We spoke to Jim Jefferies in advance of his two shows tonight at Revolution Hall. As I mentioned in the piece: During our conversation, Jefferies seemed almost physically unable to share anything less than the totality of his feelings.
In other words: He's a goddamn good interview—as honest, funny and generous as any of the comics I've spoken with over the years.
So read on past the jump, where Jefferies goes into detail about having to film a comedy special the day after his sitcom was cancelled, the "fuck-wit" director he was paired with on that sitcom, working with disabled actors, why he doesn't perform in L.A.'s hip rooms, the mail he gets after his gun control bit went viral (see above), what he thinks about actors, acting, and much more.
MERCURY: Where do we find you this afternoon?
Jefferies: I'm actually in the Beverly Center right now buying a new iPad. It's pretty mundane stuff. I'm at home for a week before I leave on the next tour. The next tour's actually going to be on a bus so it's going to be a little more extended for a couple weeks so I'm having a little rest before. I just got back from doing a tour of Australia.
When you're in L.A., do you get out much doing stand-up in the clubs?
Not a lot. If someone asks me to do a charity gig I'll always do that. If a friend of mine is running a room I'll do that.
But to be honest with you, people have this theory that you get up in the clubs so you can try out new stuff, and it's like—when I do my shows, my shows are close to two hours long. I stick in 10 or 15 minutes of new stuff, every week I try it out when I'm on the road. What's the point of doing it when I've only got 10 minutes on stage? I can't pair it up with my good stuff. And there might be people that could give me a TV deal in the audience. So every time I'm out in L.A., I want to do my best stuff because I'm trying to get my next break. (laughs)
People always say: come down to the clubs and you can try out some new shit. Or I can die in front of 10 people in a shitty little bar.
That was my theory—there is that scene in L.A. and the clique around it, but you're doing your own thing.
I still hang out with the guys. I hang out in the comedy clubs more than I get up. I just don't see the point in—I feel like this whole idea of get up and find new material is the way of the venues not paying you anything, you know?
Not that I want the extra money or whatever, but the way that they can get big acts in, not pay them anything, it's this whole bullshit kind of, oh it's a nice room to try something, fuck that. I'll try it out in front of my audience. I don't want to try it out in front of people who aren't my fans.
That's interesting. After comics reach a certain level and get a devoted fan base, audiences are often willing to laugh at anything, good or not.
Yes and no. Of course it's easier now than it was before I had a fan base. But also I'm now measured against my old material. When I first got famous I wasn't measured against anything. You just went along and you enjoyed it or you didn't enjoy it or what have you.
But not it's like, every time I do a special, all [it's] about is: is it as good as the last special, and like, have I regressed? I liked it more when you used to talk about A, B, C, and D. Now you have a kid, and you're talking too much about having a kid.
So the person I'm competing against is me. When you get up in a comedy club, if you're good at it, when you're first starting out and you rip the shit out of it, the audience is like, surprised. They're like, wow, that was really good. We just came down here and weren't expecting anything and you were really good. When people come to see me now they're expecting something. (laughs)
If I get drunk on stage or something, now people are going to be disappointed in me. Before they didn't really give a shit.
I would suspect that your crowd would hope you got drunk on stage.
Yeah, but, you know, not everybody. As long as I get drunk and do a good show, but so often it goes the other way.
You mentioned being compared to your older work, and I wonder if there are any bits that you'd can't escape, that everyone wants to hear over and over?
I don't do any material once I've recorded it. I get requests for the Gunter routine and all the religious stuff. At the moment the gun routine has done so well online—it went viral. So now I've got a lot of people who are coming and hoping I'll do more political stuff and that's not really my bag, you know?
With the gun routine going viral, I'm sure it's touched some people who didn't agree. Have you gotten threats?
Oh yeah, all that, all day, every day. Every day I get hate mail. It goes up based on what's happening that day. If a three-year-old shoots a one-year-old in a car parked in a parking lot, like what happened four days ago, I don't receive much mail that day. But if there's a shooting overseas, say like in Sydney, I get inundated with: this "Look, your country is just as bad as ours" bullshit.
I interviewed you in 2011, and around that time you had just moved to L.A. That was before Legit, and you were looking to move into TV and movies. Well, that sort of worked, and it didn't. So let's start there. When Legit was cancelled, how did it go down?
I was depressed for months after it got cancelled. That show shouldn't have gotten cancelled. It was a good show.
