When he’s not busy writing criticism for VICE, Perth’s Lenny Bruce can be found performing satire in bars and stirring up mayhem across WA’s comedy scene. Patrick Marlborough‘s comedic flair is ensnaring yet frenetically intelligent as he challenges audience’s cognitive dissonance towards the world and their Australian abode. Marlborough and I chat about his 2017 comedy stand-up compilation Barely Bombings, his integral influences John Clarke to Richard Pryor, and comedy’s relationship with political correctness.
In your 2 year compilation of comedy stand-up Barely Bombings you explore a plethora of topics you described your album as “dissected nationalism, frenetic absurdism, depressive epiphanies, and half-true bullshit.” You say you structure your bits like a con. Which of your bits succeed in pulling this off?
The album doesn’t really go in chronological order but it would probably be the Nostalgic for Osama Bin Laden, because the root of that piece wasn’t about ‘oh I want to make a joke about ISIS’ or ‘I want to make a joke about the Taliban’ it was like ‘oh I hate cultural nostalgia’ and I hate that my generation is force fed movies that are reboots of things from the 90s. Plus we all grew up in this hyper awareness of modern terrorism. I’m mainly performing in bars in Perth and mainly performing to middle-class, conservative bogans. Perth is a very conservative, white place. And I like playing with those people. I know how to do it well. Bits like that [Nostalgic for Osama Bin Laden] I can purposely come across as obnoxious and ignorant because I want those people to be like ‘oh he’s one of us’ and then I want it to turn on them. Either I want it to trap them or I want them to see me as so awful but also see so much of themselves that it’ll be in their head for a month. That’s all I want.
I did the Bin Laden bit in Berlin just after the bombings in Brussels last year and I was like ‘man how is the bit about modern terrorism gonna go down’ in a city where, unlike Perth, it’s not an abstract thing. Especially when I didn’t know that I was performing in a hotel that was a gay getaway for older bears seeking younger otters/twinks until I went on stage and looked around at all the art on the walls….
It’s not on the album but I was doing a bit recently about modern Australian Conservatism, like Mark Latham especially. I killed it in a couple of bars until having to do it in Subiaco in a room full of yuppies. They looked like they wanted to lynch me. I had people come up to me afterwards and threaten me. I don’t know if it’s on the album but the bit where I was recording the end about Trump and Carebears there were these two guys in the front row who were white nationalists wearing British, white nationalist gear with Nazi tattoos all up their arm, and during the segment I could see this guy flexing his muscles. That was the first time I felt like ‘ooh this guy is actually going to hurt me on stage’.
It’s like anything that targets outside of their own land or culture is fine until it points right back at them
This is a real thing that bothers me about Australian comedy, like mainstream in particular. Our comedy is almost slapstick, very middle-class humour, because we’re a middle-class reactionary country and we hate being confronted with the violence of Australia and the essential nastiness of it and that informs all my comedy. It’s fucking horrible but the essential joke of Australia is founded on the destruction of the oldest and one of the most complex cultures of the world and it has replaced it with the modern cultural equivalent of a fucking minion theme of a nation. For me, I realized the absurdity when I was five or six years old and it just stuck with me forever.
I have such a position of privilege cuz people perceive me as a straight white male. Even calling the album Barely Bombings, like not even a lighter shade of pale would get away with that. The farce of Australia is live in its hypocrisy, particularly white hypocrisy. That’s why I could go up on stage and be such a horrible prick and the fact that it’s applauded is hilarious or ironic to me.
One of the bits I admired most in Barely Bombings was the Anxiety, Depression and Bipolar where you cleverly staged the mental health conditions as characters, thus creating an honest, hilarious, and yet intense account of the different sides of one’s mental state. Has it come to mind that your comedy might perpetuate stereotypes, especially for an audience who might not be able to empathize?
I don’t really see it as stereotypical, I mean it could be. So many elements of these diseases are universal so it’s easy to touch on broad themes. But I feel, especially in that bit, I’m very into hyper-specificity of language and reference so a lot of people will allude to something. I try to hone in on those very personal images on what those symptoms are like and to be like ‘this is a universal experience’ or this is my specific brand of neurosis. And I’m not sure how many manic people project their mania as a coked up Robin Williams.
Dana Gould wrote an article in the Rolling Stone titled “Brains Behaving Badly: Why So Many Comedians End Up Self-Destructing”, where he states how people are somewhat more inclined to believe musicians (Elliot Smith) and actors (Anthony Hopkins) to be suffering from depression than comedians like Robin Williams and David Letterman. Why do you believe that’s the case?
I guess on a superficial level people think comics must be joyful people because they create laughter right? But I couldn’t name you one funny person that isn’t the saddest person in the world [laughs], like Steve Martin might be an exception? I think depression and madness go hand in hand with comedy. A good comedic voice comes from being an outsider, and to me having bipolar and being on the spectrum etc. I always felt like an alien amongst people. You can see the foundational absurdism in everything if you’re at that point. Even the great intellectual depressives like Kafka and Van Gogh are potentially very funny humans, you just have to read their letters. Their jokes were a survival mechanism.
An article in the New Republic describes Richard Pryor as the ‘anti-Cosby’, due to Pryor moving away from appealing to the white audience to bringing out the black experience that the rest of society wanted to bury, while also achieving status through his “lyrical obscenity” in that time, in quote: “The abrasiveness and ugliness of some of Pryor’s work was inextricably part of the liberation they contained”. Is it liberating for comedy to pander to gender and/or racial stereotypes that Pryor and those after him (Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams) have capitalized on?
It’s a complicated issue really, especially in the Australian context. Like I’m a massive Richard Pryor nerd and he’s probably my biggest influence as a comic. He comes from an era of black comedy that evolved from the Chitlin’ Circuit, which was very much about taking very oppressive stereotypes about black people created in white popular culture, and inverting them for black audiences to make fun of that culture. In Australia it’s a bit less applicable for a white comedian to talk about it. Because I don’t think white comics should do racial impersonations. Unless they’re making fun of white South Africans? Don’t quote me.
Pryor revolutionized what standup comedy could be and who could say what really. Like you had guys come before him that were saying radical things, like Lenny Bruce, but it was really Pryor that was the first brilliant antagonist of the form. If you’re going to ignore Dick Gregory who is like the comedian who invented the standup album…anyway Richard Pryor grew up in a brothel and his grandmother was the madam. He was raped quite regularly as a kid, he was a really damaged man, and he exorcised that pain in his comedy.
On political correctness, the most interesting story about Pryor is about this LGBTQI benefit gig in 71′ for a big stadium concert celebrating the gay rights movement, and they got him to do a standup set and he started saying ‘yeah I’ve had sex with a lot of men, I’m pretty gay’ (essentially) and they all were like ‘holy shit a black performer came out on stage,’ but at the same time the set was ornery and homophobic. He’s a tricky one, very mercurial dude.
What’s your view on the policing of comedy through political correctness? Do you believe it jeopardizes comedy?
Nah, I don’t think it exists. I don’t think it’s a thing. I get accused of it a lot, like I do actual comedy criticism, like how I wrote that piece on Chris Lilley using black face, him being a minstrel etc. Comedy is never gonna be politically correct. I don’t consider my comedy ‘politically correct’ but I don’t do racist impersonations or joke about sexual assault. It’s a difference between whether you want to be punching up or punching down. Like anyone can do that. All the guys I know that kvetch about political correctness in the comedy scene are mediocre hacks whose material only works because it doesn’t so much shock Australian values, as much as it aligns with them. We are a deeply bigoted nation and people love reveling in that bigotry, so it works here. But in the American standup context, it is shock value. Open mic in Australia with its “shock comedy” etc it’s usually just a rehash of a 13-year-old boy’s Reddit ideas that anybody could come up with.
Like I say some absolutely horrific things in my act but I try to say them in a specific way that’s aimed at a particular person…who apparently rarely comes to my shows.
Has your comedy ever been censored? Or is Australia less censorious than America?
I say Australian comedy is much more conservative than American comedy. We don’t have an alternative comedy scene like America, but America’s comedy is incredibly diverse so like where something is sensitive in American comedy there’ll be a space for it – whether it be online, Adult Swim, the anti-comedy underground, South Park and the like. But like, Australia can never produce anything like South Park. All of our edgy, offensive comedy is mean. When we do produce comedy like that we never produce it with a purpose, it’s just to revel in shittiness. We’re in a country where I could get a fucking ABC series doing yellow-face. But that would be easier than me getting a show where I’m doing actual jabs at a relationship between Peter Dutton and Circo or something, or the glazed ham aesthetic of Mark Latham’s immensely meaty head. Australia’s media landscape is incredibly censorous of ideas, usually those on the left, and that’s because 85% of it is owned by ol’ Rupert (my 6% boss) and dodgy old baby boomers whose brains are irreparably cooked. It’s just a big stack of rotting deli meats with no real ideas. It’s censorship by absence.
