Interview Date: 02/02/2010
Run Date: 02/15/2010
Fans of New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo will likely know Arj Barker best for his role as Devjeet "Dave" Mohumbhai on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” but keen-eyed Comedy Central viewers may have caught his recent stand-up special, which is now in stores as part of the CD/DVD package for his new album, LYAO. Bullz-Eye caught up with Barker to talk about this new release, but we also asked him about his work on the fabled “Marijuana-Logues,” which he co-wrote with Doug Benson and Tony Camin, and his feelings on the end of the premium-cable gig which kept him occupied for two hilarious seasons.
Arj Barker: Hi, this is Arj Barker!
Bullz-Eye: Hey, man, this is Will. How are you doing? Great to talk to you.
AB: How’s it going out there?
BE: Not bad. The snow’s finally melting here in Virginia.
AB: Oh, good! I was just out there. I did a show at Washington & Lee University.
BE: You must’ve gotten out just in time, then. I don’t know about up there, but here in Hampton Roads, we got more snow than we’ve gotten in 20 years.
AB: Oh, man, I guess I did, then, ‘cause there was not a hint of snow. Maybe there were patches up in the hills, but it was basically smooth sailing. I lucked out. It’s beautiful up there, though.
BE: Well, they sent me a copy of your stand-up special, which I thought was pretty funny, but I was wondering about something. You kicked it off by riffing on the whole “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and “Twin Cities” stuff in Minneapolis. Are you somebody who regularly does your research so you can tailor at least a little bit of your act to local stuff?
AB: Well, you know, I don’t sit there and spend hours looking stuff up, but, I mean, I try to be aware of the area that I’m in, and if something strikes me…I mean, that was an honest thought going through my head. You know, you’ve heard the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” or you’ve been there and seen the license plates or you just kind of know about it, and I’m looking down and I’m thinking, “There’s no 10,000 lakes that *I* can see. I can’t even see ten!” That’s an honest-to-God observation! (Laughs) But sometimes I…I don’t do it as a rule, because I don’t actually try to have any rules, because then you become formulaic, but it is nice sometimes to open up with something local. It piques the crowd’s interest a little bit extra, I think, ‘cause people love it when they’re part of the joke. It’s always a nice thing to do. It’s just a decision. It could’ve gone the other way. I could’ve just opened with another joke.
BE: You talk a lot about life on the road during the special, discussing drinking Guinness and other tortures in the life of a traveling comedian. (Laughs) Obviously, it isn’t always wine and roses, but what’s an occasion when you’ve been on the road and you’ve just been, like, “Wow, this is awesome”?
AB: Anytime I’m at a festival, generally. I think festivals are the coolest, because you get to do your job like any other time, but sometimes the crowds are extra excited just because it’s a festival. Not only that, but because it’s a festival, there are sometimes lots of other comedians, and after the solitary experience of the road, it’s nice to have a lot of friends around. And if it’s an actual comedy festival…? It’s, like, “How sweet can this get?” I mean, it’s a festival to celebrate what you do! (Laughs) I’ve almost been perplexed at times about how good of a deal that is.
BE: On the flip side, then, do you have a worst moment that you think back on, where you were on the verge of saying, “That’s it, I’m done”?
AB: No, I wasn’t on the verge of quitting, but I was pretty depressed when I was… (Hesitates) There were one or two trips to London, even the first couple of years when I would go to London twice a year to work, because I was on a real tight budget. I’m not saying this to try and make people feel sorry for me, but, y’know, I was cheap, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on hotels and stuff, so I would stay at these hostels. I don’t know what they’re like now, maybe they’ve improved that, but, I mean, these places were pretty seedy. Like, little tiny worn-out cots, three guys sleeping in a room the size of a closet, eating canned beans for dinner. Just because, y’know, you’re out there, you’re trying to save money ‘cause you’re not making a ton. There were times when that was a little depressing, waking up at 5 AM ‘cause of the jetlag, and you wake up with a sore back, and there’s a snoring guy about two feet away with you, and you can smell people’s feet. But that didn’t make me want to quit. It just made me want to get to the next level really quick… (Laughs) …so I could be comfortable! On the plus side, I did meet lots of interesting and lovely people staying at those places, and there was a social aspect at the hostels that you don’t get at hotels. We’d be down there drinking cheap beer and cooking cheap food, eating canned food together, playing guitar and laughing with people from all over the world. It was like a poor man’s U.N. down there.
