“I’ve changed some of the rules of space and time” – an interview with Greg Behrendt
If you’re a comedy fan, you’ll probably recognise veteran comedian Behrendt’s name from his Conan appearances, Comedy Central special or podcast, Walking the Room (which he hosts with fellow comedian Dave Anthony). Otherwise, you’ve probably heard of Behrendt’s self help books, particularly the Hollywood-adapted, Jennifer Anniston-starring He’s Just Not That Into You. After a stint on daytime television and a few more books, he returned to comedy, to the relief of all comedy fans including himself. Australian audiences recognise him too, especially after his 2010 appearance on the Great Debate, which he helped Cal Wilson and Russell Kane win. Behrendt is back in Melbourne this year with a new show, a new format, and a live podcast. I got out an American calling card and spoke to him across the ocean before he comes to Melbourne.
Clearly, Behrendt has a smorgasbord of talents, but he doesn’t play favourites. “I like what I’m doing in the moment, as long as I’m working.” He thinks about it a little though, and admits if he had to pick one art form, it would be music; “it’s just better than everything else. Nothing makes you feel like a song makes you feel. It’s clichéd, but when I was a kid I definitely felt like music saved my life. I thought ‘this is where I belong’. I wasn’t good at sports and music gave me a world to be a part of. It opened up creativity. I’m trying to get back to that. Being in a band is a hassle,” he jokes, because you can’t do it on your own.
Comedy, on the other hand, is something that Behrendt can always do. “It’s a skill that I have. When you can’t do other things, when you’re the worst player on the football team, when you have an alcoholic parent, comedy becomes a tool in your bag.” What about electronic tools, like social media?
Unlike many of his fellow comedians, Behrendt doesn’t have much time for it. “I don’t want to waste time there, mine or my fans. Being on social media all the time is bad, we don’t need a constant dialogue. I’d rather write something and go out and do it.” It’s a personal choice, he says. “I’m a 52 year old man, I don’t want to be on the fucking phone all the time. My kids should do that.” Plus, Behrendt’s not fussed about using social media to convince people he’s funny. “If I already like Louis C.K I don’t care if he’s funny on Twitter. If people don’t know whether someone’s funny, they don’t go to Twitter anyway. They go straight to Youtube.”
One of the reasons Behrendt walked away from being a self help guru because it attracted different audiences wanting different things. “I used to be angry about that,” he says, “but I realised recently I could’ve dealt with it better. It’s like I wrote a cook book. They just came out to hear recipes. I needed to swim back to the comedy shore.” His podcast fans are the opposite: “It attracts the best people. They know you, they love you; it’s intimate.” Behrendt’s advice to younger comedians is to go on podcasts, “or have one. A good one though.” He laughs. “We (Dave Anthony and Behrendt) haven’t done one in a while, because I want the next one to be as good as the last one. So we’re doing a reunion show at this year’s MICF.”
Even with his tangential careers, Behrendt’s writing process is the same as ever, he says. “I see something, something happens, so I write it down, make a note in my phone. Then I go onstage and tell people about it. It’s not really a conscious process, I don’t sit down to write jokes.” That changed with his current show, I Am the King Sweater, which is a different format. “I saw Claudia O’Dogherty’s show and thought ‘I want to write something’, so this show is that. It’s kind of a play.”
The visuals of I Am the King Sweater come from Behrendt’s fixation with the colours and styles; a combination of cutesy things, rockabilly, and Japan. “I did a lot of research. I think the colour palate comes from cherry blossom trees,” he says. There’s an element of the fictional in the style too, linking to the show itself; “I’ve changed some of the rules of time and space,” Behrendt admits.
The show has some musical elements too, which he is excited about. “I was writing it and I thought ‘why not get my guitar out?’ But it’s definitely a play. There are lighting cues and props.” The title – I Am the King Sweater – comes from Behrendt’s experience as a musician in 1985. “I was going to Japan, and I billed myself as ‘The King Swinger’. When I got there, I found that all the posters had been misprinted to say ‘The King Sweater.’ It’s probably for the best,” Behrendt laughs again: “I don’t have the jazz chops to be a ‘swinger’. I played punk music.” With that experience at the heart of the story, Behrendt warns not to believe everything you see onstage: “it’s got true and untrue things.” I Am the King Sweater is, ultimately, silly and fun. Behrendt isn’t so interested in the comedian’s truths, as it were. “I’ve been listening to a lot of older comedy albums. Woody Allen, people like that. And it’s just silly. It’s funny and silly.”
Behrendt’s recommendation list for the comedy festival is extensive. “Basically anyone I met and made friends with last year I’ll be making an effort to go and see.” That’s a list that includes the likes of Hannah Gatbsy, David Quirk, Wil Anderson, Adam Rosenbachs, Anne Edmonds, Harley Breen, Peter Helliar and New Zealand troupe FanFiction Comedy.
Greg Behrendt is playing I Am the King Sweater at the Greek Centre’s Parthenon from Wednesday March 25th until Sunday April 19th. Tickets range from $28 to $34 and can be purchased from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Website.
Greg is also doing a one off live podcast recording of Walking the Room with Dave Anthony on Thursday April 2nd at the Melbourne Town Hall. Tickets are $15.