Was it a close decision for them?
I felt like it was a very close decision for them, but I still feel like they made the wrong choice. It was a close decision, but them saying, "Oh, it didn't rate very well."
Of course it didn't rate very well! They put it on a channel that no one had ever heard of, on an island all by itself, with no lead-in show. We went into our second season, we were strong enough to be the lead-in show.
Look, I'm amazed anyone watched it. But I feel like it's doing very well on Netflix and it's getting a little audience now—not that that helps me. But people are actually seeing it. I was very proud of the second season. The first season I thought was good but I was very proud of the second season. They were wrong to cancel it.
My relationship with FX is still fine. No hard feelings or anything. But yeah, they were wrong. I think, I don't even know if they gave it another season whether the ratings would have picked up.
I think it needed to be on Netflix where it could be discovered. Because it just wasn't being advertised. It wasn't being pushed. And if you aren't getting a push, no one is going to see it—not when it originally airs. Maybe time will treat the show a little bit better than they think it will.
So the reason you were given about it being cancelled was about numbers, it wasn't about content?
That's the official story. The official reason is about numbers. The real reason is because the guy who I created it with, Peter Fallon, is a complete and utter fuck-wit and couldn't stop bothering the network every five minutes. (laughs)
How do you mean?
He's one of these blokes who just rang them up every day like, "What's the ratings? What's the ratings?" He bothered the wrong people—just like the annoying fucker at work. He's one of these guys who couldn't see what he was doing.
If the ratings were great it wouldn't have mattered. But when it was a touch-and-go situation, I wasn't going to win that fight still having that idiot around me.
Was he a creative collaborator?
He created the TV show in the same way that fucking Americans invented chocolate—not at all.
What happened was, the network wanted to do a show with him. And look, you only have to watch my stand-up routine to know who created what. You know what I mean?
That was part of the problem. For him to come in a start saying "I created the show," was talking rubbish. He didn't create shit. He didn't take a guy with muscular dystrophy to a brothel—that's where it all started.
So, what happens in these TV deals—look, I think he was a very good director. He did contribute to the show a lot of good things. He didn't create it.
The characters that you brought to it—including the character with muscular dystrophy, and Dan's character—are not the kind of characters you see leading a sitcom.
I wondered what the average American TV watcher flipping through the channels thought when they saw it. I wonder if that was surprising, or a turnoff, or interesting.
I don't know. Maybe if I had my time over I would've made it more palatable for the masses.
But that's what made it great.
I enjoyed the show. I actually watched season two on Netflix. I hadn't watched it since its air date and there had been enough time and I wasn't angry anymore. And yeah, I like it. (laughs) It was a good show. But then again, it was a show that was completely engineered for my tastes.
I think maybe it was a little bit sappy for some fans of mine. But it wasn't too sappy for me. That was how I wanted it.
With those characters, did you set out to put different kinds of people that are not usually on TV or did that just kind of happen?
You mean all the disabled actors?
Or a character like Dan's, whos just sad and beaten.
A sad drunk, yeah. The character of Dan—the character of Steve that Dan Bakkedahl played—he evolved. We had an idea of how we wanted this guy to be. And then by season two he'd evolved into the alcoholic. Initially the whole alcoholic thing kind of happened because in the last episode of season one, we were looking through the script and we were on the set with Dan, and we had nothing for Steve to do. It was all about Billy and the girl and me. And there was nothing for Steve to do. So we just went to him and said, ahh, just act wasted. (laughs) Dan's like, "No problem."
We realized that throughout a lot of other scenes that Steve and Jim were drunk. And I've had my arm-wrestles with alcohol myself. Even on Cheers no one was an alcoholic. When was the last time you saw an alcoholic in a sitcom that wasn't recovered or in AA?
Never in a sitcom.
Never in a sitcom would you see a proper drunk. And this was a guy that [had] every reason to be drunk. He'd lost his kid, he had a disabled brother that he was taking care of. He felt that life had passed him by because maybe he didn't get the attention he deserved because of his brother, and the underlying resentment that was there towards his brother, and also the obvious love that he had for his brother, taking care of him as well. He had every reason to be a drunk.
I come back to the question: Seeing these things that aren't on traditional sitcoms, did you set out to make something different? Or did it just sort of happen?
I was trying to make a show that I hadn't seen before. That was important. I didn't realize until after the show was over that it was the only show with disabled people... but their disability wasn't the moving force of their character.
