For Jim Jefferies, Comedy Is Like a Video Game
Jim Jefferies’ new Netflix special, Freedumb, finds him performing in his characteristic leather button-down in front of a stars-and-stripes backdrop, occasionally resting on a beat-up chair and sipping something from, I kid you not, a Solo cup. But he’s neither blue state nor blue collar; he’s a longtime transplant from Down Under, and perhaps its this outside perspective that gives Jefferies his edge when it comes to incisive insights on the state of America. Freedumb starts with a riff on Bill Cosby and somehow finds its way to a meditation on humanity’s chances in the face of environmental disaster, with plenty of, well, language that I can’t print here mixed in (the accent makes it charming). I talked with Jefferies about George Carlin, chair strategy, and changing minds just a little bit at a time.
You’ve done a number of specials now, and this is your second for Netflix. Going into each one, are you trying to top the last?
I don’t know if I’m trying to top the last one. I’m at least trying to make one that’s just as good, that’s the game, you know? Not to go backward. It’s a bit like bands when they bring out their albums. There are specials that are special to me for different reasons. Because of a time in my life or what have you now. This particular special, for me, it’s all the jokes about my son and being a dad that sort of resonates with me more than talking about America or Bill Cosby or whatever. When I look back, it’s that routine that I’ll probably remember. But yeah, I just try to do my best.
I don’t put one out until I’m sure it’s ready. I don’t rush it for the money or anything like that, to try to get it ready for Christmas or something stupid like that. One day I just wake up, I do a show, and then I ring my manager and go alright, start trying to sell this thing, I think I’m ready. This one I had to lose a lot of material. It runs about an hour forty, and we cut it down to about eighty minutes. It’s fairly long for a special. But there’s jokes on it that, if I didn’t record them now, I’d never record them.
You start out in the special talking about Bill Cosby and these hot button issues, and that’s a lot of what’s in the trailers and previews. But you end [the special] in this very sincere place of talking about your son and the environment and depression. Is that intentional, to first do your controversial stuff and then get serious?
I like to weed out the people who aren’t going to enjoy me straight off the bat. If you look at all my specials, I do start more extreme and then, as I get into it, sort of at the three-quarter mark, I normally have a bit of pathos. Is pathos the right word?
I think so?
There definitely is, I don’t want to say a formula, but there’s a reason I do that joke first. You couldn’t start the other way around. You couldn’t come in talking about depression and my son and my hopes and my dreams. You couldn’t open with that. I always think you’ve gotta open with a punch.
Your story about taking your son to be vaccinated…it’s about this controversial topic but it’s also about you being a new dad and not knowing what to do about your kid.
Yeah. It’s really about me just…I know I’ll get a lot of complaints from groups because people will think that I’m picking on autism or parents who don’t vaccinate or what have you. And that is a certain element of it. But as you said, every parent’s just doing their best. Every parent’s trying to get it right. And sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t, but I don’t think many parents are out there trying to injure their child or make things worse.
But also, I am quite passionate that you should vaccinate your kids! I don’t care if people get angry about that, believing the rubbish that vaccinations cause trouble or make the child worse or something. That’s not what I believe. I think it’s important for me to say. I feel like people like Jenny McCarthy, who went and preached and protested and all that kind of stuff with little to no evidence — with no evidence! — were far more detrimental than me just taking the piss out of it.
You talk in the special about how you get tons of hate mail; are you pretty immune to it now? Does it bother you, when people say stuff, or is it normal?
I’ve learned to embrace it now. If I just got one or two pieces, it’s like…what’s the line? What you learn from video games is, if you keep walking into your enemies, you’re going the right way. I feel like, if people are getting so pissed off they’re forced to write to me, I must be saying something. Not just for shock value. Because people don’t write to you for shock value. People don’t get angry at you for shock value. People get angry at you when you affect something that is at their core, whether it be guns or religion or whatever. Their belief system. You can say rape and fuck and stupid gags like that, and if you talk about AIDS or whatever, you might rattle a few people’s cages. But you start talking about religion or you start talking about the vaccination of their children or you start talking about their guns, you’re going to get a lot of letters.
So, with everything that happened in Orlando [since the recording of the special in the Spring], we’re having the gun control debate yet again. Have you seen an uptick in people who want to talk to you about it? [The 14-minute segment on the 1990s gun safety program in Jefferies’ native Australia from his’ previous special “Bare”] is probably your most well-known bit.
