Interview originally appeared in Mass Movement #29
Australian comedian Brendon Burns has a reputation for being loud, obnoxious and outrageously funny. Garnering rave reviews for his trilogy of Edinburgh shows, spread across three years at the festival and outlining his breakdown after a relationship break-up, Brendon went on to win the if.comedy award in 2007 for his ‘So I Suppose This is Offensive Now’. A prolific performer, Brendon has recently hosted a TV show, released his debut book and released a CD of his ‘Thinking Man’s Idiot’ tour, I caught up with Brendon before the Bristol leg of his ‘Y’Know, Love ‘n God ‘n Metaphysics ‘n Shit’ tour.
Interview by Leigh McAndrew
MM: Stewart Lee recently wrote an article saying that comedians should be thanking Michael McIntyre because he’s encouraged people to go out and see live comedy. Do you agree with that?
Brendon: Oh yeah. It’s very comparable to the wrestling industry. Remember when The Rock was around? Everyone knew who The Rock was, so every wrestler was making tons of money because there were more people tuning in to that genre than previously. They had ten million viewers because they had a major star at the time. Nobody had a bad word to say about the guy because they were all making money hand over fist. He brought interest into the industry. They haven’t had a star like that since. Not only that, McIntyre is the closest that Britain has ever had to Jonny Carson, in terms of making stars. He’s got a Midas touch to him and for what it is it seems to work quite well. There are now sixty-eight shows on tour, more than there’s ever been. I’ve been doing this for twenty years now and ever since 1990 when I started there’s always people saying ‘the boom is over, the boom has subsided’, but then it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Not only that, I actually think he’s funny. And pretty much every foreign guy thinks he’s funny as well, because he’s a posh bloke tearing himself to shreds. I’ve discussed it in this show – classism is everything in Britain. That’s why he appeals to the working classes and why he’s got such broad appeal. It’s like Frasier – upper class bumbling idiots. He’s just this posh, middle class English bloke and what he says really tickles me and yet every middle class white English guy I know can’t fucking stand him.
MM: It seems that a lot of people dislike McIntyre because they perceive the people that do like him to be less intelligent than them.
Brendon: Yeah. Nothing bores me more than hearing a fucking open spot talk about how shit Michael McIntyre is. You know what? Try going on after him in somewhere like Cardiff before he was famous and then tell me he was fucking shit. He didn’t get famous from bombing. He tore the roof off from start to finish. He went out there to make them laugh as often as possible.
MM: Since his TV show has been on, more TV networks are open to broadcasting stand up comedy. You recently hosted an ITV4 show, ‘FHM’s Stand Up Hero’ which showcased new and upcoming comedians.
Brendon: I’m in the middle of pitching a show now, as sort of an antithesis to Michael McIntyre’s ‘Roadshow’, but not sneering at it. Whenever this happens people say, ‘what happened to alternative comedy?’ and I’m like, ‘it’s alive and well. It’s bigger than ever, it’s thriving’. It’s a very English attitude. The moment that Britain has anything good, they always fuck it up. People who don’t know what they’re talking about. You see a lot of people shooting themselves in the foot, people who are on the outskirts of the industry, who make their living off the back of it and who complain and I just think, ‘shut the fuck up. Without it there is no you’. It’s self-sabotaging, it doesn’t make sense. But yeah, having done the stand up show they seem happy with it and seem interested in me hosting something else. So I’m currently working on a pitch, because they’ve tried to do ‘Saturday Live’ again so many times, but they’ve always got the wrong people. So I’m going to try and assemble a comedy dream team of people that wouldn’t ordinarily be on telly and also people that are so respected and well-connected in the industry that we could probably get a pretty major headline guest each week, so we’ll see.
MM: You’ve also brought out a book this year (‘Fear of Hat Loss in Las Vegas’). Is that another avenue for you to go down?
Brendon: I’ve got a lot of irons in a lot of fires, but none really very big profile. I’m still comedy’s secret handshake (laughs). You really have to know your stuff to even find out who I am, because I’ve been such a techno-tard for so many years. I’ve finally got off my arse and got a website. There are guys who are brilliant at the Internet side of it and were really tapped in from the get-go.
MM: I know that Richard Herring is great at building an online fanbase.
