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The Hilariously Insightful Arj Barker



Australia’s favourite adopted son of comedy, Arj Barker, is heading to Newcastle with his new show Arj Barker Comes Clean. According to Barker, every show that he has ever done over the past 30 years has been a warmup for this one in Newcastle because Newcastle has the best audiences anywhere in the world.


We’re not sure we believe him, but what is true is that Australia adores him. He’s been touring Australia with versions of his stand-up comedy for decades and in 2019 won the Aria Award for Best Comedy Release with Organic. His latest show promises to deliver more of his signature dry humour and philosophical life outlook, drawing on equal measures of real-life and, in his own words, BS.

 

Barker grew up in a northern suburb of San Francisco, California, to a father with Punjabi Sikh heritage and an artist mother. His father was an engineer who didn’t force his spiritual beliefs on his son, having cut his hair when he moved to the US. Barker speaks of an idyllic childhood of freedom, where he loved the outdoors, went fishing and climbed trees. He attended church with his family, and in typical 80s fashion, his parents never knew where he was. He roamed free and relished his carefree existence in a beautiful part of the world.


He found his way into comedy shortly after graduating high school, where he’d enjoyed a short stint in a rap group called The Sanchez Brothers – you can still find some of their songs on the internet. He grew up knowing that he loved to make people laugh and began appearing as a stand-up comedian in local cafes around his hometown of San Anselmo and hosted comedy nights every Sunday during the 1990s at Caffe Nuvo. He remembers his early comedy as a “matter of life and death”.


“When you first start out in comedy, it feels like it’s a matter of life and death. Your adrenaline starts pumping, and your palms sweat. After a while, though, you learn to relax, to understand that you’ve got this. It’s not the end of the world if a joke falls flat. Plus, you get hooked on adrenaline!”


Barker admires anyone in comedy who has an original voice and who writes their own material. He doesn’t cite any particular comedic influence other than the fact that he loved to watch Monty Python when he was growing up. It was something the whole family enjoyed together. The first stand-up comedy he remembers seeing is of a 21-year-old Eddie Murphy.


“Eddie Murphy was amazing. I remember being absolutely delirious. Watching it now, the material seems dated – it wouldn’t play well now. It seems ‘hacky’ – like it’s been done to death, but it’s quite likely that he was the first to do it. The truly inspirational thing about watching videos of Eddie Murphy is the astounding level of confidence and poise this 21-year-old had. He owned the stage. I still find that inspiring.”


His career in comedy took off in the 1990s with appearances on American television, including Premium Blend, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman and Bartle and James. He’s toured America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. In 1997 he won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2000 he performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and appeared on Rove Live. His love affair with Australia had begun.


The 2000s were a time of extreme creativity for Barker, who has a tendency to get together with talented and creative friends to make extraordinary stuff happen. One such project was the Off-Broadway production of Marijuana-Logues, (a parody of the Vagina Monologues), which he co-wrote and performed in. It toured the US, Canada and Europe before taking up its Off-Broadway residency for a year. Barker remembers it as a very fun year. There’s actually a book and an original cast recording available from this successful 4-man stand-up comedy show.


It was also during this time that Barker extended his acting career and appeared in Car Babes and the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, which is perhaps what he is best known for, followed by Lucifer’s Crewcut. Flight of the Conchords was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards and was a fictionalised account of a two-man band from New Zealand seeking their fame and fortune in New York City. Barker played their friend Dave, who worked at a pawn shop and delivered off-kilter advice on American women and culture. He has said previously that it was like playing a cartoon version of himself.


In the mid-2000’s Barker also co-created an animated comedy series called Arj & Poopy with his friend and animator Bernard Derriman, who was Sydney based at the time. The series received international attention and won the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 2005 and 2006. Derriman went on to become an Emmy awarded animator, art director and producer on Fox’s Bob’s Burgers. Barker seems humble about this success and simply sees Arj & Poopy as a little bit of fun with his friend but does admit that “people like them.” The mid to late 2000s also saw Barker as a regular on the Australian comedy series, Thank God You’re Here on Network Ten.


Barker’s first love, however, is definitely stand-up, and he’s been doing it for 30 years. He’s released nine DVDs of comedy material since 2006 and has been nominated for 4 Aria Awards, winning one in 2019 for Organic. Every show is different, but they all rely on a mix of personal stories and general life lessons as inspiration for the material.

“Every year I try to be more honest, to be a better comedian. It’s more challenging - tougher to be meaningful and funny at the same time. “


His latest show Arj Barker Comes Clean, was performed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year and focuses on a number of topics, including coronavirus and lockdowns, divorce and UFO’s, which seems an odd mix, but is typically hilarious and insightful. According to one reviewer, the show sometimes has the feel of a TED Talk until it gets flipped on its head and “the belly laughs ensue”. Barker seems fascinated by the concept of UFOs and aliens and talks about the history of sightings going back to the bible. He ruminates on the number of people who have experienced sightings and the indications of other forms of intelligence.


With Barker’s aim to be ever-more honest in his comedy, it’s no surprise that he delves into the issues around divorce. He currently shares custody with his ex-wife of two gorgeous girls aged 5 and 11 and describes the amicable split as an ‘uncoupling’. They live in Melbourne – the world’s most locked-down city. Barker doesn’t complain about the lock-down. It’s been a time for him to explore his hobbies and spend time with his girls. He plays guitar and piano, dabbles in woodwork and plays Warzone. He also likes to keep fit with workouts and doesn’t get bored because there’s too much to learn. These life experiences will no doubt feed his comedy.


Of his love for Australia, Barker talks about what a beautiful country it is, finding freedom in the space and admiring the wildlife, food and friendly people. He’s found a large part of his audience here and loves his job. He hints at something new coming very soon, but it’s off the record, and we’ll all just have to wait and see what he’s got up his sleeve.

This true creative spirit will no doubt deliver a hilarious surprise package sometime very soon, and Australia will be the first to enjoy it.


You can catch Arj Barker at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre on Thursday, November 25th. For tickets and more information,

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