So you had people like Rodney, who was obviously disabled. The only reason that character is in the show is because, you know, we had to have Billy in a home and then you've got to populate the home, and then I was like, he should have a roommate at the home.
And then we started auditioning (begins to chuckle) mentally challenged people. (laughs) I remember thinking: Will we get in trouble for this? Will the disabled community be angry? I remember being panicky about it before the episode aired, like, are they going to hate this?
It was resounding—people in the community loved it. Because we weren't mean. If someone had the piss taken out of them it was no more or less than any of the other characters.
When the show ended, the guys like Nick Daley who played Rodney and the other lads who were in the show, that probably upset me more than anything, that they were out of work. Because the opportunity they had on that show is not coming around again. There's not another show where they're going to be joking with the rest of the cast and not be the poor disabled kid who's abused or in a home or whatever, or some PSA.
And so that, to me, was probably the most upsetting thing when it was cancelled. I was like, why would you do that? If it was just on the border of being cancelled, why would you cancel a show that, regardless of what you think of it, did some good in the world. Some substantial, actual, visible thing that made people's lives better.
Did you have the third season all written out in your head?
I had the third season already mapped out, yeah. I could write the third season now, top to bottom, in two months. I know in my head what would happen.
Have you been able to let go of it?
It ebbs and flows. You have a day where it's good and a day where you're angry and a day where you're grateful because I got to make something I wanted to make—and that's not an opportunity a lot of people have. And something else will come along—whether it will have that little bit of magic for me personally, who knows?
I'll be all right, but then me and Dan Bakkedahl will go out and have a meal or something and then the two of us will get angry by the end of it (laughs) because we're not on our show anymore.
It's tough. I find the TV business very tough. And the whole acting thing, if I couldn't do stand-up comedy I wouldn't even consider being an actor for a minute. If I didn't have my fallback job of stand-up comedy I wouldn't even consider that occupation for more than 30 seconds in my entire life. If my son ever said he wanted to be an actor I would strongly stop him from doing it.
Why is that?
It's a fucking useless occupation, where about 10 people earn money. You think anybody doing a bit part in a film, even if you've seen them in 100 films, they're getting like nine grand and they're doing like five movies a year. It's a shit-paying shit-job where you don't know what's coming day-to-day. It's all right for me because I've worked on things I've created.
Most things in the creative world are utter shit. Most things you're going to work on as an actor, you're just going to be there with your soul dying. You got into the whole acting profession because you saw greatness in a movie, or you saw a stage play that made you want to be an actor, or because when you were in school you put on the best musical ever. But the reality is that most of the time you're going to be in some shitty sitcom delivering shitty fucking lines, or in a movie that's never going to go anywhere. (laughs) So the end result is you're going to be selling Campbell's fucking soup, you know what I mean? The whole dream that actors have is completely removed from reality. It's not for the people at the top. But the people at the top are even fewer than the people at the top of stand-up comedy.
The stand-up comedy top, there's room for everyone—if you're good, there's room for everyone. The audience—you'll put on your own show—no one casts you. You cast your own show as a stand-up comedian. When you get good at stand-up comedy you book a theater and if people show up, people show up. If people don't show up, people don't show up. You don't have a director or a casting agent or anybody saying if you're good enough—the audience will decide.
With acting, it must be very frustrating. I'm not very good at auditions. Sometimes I audition for a role and I'm like, I'd be really funny in that role, but I'm not good at auditions so I guess I'm not getting that role. It's a very frustrating job.
Also, I can't even imagine being a woman in the world of acting, like where you age starts to weigh you down—you go from being attractive to where they decided you're out... I feel like with stand-up comedy, it doesn't matter if I've gotten fatter.
What are some of the positives you've taken from it? There has to be something you've learned about storytelling or about American audiences or...?
I've learned how to write scripts. I never knew how to do that before...
Having your own show, where you're not in trouble all the time, because you're kind of the boss, is a wonderful experience. If I made mistakes everyone was very nice to me. (laughs) Like, "Aaww Jim, you're meant to look at the eye-line here," and that kind of stuff, "You're in the shadow, you're in the this, you're in the that," "When you're doing this you're meant to look over there." So all that was really good.
I could write funny scenes and outlines and scenarios but I couldn't structure a script. I didn't even know where I'm meant to put act breaks and stuff like that. I was just an ideas guy before I got into it. Now I can write scripts.
