‘I think if you’re a real comedian you can really only be a comedian’ – an interview with James Smith
Australian stand up James Smith is returning to our shores to bring his show Pleasure Enthusiast to this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Smith, whose last return saw him opening for Chris Rock’s Australian and New Zealand tour, relocated to the US several years ago to pursue his comedy career. Clearly, he succeeded. He caught up with Til Knowles to chat about making it in New York, the freedom of Sunday night comedy rooms and, of course, what it’s like to open for Chris Rock.
Starting at the start, what prompted the move from finance to comedy?
Ah, I think if you’re a real comedian you can really only be a comedian. You more or less have to do it. I found myself in a job that I wasn’t meant to do, that I wasn’t inspired to do. I think comedy just draws you in, it’s the most natural thing in the world – if you’re a comedian. And if you’re a comedian it’s really the only thing you can actually do with any sort of legitimacy.
So finance was just a detour before you corrected back to the path of comedy?
Yeah. I mean I was a lawyer, and I had a job in banking and finance law. I mean I did litigation and intellectual property too but none of it inspired me. I’d rather be a comedian. I think if you’re a born performer you can’t do a regular 9 to 5.
Do you find the law background informs your comedy at all?
Absolutely. The degree was very much worth doing. It informs it, it gives it a structure, no question it helps.
Yeah I imagine there’d be a lot of observational things and rhetorical flourishes that would carry across pretty well into your style of comedy.
Yeah I think the analytical process, the legal analytical process, is very helpful. Your knowledge base and certainly your writing. Legal writing is extremely precise, and brevity is key, which is much the same in comedy: brevity is absolutely critical.
How do you find the comedic writing process, now that you’re at this intense level of international fame? Has it changed much since you first started?
I think it’s like any process, it’s gradual and incremental. When you start out you tend to notice the simpler, easier, more common things. I think as you go on, you desire to have bigger concepts, to talk about bigger things, and that’s more difficult to write. So I think like any professional game or sport, you sort of up the stakes yourself. The writing process itself – the premise process, I find there’s quite an abundance of ideas – but the real writing process is in the development. You can have an idea or a premise but sitting down and making sure you’ve comprehensively tackled the subject and gotten every last punchline, perspective and joke out of it and working that out on stage at the same time that you’re refining it at the desk. That’s really where the work’s done is the writing and the rehearsing, testing it, trying it, that’s the big challenge.
Obviously you’ve spent a lot of time at the Comedy Cellar. Do you find yourself still frequenting comedy rooms in order to test out material, or is it a space you feel you have to be bit more structured now?
I prefer to go to local open mics, like on a Sunday night. It’s far more enjoyable. The Cellar you’ve always got to kill, any of those rooms you’ve always got to kill. There’s just this expectation. And the guy before you’s probably Chris Rock and the guy after you is probably Dave Chappelle. So you’ve got to maintain the standard.
My favourite spaces to work are the ones where there’s absolutely no stake, and no consequence. That’s certainly where you develop the best, because nobody’s got any real investment, they haven’t paid much to get in, everybody’s free. It’s all about freedom. That’s where the best stuff comes out.
So you think that’s what makes a good comedy room for you then? Freedom?
For me, absolutely. No question. Freedom and no consequence. Everything is always such high stakes – Galas, TV, it’s in perpetuity you know. If you do a Conan set, it’s forever. Whereas a little comedy room on a Sunday night, it’s beautiful, you do whatever you like, it doesn’t matter.
Do you find that American TV is different from Australian TV in that regard? Just in terms of the structure, I feel like Australian television has a looser format, a bit more of a sense of comradery. Or is that effortlessness actually very hard won, and it’s only from the viewer’s perspective that it exists?
Oh, like on our panel shows and stuff. Look it probably comes down to the fact there’s not as much advertising dollar that’s at stake. We don’t have as big a conservative Christian population as they do in middle America, so maybe that influences it. But really, I don’t know – there’s a lot more over there too. There’s something like 400 or 700 hundred (I heard this on Colbert the other night) scripted shows in production. So it’s just a larger population. But generally speaking, funny is funny.
Just on that more conservative Christian population… I know that you’ve written some roasts. I think it’s something that aligns really well with an Australian comedic sensibility, how has that gone in America for you?
I think it’s fine. It’s a particular audience, the roasts – it’s Comedy Central, they know what they’re up for, they know what’s going to happen, it’s no holds barred, so I’ve never had any problem with that. It’s an interesting thing… I wouldn’t say it’s the most uplifting experience, writing for roasts. You’re basically criticising people. But it’s fun, and once it all comes together it’s fun to see your jokes being spoken by whoever. It’s unique. There’s nothing else like it, that’s for sure.
What would you say your most uplifting experience in comedy has been?
I would say going on tour with Chris Rock.
Yeah, that’s a pretty big one.
I mean there’s lots of little things, but that would be the most monumental one.
Yeah! I mean, this is a very broad question… but how was it?!
It was exact dream come true you’d imagine it to be you know. You’re in these areas with ten, fifteen thousand people in your home country and New Zealand. You’re performing with your absolute number one idol. You’re flying on private jets. It’s everything you would imagine it to be. Whoever your person in life is – you know they always say if you could have a dinner party with anyone who would it be? He would absolutely be at the table. It’s an absolute dream. An unimaginable dream, come true.
Has Chris Rock ever given you any advice?
Lots of it, over the years. Things like, once you start headlining, protect your show. Have an opening act that is more or less in line with what your sensibilities are so you haven’t got someone out there saying something totally contra to what you would do. Things like that, and other things over the years that he’s taught me.
Do you have any advice for Australian comedians who are looking to move to New York, like you did?
Ah. It’s just… I don’t like being dissuasive, I don’t tend to be dissuasive. It’s just that it’s extraordinarily difficult. I think I was a unique case because I wanted to be there. I wanted to be in America whether I was a lawyer or a comedian. You really have to want to be there, because it’s difficult. It’s unimaginably difficult to try and break in. It takes forever, they don’t care what you did. It’s hard enough when you’ve got a job, but going over there with no job or anything, it’s very difficult. So I would say make sure you really want it, it’s really hard. But that’s not to say don’t do it.
Very different comedic landscape to here in Melbourne.
Yeah. It’s just ten times more competitive. There’s thirteen comedy clubs in Manhattan alone. So you can only imagine the amount of comedians. It’s not to say that they’re better, there’s just more people. More people that think they can be a comedian than in Australia, it’s a more ‘can do’ culture than here.
What was the strangest thing to happen in the early days to you in New York?
Oh god. Just people telling me ‘oh come down and I’ll put you on’, just blatantly lying to you. All that sort of run around. Telling you to dress nicely for a gig and you get down and it’s horrible.
Are you looking forward to your run in Melbourne? What do you think will be your festival highlight, what are you looking forward to doing here?
Putting the mic in the stand on the last night! No, it’s always fun. It’s like a comedy convention! Everyone’s there, it’s a big… well, a festival is a great word for it. You see everyone. you do your show every night. You get a little more match fit; Melbourne audiences are very savvy. I think a lot of people who saw me opening for Chris will come down and see the full show. It’s fun!
The show itself, Pleasure Enthusiast, is it centered around a particular theme, or is it more of that classic observational style?
I think human behaviour is my topic of choice. What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, what’s going on. I like that sort of stuff. The theme with me is always ‘why are we doing this? Why can’t we just be having fun?’ hence the title, Pleasure Enthusiast. It’s just ridiculous, we should just be enjoying ourselves.
Pleasure Enthusiast is on at 9:30pm at Trades Hall until 22 April as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. For tickets, head to the festival box office or the MICF website.