An interview with

Sam Simmons

Comedian

True To Me Too: How did you get started in comedy?  Did you always want to be a comedian growing up?

Sam Simmons: I wanted to be a zookeeper.  I was working at zoos in Australia and about 2006 or 2007 I was going to go into zookeeping full-time, I was mostly working in education at the zoo, teaching kids about animals and stuff like that. Then I had the opportunity to go off and work with some elephants in the islands in quarantine from Asia, which is a weird thing to say. I was basically going to go there and finish off a full-time keeping degree and then I would have been a qualified keeper. I kind of had this weird option where I could go and do a radio show nationally in Australia or become a fully qualified keeper. I chose the comedy, I don’t regret it, but I do look at it sometime and think how cool it would be to be a keeper, it was such an amazing job, I loved it.

I got into comedy kind of by accident. I never really pursued it, they used to stick me out in the paddocks at the zoo, say they were doing footwork on the elephants, they’d stick me out there with a headset microphone to explain the enclosure to people and I guess more and more jokes slipped in.  I never really actively pursued it, I’ve never been a real passionate fan of stand-up even, I respect it a lot more now. It was accidental.

Was that your first time on stage?

It was really.  I never really did stuff before that.  I mean I did some acting stuff in high school and I’d played in bands before but it was never really a serious pursuit.  I think that’s why maybe it’s going good now because I’m not fixated on success or anything like that, I kind of stopped caring.  I got to a point where things were going really really well and I was really into it but I kept looking around at other people and thinking, “oh they’re doing better than me” peers and stuff like that, but then I stopped caring and it’s just been going great since then.  It probably goes against what everyone says about hard work.  I’m really passionate about what I do when I create something and when I work and write but I’m not upset if I don’t get the breaks that my peers do. It’s just about not being jealous, that’s the most important thing I’ve learned.

How’d you get the opportunity to do the radio show?

Once in awhile I’d go off and do a couple little stand-up spots and I did a live show.  There’s a real circuit for doing festivals, you’d do an hour long show, so I did my first hour long show and it went okay and then I did another hour, this is all while I worked at the zoo. It definitely wasn’t stand-up, it was kind of weird, absurd, experimental hours of comedy.  There’s a guy from a radio station over here called Triple J and he saw me and I think he saw that it would work really well on radio because I used a lot of sound effects and music.  He took a punt on me and asked me if I wanted to put together a demo.


Sam Simmons performing (photo Comedy Central)

So you started out with a full hour?

It took awhile to build up the hour but yah I just wrote an hour long show from two little small bits I had written and performed maybe two or three times.  It’s pretty arrogant when you look at it, but it’s not, maybe you should just get out there and make mistakes.  I think I’d be a really different performer if I just played the comedy rooms and honed my skills in stand-up rooms, I don’t think I’d be as weird or maybe as adventurous. I copped a lot of shit when I first started out doing comedy rooms, a lot of people wouldn’t get it, I understand I’m not for everyone, I’ve always known that, but a lot people would go, “what the fuck are you doing?”.  Stand-up can be pretty generic sometimes and it’s easier to play it safe and be like everyone else but if you’re like everyone else you don’t stand out as much.

I imagine starting out at music or fringe festivals would be a lot different than stand-up comedy rooms.

It is because those places are for everyone. You can have your straight stand-up there and your really dark weird absurd bloody art shit going on and then everything in between. If I didn’t have those festivals I wouldn’t have developed what I’m doing now.  Also the radio job meant that I mucked around with audio even more and that filtered into the live shows even more.  Having access to a studio and being able to record stuff and have internal monologs and voiceovers is pretty cool, you don’t see a lot of live comedy doing that.  Even when I do the comedy rooms now I won’t do straight stand-up, it’s always really weird bits and there’s a lot of audio stuff that I’ll use, I find it easier than standing up there and telling it how it is.  I operate in the world of fantasy, there’s not a lot of truth in what I talk about on stage, which is pretty much the opposite of a stand up. I love great stand-up, they leave themselves bare on stage and talk about things that are personal to them. I don’t think I’m interesting enough really.

You were doing comedy and working at the zoo at the same time and was there a moment when you decided to dedicate all your time and energy to the comedy?