Also I took out of it, I saw the difference—I thought acting was easy—it's not easy. It's a hard life. It's easy in its own way, you just stand there and talk. But there is a difference between people who can do it well and people who can't. And I think a lot of it's just practice, and luckily I got a little bit of practice.
I also got friendships out of the show, which is nice to make friends with people who aren't stand-up comedians for the first time in over a decade. I'd just been hanging in the same pool of fish for the same 10 or 15 years. It was nice to meet people with different outlooks and stuff like that. All I used to hang out with was a bunch of lefties who were always miserable and bitchy and moaning—but funny as hell. Now I've met some people who are just friendly and nice and not all that funny and I'm realizing that's a good quality as well.
Is it something you want to do again?
Oh yeah. Look, I'm actively trying to. People have asked me. They go, "Are you going to do any more acting in the future?" That's like saying "Are you going to fuck any more hot chicks in your life?" They make the decision. I don't make the decision. I'd like to. I would if they let me.
I imagine the show has brought a new audience to stand-up shows?
I guess so. It's hard to tell but I think so, yeah. I think it's given me a slightly more—definitely more women are coming to the shows now. I think, before maybe, I was just depicted as a guy that did dick jokes or was a bit crass—and I am. I think maybe after seeing the show they could see that I'm a little more than that or something. I don't know.
Definitely more women, more couples, and slightly older. This is the weird thing, this is probably why the show never worked: I was meant to be making a show for men aged 16-to-29. (laughs) I made a show that women enjoyed from 25-to-35. (laughs)
When it ended did you find solace in going back to stand-up?
I never fell out of stand-up. The day that Legit was cancelled, the next day I recorded Bare.
Really? That's just by chance?
That's just by chance, yeah.
When that happened were you like, "Oh, for fuck's sake!"?
Well, there was an amount of well, people are still paying me to do stand-up comedy, you know? There was some solace in that I was about to do another project that next day.
But you know, at times during that recording I could've snapped, told them all to fuck off and everything right then and there on stage. But I thought, make sure you do a good show because if you don't have this you don't have anything. (laughs)
For this tour, the "Freedumb" tour, obviously we don't want to give away too much, but what knid of things are you finding yourself exploring?
I'll be doing my usual—there will be a couple of stories about sex. There'll be a large chunk about being a new dad. I don't think you can avoid that when you have such a big life change. But it's not like I'm Ray Romano or anything. Don't worry. I'm still dirty. It's similar stuff to what I've always done, but now involving having a kid and just dealing with other parents, having to be out in the world now and join society. The whole "Freedumb" stuff, I will be doing some commentary on American life. It's a very easy way for me to get people all riled up, which I quite enjoy.
How long have you lived in the States?
Do you feel like an American?
I feel, I've got an American child, I've got an American girlfriend, I own American property, I drive American cars. I feel pretty American.
I'll tell you this: I'm Australian, but out of everything I feel British. I lived 10 years in the UK, and even more than Australian I feel English. You know, I don't even feel Welsh or Scottish. I feel like I'm an English person. But I'm Australian, that's what the passport says. I love Australia. But I feel like my sensibilities are British—I feel like I'm just the right level of miserable, with a quirky enough sense of humor. I feel British. I like sport that takes a long time, like cricket—and I sort of have a thing for baseball. And, you know, I like these things like Blur and Oasis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and that's how I am. I just feel like I'm that bloke. I like it when it rains a little bit.
Anything else outside of stand-up that you're working on?
I just sold a script that just got rejected like five times. That happens all the time: you sell a script and the chances of getting it made [are] pretty slim, so I think I'll just keep trying to sell scripts. I've sold two of them now.
Is the next thing to make a feature film instead of a TV show?
I would like to do more television. I'll tell you the reason why: When you do a movie for a couple of months, maybe you'll be on the set for six days. You don't know anyone, nobody knows you, you don't know anyone's name, and you all just hope it turns out well. If it doesn't turn out well you all sort of, "Oh, I'll see you on some other project."
Something about television where you've got the opportunity to nail it. You keep going back and trying new things and eventually—also when you write a movie, you write the characters and hope it turns out. In TV you write the characters then you cast them and that changes your whole way of writing from then on. And so you can really get a character and really develop them.
Me and Rhys Darby are getting together and working on a script. We'll see how that works out.
That's an interesting sensibility, you against his relentless positivity.
That's sort of what were aiming for. We've been friends for years.