INTERVIEW

The Edinburgh Comedy Award winner talks about how he’s a lone wolf, why Americans are better than Australians and how he thought he’d never do standup.

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When I meet Sam Simmons in the bar of Soho Theatre something happens that wonderfully befits his standup persona. A small plastic horse falls out of his pocket and skids toward the door. He chases after it. He skulls an espresso straight from the machine and we walk out into the rain for some photographs. “Last night was fucking terrible,” he insists in his pinched, Australian whine that helped land the most absurd of punch lines in his 2015 Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show, Spaghetti For Breakfast. “Just awful! Seriously. It says on the poster that it’s ‘work in fucking progress’, and tickets are only a fucking fiver!” he starts to rant, “but it was a real TV crowd, of people who’d seen me on 8 Out of 10 Cats and thought, oh, he’s good… Fuuccck! One guy’s sat there live tweeting through it, saying how shit it is!”

I saw Spaghetti For Breakfast last year with a friend, not knowing who Sam Simmons was. An hour of crafted, surreal comedy passed, made to look altogether freewheeling and loosey-goosey, and I learned that Simmons was anarchically somewhere between Vic & Bob and an Aussie Basil Fawlty. Pretty damn funny, then, and very, very silly.

Simmons, who now pretty much lives in LA, is boiling comedy back down to its purest form of unpretentious daftness, while somehow managing to remain subversive enough to please fans of Daniel Kitson and Tim Key et al. He does this via devices like ‘Things that shit me’ – an overdubbed shopping list of his pet hates that come and go between him pouring Rice Krispies over himself and sporadically comparing the hue of different audience members’ blue jeans. It’s best to just go with it, as the stupefied panel on 8 Out of 10 Cats realised a week before I meet Simmons in Soho, and as he wished last night’s audience had while he workshopped new material. “I start the new show with a prosthetic cock on, hitting myself with a shrub. I think it’s fucking hilarious, but everyone last night was like, ‘urgh, shit, he’s got his cock out. Yuck!”

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“It’s a turd rolled in glitter.”
The t-shirt philosophers – the Russell Howards and Russell Kanes – I regale against that, and sometimes in my show I’ll go, ‘whose cock do I have to suck to get on that panel show? Is that what it’s really all about?!’ I can’t stand that everyman shit. I guess what made [Spaghetti For Breakfast] relatable was something that happened by accident this time last year as I was working on putting the show together. I had to earn money by doing the club circuit here in the UK and I don’t do straight stand-up, so I didn’t want to bend to their rules, so I put in the device ‘Things that shit me’. It’s very relatable stuff, but it’s still in my world. These club guys would be loving that and I realised I could sneak in a really subversive story here as well. So it’s shiny shit, shiny shit, shiny shit, oh, that was a bit weird, shiny shit, shiny shit. You just sugar up the dark shit, and I try to do that a lot. This year, the new show is going to be more of my weird stuff.”

“I’m looking forward to getting out of grim England.”
I do totally like it here though. I like performing for you, because I find it difficult. I think there’s a bit of anti-colonial… how do I say this? … Australians can beat you in sport, but they can’t beat you in other things, especially the arts – Brits don’t like that, so it’s harder for me to win an audience over, I feel. It’s still there in the muscle memory of the Brits that you banished us to paradise – there’s a bit of resentment there. ‘You can beat us in sport, but don’t you dare beat us in philosophy of art!’ So I find that a challenge, but I LOVE it.”

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“Dan Kitson is the head of the fucking comedy mafia.”
He’s the head of the wooly mafia. I love him very much but he came and saw me very early in my career. I did a show here called Fail and it was a fucking terrible show, and I think he came along and saw me once and just thought, ‘yeah, you’re no good.’ And I just want him to love me – ‘please love me, Daniel’ – and he just doesn’t. Whenever I’m having a bad gig I say, ‘I bet Daniel’s here.’ He has seen me twice actually. The other time he came with Stewart Lee, and Stewart left halfway through, because he has tinnitus, or so he says (I’m friends with him, so it’s fine), and my show was too loud for him. There was a bit in the middle of the show with a little bit of sentiment and Daniel heckled me… well, he went, ‘oh no!’ to really feel the sentiment [laughs]. He never sees me do any good, so if it’s going badly I say: ‘tonight’s shit, Daniel Kitson must be here.’” [laughs]

“My hit rate is one in five.”
One in five gigs are just appalling. Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what I do – sometimes it’s me – I mean, you can’t be funny every day of your life – and sometimes it’s an apathetic audience. Fucking hell, man, posh audiences – I get them here in Soho a lot, and it’s fine, but it’s a bit ra-ra-rah regatta. You get the banker crowd in, but I love it – they’re really supportive. Saying that, there was one guy at the end of one of the shows who heckled: ‘You fucking should have killed yourself!’ I was like: ‘Oh my god!’ Not that that’s going to affect me emotionally, like, ‘yeah, I should have,’ but the words hurt, like, ow! I just performed for you for an hour!”

