The Incredible Mr Atherton
Country Club Comedy: Ocean Shores Country Club | Tuesday 5 June | 7pm | Free
Comedian Jonathan Atherton has been thrilling punters with his fast-tracked linguistic roller coaster through culture and convention for almost two decades. He’s carved a unique career, leaving the competitive Australian industry behind and spending 10 years developing an Asian comedy scene. Jonathan is heading over to Edinburgh this year to tell the story of his unique cultural journey.
You have a brilliant, agile mind. What made you find your way to comedy? What do you feel about comedy that fits an out-of-the-box thinker like yourself?
An agile mind is like a fast car. Without a map it can just get you lost quicker. I was first cajoled on to the stage in 1993 at the Maleny Folk Festival by the late great Mook Hanley. Me, with a bag of travel tales, and a bunch of Nimbin poets and comics… including your good self. I was hooked after that.
You have a talent for language and understanding culture. Do you think this was something seeded as a child? Where did your passion for culture and for language start?
I spent my early years in New York. My dad was a foreign correspondent and our neighbourhood was a UN enclave. I was speaking a half-dozen languages at the age of three. The neural-linguistic pathways were highly activated and remain open to this day.
You have performed shows in five different language. How does what you do change from language to language?
Well, apart from the fact that wordplay is lost in translation, you have to consider what subject matter and attitude are appropriate in a particular language. You have to take into account discourse strategy, not simply translation. German is by far the most difficult language for the comedian. The problem is simply grammatical. The verb comes at the end of the sentence where the ‘reveal’ happens in comedy. So the classic comedy structure cannot be achieved. With Germans you’re better off telling funny stories involving engineering.
As a performer how important is it to retain your ‘edge’? How do you do it?
It’s vital for everyone, not just performers. The trick is to stay in the eternal now. We need to embrace new experiences, challenge our own beliefs. Otherwise we stagnate. In performance terms I manage to find the edge by falling off it and then clawing back.
You seem to have nine lives, Jonathan Atherton! Does trouble follow you or do you follow it? Is that part of the comedy instinct?
I’m sure it’s just that I have a huge karmic debt and the universe is keeping me here till it’s paid off. I have been on death’s doorstep quite a few times. Survival is an important aspect of the comedy instinct. It’s no coincidence that in comedy parlance doing well is called ‘killing’ and doing badly ‘dying’.
Why did you travel to Asia to set up comedy over there? How did that broaden the comedian that you are today?
I moved to Asia because I love living there. However, standup comedy was virtually unknown to Asians at the time. While I’ve been lauded by local comics for building the South East Asian comedy circuit, it was actually a selfish choice. There wasn’t any platform for comedy save one-off expat-focused shows by visiting comedians. So I started open mic rooms in Singapore, mentored local talent, expanded to Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, got a vibrant scene going thus assuring myself of some regular gigs.
I met one of the comics you trained when I was at the Melbourne comedy festival – Jinx Yeo. How important was it to engage grassroots talent where you were so the scene wasn’t about ex-pats?
Ah Jinx Yeo… Absolutely vital. One expat accused me of being a ‘reverse racist’ because I didn’t have many white friends in Asia. But it wasn’t a race issue. I don’t hang around with bankers, oil engineers or IT consultants in Australia either. If I were to achieve something worthwhile it had to revolve around local audiences and local talent. That’s how you achieve growth and sustainability.
What does going to Edinburgh mean for you? What will you be performing over there?
I was invited to Edinburgh a few years ago but had to cancel owing to an accident in Singapore that left me with 10 fractures of my spine, neck, skull and sternum (long story) and $100,000 in medical expenses.
Edinburgh is Mecca for a comic.You’ve gotta do it at least once in your lifetime if you can. So I accepted the invitation this year and then went, ‘OMG… How the hell am I going to fund this?’ It’s called the Free Fringe for a reason.
I will be performing an Asian-focused show called Disoriental, which was selected by Asian cable network Iflix as their first inhouse comedy special. It’s a bit more ‘festival’ in style, which includes poignant but not necessarily ‘funny’ bits interspersed with anecdotes and cultural observations. It’s quite biopic.
How can people support your trip to Edinburgh via crowdfunding?
I’ve set up an appeal on gofundme.com called Get The Laugh Guru to Edinburgh. I was very reluctant to do this at first cos it feels a lot like begging. But in the immortal words of Frank Zappa, ‘The meek shall inherit nothing’.
To get Jonathan onstage go to his go fund me page! Jonathan will be performing his show locally before he heads off at the Ocean Shores Country Club on Tuesday 5 June. 7pm with MC Ellen Briggs and support act Shayne Hunter. Free!