Yeah. After each shooting, it goes up again. It’s less and less with each one, because almost everyone who wants to see it has already seen it. But yeah, definitely. I get a lot of fudged statistics about crime in Australia, and I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just happy that…really, before that routine, I have to say, no one mentioned Australia. Politicians mentioned Australia, but I never heard everyone mentioning Australia in the gun debate. And now people reference it left right and center. And I feel that routine was somewhat responsible for that. It started that conversation. Now whether you think I’m right or whether you think I’m wrong, at least people are talking about it.
I don’t think comedy really does change people’s minds; I think you can only get someone who is almost ready to change their mind. You can’t change someone from one direction straight into the other, but if you get someone who is considering your view, and you make a good point, there’s power in that.
Has anyone ever told you, you changed my mind, or, you made me think about this differently?
Um, yeah, I have. I’ve had people write to me and say I’ve changed their mind about guns, but these are not people who had assault rifles and are stock-piling stuff in their basement. These are people who were not fully involved with it anyway. But yeah, I have had people say that. I’ve never had someone say that I made them an atheist!
I think that would be hard!
George Carlin did it for me. He made me an atheist. I was one of those people who didn’t think about it. I was religious when I was a kid, then I wasn’t religious, and then I just didn’t go to church, and then I just didn’t think about it. I used to think, maybe there is some powerful thing. I was basically an agnostic for many years. And then Carlin made me really think about religion and want to get out of it.
Did he also inspire you to do comedy?
Well, I wanted to be a comic since I was a little kid. Since I was maybe ten or eleven, I wanted to be a comedian. But he has definitely been a huge influence on me, to the extent that I can’t watch him anymore, because it rubs off on me too much. I try to stay away from him.
Are there comedians you do like to watch?
I like to watch comedians who are nothing like me. Brian Regan! I love watching Brian Regan.
Totally switching gears, can I ask about the chair you have on stage? Most people have a stool, but you have like a…love seat?
Like a barcalounger.
What’s that about?
Um…I like to sit down on stage. I don’t know. It’s something that I started doing at the end of my first special, maybe a decade ago. It was mostly because I was getting up there and I was so drunk…
…that you had to sit down.
I liked this comfy chair! And then it became a thing. I feel like, if you’re sitting on a stool…a stool is what you put drinks on, in my opinion. Sitting on a stool, you do not look good. But it’s nice to sit down for a little bit. And all of a sudden…do something by doing nothing is one of those acting things they teach you, right? There’s power in stillness. All of a sudden it doesn’t matter how heckle-y or loud the crowd is, if I sit down, all of a sudden they focus in because they think you’re about to say something. Most of the time you’ve got nothing to say. But sometimes, it’s good to deliver a poignant line. There’s a few other comics, well, Bill Cosby had a chair and that’s the only thing I’ve taken from him!
I think that would be the thing to take. That or the sweaters. Nothing else.
I would never ever have a chair on stage if I were doing a fifteen or twenty minute set. But it’s an hour-plus live show. So sometimes you want to sit down and rest. I’m an extraordinarily lazy man. And also, there’s little things you can do on a chair. You can do going to the toilet, or sitting in an interview, or sitting across a desk from a person. There’s little things that, if you’re a story-teller — unlike just a joke teller, if you’re a storyteller like me — there’s times in the story when you’re driving or you’re in a chair or you’re in a meeting or you’re on the toilet, and it just adds to the story. You always find some way to actually use it.
You had Legit on FX a couple years ago; is the TV/movie world something you’re trying to get back into?
I’ve got two TV shows in development, but they may never see the light of day. Development doesn’t mean anything. It just means there’s a script and people are considering making it into a show. So I’ve got two different shows on two different channels, so hopefully at least one of them comes out. But I don’t try to get too optimistic about that. After Legit was cancelled, I thought it was such a good show, after it was cancelled, it really knocked me back for quite a while there. I’m not even over it now. So I’m not going to invest too much emotional, too many emotions into whether these shows get picked up or not. If they do, it’s great, if they don’t, that’s okay as well.
In terms of where your inspiration comes from, obviously the family stuff happens to you. But for current events, when you see the news, are you immediately thinking, let me get some material out of this? Is it what your friends are talking about?
When I’m in the hotel, I watch CNN and Fox like 24 hours a day. I have it on constantly like people who have music on. People say that my comedy has gotten more political in the last five years. But I’ve gotten more political in my personal life. I think in your twenties, well, me anyway, I didn’t watch the news. I knew what was going on. I had big, sweeping opinions on certain things. But to be honest, I wasn’t well-informed. I didn’t read much about it. But in the last five years, with age and maturity, I’ve gotten very interested in the world around me. And I am concerned about politics and policy and climate change. All of that actually is important to me now, where it used to just be, when was I gonna be drinking again? Also, becoming a dad has made me feel differently about the whole thing.
Elizabeth Logan is a writer living in New York.