Jonathan Atherton is a force of nature. Wildly funny, insanely clever and completely unpredictable. There’s just no telling what Atherton will do or where he will take you during one of his shows. No two shows are EVER the same. Jonathan makes his welcome return to the Byron Shire after many years. Seven caught up with him briefly before he touches down on Aussie soil.
Why did you choose to leave Australia and take up residence in Kuala Lumpur?
The comedy scene in Australia has imploded. Whereas in Melbourne there were 19 comedy venues in the 90s when I started doing standup, there are now only three.
This is the result of two major factors: greedy promoters producing shows of substandard quality, thus undermining the market, and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which sucks the entertainment dollars out of punters’ pockets in favour of overseas acts.
The gatekeepers of comedy in Australia are a talent agency that also books the Festival – talk about conflict of interest. Most of my seasoned comedy mates are begging for gigs in Asia because there is hardly any work at home.
And even if you do get work, chances are you’ll be entertaining a bunch of red-necked bigots. Very few audiences can match the savvy of northern NSW.
So I decided to build a decent comedy scene in Asia. I started the first comedy venues in Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar… I aim for a local crowd, not ex-twats… I mean expats.
How have you broken into the comedy scene over there?
There was no scene. I built it.
How has working outside of Australia changed or broadened what you offer on stage?
One of the most refreshing things about working in Asia is that audiences don’t suffer from white guilt. So one can actually talk about and make fun of race. The racist lie of political correctness doesn’t apply and one actually has greater freedom of speech than in Australia – as long as you don’t criticise the government.
How are you received by audiences throughout Asia?
They call me the ‘Laugh Guru’ half jokingly. But I am very well received in Asia both as a performer and a teacher for young wannabe comics. Audiences like the fact that a Westerner can speak the local languages and understand the cultural mores. I like to try to undo the bad vibes and disrespect many white expatriates bring to the party.
What is a typical day for you?
A typical day might go like this: I wake up around 1pm, make coffee, roll a joint, answer 100 emails, wander down to the food market, eat curry and rice on a banana leaf… head into Crackhouse Comedy Club around 4pm, do the paperwork and take deliveries, prepare for the night’s show, do the gig and then party.
The next day might find me on a flight to India, China or Thailand to do either club or corporate gigs.
When I have a few days off my girlfriend and I like to travel around the region. Everything is so close.
What are the things that get under your skin?
I do find the rampant development and resource exploitation committed by western companies via corrupt political proxies very infuriating. It is sad to see people throw away traditional values in favour of the fast-fix instant-gratification model presented by, particularly, the American dream.
What are you most passionate about? I’m passionate about people. It’s not that I am enamoured of the human species – there are dickwits everywhere – but I do believe in humanity’s potential. I get angry when I see that trodden on by the one-percenters.
If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?
The only thing we can really change is ourselves. I gave up on changing the world a thousand dreams ago. It simply isn’t possible given the rooted forces of evil that pull the strings. So I find it better to just accept that Satan runs the planet and work on my own spiritual development so the next phase is better.
In the meantime I distract others from their concerns and put a smile on their faces. It’s a bit like applying bandaids to an amputation.
If not a comedian, Jonathan, then what?
I was almost a lawyer but I had too strong a sense of justice for that racket… If I weren’t a comedian I’d probably be a kindergarten teacher… or a gun-runner.
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up each day? I don’t think anything at all when I first wake up. After my first coffee my brain clicks in… and then I think too much.
Any regrets? Regrets? What’s the point? I’m sure I’d do things differently if I had hindsight, but that isn’t possible. I am still alive and kicking, so there really isn’t much to not be thankful for.
What should we expect for your shows here in Byron and Mullumbimby? I am not sure. I might do two different kinds of show – one a sort of autobiographical ‘festival’-type show and the other more traditional standup with a focus on multiculturalism and the life of a world citizen.
But whatever the content I really just want to bring people together to laugh and celebrate the absurdities of life.
Jonathan Atherton performs at the Byron Services Club on Monday 19 December with Anne Howe as support and at the Mullumbimby Ex-Services Club on Saturday 16 January. Both shows at 8pm. Both shows, with Mandy Nolan as MC, can be booked on 6619 0529 or tix at the relevant club. All tix $25.