CultureWritten by Augustus Welby on December 20, 2019
Australians really love Arj Barker. No, seriously: his wife’s Australian. But it goes way deeper than that – across two decades of regular Australian tours, we’ve embraced Barker as a national treasure. Hell, he even snagged an ARIA award this year. It’s all wholly justified, other than for the fact he’s Californian.
So what explains our abiding affection for the shouty stand-up and sometime actor? Nick Cave might be able to help us find the answer. In a recent blog post, the now routinely soft-centred Cave expounded the virtues of great comedy:
“Comedians are the canaries in the coal mine of ideas, often saying things that cannot safely be said elsewhere and taking significant personal risk to speak truth, not just to power, but to stupidity too, to outrage and self-righteousness,” wrote Cave.
Anyone familiar with Barker’s stand-up – which, given he’s been performing here since 2000 and features annually on the televised Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala, should be all of us – will know he’s not a controversial comedian, per se. He does, however, offer philosophical insights into everyday matters that we’ve either been struggling to articulate or dying to say ourselves.
We’re held back from doing the latter for the reasons Cave identifies. Our social norms are often buttressed by stupidity, while contravening them precipitates a spiral of outrage and self-righteousness. That’s why we need people like Arj Barker in our lives. He reminds us that things don’t need to be this way; that the expression “it is what it is” blinds us to an alternative reality.
More crucially, however, Barker lets us laugh at our own stupidity and the absurdity of our circumstances. The significance of this cannot be understated. In Cave’s words, “between the joke and the laughter resides our common humanity and as our laughing bodies relax, our hearts and minds open and serious ideas can penetrate.”
Barker’s schedule for the first half of 2020 includes more than 70 dates spread wide across Australia. Ahead of this monster run, let’s revisit five of the US comedian’s funniest stand-up routines.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala 2010
“I’m just having a little squidgeri-didge.”
Spending so much time over here has introduced Barker to a wide assortment of Australian cultural and linguistic quirks. In this spot from the 2010 Gala, he contrasts his panicked attitude towards Australia’s deadly fauna with that of his unruffled companions. The routine’s high point comes when Barker points out the uniquely Australian propensity for making up words on the fly and expecting others to easily decipher their meaning.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala 2018
“Giving yourself your own bike would never cost $57,000.”
By 2018, Barker was a married man. It’s refreshing to hear him speak about hetero marriage with such positivity and optimism, rather than following the erstwhile tack of male comedians and waving the flag of chauvinism. Of course, the routine isn’t just a sentimental toast to his soul mate – he underlines the selfish gains that come with being married while offering some questionable relationship advice.
Live at the Apollo, 2016
“You spoil enjoyable conversations for other adults because you’re too goddamn lazy to sit around and watch TV all day like the rest of us.”
Barker skirts the line of bad taste with a bit about how living with his partner gives him privileged insight into the mind of a serial killer. He realises it’s sensitive territory and makes a point of separating himself from stand-up comedy’s misogynistic wing. This is something that gives Barker such wide appeal – he’s never too convinced of himself to speak honestly with the audience.
This routine, filmed at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, takes flight when he turns his attention to the cultural taboo of spoiling popular TV show endings.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala 2009
“Don’t smoke pot, otherwise you could become the greatest Olympian athlete ever.”
When’s the last time you thought about 23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps getting punished for smoking a bong? Barker opens his routine with this then-topical observation, but it’s aged well thanks to the comedian’s neat juxtaposition of Phelps’ indiscretion and his achievements.
Barker’s a long-time environmentalist and this routine includes one of his renowned gags about the environment, where he identifies who (or what) is really to blame for the climate crisis.
Get in My Head DVD, 2015
“You better delete this shit.”
In a clip from Barker’s Get in My Head stand-up special, he posits that we’ve witnessed more change in our lifetimes than any previous generation. Technological innovation is the driver, but the way humans behave is also undergoing a drastic change, he says.
But rather than continuing to make sweeping declarations, Barker zeroes on a particular example of how things have changed. The comedian’s expertise is on full display as he cross-examines the newfound complexity of taking a photo with mates at the pub. He excavates narcissism, impetuousness and our increasing inability to exist in the moment. It’s quintessential Barker, and it’s ragingly funny.
Arj Barker will tour Australian from January 2020, including sets at Perth Fringe World, Adelaide Fringe Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Head here for dates and details.
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