Tastemaker: Arj Barker
A role in a cult TV comedy gave him his big break, but Arj Barker prefers to earn his laughs live, writes Pavan Shamdasani
"That Flight of the Conchords guy" - for years, comedian Arj Barker has had to live with that alter-ego. As supporting character Dave, Barker won plaudits and broke through to the comedy mainstream for his role in the cult HBO show. But fame has its drawbacks, and ever since the show ended its two-season run in 2009, he's been saddled with that somewhat unflattering description.
It's not a terrible tag, mind you - thousands of comedians would kill for that shot at the spotlight - but it hasn't changed his life just yet. "Nothing about being on that show transformed my life or career … it's not like I have butlers or anything."
Case in point: I'm talking to Barker on a crackly international mobile phone call just minutes before he's about to head on-stage for a gig in Minnesota. While most Conchords fans might see him as a comedy actor, this is actually Barker's grind: he's a Californian-born stand-up comic who loves hitting the road, touring circuits and making audiences laugh.
"I've done a lot more stand-up than acting - stand-up is more gratifying because you get immediate laughs," he says. "With a TV show, there's a responsibility for the cast and crew to stifle their laughs, so really you don't know if what you did was good or not."
Barker says he'd like to do more acting, but simply hasn't had the time. He has just finished touring a large part of the US and Canada, is about to finish off the year with shows in Asia, and has most of Australia lined up for 2013. It's a tough life, but right now, he's just trying to find the spontaneous inspiration that comes before facing a large crowd.
"As much as I travel, you might think I experience things all the time, but airports and hotels and comedy clubs are so similar that it's important for me to do different things," he says. "The work's important - you never write the best jokes when you're forcing it. It's important to flex your muscles and if there was a secret that I knew of, I'd do it all the time. The best thing is to experience new things in life and not get caught in a routine." Later this month, he'll be experiencing the flip-side to his global standing when he faces local crowds at Hong Kong's Punchline Comedy Club.
Our city isn't exactly known for its strong comedy scene, but our colonial history does give us an edge in terms of humour, and Barker is confident that his show will sit well with at least some members of the public.
"I've been to Hong Kong a bunch of times and the expats out there respond well - we always get a bunch of Brits and Australians," he says. "There's a dry element to my humour - I say things with a very straight face and I rarely acknowledge that it's a joke. British humour also leans to that drier side - it's part of the whole pub culture."
But more than anything, Barker is looking forward to a local story that's made international headlines of late. "Gigi Chao: I lost your number and I'd like to use this interview to cordially invite you down to my show - you can bring your girlfriend too," he says. "I'm super open-minded, so if it doesn't look like I'm going to shift you over and you just want to make out, I'll just be sitting over here. If I don't get the HK$500 million, that's a pretty good second prize."
Barker likes to stir things up, tackling everything from God to US politics. For example, he's arguably most famous among stand-up fans for co-creating the drug-and-feminist parodying off-Broadway show, The Marijuana-Logues.
"I just do what I think is funny, I go by my intuition. I try not to analyse my sense of humour too much, I'd rather go for feeling," he says. "Almost no sitcoms make me laugh, all that laugh-track crap. I'm a pretty tough customer and I'm a terrible audience member. I'd hate to have me in my own show."
But it does raise the question: if TV shows and the majority of normal sources of humour don't make Barker laugh, what exactly does? "Really just hanging out with my friends - that shared sense of humour," he says. "All I need is one good friend in a city; I've got a few in major places around the world. And for good reason: if there's a massive disaster, I don't want them all in one place. I know what I'm doing, I'm not an idiot."
He might be kidding again, but there's an element of truth to Barker's laid-back humour: most comedians in his semi-famous silver screen position would probably focus on getting major Hollywood roles, only to potentially risk embarrassment in some third-rate, kid-friendly comedy. But by focusing his efforts on the stand-up circuit, Barker is carving a name for himself as one of the funniest comedians on the global stage.
"I'm touring and working at becoming a better stand-up than I already am. I'm doing shows and enjoying my blessed existence, because I really love my job.
"But I also read up on a lot of conspiracy stuff, so either it'll be the apocalypse or a lot of good times. The extra-terrestrials are out there - mainstream media has been doing a good job of not letting people know about them, but I'm not falling for that."
Arj Barker, Punchline Comedy Club, Tamarind, 2/F Sun Hung Kai Centre, Wan Chai, Thu, 8pm