Arj Barker is one of the hardest working men on the comedy scene and continues to leave a lasting impression on his fans around the world. Most recognizable from his appearances on late night staples like The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman, HBO’s hit sitcom Flight of the Conchords and Last Comic Standing, he continues to raise the bar with each outing. In 2010, Barker looks to ascend to new heights with the release of his debut comedy album, LYAO, which just hit stores everywhere! In his act, he tackles controversial topics ranging from global warming, gay marriage, religion and the constant misunderstandings we all face through texting and online communication, all while leaving the audience in stitches. Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Arj Barker to discuss his beginnings as a stand up comic, his milestones, new album, as well as what the future holds for this rising star!
Let’s give everyone a little background on you. Where did you grow up and what was your first exposure to comedy?
I grew up in the Bay Area outside of San Francisco, California. My first exposure to comedy was watching ‘Evening at The Improv’. Well, actually my first real exposure was listening to Steve Martin albums at my cousin’s house when I was a kid. [laughs] I remember seeing the covers of ‘Comedy Is Not Pretty’, ‘A Wild and Crazy Guy’ and all that shit. Later on, I remember seeing Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’ with some friends and really laughing hard. That was the first time that I was really blown away by stand up comedy.
How did you come by the decision to make stand up a career?
I never decided to make it a career until after I was already doing it. During the late 80s, I could see a ton of it on late-night television, it was all over cable. That’s when I thought “Well, so many guys are doing it, maybe I will give it a shot.” I didn’t really go into it thinking, “Yeah, this is my career.” ya know?
Yeah, ya know, I just thought that it would be crazy to try comedy. I guess, at the beginning, I just wasn’t that confident and I probably thought, “I will probably fail, but whatever, I will give it a go and see what happens.” Immediately, I was hooked on the adrenaline of it! It was the thrill of it and the sense of accomplishment that it gave me that made me keep doing it. I never looked back but I never really considered making money doing it the first two years, it was just so much fun!
At this point, you have quite a track record for successes. Is there a point in your career that you look back on and say, “Ok, that is the moment where I made it as a stand up?”
A really deep satisfaction in my career has come from the way it has been going in Australia. All that I really want is to have great audiences and fill up the house! I don’t need to play stadiums to feel good about myself. Touring and selling out theaters definitely was a benchmark. I can sit back and say “Yeah, this is really what I want.” When I peek out from behind the curtain before I go on and see one thousand people that are all there to see me, I think it’s awesome. [laughs] This is better than I hoped to do, ya know!
Some people think that getting booked on Letterman would be the moment but that is the moment when you think, “Ok, this will lead to the theaters.” Even with all the excitement and prestige that comes with appearing on a show like Letterman, you still go back to your studio apartment. [laughs]
What is the biggest challenge in performing stand-up comedy?
Keeping it current. My standards for material are pretty high, I think, but at the same time the demand for new material is pretty high too. That creates a complex situation. Ideally, I would like to come up with a solid hour a year or even a solid 45 minutes a year that I would be happy with. That is very difficult to do, ya know? I would say that is the most difficult thing. Once I have the material, going out and performing it is a joy! So, staying productive material-wise is the hardest thing.
You just released, “LYAO” as a CD and DVD. What was that like to put together for you? Was it a relief when you finally got it out there to the fans?
Yes. Yes it was because it is a lot of work! You worry about the show and you worry about the filming first and foremost, because it is not like a normal show. When filming, whatever I say, whatever I wear, that is forever, ya know? You stress about that! When that is done, you have to decide what bits to cut, the editing and the artwork. I was in Nashville working when they called and said that they wanted to do the photo shoot for the cover. I had been partying quite a lot and thought “Jesus Christ, my face is probably all puffy!” So, you stress about stuff like that. Again, it is just the idea that this thing is going to be out there for my entire lifetime and once it is out, that’s that!
You have had the opportunity to perform all over the world. Is there an audience you feel most at home in front of?
Well, I always feel comfortable in The States because that is my home but I would say that Australia is right up there. The UK is great as well, I have worked there a lot. They have some of the best crowds over there! Ireland is unbelievable.
A lot of people might be familiar with your work on on ‘Flight of The Conchords’. How did you initially get involved with that project and what have you enjoyed most about it?
The way I got involved with them stems from the fact that I am friends with them. I guess they liked my stand up and thought that I would be a good component for the show. I was really quite lucky in that way, because I never thought of my friendship with them as networking. I still don’t. The point is that it kinda just fell in my lap and I was very lucky. They are both great guys and I have had such good fortune to be part of a TV show that resonates with people. As far as my career goes, it has given me a boost, in The States and all over the world for that matter, by giving me a whole new audience of people who are interested in what I am doing. I just need people to make the connection that I am “that guy from Flight of The Conchords” and “Oh, wait a second, he is actually a good stand up” — then I will be good to go.
You were one of the creative forces behind The Marijuana-Logues. How did you guys originally come together and did you ever think it would develop the following that it has and become a bit of a cultural phenomenon?
Well, on that last note, I didn’t really know it was doing that well! Maybe my checks are getting lost in the mail or something!
It certainly has a huge underground buzz. I know that a lot of people were exposed to you through that outlet.
Sure! Well, the way it came about was that I was kidding around with a friend, we were in Aspen and they were doing The Vagina Monologues there. I said, “I am making a show about weed and it is called ‘The Marijuana-Logues’, just making a pun. I said it, ya know, not thinking anything of it at all. [laughs] Then I said something about it to Tony Camin, repeating myself as he wasn’t in Aspen the first time that I said it. To his credit, he said “Yeah, that’s actually a good idea.” He took it another step and then Doug Benson caught wind of it, that opportunistic son of a bitch! He said “Let’s do it!” Doug was really the force that in some ways really forced us to sit down and write it. I like to think that we all played equally important parts in it coming to fruition. We all had a bunch of pot jokes in our acts already, so we donated those to the script and wrote some more. Then we put it up at HBO workspace in Los Angeles. We credit Kerry Mann for that, he was a real visionary. So there ya go! It was kinda like stand up, I never thought to much about it and just did it because it was fun. We got to go around and do a lot of shows. We did it in New York for about a year. It was pretty cool, but now that is sorta behind me as I haven’t done the show in a couple of years. I understand that people still do it. I don’t know how many more times I will do it., because marijuana isn’t such a big part of my life these days.
What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you along the way?
I don’t remember specifically who told me, but somewhere along the way, someone reminded me that I shouldn’t become overly occupied with the destination and enjoy the journey. I know that its true because when I look back, some of my fondest memories are well before I had a spot on Comedy Central or anything like that. In the early days, we were just happy to have a gig and we were driving ten hours to do fifteen minutes in front of people at a steakhouse in Montana for one hundred and fifty bucks. We were just happy to have a gig. Some of my fondest memories are from that era. As well as things are going for me and I am having a great time, it just goes to show you that it is not necessarily about “making it”. I am just trying to enjoy all the little things along the way!
What else does 2010 hold for you?
I am just touring like crazy! I am basically booked up through August at this point. I will be in Edinburgh this year and I am on my way to Adelaide and Melbourne this week. People can go to my website, www.arjbarker.com, to see where I am. Also, it is quite helpful if people sign my mailing list, that way I can let them know when I am coming out to their area.
Anything that you would like to say to the fans before I let you go?
Of course! Thanks for all of the support! Without you guys, I wouldn’t even have a job! [laughs] I am at your service and it is always a pleasure!
Thanks, Arj. We will be spreading the word about you and we wish you all the best!
Thanks! Take care!