Sometimes people push buttons to get a reaction.
Good comedians and bad ones have been doing this for years: going out on stage every night and seeing what buttons they can push to get a laugh. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, the audience will often find themselves laughing at things that might otherwise make them angry or want to cry.
Australian comedian and television personality Jim Jefferies (born Geoff James Nugent on Valentine's Day, 1977) is a consummate button pusher and a master of walking the fine line between talking about horrible things and still being hilarious. His comedy is refreshingly honest and, when he’s not saying something that would be cringe-worthy if it came from a less charming person, Jefferies is not afraid to take on any subject.
In his latest Netflix stand-up special, called Freedumb, Jefferies points out rather cleverly that when you read his jokes on paper, they don’t work. Instead, they come off as misogynistic, sexist, and, as he says, “It’s a bad read.”
On Jefferies' current Comedy Central show, the comedian and social commentary specialist skewers topics like gun control, racism, and President Trump, just to name a few. A departure from the under-appreciated situation comedy Legit for sure, The Jim Jefferies show is worth taking a look at if you're interested in hearing the news from Jefferies’ often cynical perspective. In advance of Jefferies' upcoming appearance at Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, December 2, Phoenix New Times caught up with the comedian via the phone last week to talk about what he's been up to lately.
New Times: How do you pull off saying some of the things you say, yet still come across so likeable?
Jim Jefferies: I don’t really know. In my personal life, many people don’t like me and I assume they don’t like my stand-up. To at least a certain group, though, I guess they find me likable. The whole thing has always been being able to say bad things to people and them knowing that I’m joking. In the current climate, that is getting harder and harder. It’s getting harder for your jokes not to be seen at face value.
I was hoping we could talk about that. You say some pretty misogynistic things in your stand up and, as you mentioned in Freedumb, if you read the transcript, you can come off as a total dick, but you pull it off because of your stage presence. Was that something you figured out early on?
I figured it was an angle for me I could pull off. I think when you start doing comedy, most people want to be edgy like a George Carlin or a Richard Pryor or whoever and I think being edgy is something people aspire to be. When you start doing open mic nights and think, “I’m going to say a disgusting joke about fingering a grandmother or something like that” and then it doesn’t come off, you just look terrible. people think you’re terrible.
This is why I am not very fond of doing print interviews. You can hear what I’m saying (laughs), but you write the answer, I come off like a dick in a lot of print interviews. I realized very early that I had this thing where I was excused for saying things other people got in trouble for. If I could bottle it, I would teach it to somebody else and I would just manage them.
Then you could bottle it and everyone would be hilarious, or no one would be because everyone could do it.
I think everyone likes being unique. I’m not too bad at doing silly. I do silly pretty good, but I don’t do whimsy very well. I don’t deliver one-liners terribly well. I mumble and I’m very meandering. I’m not a terribly good actor, either. You have to work to your strengths.
At the moment with the TV show, I’m not terribly good at reading a teleprompter, but I can perform the jokes pretty good, so for me, I feel like my TV show, more than what John Oliver or Bill Maher sort of do where they tell you the things and you’re sort of bedazzled by the intelligence and the strength of the argument, I sort of perform the fuck out of the jokes quite well.
Did you have reservations about doing a TV show again?
I have more reservations about doing the show now than when I started it. I went into it a little bit more naïve, I think. I didn’t understand that when you do a topical news show, all of the sudden I need to have an opinion on every single thing that happens in the world. I used to go around in my life just generally having a opinions on some things and no opinion on others.
Now I watch the news and think, “Fuck. People are going to want me to say something.” Sometimes you don’t have much to say and sometimes you have a shitload of things to say. It’s a double-edge sword. It’s a privilege to have your opinion heard. There are topics I really do want to say and speak out and give my two cents. There are other topics where I give my two cents but (laughs), I could have kept it to myself.
You can own that, though, and be honest and people will accept that coming from you, correct?
They’ll accept it, yeah, but you’ll get people hating you because now I have to say every political belief I have. Political beliefs are 50/50 in this country across the board. It used to be that I didn’t have to give my political beliefs on certain topics. Now I’m writing a piece on tax reform and no one used to want to hear my opinions on tax reform. People like to argue with me and they say I’ve sold out and I don’t believe I’ve sold out at all.
I think people just now a lot more about me than previously.
Are people paying more attention to the news and waking up now or are people in the United States getting dumber?
We are getting dumber in the sense that we read everything on the internet and we are believing everything. That’s why the Russian hacking and that kind of stuff is out there. We are waking up, though, in the sense that more people are politicized than have ever been. It might be dumb people that are politicized, but more people are involved in politics than ever before. Just the news in general. It seems that everyone is into the news now.
The world has got an opinion. Everyone knows every cabinet member now. We used to just know the President and the Vice President or the Secretary of Defense, you know, people everyone knew. Now we know Rex Tillerson and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We know everyone and we’ve all got opinions on all of them. Jeff Sessions, [Jared] Kushner …why the fuck do we know all these names? We don’t need to know any names. [Laughs]
Is this making things tougher or easier, from a stand up perspective?
Easier to write, tougher to defend. The country is so divided that you’re either a genius or a piece of shit now. It used to be where someone might say, “Well, I don’t agree with him but that was pretty funny” but we’ve got very few moderates anymore.
I love when you point out in Bare [Jefferies' 2014 Netflix special] that 10 percent of the audience is totally pissed off and wants to kill you.
I feel like that 10 percent has probably moved to 20 percent. Those numbers change. I feel like definitely the world is just angry. I feel a swing in people. People are angry in this country, and they won. People are angry because they lost, too, but it seems like no one is happy.
Make America great again? It seems like no one is happy. It’s like they got what they wanted and now they’re upset that the people who lost aren’t happy. It’s very bizarre. They’re smashing their Keurig machines.
The scene in Phoenix is really good for stand-up right now. Beyond being funny, what do you have to do to make it in comedy these days?
I think there is a lot of funny people. I think ambition is even more important than being funny. There were a lot of people in Australia who were funnier than me, but I was the guy who moved to England. I was the guy who moved to America.
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It’s single-mindedness. That’s your focus. It’s getting up in clubs as much as possible. It’s constantly writing new material. Just because a bit kills you should not be doing it more than two years. You should be retiring jokes and bringing out new ones. If there is a big comedy scene in Phoenix, it’s not the epicenter of the world. Get out and go to different towns. Go to L.A. and New York. Go to where the work is. Ambition will get you anywhere in life.
So thanks for giving me the headline ..."Phoenix is not the epicenter …"
[Laughs] This is why I don’t like doing interviews. I come off like an asshole.
I will do my best to make you not sound like an asshole.
I appreciate that.
Jim Jefferies is scheduled to perform at the Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, December 2. Tickets are available for $39.75 and $59.75 via Ticketfly.