This is a guest post from Chicago-based writer Graham Rae
What would you call an edgy Australian comedian who viciously riffs on the humor inherent in Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, how much women hate anal sex, ‘suicide watch’ toddler childcare, and gun lover delusions, amongst other things? If you’d said sick, you’d be right. If you’d said funny, you would also be right. If you’d said Tony Abbott, the Aussie prime minister, you would have been wrong, but your guess would have been humorous and interesting. And if you had said Jim Jefferies, who is on tour right now, you would have most definitely been right.
I’ve been following the Antipodean anarchist’s comedic career since I first caught his angry firecracker jokestorm HBO special I Swear to God in 2009. His surreal, caustic, searing, pained, yet somehow charming wit and comedic topic evisceration – the uselessness of pandas, the useless of religion, the uselessness of shoving a faulty vibrating egg up your rear end for sick G-spot kicks – made me an instant convert to his wildly warped worldview, and just plain cracked me up. I’ve written here and there about him elsewhere. Utilize the information-finding-facilitating contemporary electronic hocus-pocus magic of Google and be enlightened as to what I said, if you care to.
Following his work over a few years has been very interesting. That period of time has basically encompassed his moving from London (where he lived for a few years) to Los Angeles to further his comedy career, and the slow steady inescapable intrusion of American material into his set as he absorbs this country, its existential codes and practices, its amorphous popular culture, and just plain insanity and bizarreness. I have seen him live in Chicago a few times, and it’s been illuminating to see the way he sees the country, trying to come to terms with it, and the way he makes comedic fodder out of its demented headscratcher alien ways. A previous set I saw contained sporadically entertaining skits about his left-field search for movie stardom in Hollywood, some of which, of course, made it into his FXX series Legit which, when I think about it right now, he did not mention once when I just saw him on Friday 6/20/2014 at the Vic Theater in Chicago.
His all-new (from the last time I saw him a couple of years ago) newest set contained lighter – and heavier – subject matter than frivolous star gossip about his cult hit show, wherein he plays himself looking after a man with muscular dystrophy, Billy, and Billy’s alcoholic brother Steve. He did do some scathing Hollywood-ripping riffs, but his central topic of conversation – guns and gun control – was a far from easy topic to address, especially for a foreigner. See, that’s the central thing about America – if you’re not from the country (like me – I’m Scottish) and criticize it, some inbredneck goon will always just tell you to love it or leave it, as if life were so simple. So immigrants tend to keep our gripes quiet around the indigenous populace, but say things we would get lynched for in private, far from prying uncomprehending burning local ears. Which is why I doubly respect Jefferies taking on the difficult subject matter he does. He knows he is foreign, and thus his opinion will automatically be discounted by the unthinking redwhitenblueball xenophobes in the audience, but he still goes for broke anyway, at the risk of alienating his audience whilst making them laugh at the same time.
Telling a crowd something half of them don’t want to hear in a foreign accent, no matter how much the American ear loves it, and its owner, is always a risky move, and it’s something that, to me, Jefferies pulls off brilliantly. I mean he can, of course ultimately say that he’s just joking, but you can tell that beneath his aw-shucks-mate veneer there is a deadly-serious-upon-occasion artist with a good brain saying something important and profound, attacking the material from a different angle than the usual tired and tiresome left-right-wrong insoluble dichotomy this country has depressingly rutted itself into. Guns and gun control are a fierce-and-boring-and-pointless mass debate subject, and any right thinking country would have gotten a handle on it years ago, and never mind the terrifying, citizens-as-acceptable-collateral-damage constant massacres by maladjusted well-armed psychopaths. Sometimes it takes a different perceptive perspective – like, say, making an audience laugh at gun owner delusions about ‘self-defense’ whilst systematically destroying their usual braindead be-a-hero, stop-a-massacre tropes with logic and elegance and incontrovertible authority.
Sometimes it just takes a foreigner to point out the nose on somebody’s face when they can’t see it themselves.
Any immigrant staying here is choosing to do so, unlike the native populace born here, which is why our/their voice deserves to be heard. I mean, they could leave, but they choose to stay and slog and fight it out, frowning and feeling for the seemingly insoluble societal hieroglyphs American presents you with at first…then getting a handle on them…then oftentimes rejecting them wholesale as the illogical, sanity-and-intelligence-insulting trash they are. Every immigrant to every country in the world does the same personal cultural x-ray and comes back with their own take on the places and faces in front of them. Jefferies is dealing with material, like gun massacres, he clearly does not want to have to deal with, and nor would any sane person, but he is having to grapple with it and draw his own conclusions because it’s unfortunately in his and our face constantly. So his mockery and conclusions are societally conscious, well-informed (this man does his fucking research, trust me), and well-thought-through. He cares enough about the country that sustains his career, and houses his child, to want to try and help, even if it is through the sometimes-too-easily-dismissed medium of adult comedy.
And all obvious immigrant-self-projection aside, that’s the hook here: this is genuine adult comedy, and never mind the increasingly redundant arsefucker jokes he does to please the unlaid whooping drunks in the audience. This is an adult man addressing serious topics of current weight and heft and import, shining an illuminating light on them…and making people laugh at the same time. He can say this stuff and get away with it paradoxically because he is a foreigner, and is appealing to the masochistic American others-hate-and-verbally-beat-us-so-we-must-be-shit side of this country’s strange mercurial psyche…and he’s also just a comedian, so hey, these are the jokes, folks! His from-a-different-career-stage sleazy sex stuff (to me, that is – of course it’s what he’s known for, and has made his name performing) satellites his serious material and draws fire away from it like aircraft flak, but in the end hopefully he has still made somebody go home from one of his shows and think. Because you do get people who are curious to know how their world looks from an alien perspective, and that view can be quite informative and shocking sometimes.
