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Arj Barker Is Huge in Australia—But Still at Home in the Bay

The Marin-born comedian, of Flight of the Conchords fame, reflects on two decades—on two continents—of comedy.

 

In many ways, Marin County’s Arj Barker, best known to comedy fans as Dave from the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, is like the proverbial band that’s big in Japan, but hardly registers back home. Having come up through the San Francisco comedy circuit in the 1990s, Barker found an unlikely audience in Australia, where he’s since become one of that country’s biggest acts. These days, he splits his time between his native San Anselmo and Melbourne, where he’s set to release his seventh comedy film later this year. We caught up with Barker in advance of his weeklong homecoming set at Cobb’s Comedy Club to ask about comedy down under, talking Trump in Australia, and the lasting legacy of the Conchords.

San Francisco: So first things first, how did you get to be such a popular act in Australia?

Arj Barker: I first went there in about 1999, or maybe 1998—sometime in the last century—and then I just kept going back. I was getting a really good response. And at one point I realized I was getting booked to play in a theater, not a club—I remember being concerned I wouldn’t sell enough tickets. But from that moment when I saw I was having some success down there, I didn’t want to take my foot off the pedal. It was an opportunity I’d never seen anywhere else, so I went for it and toured there as much as I could.

SF: Is there something about your sense of humor that plays well to an Australian crowd?

AB: The jokes seem to work just as well as anywhere, not necessarily any better. One thing that helped me was being from the States. There are a lot more American comedians venturing that way these days, but back then, there were only a handful. I had that allure of exoticness—that might have made me seem like a bigger deal than I was. Now you get close to 100 international acts a year coming down, of various levels. There’s just a lot of comedy out there these days. I was lucky to get my foot in the door early on.

SFThat was almost 20 years ago. It’s a challenge to stay funny and relevant for that long, isn’t it?

AB: I know comedians who’ve been doing it 30-plus years, and they seem to be able to hang on. I’m not comparing myself to George Carlin or anything, but I think it’s possible to do it. If you keep doing the same act, it’s going to get stale. But if it’s honest, then it almost can’t help but reflect the current times. The key is just to work hard and keep turning over your material.

SF: Have you started doing more political humor lately?

AB: I try. I have a few Donald Trump jokes—I’d like to have more. I don’t overdo it, and I try not to [do much political humor] when I’m out of the country. Even though it’s a worldwide thing, I just don’t want to spend too much of the show on it. It’s talking about another country’s politics, even though it affects the whole world.

SF: Trump's not real popular in Australia, either, right?

AB: Yeah, he supposedly had a somewhat tense conversation with the prime minister—he said [the U.S.] should take more refugees or something. I don’t know. [Trump] said something horrible—like, fill in the blank, you know? I don’t have a rule about doing political jokes. I just do the material that comes to me, that I think is funny. When people go to my show, they just want to laugh. I don’t mind being political, but not at the expense of being funny.

SF: How have Netflix and YouTube and the web changed the comedy landscape?

AB: I mean, the internet has completely changed everything. I don’t actually know what it’s like to start out as a comedian now. My first show was at the Holy City Zoo on Clement Street. And one of the places I really cut my teeth was Caffe Nuvo, in San Anselmo. Every other week, I’d host a showcase with comedians who were a tiny bit established, or maybe there’d be one new guy that was just trying it out. I got a lot of stage time, which was invaluable. It was an important part of my history, and it was a lot of fun—and some really supportive audiences.

SF: You’ve got a new comedy film coming out soon, right?

AB: Yeah, it’s an Australian release. And, Netflix, if you’re reading this, Hi guys, I’d love to get in on that! But this is DVD number seven. If I get to 10 DVDs someday, I may actually think about taking some time off, looking to find a second sort of career or something. I don’t know, maybe writing or acting maybe. 

SF: Is that something you’re actively looking into yet?

AB: A friend and I wrote a show together, it’s sort of the Arj Barker show—that’s not the name. It’s a scripted comedy, so I’m trying to get that made at the moment. But I like to keep it under wraps.

SF: So most people know you as Dave from Flight of the Conchords. I guess the question everyone still wants to know is whether there’s ever going to be a film. Is that something you’d want to be involved with? 

AB: If I was fortunate enough to have a part in it, I’d be delighted. But I don’t know if it’d necessarily be an extension of the HBO show, or if it’d be a whole new [premise]. There’s Flight of the Conchords, the HBO show; and there’s the actual band. My character, Dave, lives in the HBO world. So if they made a movie, it could be in a different world completely. I don’t know.

SF: Do you have to deal with people only knowing you from the show? Does that bother you? 

AB: No, I feel fortunate and blessed that fell in my lap. I don’t talk about it every day—if I had to talk about it every day, I’d get tired of it. But that applies to any subject. I don’t dwell on it, but it’s nice to reflect on it once in a while. It was a great experience. Those guys are good friends of mine, and I’m glad people still like them.

SF: Anything in particular you’re looking forward to with these Cobb’s shows?

AB: I’m working with a Bay Area legend, Tony Camin, who’s the feature act. He’s going to have an incredible set before me. He’s one of my best friends—we’ve worked together a lot, and he’s hilarious, which is why we’re friends. It’s going to be a great night. I have a bunch of new jokes and a couple classics. It’s a great time. I love the Bay Area. It’s my true home, so it’s always good to get back here.

Arj Barker at Cobb’s Comedy Club, June 29–July 2, cobbscomedy.com.

 

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