Stand-up comedian Arj Barker returns to Hong Kong with sharpest material honed during performances in Australia
Ahead of his three shows for Punchline Comedy Club, Barker, who also plays Dave in US TV show Flight of the Conchords, talks about jokes he has tailor-made for Hong Kong and why he spends little time making fun of Trump
Few foreign comedians have got to know Hong Kong as well as Arj Barker, who will be making his third appearance for the city’s Punchline Comedy Club this month.
The US-born stand-up first performed here for Punchline 15 years ago, and says he always looks forward to returning to the city to explore the markets, hone his photography skills and spend time with the club’s founder, John Moorhead.
Over three nights at locations in both Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island, Barker will present his “best stuff”: the sharpest material honed during performances in Australia, his adopted home since the early noughties, plus jokes tailor-made for a Hong Kong crowd.
“I like to do some jokes about expats and all that. What’s that acronym? ‘Failed in London, try Hong Kong?’” he says over the phone from Melbourne. “I used to have a joke about getting drunk in that one district where there are all the tailors and waking up with several new suits. I’ve got to dust that off.”
Barker, whose real name is Arjan Singh, first achieved widespread fame when he was named best newcomer at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe festival in 1997. He is best known, though, for his role in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, the Emmy-nominated television series following New Zealand comedians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement as they try to achieve success as a band in New York City.
The show, which ran for two series from 2007 to 2009, starred Barker as Dave, the duo’s mellow-mannered, bandana-sporting, pawn shop-owning friend and self-elected relationship guru, who doles out pearls of wisdom such as: “Women like three things. Southern Comfort, men in kilts and Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game.”
The 43-year-old accompanied McKenzie and Clement when they revived the Conchords for a string of live shows in the United States in 2016. He delivered his own stand-up routine to open the show, while also performing as Dave during the main act. However, due to his busy schedule of solo gigs this year, Barker is disappointed that he won’t be able to join the New Zealand duo when they embark on a tour of the UK and Ireland in March.
“Touring with them is one of the most fun things because it’s really easy – there’s no pressure,” he says. “I come out and do 20 minutes to these huge audiences who are in a great mood.”
Although Clement just this week hinted that an hour-long Conchords special is in the works, Barker isn’t sitting on his hands waiting to wrap Dave’s signature bandana around his head once more. Instead, he will spend the next few months in residencies at fringe festivals in Australia.
With his shaggy brown hair and soul patch below his bottom lip, Barker has the surf-shack slacker look down pat. However, in person, he is articulate, astute and cares deeply about animal rights and current affairs. His latest show, “We Need to Talk” – which launches this year in Adelaide – focuses on the role of technology, touching on its more sinister applications while simultaneously celebrating the ways it facilitates certain aspects of everyday life.
“I try to be even-handed about it,” he says in his Californian drawl. “But I think that technology is making us worse people. It’s supposed to make our lives better – in some ways it makes certain tasks easier – but it just means you have more tasks than you did before. You’re never finished responding to emails and texts. Now we’re inundated by them. The amount of time we spend on our phones, I don’t see that as a positive thing.
“I love technology – my gadgets, my phone, gaming, beautiful camera lenses. But it’s a love-hate thing and I think a lot of people can relate to that. But if you had to say ultimately is it going to benefit us? I think the jury’s still out. A majority, if not all, of the existential threats facing mankind are technology-related. I find AI [artificial intelligence] fascinating: when computers surpass human intelligence, what will happen? It’s all interesting but kind of scary at the same time.”
Barker, whose motto is “never not funny”, says it is essential that he lifts the darker aspects of his routine with humour. “If I want to say something and make a point, I have to do it in a way that’s also funny. I don’t want to sacrifice being funny for making a point because then I’m preaching and that’s not what people want. You can make your point while also staying funny.”
The Pacific-hopping comedian, who splits his time between Melbourne and San Francisco, says that he will always have ties to the US no matter how long he spends away from his home country. But like many of his fellow countrymen, he is dismayed by the current political administration.
“I do have some Trump material, but I don’t spend a lot of time on him because it’s rather disheartening and we hear enough in the news. Someone like Trump is similar to George W. Bush in that making fun of him is redundant because he already beat you to it. It’s already a farce. How do you make fun of a farce?
“It’s sad for the whole world because there are a lot of things happening that will affect everybody. A lot of people around the world need help. I made a dollar per ticket of my Organic tour [in 2017] go to Doctors Without Borders – a really good organisation.”
The big-hearted comic is also a vocal supporter of the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, a charity that fights against animal cruelty throughout the region. “They’re superb,” he says. “They try to stop bear bile farming in Vietnam and have had some real success. They let me name one of the bears because I did a benefit for them. I named her Manuka, after the honey.”
Faithful to his motto, he adds: “I try to do little things but ultimately the world’s pretty f****d. That’s why you need a laugh. Come down to Punchline and leave it with us.”
Arj Barker, Punchline Comedy Club. Jan 25, 8pm, Kafnu, 2/F Kerry Hotel, 38 Hung Luen Rd, Hung Hom; Jan 26-27, 9pm, Tamarind, 2/F Sun Hung Kei Centre, 30 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai. All shows HK$350 from Ticketflap