“Americans are better people than the Australians.”
And they’re better than people from the UK. Just in terms of being kind. I know they shoot each other, but they’re kinder and more open to stuff. They’re a bit more can-do. So I’d have them coming up to me after a show going: ‘Oh my god, man, I didn’t know you could do that onstage. So you can do that? Oh my god. Good for you.’ When you ask if comedy is competitive, it is there. ‘Silly’ is getting ultra competitive now. There’s a silly mafia here now; a little crew bubbling underneath. I had an article written in the Guardian about me by a guy called Brian Logan that basically… the show had a bit in it about child abuse [not so much a joke, but a story that is true to Simmons’ past], and he said that I shouldn’t try to thread that into my absurdity. I can do whatever I want, thank you very much! Also, he said that I shouldn’t denigrate other stand-ups. Well, why are you telling me what I should and shouldn’t do? Like I should stay in my absurdist box and not try anything new. Fuck that. I love going on a rant. Bill Burr is my favourite comedian – just an angry Bostonian. And Romesh [Ranganathan] is the funniest guy in Britain. None of this ‘what did I learn’ shit – he’s just bitter!”

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“There are comedy gangs.”
I’m not really in a gang. I feel like a bit of a lone wolf over here – I feel like people appreciate what I do, and feel like I’ve done something a little different in comedy, but I don’t feel like I’m part of a gang. The Kitsons and the Stewart Lees and Josie Longs have built careers without having to be on television, and that’s pretty extraordinary. But I see respect out of ticket prices as well – if I’m charging five pounds for a work in progress I’m going to fuck around; if I’m charging top dollar I’m going to try to… not broaden myself… but I don’t want people to walk away thinking they don’t really get it, or feeling stupid, like they don’t understand it. There’s something about that intellectual mafia comedy – I get it, it’s fine, but I feel like Betty and Sue on a Friday night out might be missing out on something. Not with those guys [Kitson, Lee, Long], they’re great at what they do – don’t take me out of context, please – but I feel like I want to make it funny in a way that is digestible and palatable.”

“Bad absurdism is the worst.”
There’s nothing more insufferable that someone going: ‘I’m a cheesecake man.’ Oh shut up! ‘There’s a pug on a skateboard. Yeah, crumpets.’ That’s really, really annoying. It’s hard to get it right, and I get it more right than wrong, I think. I think I’m really good at it. I know where to go with it, intuitively. I know that sounds really dumb, but it’s just where it’s come from, and that’s maybe from my upbringing, of being like: ‘I’m going in here [his mind] for a minute.’ But yeah, there is a lot of bad stuff. I understand people getting upset at bad absurdity but I don’t understand it when people out and out hate my show. I don’t understand it, and it’s not because I think I’m the best guy in the world, but I think that at the purest end of comedy and joy is being silly and stupid; can’t you just for a minute go with it? It’s only going to be an hour of your life, it’s going to be good, I promise you, just switch off for an hour. I wish more people would be like that, but people can be so closed to it. It’s mainly men, and it’s mainly an older demographic, and I feel that there might be a homophobic element as well. I feel like when they see an effeminate man on stage dancing around with a lettuce or being weird they’re like: ‘what’s this fucking poofter up to!?’ They switch off and are like: ‘I don’t want to be seen laughing at this; he’s a bit weird.’ I think people feel threatened, that if they’re caught laughing, they’re worried that their mate will be like, ‘oh, you find this shit funny do you? I don’t wanna be associated with this shit!?’ T-shirt comedians are telling you how it is and it’s safe. It takes a lot more guts to like something that is on the edge.

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“I never thought I’d do stand-up.”
And I’ve never done stand-up, really. Some people would call it performance art but it’s not – it’s just being a weirdo. I was working in St Kilda in Melbourne and my friend got her handbag stolen so we put on a benefit gig at the local pub to raise money to replace her handbag. Me and my mate Greg dressed up as Bert and Ernie and sang parody songs. It was terrible, but it did really well, and I did more and more. I’d started working at Melbourne Zoo though, and was going to become a zookeeper, and I was about to go to Thailand to live with three female elephants that were going to be shipped to Australia. I was going to sit with them in quarantine for six months, but at the same time my comedy career was doing something and I got offered a radio job, and I thought, well, that’s easy money and I don’t have to pick up shit in a paddock. But I loved the keeping days – sometimes I think I fucked up there. Nicer people. The zoo people, not the elephants. The [comedy] industry is full of terrible fucking cunts. It’s an industry full of narcissism, and what I was saying before about not having many friends in comedy, it’s for a reason [laughs]. I’ve got my childhood friends and my dear friends in life, which a lot of comedians don’t have, because they’re fucking psychopaths.

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