Taking Standup to Netflix with Jim Jefferies
“There’s a formula in stand-up comedy: The more offensive the joke, the funnier it has to be. It’s simple math.” This is a formula that Jim Jefferies knows by heart. He has built his comedy career on straddling the fine line between offensive and insightful. His brand new stand-up special, Bare, just released on Netflix, shows the math at work. “The new special is probably the most confrontational special that I’ve ever brought out,” says Jefferies, who phoned us from Los Angeles to discuss Bare, his creative process and which part of the world has best mastered the use of the “c-word.”
Here we are at 1pm on a Wednesday. What does a typical day in the life of Jim Jefferies look like?
At the moment I’m trying to tweet and talk about my new special coming out and take a few interviews. The reality is, my kid’s about to go down for a nap and I’ve got to go to a doctor about my hemorrhoid. I could give you the fancy answer that I’m sitting down and trying to write myself a sitcom, or trying to think of some standup comedy over coffee but no, the reality is at two o’clock I have an appointment for a hemorrhoid.
I’ll leave the hemorrhoid alone. Lets talk about fatherhood. Do you feel that hitting a milestone like becoming a father is changing your comedy?
Of course. Now I’m talking about having a kid. That wasn’t a topic in my wheelhouse before. But like, has it changed my attitude towards comedy or whether I believe I should be so offensive? No, not at all. I’ve probably mellowed a little bit as I’ve gotten older but that’s not had anything to do with having a kid. You can only be the angry young man for so long before it gets a little bit childish. But in saying that, the new special is probably the most confrontational special that I’ve ever brought out.
I watched some clips that your rep sent and I thought it was interesting — there was a joke and I won’t tell it and ruin anything for everyone — but there’s a great joke about losing a baby with a really incredible twist on race as well. Do you feel like when it comes to bringing children into the equation of comedy that certain things should be left untouched?
No. There’s a formula in standup comedy: The more offensive the joke, the funnier it has to be. It’s simple math. So you can be as offensive as you want but the joke has to be slightly better. Like, you can do a light joke about the Kardashians or something like that and it doesn’t have to be that good. But you’re not offending anybody, so it doesn’t matter. I don’t think children should be left out of comedy, nor do I think…no, there’s no subject I can think of that should be left out of comedy. You know, often when you tell jokes like that you’re shining a light on something that’s bad in society and that’s just as important.
And that’s exactly what that joke does. Everybody can watch the special and see what we’re talking about. You talked about how you’re not going to go write some standup over a cup of coffee because you actually have regular day-to-day stuff you have to do. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? How do you come up with new material?
I never write anything down. I do if I’m writing a sitcom or something. Of course I have to type that out. I never write my standup down. You know, the little moments just before you fall asleep I think of a few things, then when I wake up I got a few things, then in the shower I get a few things and as I go throughout my day I try to casually put them in conversation to see if people laugh. I’m sure I’m the most annoying friend in the world because you can always see when I’m trying a bit on you. My girlfriend’s very good for that. I’ll try it out on her and once it gets to a stage where I’ve gotten like a premise I’ll go down to The Improv on Melrose. I’ll go and do five minutes. Like, I went and did that last night and did five minutes and thought, “Okay that’s a new little bit.” Or when I’m in my show I’ll try to wedge the new bit in between two really strong routines in the hope that if it is bad it can be washed over. For me it’s basically stories and concepts, so I never tell the same joke twice anyway. I’ve never been a guy like Seinfeld where the wording is perfect. I sort of just tell it in the moment. It’s a lot more stream-of-consciousness, which sounds very wanky, I know.
No, no. Everybody has their own method and you’re just describing how yours works and I don’t think you’re putting anybody down by saying that you don’t do it their way. It’s whatever works for you.
Lets talk about the special. It’s called Bare and it premiered on Friday on Netflix. This is your first time working with Netflix, correct?
How did this deal come about and how did you decide to go with Netflix as a platform to release this special?
Well every year or year-and-a-half I try to release a special. And every year you sort of go off and shop it around to see who is interested in buying it. It’s a pretty standard thing. But I really wanted to go to Netflix as my first protocol because I knew it was bringing up some of the best specials such as Bill Cosby, Chelsea Handler, Aziz Ansari, Russell Peters, and Bill Burr. They had a great lineup and stuff but really what I liked about it was that every special I’ve ever done runs about 46 minutes and they go about 46 minutes because on HBO there’s got a be a little bit of, “Hey, coming up on HBO.” Same with Showtime and Comedy Central. They have a lot of outtakes and some of the networks like Comedy Central you have to bleep out swear words, so I wasn’t interested in going with them.
