“Fucking Aussies man. Don’t get me fucking started.” It’s an interesting way to begin an interview with TNT. But, then, this is Brendon Burns, the Aussie expat comic who joked onstage, “I love Australia the same way I love my parents –they’re retarded and I have to.” I’m even more thrown off when mid-way into our call he says, “Hi, how you doing? Brendon.” I’m about to point out that we had already been introduced and talking for a number of minutes when he adds, “I just walked into my kitchen to see a strange young lady. It frightened me”, before continuing with his sentence – apparently no explanation needed. But it’s fitting that my interview with Burns is often surprising, somewhat controversial and bloody funny – as that’s what you get from Burns in his shows. The man is nothing if not himself. Burns is performing in the Udderbelly Festival on May 16 and taking last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Brendon Burns Hasn’t Heard of you Either’ to the Soho Theatre in July. Once he’d finished ranting about Aussies and was over the shock of the strange young lady, here’s what he had to say…
So, what can we expect from your Udderbelly show? With Udderbelly you tend to do your greatest hits and work in bits of the new show. Although I say that every year, but it always ends up being new.
Is that because you bounce off your audience? And when I say bounce off I mean shout at… Ah you’re talking about when I shouted at that [Indian] female audience member? [In his Emmy-award-winning show, So I Suppose This is Offensive Now?] She’s a plant. That was to expose the audience’s racism and liberal pretensions in equal measure. She comes out later and does a dance number with me.
Okay… why did you decide to do that? It was during the time of the racist scandal on Big Brother [when Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara were accused of making racist remarks towards Indian actress Shilpa Shetty] and everyone fell into one of two groups;either, “Wow, those girls are wrong and evil and I’ve never done anything like that and they should be condemned”, or,“This is political correctness gone mad and I’m going to use this as my excuse to carry on being a c*nt.” So I built a bunch of routines that argued for both points and then I created a situation where everyone in the audience fell into one of those two groups. I didn’t explain it, I made it as ambiguousas I could. I’m apprehensive to say I’m trying to make a pointor to teach people a lesson or anything…
So you’re actually just raising the issue of racism, rather than being racist yourself… Yes. People get very disappointed when they speak to me –“he’s not a horrible pig, dammit!”. I suppose I’m just prettyhonest about my own shortcomings and I don’t censor myself very much. It gives people the wrong idea if you say “ooh,he’s confrontational” and “ooh, he’s controversial” – I think I’m genuinely harmless.
And if people do take offence? I’m too old to have another, “Excuse me I didn’t get that joke and I was upset” discussion. I don’t want to have that discussion again; I’ve had it too many times. Invariably now I will say, “Explain the joke to me. If you can explain the subtext of what I said correctly and still commit to being upset then I’ll apologise. But if you can’t, then be kind enough to admit that you didn’t understand it.”
Your sets have been described as “awkward and painful” –how do you feel about that? I think what they mean there is that I do like to play with the conventions of the art form – just to see what I can do with it. I don’t actually enjoy splitting an audience [where some laugh and others are offended] – certainly not any more. I find that happens if I’m in a room where people aren’t there to see me; there has to be a trust and understanding between you and the crowd.
So what would you say to someone who’s coming to see your show for the first time? I think you need to have a bit of an understanding of comedy and the machinations of humour. For some things you kind of have to understand – I don’t know how to put this without coming across like the biggest dickhead – you have to understand the old rules in place that I’m breaking,otherwise it just doesn’t quite make sense. My audiences are generally funny people; funny is a language and not everyone speaks it. Laughter is the sound of comprehension. I’m never happier than when I’m playing to my own crowd.
What do you mean by your own crowd? I’m about 5,000 people’s favourite comic (laughs). When people give you the ‘cult comic’ label they don’t realise what a back-handed compliment that is! I’m not on television or on panel shows regularly… you really have to have done your research to have found me in the first place.
And it’s funny because you emerged around the same time as Sasha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais, and they’ve made some pretty controversial jokes in their time, yet they are allowed on telly, and you’re not. Why do you think that is? To be honest, I think class comes into it. There are certainrules for some people, not for others. I think in Britain if you went to the right school, you’re allowed to say whatever you want and people will call it irony.
You have been to The Priory for drink and drugs rehab –which must mean you’re at least a Z-list celebrity. Are you a different comedian now to before you were clean? I’m more reliable (laughs). What’s different between now and then? The shows start on time!
You used to shout a lot in your sets… I got diagnosed last year as having partial hearing, so a lot of that shouting was born from not being able to hear properly. That’s what my West End run is about in July,‘Brendon Burns Hasn’t Heard of you Either’, which I did at Edinburgh Fringe last year. It’s about disability, covering the fact I’ve discovered I’ve been disabled all these years, and five reasons you haven’t heard of me. That show’s a blast – it’s a real rollercoaster ride. Every couple of years you chance upon something and life writes the show for you. You don’t really have to do that much work, and it just ends up being a laser-beam from start to finish. You could turn up in any kind of mood, you could almost just be asleep and do it. I acknowledge in the show that’s it’s quite sad that my first reaction when I was told I had partial hearing was:“Awesome, I can use this.”
We hear you’ve got a thing for WWE – what would your wrestling name be? Brendon Burns! That’s a good wrestling name. Or Mr Burn. I’d probably come out Outback Jack-style with a big, hot knife (laughs). I like the crowd manipulation of WWE. That part of my old show where I’m screaming at that woman in the audience and it’s all really awkward – that’s borrowed from wrestling crowd psychology. Those guys are really talented performers and they know how to manipulate a room of 25,000 people. That’s really difficult. If I could playt o 200-400 people 300 nights a year who were all there to see me, I’d be a very happy guy.