Brendon: Ross Noble, too. When he was eighteen or nineteen after his first Edinburgh his website was immense. He just toured and toured and toured and built a bigger audience and did it all himself. I probably should have taken note of that, but I’ve always been more about the writing process than the marketing process, which I probably should. I’m not getting any younger; I should get better at that. I churn out about three hours a year, I try and get at least two albums or there’s another DVD coming out. Now there’re a few production companies interested. Also, it takes about five years of sobriety for the industry to go, ‘right, he’s not going to fuck up any time soon. It takes the right people introducing you places and saying, ‘he’s all right, he’s back, he’s stable’.
MM: With the DVD which you mentioned, is it this tour or the ‘Thinking Man’s Idiot’ tour?
Brendon: The DVD is this show. Talking about maybe collaborating with Phil Nichol to set it to music, but that depends on his availability, but I’m also working again with the two guys who directed ‘So I Suppose This is Offensive Now’, the live show. When we got picked up by Universal they brought in their own producers and directors. There was a lot wrong with that DVD. One of the key things was that when we had the reveal of Sajeela and Steve coming out to do the dance number, the whole audience was aghast. You can hear them, but you can’t see jaws dropping at that whole process. At the beginning we say that ‘I like the jokes with the hang time, when the people realise that the butt of the joke was actually their dilemma’. Seeing that lit up in hi-def in everyone’s eyes and IT’S NOT THERE!
MM: Were both your ‘Sober Not Clean’ and ‘So I Suppose’ DVDs recorded on the same night?
Brendon: Yeah. It was supposed to be a double DVD and then, I dunno, something went on. They thought, ‘let’s try and churn it out and sell two’. The only way you’re gonna shift my stuff is to give people value for money. I think if things pick up in the next year and my profile gets bigger, then there will probably be a two disc set on Universal. I would have liked to have done more extras for it. Hopefully we’ll get to do loads for this.
MM: ‘The Thinking Man’s Idiot’ had the theme of class and race issues running through its core. What would you say was the overriding theme of this show?
Brendon: I think with all of them the overriding theme is being human. Whilst I think that the British comedy circuit is the biggest and the brightest and the best in the world, I also think that there is a bit of party line. There’s party line edgy, as well. There’re certain places that people won’t go, but they’ll happily say ‘the Bible ain’t real’. I’m like, ‘Uhhh, I don’t need you to clear that up for me’. Nothing bores me more than seeing someone being smug about that. Not only that, but it’s not even fucking relevant in England. Does religion really mess with any of our lives in England? That’s why I dig guys like Jim Jefferies. I mean, Ed Byrne went there only because they went after him. Stewart Lee went there because they went after him. Glenn Wool and Jim Jefferies go and do it in the States, where it’s relevant and it’s everywhere. Here, I don’t think I’ve heard a politician mention God ever. I dig the fact that their career would be over if they did. The reason that it’s set to five verses was a) because I wanted it to be kind of lyrical and b) so that everyone forgot what was at the beginning but hammer it home in the fourth and fifth verse to show that everything was there for a reason. I always try to structure things so that everything is there for a reason. My favourite shows get written when I just have to write them. When I see a lack of balance in my society or in my industry I think, ‘hang on, there’s some bullshit going on here’. There’s a saying – ‘whenever there’s a status quo in comedy – break it’. I tried to make a logical case for belief, but then realised slowly but surely that you can’t. It’s emotional. The more I tried to be understood the less funny I was being. I got very frightened of being misunderstood and misrepresented. The fact of the matter is, if you just cut to the funny and let go of people’s perceptions and interpretations then that’s down to them. I’m pretty happy with where I’ve ended up with it. I like performing it, I feel good doing it. It’s taken about five years to write, a lot of the stuff has been on the backburner for a long, long time. Between that and the book, they both took about five years. There’s been a lot of quiet whispers on the circuit, of other comics coming up and saying, ‘I’m sick of all this bullshit too’.
MM: You mentioned being misunderstood – do you ever worry about parts of your shows being taken out of context?
Brendon: It’s going to happen. If that happens and I can then turn around and go after, it’s all just fodder. The thing that’s really grown now is talking about a paedophile fucking a kid is worse than the Daily Mail saying that a paedophile fucked a kid. Originally I just did that joke and then my fiancée said to me, “Yeah, the Daily Mail is full of shit, that’s not what people are taking umbrage with, it’s not clear enough”. So then I added the internal argument of ‘does that mean you like the Daily Mail?’ on stage. Back and forth, back and forth, because it happens, you can see it in the audience, because there’s such a party line with comedy here, such a party line. I see a lot of guys get away with saying shit and pretending that the Daily Mail said it. It’s like, ‘you wanted to say that, man’. There’s a real element in this country that thinks it’s liberal, but it’s really fucking bigoted. I reiterate, I’ve become a British patriot again about British comedy, but when that whole Brian Logan thing came out, guys that I thought I knew and we were considered equals, were saying, ‘Yeah, you and Jim I can understand him going after, but Richard Herring and Jimmy Carr?’ and I was like, ‘Really? The English guys understand what they’re doing better than I do? The guys that haven’t been going as long as I have? So they understand detached irony better than me, do they?’ Detached irony, by the way, is one of the simplest of comic vehicles. It’s a shortcut, it’s not complex. To keep on harping on about this great British sense of irony, that’s one of the dumbest jokes you can make. It’s not highbrow, it’s really lowbrow and a guy that has adhered to that idea of classism and everyone hails him as such a great wit is Clive James. He’s just adopted Radio 4 rhythms. He’s not really actually saying anything. Some of the guys need the extremist opinion for theirs to hold water. So when the whole Brian Logan ‘offensiveness in comedy; came along, pretty much across the board people said, ‘I can understand you and Jim, but not Richard and Jimmy’. It’s like, ‘wow, so I don’t have the right accent? OK, I thought we were equals. I thought I was smart, but apparently not.’. (laughs) It sounds like a lot of sour grapes. That was the issue that was burning inside of me. Then the art came from that, I had a real chip on my shoulder about it and I was fucking mad, I was very, very angry. So you start off angry, trying really hard to be understood and then slowly but surely you start to come around and realise that you can get more done with a tickle than a slap. No one is beyond parody on this matter. You can talk about butt raping Jesus with a pig until the cows come home, but I then went after a couple of atheist comics making fun of them and everyone was like, ‘woah, here comes the rivalry’ and I was like, ‘what?’. I even sent Stewart Lee an e-mail saying, ‘are you aware that you’re a sacred cow now?’ I even told Robin Ince, who I think is hilarious, that I made a joke about him. It was, ‘I wear a cross, not because I’m a Christian, but because my house has an infestation of Robin Inces. They run around, being mad at you because you haven’t read the same fucking book as they had read that day. The only way to get rid of them is to wear a cross, put up some shelves and satisfy a woman’. Good joke, I like it, and I told him it and he said, ‘you had to drop it because I’m not famous enough, didn’t you? You had to say Stewart Lee instead’.
I think another difference between here and the States is that people get bogged down with whether they agree with what the comic has to say. In the States it’s ‘he’s funny’ or ‘he’s funny’. Here it’s, ‘I’m not sure if he’s clever enough.’ Who gives a fuck? It’s a comic. It’s the classism thing again.
MM: You performed this show at Edinburgh and have toured it since. How has the tour been?
Brendon: Up and down. I’ve been going to some new towns that I’ve never been to before, I’m with a new promoter now, so I think sometimes without the regular TV presence it’s tough. But then you go to towns that have comics visiting regularly and it’s pretty packed houses. I definitely will be pleased to get down to Australia and get some sun. Touring through the British winter is fucking hard. It’s pretty brutal.
MM: Have you ever toured Australia?
Brendon: No, I’ve played Sydney and Perth and done the Melbourne Festival twice.
MM: I suppose as it’s such a vast country that it would be a tough place to tour.
Brendon: I would love to do it one time though, I would love to get a big comedy bus and drive around Oz. Everyone wants to drive across America, but it’s not as challenging or dangerous as driving across Oz I think.
MM: Jim Jefferies is successful out in America. Do you think he could open doors for you to go out there to perform?
Brendon: Oh yeah, he’s offered for me to open for him. He’s been doing this for ten years, so when he came here everyone asked him if he’d heard of Brendon Burns. We grew up in the same place and are of similar mindsets. He even said, ‘you can perform to my audience, do you want to open for us?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, in a heartbeat’. But, there’s an element to his audience of, ‘say cunt!’ and I would much rather play to fewer people. I’m getting too old, I don’t really have the time or patience to slow down for a moron. The funny thing is, I think Jim’s stuff is really smart and he’s hysterical, but by his own admission, there’s an element of cunt. There’s some cunts in his crowd.
MM: The last few years have seen you being prolific in your output. What does the future hold for you?
Brendon: Hopefully I’ll get the TV show off the ground. I go back to the States to perform this show for the buyers in America for a possible TV broadcast and then we come back and tape it here.