And quite hilarious too. Let’s not get too prickish and pretentious about it. What I very much enjoy about Jim’s work now, both on stage and in Legit, is him being a foreigner in America and how he deals with it. I can totally relate to all the accent hassles he undergoes, the pronunciation of words (‘garage’), being clueless about certain topics, and just dealing with the average friendly American animal in general. He says things I have genuinely thought and said myself. It’s a real tonic to hear somebody else come away with stuff you thought only you had thought or said, and you realize how universal the immigrant experience is, no matter if you’re in Los Angeles or Chicago, as I am. Jefferies ‘jokingly’ (read: completely openly and honestly) dripping contempt on American exceptionalism is something I love in him. Talking about how a lot of Americans go on about this being a ‘free’ country, he said “And what? The rest of us are just walking around in chains?” I was actually laughing as I typed that, picturing his shackled-foot shuffle he put on, because I have said the exact same thing myself. I mean, there is not one single thing that you can do here that you couldn’t do in Scotland, except get killed far easier in a gun massacre, I suppose, or pee on the White House, or commit suicide by jumping into the Grand Canyon dressed in a scuba outfit.
Just having this man to articulate inchoate immigrant fears and confusions and angers at how horribly America treats itself is just such a breath of fresh air. Talking about guns, he said of the mindset he would be inculcating in some of the audience: “I know what’s going through your head right now in a loop: ‘Go back to where you came from. Go back to where you came from.’ And my answer to that? No. I like it here, I pay my taxes.” That assertion of equality in the face of an often-alienating country and culture is a valuable thing. I had a bitch of a supervisor in a job tell me to go back where I came from, and there is no more vicious and shitty thing you can say to somebody. Then again, you could say that you killed somebody’s pets and it was fun, or you fucked their wife and she was shit in bed, and that would be worse, probably. It’s all relative, I suppose. And Jim’s clearly scared of getting shot for his gun material, which is why he had that happen in Legit. Let’s just hope life doesn’t imitate art quite that closely.
Speaking of relatives, what is also interesting about Jim’s American experience is his newish fatherhood to his 18-month-old son Hank, which has to be the quintessential American name, a fact that tells you something in itself. It was always going to be interesting to see how somebody as angst-laden and degenerate and wasted and idiosyncratic as Jefferies was going to respond to fatherhood, and judging by the material he did about it in his set, the answer is he’s doing good and bad, just like any other new dad without an instruction manual. The girlfriend who bore him Hank, Kate Luyben, used to be a top model (“But I didn’t get the model years,” Jefferies noted bitterly), and plays the hooker in Legit whom Billy visits at the end of the first series. The comedian said he didn’t want to hear her stories about his woman “licking Madonna’s muscular vagina” in a foursome and such, so it sounds like he’s working some of his relationship out with her onstage, or just using it as a mass catharsis-inducing fuck-all-women bitching session, which is what some of his more extreme misogynistic material is for the guys in the audience, or it is for me at least, like he’s some sort of dysfunctional sexual shaman or something. You take it for what it’s worth, and how far you want to run with the joke tells you more about yourself than the comedian onstage. Suffice to say, his woozy daddy experiences will be providing some merriment for years to come (both myself and my good friend Charlie I was with could relate, both being fathers, with Charlie’s kid the same age as Jim’s), and if there is any kind of break-up between the comedian and the mother of his child the bitter misogynistic comments will peel the paint off the walls and make the audience cringe and laugh in shock even more than they already do. So much to potentially look forward to!
Or maybe not. Jefferies made clear on his 2010 DVD Alcoholocaust that he was having to give up drinking because he was literally shitting blood. He was drinking last Friday night, ordering drink after drink onstage and, by the looks of his pale, sweaty complexion after the show, he’s been up to other things as well. It’s a damned shame, because he seemed to be doing well. I suppose being away from the missus and kid must give him a great deal of freedom to just go as apeshit as he wants when he is on tour, with no fatherly duties to attend to, no chance of dropping the baby on his head if he’s drunk and changing a nappy (or ‘diaper’ to Americans) or something. I was going to just say hiya at the end of the show, but there were literally about 150 people in a line waiting to meet him, a number vastly larger than that at any previous show of his I had seen, so I didn’t bother. Legit has clearly raised his profile a lot, and he played in Chicago to a sold-out 1000-punter show. So it would be a real shame to see the man lose it and trash himself at this interesting stage of the USA-life games. After all he still has a lot of sacred American cows to get mad cow disease from, and a lot more living to be done with the wee man, whose growing pains and adventures we want related to us onstage at regular growth spurt intervals. Sober up, Jim, for fucksake. You’re too old for this stupid, played-out shit. Think of your son. Think of your blood-decorated stools. You’re not in the UK anymore. You should have left that nihilistic drinking style behind with those doggone limeys, who all drink to excess. After all, you’re an American now…
This is a guest post from Graham Rae
Below, Jim Jefferies on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show: