"Very early on I lost interest in playing the race card so it wasn’t a problem for me that I had to change my name to a more homogenous one. Also, I kept some of the flavour. I mean, Arj isn’t an everyday first name that you hear all the time."
– Arj Barker
Guy MacPherson: I saw you here on Granville Island years and years ago. Any idea when that was?
Arj Barker: Yeah, that was a while ago. I’m not very good at remembering dates. So it was a while ago, that’s all I know.
GM: Are you living in Australia now or just part-time?
AB: I’m half and half. I live in California still, too.
GM: So six months of the year in Australia?
AB: Um, yeah, give or take. I like to spend time here.
GM: Do you have a house in Sydney?
AB: No. No, it’s out in the countryside. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, really.
GM: Did you experience culture shock?
AB: No because I started coming out here eleven years ago. I got pretty used to it, you know?
GM: Do you have a family? Or are you a single guy?
AB: Still pretty single. I thought I’d have a family by now but I don’t. I don’t know what happened.
GM: Was it tough leaving your friends or other family?
AB: Yeah, but I get to go back and forth so I sort of have that luxury. And also as a comedian I’m so used to moving around that it’s a perpetual state of leaving people behind and then seeing other people. I never have my friends all in one place anyway.
GM: From what I’ve heard about Australia, the gigs are really far apart. And travelling to other countries is a hassle, too.
AB: Yeah. It’s not too bad. When we do a tour, the average distance is about a one- to three-hour drive. It ranges from one to five hours driving. It’s not too bad, if you don’t mind. I don’t think it’s too bad but I don’t know.
GM: How do you explain your rock stardom in Australia?
AB: Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, as far as rock stardom. I just got here and kept coming back. I think I got some pretty good television spots early on. Just piled up the television appearances, which really makes a difference, and one day something just shifted and people started to kind of know who I was. I got kind of a good momentum going.
GM: Is there something about your sensibility that strikes a chord with Australians?
AB: Maybe but I don’t try to analyze it too much. I mean, I think I’m pretty funny wherever I go. I think Australia was probably the first country to really say, hey, this guy is pretty good. I feel like this country gave me my props. I don’t think it’s because I have this magical connection specifically with Australia. I think it’s easier to get recognized for something when you appear to be a little more exotic. So it’s like when I came here they probably gave me some free credit just because I was American. I think countries are a little harder on their own.
GM: You were a revelation to me when I first saw you, long before your TV work. So it’s nice to see you get the success I thought you deserved.
AB: Yeah, well, it’s been a relief for me, too, believe me. But I still work in North America. I haven’t given up or anything. I get better crowds than I used to, so that’s good. I always wonder if I go back maybe this time I’ll be completely forgotten about. But I don’t worry too much because I’m already halfway through this thing almost. No point in getting too worked up.
GM: Halfway through what thing?
GM: Ah. You’re not good with dates, but when did you first play Australia?
AB: Approximately ’99.
GM: Has the Australian comedy scene exploded? Have you noticed a difference since you started going there?
AB: Yeah, I think so because when I first came here I was lucky because there wasn’t a plethora of international comedians out here. A ple-THOR-a. But now there is a plethora of… There’s a lot of guys come out now. It’s definitely become a regular stop on the international comedy circuit with the festival. But when I first came out here there was a handful of Americans that had been here but now I’d say that number is tenfold. I guess I’m saying I got in at a good time.
GM: There even seems to be way more Australian comics.
AB: Yeah, sure. I suppose the scene’s grown. The Comedy Store in Sydney brings in a lot of internationals. It’s still a ways away so a lot of guys haven’t been here.
"It’s surprising how many people say, 'Oh, is [Flight of the Conchords] finished?' It hasn’t had a new episode in probably two years now and people still claim to be fans but they don’t seem to have any idea what’s going on."
– Arj Barker
GM: Is part of your success due to The Flight of the Conchords or were you starting to hit before that?
AB: Yeah, that helped but I already had a good foot in the door here big time before that hit. Things had already started to turn pretty well here and then that came. That was another nice little wave to help boost my profile and make a lot of new fans, specifically the cooler, hipper, younger folks who really love that show.
GM: How many seasons did it run?
AB: Only a few, actually. It’s surprising how many people say, “Oh, is that finished?” (laughs) It hasn’t had a new episode in probably two years now and people still claim to be fans but they don’t seem to have any idea what’s going on.
GM: I had mixed feelings about you and Todd Barry on the show. I saw Flight of the Conchords in a club here before they hit it big and I liked them a lot. Then they got the show and I felt like you and Todd should be stars of a show and they should be supporting parts. They were pretty late to the scene and they get their own show.
AB: What happened was they really blew up and generated a huge buzz in Edinburgh one year and from there… In fact, I know the lady who was determined to bring them over to NBC in the States. You must know, also, that there’s really no… One guy can do comedy 20 years and another guy can come along and get his own show in his first year. There’s no rules in this business like that. It’s very flavour-of-the-month, too. But it’s important that, if you have me comment on that at all, I do think they deserve everything they got because they have been doing it a long time before people knew them and they put an extraordinary amount of work into that show from all aspects, from writing it and producing it and writing the songs, recording the songs. I haven’t seen people work much harder than they did and I just think they deserve all the success. I don’t want to take away from that just because I’ve been doing it a long time. I was honoured and privileged to even have a small part on that show. They’re great guys and I can never say nothing negative about them.
GM: Yeah. I wasn’t trying to lead you that way. Like I said, I had mixed feelings because I saw them and thought they were hilarious and that’s the bottom line, that they’re funny.
AB: And as for Todd Barry, he creates his own reality. You can put that in there and hopefully he’ll read it and wonder what the fuck I’m talking about.
