one of the motivators to always develop new material. I’m sorry, but I feel guilty singling out one of my jokes as an example, since it’s not their fault that they are not brand new.
When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried, and why?
I must admit to you that the last time I remember laughing so hard I cried was in December in Australia when my friends and I were drunk and watching a “Beavis and Butthead” DVD. I’m sorry if you don’t like it, or think it’s immature, but I loves me a little B&B and always will!
How much time do you spend in the U.S. versus Australia and New Zealand? What are the differences between the comedy audiences here and there?
I spend about half the time in the states and half the time in Australia and then I create extra time to visit New Zealand and other countries as well. I know you’re thinking that this is physically impossible, but then I guess you’ve never watched “hat the Bleep Do We Know?” I create my own reality, got it junior? Honestly though, I just go where the tour takes me. I made a deal with the Big Guy that I would tour until I could not tour anymore. I don’t mean by the way that I made a deal with God. The big guy is a big guy who lives next door, and doesn’t like me, so I try to stay on tour so that he doesn’t kick my ass.
What are the differences? Well, size, for one thing! I perform for substantially larger audiences in the southern hemisphere. For some reason I have been able to catch the public’s attention more so in Australia then anywhere else. I choose not to over-analyze why, but I’m sure doing many TV spots over the years was a big part of it. I don’t think I’m more funny down there, I just think more people are aware of me and my fun jokes which are fun for everyone.
Were you disappointed when you heard Bret and Jemaine weren’t renewing “Flight”? Where would you have gone with a third season if it were up to you?
I certainly have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, that show was certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved with, and a third season would have been excellent from an exposure point of view. Also working on that show forces me to live in New York City, and though my liver might protest, that is certainly a fun problem to have! On the other hand, working on that show meant that I could not tour, and I often felt the road calling me while I was waiting to deliver my three or four lines of the week. It’s no secret that I have a small part on the show, and sometimes it was frustrating because I would only work one day or even half a day a week, when I knew there were big fat juicy audiences to be had down under, especially during festival season (Adelaide, Melbourne, etc.).
But, I’m ever so thankful to have been a part of it, and if it were up to me, I probably would be happy to see a third season! This is however, purely hypothetical as the shows over, and the road is mine again to roam freely, and with adventure in my heart. By the way I’m using a speech recognition program because I’m too lazy to type but clearly I have no problem talking so if the sentences seem long and relentless it is because I have this amazing technology and I don’t care what anyone thinks because I am mad with power.
What are a few things you never travel without?
I usually bring a memory foam neck pillow even though it weighs a shipload. I did not mean to say a shipload, I meant to say something else, but shipload works as well because let’s face it, shiploads must be heavy!
What’s your favorite thing to do outside of comedy?
Right now I’m fairly addicted to golf. I also enjoy mountain biking, and I intend to learn how to hang glide, because I’ve always had the dream of flying and my favorite dreams are those in which I fly.
What’s your biggest non-stand-up or non-comedy influence?
An interesting question! Probably my friends. The ones who I’ve known long before I ever conceived of trying stand up. I still spend lots of time with them, and this must influence my view of things, and my sense of humor greatly. I also think I was influenced by the amount of marijuana are used to smoke, and although I don’t smoke anymore, I’m sure it has left an indelible mark on my perception of the world. I sure hope I used the word indelible correctly, because it just sounded right, but I don’t actually know what it means. It’s just with this speech recognition program you can chuck words out there like your middle name was Webster and it spell them correctly every single time!
John Wenzel is an executive editor of Reverb and an award-winning A&E reporter for The Denver Post. He is the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum) and maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles and band names.