BE: Believe me, I know what you mean. When I graduated from college, I went over to the UK with a rail pass and traveled all over, and that was exactly what I experienced, too. We were sitting in the basement of one of the hostels, no one really spoke each other’s language, but one of the guys went and got beer for everybody.
AB: And, suddenly, you can relate pretty well. (Laughs) Yeah, I definitely don’t regret it, but it was a little bit hard going there for a couple of minutes. Overall, though, it’s been a real pleasure being a comedian.
BE: In your routines, you talk about war, religion, gay religion, and even global warning, and you do it in a flippant manner, but you manage to do it without sounding like you’re actually mocking them. Is that a tough line to walk, or has it always been your style and you’ve managed to hone it?
AB: Well, I think the reason why I can get away with it…so far, I haven’t gotten yelled at or anything, and I’ve definitely done the gay-marriage thing in front of gay people, and they were laughing. Actually, there was one time when one guy wasn’t laughing. I’m guessing, but I think they were a couple, and one guy was cracking up, and so I was, like, “Okay, cool, they’re not mad,” but then the other guy didn’t look overly amused. But I think if you get one of the guys, you’re still alright. (Laughs) But if anything, I think the reason why I can get away with it is because, if you look at the jokes, the majority of the time the joke is that I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, and I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m clearly a complete idiot. So it’s not like I’m saying, “Hey, this is the way it is!” I’m saying, “Hey, this is the way it is, but I’m clearly wrong.” It’s more like the joke is on me a little bit, ‘cause I’m overly confident.
BE: You also talk about the whole texting and E-mail confusion, with the Sarcastica font. I presume you’ve experienced this personally, when you’ve said something in a text or an E-mail and just been completely misinterpreted.
AB: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, I think we’ve all done that. Especially with texting. It’s so sort of sterile, and you say something where…like, you really want to be sarcastic, and it just doesn’t travel well over texting. So, yeah, definitely. I think that’s why I wrote the joke. Not every single thing that I say is based on absolute truth, but often there’s at least a hint of truth, or it’s based on something that happened. But in that case, yeah, it was. I can’t honestly think of a specific example right now, but I think many of us can relate to that. So much is lost without the tone of the human voice. But we’re working on it. We’ve got people in the lab right now.
BE: I’m sure the boys down in research are on top of it. So how would you describe your comedy to someone who isn’t familiar with it? For instance, I’ve seen you described as a slightly less stoned Mitch Hedberg, and I can buy that.
AB: Well, that’s quite an accolade for someone to say that, ‘cause I think he’s one of the best, but…I don’t know. I don’t so much think of that, just because he does kind of very surrealistic observational humor, and I think I’m a little more… (Hesitates) I hate analyzing myself. I’m doing it because I want to be a good sport, but I don’t sit around analyzing what I do, ‘cause I think that’s just unnecessary. I only ever try just to get laughs and think of funny jokes and come up with creative ways to tell them, but I don’t think I’m a post-modern surrealistic observational comedian. I rarely ever look for anything about myself on the internet, either, because I think that’s in the same vein. It doesn’t matter what people think of me. The only feedback I need is that people are coming to shows and people are laughing. I do know more than one comedian who routinely search themselves on Google and have programs that actually find out what people are saying about them, but that’s the absolute last thing I want to do. I’ve been skirting this question for a long time, though, so I guess it’s time to finally bite the bullet. I guess I would maybe say that I’m character-based observationalism with a hint of surrealism and a healthy dose of idiocy.
BE: Do you need me to send that to whoever’s responsible for updating your bio, so they’ll have that on hand?
AB: I’m really looking forward to reading that back in the article, to make sure you got it. (Laughs)
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve done besides stand-up. I know you were going to be in the original pilot for “Nearly Nirvana,” a sitcom which ended up not getting picked up, anyway. How Indian was your character in that? Were they playing it up to the Nth degree?
