Interview: Brendon Burns
Brendon Burns could be described as a comedian of acquired taste, and is known to cause offence with his angry rants and potentially contentious style of comedy. His 2010 tour, You Know – Love ‘n’ God ‘n’ Metaphysics ‘n’ Shit (recently reviewed by Giggle Beats) is being performed throughout the UK until December 2010. Jamie Stubbs caught up with the if.comeddie award winning Aussie to discuss Burns’ latest stage offering.
JS: How did you first get into comedy?
BB: My sister was in a car accident and lost her husband and unborn child. I moved to the UK to look after her and my nephew – that’s when the screaming started, I guess.
JS: Did you intend for your material to have meaning and purpose behind it back then as your work does now?
BB: I tried very hard to, then concentrated on being funny. Once I did that everyone else spent the time on trying to find meaning in it. That’s how it goes I guess.
JS: The narrative of your current show is very emotional and exposes yourself. Were you afraid of sharing the more personal routines when initially trying this material out with audiences?
BB: Actually I was most afraid of being misunderstood. I was trying too hard to explain myself and my beliefs. But then realised that the whole point of the show is that no one is more preoccupied with anyone’s beliefs than themselves. Now that I’ve let go of that too and just concentrated on being funny people are free to interpret it any way they want.
JS: Has your show developed much since its initial Edinburgh festival run?
BB: I’m travelling solo for now. It’s no longer set to music as Dave Eastgate the guitarist became too in demand in Oz and I simply couldn’t afford him. However I’m in talks with Phil Nichol right now about composing something for the DVD recording. So watch this space for sure. This is easily the most complex and sensitive show I’ve ever written. It took five years to write in the first place and it’s been ever tweaked since.
JS: I’ve seen the show both in Edinburgh and on tour. People often class you as an offensive comedian, but do you think this is fair?
BB: I get it, people need a hook and comedy is so subjective. So on the one hand it’s helpful marketing almost, in that it keeps certain people away. Although I think a lot of people would be more inclined to say these days that they’re not so much offended as just bored to death with a kid in their twenties trying constantly to shock them. I’ve been guilty of that for sure, but these days I’d be more inclined to say “Adult” or “Mature” material. If you’re a boozy WKD drinking lad with way too much gel in your hair or a frozen British girl in a short skirt with low self esteem – I’m definitely not for you. I prefer to make people who have lived and thought a little laugh.
JS: Do you think Northern audiences are happier to go along with your particular style of comedy than punters in the South?
BB: This is a tiny, tiny island and the North/South divide means nothing to me. I would say that the South are way more classist. Fantastically so.
JS: You say that you’re heavily influenced by black American comics such as Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor – do these comics still play a part in your stand up today?
BB: Absolutely, although the people that have the greatest influence on me are my peers. Because comics are so competitive no-one ever wants to admit it, but my friends rub off on me immensely.
And when I watch them I see me in them too – turns of phrase, intonations, facial expressions, everything. You can tell who’s been hanging out with who all the time. I do think that now will be known in the future as quite the Renaissance period of comedy in Britain; where all these artists came from around the world, were very close friends, and had a fantastic blend of styles. Pretty much every guy I know is capable of every aspect of the game now: mastering, word play, story-telling, one-liners, surrealism and metaphor, high satire and topicality. Ignore any whiners that claim it’s becoming homogenised. Nothing could be further from the truth.
JS: You walked off set after just 3 days presenting I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now! on ITV2 – can you tell us more about what happened there?
BB: They put a cork hat on my head – it was the last straw. I walked off set and said, “I don’t think I’m cut out for light entertainment.”
They said, “Funny you should say that…”
And I replied, “Before you finish that sentence let me tell you that the moment that cork hat went on my head I fucking quit.”
They laughed, we hugged, and I was allowed out of my contract quite amicably. They were actually really nice people.
JS: Your 2007 if.commeddie award winning show So I Supppse THIS is Offensive Now tackled a great deal of bigotries and audience perception. How did the idea for it come about?
BB: I was in the Australian outback talking to a tribal Aboriginal guy about Uluru. A few days earlier I’d stopped to help an Aboriginal family stranded on the side of the road. News of this had travelled to him even though it was some 300 kilometres away. So much of their culture is about stories so he was willing to open up to me a bit. Also a white Australian that wasn’t a ranger stopping to help them out is extremely rare. There’s a lot of animosity and fear between the two cultures. However in the Australian Outback I sound English and can feel free to approach them without it being too much of an issue, as it’s one of the few places in the world where, if you have an English accent, you are presumed not racist.
So he’d heard that I’d done this and started asking me why I’d come to the rock alone. I explained that I needed to let go of something and I’d hoped to give it to the rock as it was going to be there long after I’d gone and my simplest of concerns wouldn’t bother it a jot.
“Yeah the rock is like that” He replied, “You give something to it, it gives something back” We nodded sagely, “Did you climb it?” he asked.
“No”, I replied, as the tribal Pitjantjatjara people ask you not to. They don’t demand it. They just ask nicely. Pretty much every nation that ever travels there obliges happily except white Australian. I figure it’s a reasonable request given a couple of hundred years of actual genocide.
“Yeah there’s been a lot of sadness around the rock ever since that sorry business.”
“What’s the sorry business?” I asked, presuming it pertained to the Aboriginal community asking for a simple apology from the Australian Government in lieu of reparations.
“Oh, I can’t talk about that.”
“Well you brought it up mate, not me. Are we going out now? ‘Cos it’s starting to feel like it”
“Well, you see, Aboriginal culture is all in our heads. We don’t write it down. It’s passed on from generation to generation through talkin’. You see that big crack in the rock? That was put there by an Aboriginal woman who was very angry at the rock so she whipped it. And the lake down the side that was left there by a serpent many many years ago. And this is all passed on around campfires from father to son and mother to daughter going back thousands of years…”
And I responded, “Well, what you have to take into account is that somewhere along the way in your lineage there was a massive fucking bullshitter. Because weather caused that crack, mate. And I hold that in the exact same regard that Noah didn’t have two of every animal.”
And later I wondered if I was being racist. Then I realised that my dilemma was racist. Because not every Aboriginal person feels that way. I’d gone to Oz after walking off the set of I’m a Celebrity! for being pigeonholed and was deeply offended, then I’d done the same here. As soon as I got back to the UK the Big Brother race row had started and I had all the subject matter I needed.
JS: Your recently published book Fear of Hat Loss in Las Vegas is described as a true-life travel tale of fate, coincidence, drugs and debauchery. Is the story 100% true or somewhat embellished?
BB: Three things didn’t happen and generally no-one guesses what three. Otherwise it’s more realistic than people might expect.
JS: Finally, do you worry about what kind of audience you’ll get when arriving in each town, given the levels of intelligence and rationality required to enjoy this show (as opposed to, say, a stag and hen filled weekend club night)?
BB: No stag or hen nights are allowed. A lot of people have seen me tear apart hecklers on YouTube and think that’s all that I do. But with this show rather than engaging that I approach the matter with empathy, say that I understand but actually I need them a bit more focused in order for this to work. Everyone seems to understand that pretty well.
If you’re looking to see Brendon Burns live in the North East, he’ll be performing at The Grinning Idiot Comedy Club in December. More information can be found here.