Like I always say to my American mates, Australia is like if the Nazi’s won the war, had no aesthetics and liked arrowroot biscuits.
Also with most amateurs, and even pro-comedians in Australia, you’re able to trace their comedic influence as they tend to have a limited sense of the form’s history and possibilities. It’s like ‘oh he likes Louis CK, she likes Amy Schumer, they like Tina Fey’, whereas my neurotic influences are really obscure like Jewish monologists from the 40’s. It’s not marketable at all, I’ll die in a broom closet with a note that reads ‘time ill spent’ stapled to my head. And the big push in comedy at the moment is going viral, to be shared and retweeted and have a bit that ends up in Melbourne fringe or something. I don’t fucking know. I think the industry is full of cliques and cliques are where ideas go to die. My stuff is the opposite of virality – it’s vaccine comedy. Like it stops and that’s it [laughs].
John Clarke, the late political satirist whom you’ve expressed much admiration for when interviewed by RTRFM, would target Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his policies, (as in the sketch “It’s All Going Terribly Well”). You comment on the absurdity of immigration in the bit ‘Stop the Boats,’ and also extend your political satire to America, commenting on their treatment to oversea nations describing them as the “80’s douchebag from the Karate Kid” in your bit ‘A Land of Brown Despair.’ Was John Clarke responsible in shaping your view towards politics or was it more that his views already aligned with one’s cynicism towards the system?
A bit of both. I was the son of a member of Parliament growing up. I grew up with politicians. The parliament house was like my playground and my parents are mad lefties from a generation of the Labor Party that is long dead – self-educated workers who became activists and got involved in politics. Which isn’t really possible anymore. Clarke is from that same generation as my parents (though he’s from New Zealand): those elevated by the policies of Gough Whitlam, but that kind of leftist thought of that generation is either being warped or dying out.
John Clarke to me is one of the greatest satirists of the 20th century. I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body but I can put him next to Iannucci, Cleese, Marx (Groucho) and Woody Allen.
As an impersonator, people think that impersonations in the mode of Chris Lilley, the ability to do an accent very well, is brilliant – but those impersonations don’t really capture any essential essence, any truth. Clarke is like the Cezanne of impersonations. He just breaks it down to its essential form and highlights the core of the idea.
I found an interview where Bill Hicks asks a reporter “when did thinking not becoming entertaining?” and when asked where he needs to draw the line in his comedy he responds “there are no lines”. What are your thoughts on his statement?
Bill Hicks was a seminal influence to me as a teenager. I think he believes that statements as much as he disbelieves it. When he’s talking about crossing the line, with rare exceptions, he was pretty sexist like all comedians in that generation and a little bit homophobic like everybody from Texas [laughs]. He rarely punched down. He was angry at society, he was angry at capitalism, he was angry at Reagan, he was angry at Bush. His rage was at the Industrial Military Complex, not black people, you know what I mean? I think with him he’s branded as an anti-PC ‘say whatever ya want’ kind of guy, but even his cultural libertarianism had its limits.
That said, do I think that there’s a line that can be crossed… I think to me it’s not so much a manner of political correctness, or content even, so much as a matter of intent and confidence. One of my favorite comedians is Norm Macdonald. He says some of the most heinously offensive things I’ve ever heard anybody say but he does it with such knowing, such irony and such panache that it’s alright. Where as I see countless of comedians… my pet peeve is rape jokes. I see so many lazy hacks telling rape jokes for shock value, they’re not even doing it because they have anything to say. These are like 25-year-old guys that are emotionally stunted who grew up on the internet thinking saying the word rape is funny – they’re the Family Guy generation. It’s tragic. It’s a generation of dull minds.
There’s not a difference between politically correct and politically incorrect, it’s a difference between good and shit. And so much of it is shit [laughs].
With the Chris Lilley thing people are saying I’m advocating censorship by saying he shouldn’t do blackface on TV, but then they show me the clip they find funny and the jokes are like lame and daggy with a layer of racism on top….
If you’re gonna make offensive art make it good, that’s what I say.