Conchords sidekick ready to make us laugh
Arj Barker has been trying to convince Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie to tour Australia and New Zealand with him.
After all, the Flight of the Conchords duo have already filled legendary venues like the Hollywood Bowl and Wembley Arena, with Barker in support. Why not Westpac Stadium?
"I really like touring with those guys because they're great guys and also their crowds are incredible," he says. Barker's connection goes back to the Conchords' HBO television show, where he played their zany headbanded friend Dave.
He has an ulterior motive for the tour, too. "It's quite easy because I support them. I do 20 or 30 minutes, then I go backstage and drink Bret's red wine while they're performing. It's a good deal."
They need to get their priorities right, he jokes. Stop making "major motion pictures" and carve out a little space for touring again.
"That's why I don't do them," he says, meaning movies. "I'm like, 'Sorry, I'd love to go and be in your giant Hollywood worldwide blockbuster films, but I'm a little busy . . . doing jokes about ghosts!"
Barker's in Wellington for the annual Comedy Festival. He's MC for the opening gala night on Sunday as well as a solo performer.
That's where the supernatural reference comes from: he promises his hour-long routine will include a romp through the little-explored field of "observational humour about ghosts".
"I come from the point of view that ghosts do exist; now here's some information about them. I think that's kind of a refreshing idea."
It's one of his favourite parts of the show, he says. It's also a prompt for a 10-minute digression about his interest in the paranormal that begs the question of whether he's joking right now.
He does believe in ghosts, he says, though he's not scared of them. He's a longtime follower of UFO sightings, too - even doing a couple of Google searches every week to see if any new ones have sprouted up.
"Some of the audience gets worried for me: they say you shouldn't be talking about that stuff. I say: I don't care. Bring it."
It's not the only theme of the show. Other sections include an autobiographical segment and a look at the string of natural disasters that have beset the world of late.
"Everyone I know is saying: What's going on? Is there something weird happening? And I do address that in a way that I don't think many people have."
"I don't want to give it away, but I think New Zealand's ready, because they're a very forward-thinking country, and I think they're ready to come on board."
Barker knows something of Kiwi humour, having toured here before and worked so closely with the Conchords. But his connection is stronger still across the Tasman, where he's become something of a comedy superstar.
After 10 years of touring in Australia, he now lives there for much of the year. He's better known across the ditch than he is in the US, his home country, he says.
"Australia was always sort of my fun gig that I really look forward to. But it's actually turned into more than that. It turned into my meat and potatoes, so to speak."
He'd like to add New Zealand to the family, he says, switching metaphors suddenly. He's got a shipment ready to come to our table.
"The meat and potatoes are served up, but I need some greens. I don't know where this analogy is going."
He keeps in touch with the Conchords via Skype, but he's keen to touch base with McKenzie during this visit if he's in town. ("If he reads this, give me a shout.")
On stage, Barker has a volatile style, switching from a laidback delivery into full-on shouting for many jokes. (The effect is usually funny, don't worry).
His persona is often idiotic - laying the blame for global warming on the sun, for instance, or lampooning walking shoes for only offering one pace.
He doesn't try to overthink his jokes, he says, just as he never reads his reviews. While he can force himself to write gags, the best ones usually just pop into his head. It's all part of the mystery of what makes people laugh.
"I just want my jokes to come from a natural place. I want to feel inspired. I don't want to look at them like a mathematical equation: 'Oh here's a subject, now I will apply sarcasm and a third of a cup of dryness'."
Barker started doing stand-up when he was in his teens, as a sort of a dare from a friend. He got a few "honest laughs" in that first gig, and he's been hooked ever since.
He likes the total freedom it gives him - the opportunity to say whatever he wants. He likes the opportunity to tour and see the world - though the constant travel has been heck on his relationships. Then there's the adrenaline.
"It's very raw. You just go up there and there's a microphone, and everyone's sitting there listening. And they're like: make me laugh."
So far, that hasn't been a problem.
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