I wanted an uncensored special that finishes when it finishes. So I think the special comes in right around 70 minutes. So you know it’s 15 or 16 minutes longer than a normal special because that’s when the show ended. I think maybe there is a little editing. We took out maybe a little tiny bit where it’s just me dicking around with the audience or something like that, which I always find when you’re watching at home isn’t as good as when you’re actually at the live venue. I think audience work isn’t as good when you’re watching at home. Then also, it’s just nice to be able to promote a special with a guy like you and not have to go, “It’s nine o’clock on the east side of the country and it’s one o’clock in the west and you gotta watch it on Saturday and set your DVRs and it’s going to be On Demand in a couple of weeks, so make sure you watch it on HBO GO or something.” With Netflix you just go, “Friday,” which is really three in the morning, so, “Thursday night when you get home drunk from the pub just turn it on.” And it’s just there and it’s there for months. You can watch it at your own leisure. You can see it in a couple of weeks, you can watch it by yourself and you can watch it on your computer or in a hotel room. You don’t have to be in front of your TV on Saturday at a certain time. I find that a lot more liberating as well.
This was filmed at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. Was there a reason that that particular theatre and city were chosen?
My other specials have been in like New York, London, and San Francisco. I try to do a different city every time. The Wilbur Theatre was the first theatre I ever sold out in America and the guy who owns the theatre, Bill, is just a really great guy. They’ve filmed a lot of specials there before. It’s not aesthetically the most beautiful, grandiose theatre out there, you know. It’s a pretty dingy rock ‘n roll-type theatre. But time and time again, every time I go there, I do two shows on a Friday and two shows on a Saturday about three times a year and every time they sell out and every time the audience is kick-ass. I just knew it was a reliable crowd for me that would give me a good amount of sound, so that’s why I went there.
Take me through a show day. Say you’re preparing for a big show or filming a special, how do you prepare? How do you get yourself in the right headspace?
JJ: Well, for me it’s a diet about ten days before so I look a little bit trimmer, because all the cameras are on you. Then, I go down to the sound check and then, it’s just the same as any other show. Obviously it’s a bit more tense. I think I vomited before this one. My stomach turns a little bit before a show, which I find odd because I’m never nervous in my head. But my body gets nervous, which is weird. I get jittery and I can’t eat right before the gig or anything like that. In my head I’m confident and calm but it doesn’t seem to match the rest of me. Then, you do the show. I normally record two shows and pick which one is the best. I try to keep pretty much to the edit of one show. There’s just some continuity where in one show you might be sweating a bit more, or in another you’re talking too fast. There’s not a lot of preparation in the sense that I have exercises or I start doing vocal scales. It’s normally one beer and a cigarette and off we go.
Is this your fifth special?
This is my fifth special but I did have one special that was only ever in the U.K. It’s basically because I would sell out the gigs in the U.K. But this is basically my fourth one since moving to America. So it’s four in the last five years.
Are you already working on your sixth special?
Well I’m always working on the next special but I never call it that. At the moment I’m trying to write new material so I can go out and tour. Once that stuff comes out on Friday that material is over for me. It’s burnt now because people can watch it at home. So for me now I’m working on new material and my next goal is to have a nice hour to perform in front of people. Once it gets to sort of an hour-and-a-half/hour-and-40 minutes of great material then you start thinking, “I’ve got a good hour special in me.” Because I feel like the material you do in your special has to be better than the material you’re doing live. When it’s live in front of an audience you can feel the mood of them. You go, “I can do some livelier material, or an older joke I haven’t done in a while, or maybe I can do some dirty stuff, or maybe I shouldn’t be so political with this crowd.” [With specials] I try to gauge what the average Joe sitting at home is going to be feeling and I have to make that hour as strong as possible. So I think I’m probably a year away from ringing my agent up and saying I’d like to do another one. From that time it takes about another six months getting it ready and booking the theatre and then editing it and getting it out there. So I think I’m 18 months away from the next one.
What’s the best audience you’ve ever performed for?
That’s a hard one because you know there are a lot of audiences that are just tense. I’ve had gigs in my life where the audience is just as hot as they are ever gonna get. The one in Boston was pretty close to it, where we recorded the special they were as nice as they could have been. I was just performing in London in front of 3,000 people that were just dull. But I don’t have a moment in my career where a particular audience…I’m always just happy if no one throws food or tries to hit me and there are a lot of laughs.
I got in a conversation the other day before I knew I was going to be talking to you and then when I heard about this interview I thought, “Oh, this is so perfect.” The question is: Which accent says “cunt” the best? Anywhere in the world, which accent does it sound the best in? I say it’s cockney British.
I would go the Irish say the word cunt the best. I say it pretty good. The Australians say it…no, I think the Irish say it the best. The Irish can say it to a little kid and nobody even notices it. Like to a baby, the Irish can say, “Oh what a cute little cunt you got there.” Right? You won’t even notice it and it will sound like a pet name. Where, I still can’t make it sound like a pet name. The Irish can say it with affection. I can’t say it with affection.