GM: Up until a year or so ago, I had no idea you were a Sikh. It really never even entered my mind what ethnicity you were. You don’t talk about it. The idea you had behind your stage name when you started, did you just want to avoid that completely or was it simply a matter of easier to pronounce?
AB: It was purely easier to pronounce. It wasn’t like I was trying to hide my heritage or anything. Although I’ve got one or two jokes about being Indian because when you start out you go, ‘Alright, what am I going to write about? Oh, I’m half Indian, I better write some jokes about 7-11 or something.’ Like that. But very early on I lost interest in playing the race card so it wasn’t a problem for me that I had to change my name to a more homogenous one. Also, I kept some of the flavour. I mean, Arj isn’t an everyday first name that you hear all the time, although I have heard of other people called Arj. So it was purely for pronounciation.
GM: Was Barker from your mother’s side of the family or just a name out of thin air?
AB: I just came up with it.
GM: So you decided you weren’t going to go that route pretty early on, and you don’t begrudge anyone who does. There are a lot of comics who talk about nothing else.
AB: Oh sure, I mean, look at Russell Peters. He’s a billionaire. People love it. I’ll tell you my theory on the whole thing: It’s human nature that you love to hear about yourself. If there’s a conversation at a party and it turns to being about you, not all of us but a lot of us are titillated. It’s exciting, you know? People love being the subject. So when a particular race gets talked about, they’re going to eat it up. That’s why black audiences love urban comics. It cracks them up because when you go there and the subject is about you and your culture, and the same thing Russell Peters is a lot about Indians and their culture and Asians, and that’s exciting and makes you feel celebrated. You want to laugh and you feel like you’re part of it. It’s a great thing for guys that do it. It works well. It’s done a lot. If you go to New York it seems like the majority of the comics are race-based. But I’m going to tell you right now, and I’ll go on the record: it bores the shit out of me, personally, to make observations about different cultures based on race. Although, having said that, I’ve made a lot of jokes about Australian culture and I’ve carved out a living, practically, talking about that. Although that’s not my whole show. But personally I’m not judging those guys that do that. I don’t consider myself an authority on what people should talk about or how they should do their show. It’s just me personally, I just like jokes. Just purely from my own personal taste, it bores me to do race-related jokes.
GM: Do you think it’s easier or cheating?
AB: I don’t think it’s my place to say. Comedy is not easy. Original comedy is definitely not easy. There’s hack jokes, but there’s also hack jokes about airplanes, there’s hack jokes about race. It’s just not for me personally. And I don’t feel like I’m an authority to tell other comedians what they should do. Clearly it works and people love it. That’s my point. Russell’s a friend of mine. Not like a close, tight pal that I talk to all the time, but we’re colleagues and I’ve known him for quite a while. It works great for him. I’m happy for him. And of course I wish I’d done it now (laughs). I’d be in a castle. But I do find it quite dull, personally, to talk about race because I think that for me, personally, I would like to break down racial barriers and speak to audiences as a group of humans. I also don’t overthink it too much. I don’t know, I just didn’t go that direction with my comedy.
GM: Do other Sikhs come to you and say you should be talking about them?
AB: No. No, not at all. I get some Indians at my shows but not in droves. Occasionally I think people come because they find out I have Indian heritage, but not really, no. My heritage hasn’t been a big part of my world view.
GM: A lot of those comics end up being spokesmen for their race. And you’re just a comic.
AB: Yeah, I’m just a comic. But probably a big part of it, too, is I grew up in northern California in a mostly white population. There was the odd Asian kid kicking around and a couple black guys and me. But it wasn’t like a big issue. It was very liberal, at least not outwardly racist. There’s always some racism that’s well-hidden, but generally it was a pretty liberal quote-unquote open-minded area so it just wasn’t an issue. I didn’t grow up only going to Indian functions or anything like that. I had Indian relatives around but I also never wanted to sell out jokes about my grandfather, you know? That didn’t appeal to me. In my first year of comedy, before I understood that you had a choice… When you first start, you do pretty much anything to get a laugh. You don’t think ‘I’m not a guitar comic’ or ‘I don’t do parodies’; you just think ‘fuck, that’ll get a laugh, let’s do it.’ Then I think you become more refined as to what you want to do. In my first year I had a joke that my dad worked in 7-11, to give you an idea. I don’t need to do the joke. The point is very early on I did [that kind of material]. I find this whole subject kinda dull so maybe we can move on. I’m just not an ethnic comic. I don’t do ethnic comedy. It bores me. That’s all I have to say.
GM: Have you always played it straight-faced in life?
AB: I think I’ve always been a bit dry, if that’s what you’re asking. Yeah, definitely. I think that’s just a natural component of me.
GM: Last time you were here you played a big theatre. The first time I saw you, you were in a smaller theatre. You’re playing bigger theatres now. Do you prefer that, or do you miss the intimacy of a smaller room?
AB: I can have fun in both. It really depends on the crowd and the vibe. There’s a lot of variables but I can certainly have a great time at any size gig. Sometimes performing for thousands of people at a time – when I performed with Flight of the Conchords it was at places like the Hollywood Bowl and Wembley Arena – it’s pretty exciting but it definitely lost something because there’s so many people there. But between playing to a hundred people and a couple thousand, I can certainly have a great time, regardless of size. That’s not a big issue. There’s a joy of playing to lots of people and also just playing in a café with 20 people and no mic. That can be one of the funnest gigs. That’s sometimes where I feel like I’m at my funniest. You can’t underestimate how important intimacy is with the crowd. I don’t even know where I’m playing this time so I’m just going to have a fun tour.