AB: No, I was basically playing myself.
BE: Oh, okay.
AB: Yeah, it wasn’t with an accent or anything like that. That was the whole thing, actually: he was a very Western dude, and his parent came, and they were the ones with the heavy accents. They made sure that was in there, but it wasn’t my character. That was an interesting experience, but, y’know, it didn’t work out, and in the end, everything worked out for the better, ‘cause I got to be on “Flight of the Conchords.” Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, ‘cause I really enjoyed working on “Conchords.”
BE: I guess that was also a nice salve on the wound after getting booted off of “Last Comic Standing.”
AB: Yeah, “Last Comic Standing” was… (Hesitates) Yeah, I mean, what can you say about that?
BE: You did “The Marijuana-Logues” with Doug Benson. How long had you known Doug prior to that?
AB: Well, I think it’s important to say that it wasn’t purely with Doug Benson. It was actually equally myself, Doug Benson, and a comic called Tony Camin.
BE: Sorry, I should clarify that I did actually know that. I had just led with Doug’s name because I was also going to ask a question about something else related to him.
AB: Oh, that’s okay. But, yeah, we all sort of worked on it equally. How long have I known Doug? To be honest, I knew Doug a little bit just from seeing him around for several years, but I wouldn’t say I knew him very well until we began working together on “The Marijuana-Logues.” Had I known him well, I do not think I would’ve chosen to work with him. Just kidding! (Laughs) But, y’know, for the first few years of that, we were both very… (Hesitates) I would say we were somewhat strong personalities, and we both think we know how things should be done. To the public, we might seem like harmless, goofy stoners or whatever, but we’re both very… (Hesitates again, then laughs) Well, anyway, the point is, we did clash a fair bit, but we also had great times. But we had to work together a lot, and, anyway, I think we’ve come out of it much better friends. But I think the point is that working and sharing a show with people, including Tony and all of us, it’s difficult at times. It’s a lot different from our usual stand-up, because in that, we just do what we want and no one tells us what to do. This was, like, everyone had their opinions of how it should go. Should we wear white socks, or should we go barefoot? Big decisions like that. Doug will probably read this. I think Doug’s one of the types of guys who reads everything on the internet…if he has time. He’s pretty busy. But if I could just say, “What’s up, Doug? Wassuuuuup?!?”
(Writer’s note: If you’re wondering, yes, he did sound exactly like one of the guys from that Budweiser commercial.)
BE: Well, since you brought it up earlier, I’ll close with the obligatory “Flight of the Conchords” question. Were you bummed to hear that the show wasn’t going to be coming back for a third season?
AB: No, I was fairly prepared, because that’s what I had a feeling was going to happen. The guys had kind of…I mean, I hadn’t been told anything specific, but I had a feeling. I don’t know why people act so surprised. It ended! They went home at the end of it, and they found out that they could get funky in their own backyard. I mean, I don’t think it’s the end of Flight of the Conchords. I think at the very least they’ll still occasionally do a live show, but I don’t know what the future will hold. But, no, I wouldn’t say I was super bummed out. I was just grateful. We had a good time doing that show, I was glad to have been part of it, and I’m excited to see what comes up next.
BE: Do you have a favorite Conchords song?
AB: I really like the one about the bus driver (“Bus Drivers Song”), because I think it’s really sweet. Maybe not so much funny as it is really quite sweet. And a little bit moving, even, how the guy still thinks about this girl. Yeah, it’s really sweet. I really like that one. It’s just really clever and…well, the only word I can really come up with for it is sweet. I guess I’m being a little repetitive. (Laughs) Well, I hope that’s okay, ‘cause I’m supposed to go on to my next call now…
BE: That’s perfect. Thanks, man!
AB: Thanks so much! Oh, and if you don’t mind mentioning my website, http://www.arjbarker.com, and tell people to definitely sign my mailing list, so I can let them know when I’m performing near them.
BE: I’ll do it.AB: Awesome! Thanks a lot!