IIT WAS 2007, and Jim Jefferies was joking about "weird-looking cunts." The Australian-born comic was at the Comedy Store in Manchester when his material caused a member of the audience to snap: A man stormed on stage and lunged at Jefferies, throwing a messy barrage of punches, a few of which landed squarely before club security and a few ardent fans subdued the would-be martyr.
But for Jefferies, later named "Britain's Most Offensive Stand-Up Comic" by Q magazine, the assault changed little. If anything, it strengthened his convictions that, when it comes to humor, nothing should be off limits.
"Freedom of speech isn't just you being able to say what you want," Jefferies says. "It's also you having to listen to shit you don't want to hear." On stage, however, he admits there are practical realities.
"I think you should be able to do, say, a racist joke on stage as long as people know it's tongue in cheek," Jefferies explains. "But you can't do that because there are audience members who won't see it that way." The reason those jokes should be allowed, he asserts, is an argument against double standards. "You can do a rape joke or a joke about pedophilia on stage and it's more acceptable because the audience inherently knows that you're probably not a rapist or a pedophile. But if you do a racist joke, no no no, you might be [racist]. And furthermore, they might be, which is even worse."
Jefferies finds people laugh at every tragedy but the ones they're close to. He's sympathetic to the sensitivity, but says, "you can't pick and choose," laughing at one joke while castigating another.
"I've watched hundreds of hours of stand-up comedy and I can't think of a single joke that really made me belly laugh that involved someone having a good day and someone getting promoted and having a child and everything worked out fine," he says. "It just doesn't happen."
That said, Jefferies admits to playing up the tension or malice in his act. "It is a cartoon version of yourself," he says. "[But] I'm not gonna say that everything I say is so tongue in cheek that I don't believe in it, either." Instead it's a matter of channeling the original, lost-past moment or emotion.
"I've been known to do a lot of misogynistic jokes in my day," Jefferies says. "My feeling is when I wrote that joke, or when I thought of that joke, maybe at that time I was feeling that way. Maybe I'd just been dumped. Or maybe I just had something that been shit happen to me with an ex or something.
"That's not how I feel at 8 pm on Friday when I'm performing a year later, you know? You have to understand that a show's a show," he adds. "These are my thoughts and ideas, but people are more complex than that. You don't just walk around all day hating people or being pissed off at the world."
Speaking from his relatively new home in LA, Jefferies, although self-deprecating, comes across as thoughtful. Caring, even. And if one listens to his work with an open ear, the humanity inside his jokes becomes apparent, as in a show-stopping bit about delivering a quadriplegic childhood friend—now a thirtysomething virgin—to a brothel. Somehow, the story has heart.
At its core, Jefferies says, comedy—or laughter—is a coping mechanism. "It's like the old saying: that the first thing that happens when something shitty happens is you have a laugh... Otherwise it's a lost cause completely."