It’s not like an epiphany or this great moment. I wasn’t keeping, I was working in education, I was about to go into keeping and I had this amazing choice where you could join the circus or you could join the zoo. At the zoo I used to do zoo reviews at the end of the year, I’d do little sketches.  The radio job, to be honest with you, was probably easier, it’s probably that lazy, you could go to work 5-6 days a week getting up at 5 in the morning and standing in a paddock in Melbourne where it’s freezing cold or you could go to a cushy radio job, which sounds really horrible but that was the choice.

At the same time to give up the opportunity to work with animals. . .  I fucking love working with animals and zoo people are awesome, they’re just good people because primarily they really care about things, they’re there to look after something and nurture it whereas in stand-up comedy you’re only nurturing yourself and nurturing your ego.  You’re surrounded by a whole lot of “self” people, people who are into themselves, it’s pretty annoying. I’ve got a lot of friends in comedy but not a heap of really great friends.  There wasn’t a big moment, I just thought it was the easier option but it’s not because you’re sweating on stage and you’re dying in front of people, I’ve been heckled brutally in my career but there’s obviously a connection with some people and that’s wild and awesome.


TEDxSydney - Sam Simmons - Being Silly

Did you ever doubt yourself starting out?

No.  I give every idea a go and some ideas still never work but I continue to do them because they excite me and I like them.  I always think about my best friend Stuart, back in Adelaide, I met him when I was 12 and we were just idiots together, we were stupid kids together, and I always think if I can make him laugh then I’m doing the right thing because I think he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met.  I think the funniest people in the world are not on stage, they’re guys down at the local pub that just don’t realize they’ve got this certain thing.  I still don’t feel funny in his eyes because he’s just so funny. I don’t even think I’m there yet, I’m still evolving and getting better and better.

There’s a great Canadian comic, he’s a really dear friend of mine, a guy called Mike Wilmot, we’re polar opposites on the comedy scale, he’s a filthy loudmouth 50 year old man talking about really really blue material but he makes me laugh from my nuts, I laugh so hard at him because he’s so funny, he’s got funny bones.  That’s another thing about comedians, you’ve got to have funny bones, if you’re just a funny person it’s a lot easier and I know I’m an idiot and I know I have funny bones. Comedy is a weird one, you see a lot of people who I guess are the smart ass at school or think they’re sassy and telling it how it is. I find in a lot of stand up I think oh you’re just the smart ass from school and I don’t know whether it’s funny or if your soul is funny or if you’ve got that funny fucking thing inside of you.  Mike Wilmot explained to me that it takes you at least 10 years to become properly funny on stage and I’ve just reached 10 years. I do feel that, I feel like I’m finally getting what I do and I can really, not just sell it, but do what I do.  As much as some of my ideas might fail on stage I’m getting better at telling it through experience.

How long before you started getting regular gigs and were able to pay your bills with your comedy?

It took a couple of years.  I had a pretty great start, then it kind of got a bit shit for a couple of years.  Because I had a great start I had a career and I was making money but I started to believe my own hype for a couple of years and things kind of fell apart, relationships fell apart. I went to the Edinburgh festival, which was the first time I took my show outside of Australia. I was playing rooms of like 5 or 6 people for a month.  It slowly built and this UK career came out of nowhere, I was nominated for a big comedy award in Edinburgh, I guess it’s the holy grail of live comedy, if you win that award you’re basically at the top of your game in live comedy.  I got nominated for that and then it just completely took off again but I’d learned a lesson because I’d lost friends and become a dickhead.  You know that whole thing, you’ve gotta be nice on the way up because you’re eventually going to come down? I didn’t go all the way up but I’d already started to become a bit of an asshole.  I just changed my attitude in Edinburgh because it was such a humbling experience to play to 5 or 6 people.  That was it, that was the thing that changed everything, I stopped caring, and that’s when everything took off, invites to JFL, a career in the states, it’s just been extraordinary the last couple years.

I was going to ask if you had big break and when you started getting booked outside of Australia.

Definitely getting nominated for that award, that’s what changed everything.  Agents from the United States were starting to come out to the shows in Edinburgh and I did a showcase tour in the States.  Montreal was a huge showcase for me.  Last year was fantastic for me, closing the Sarah Silverman Gala at Just For Laughs in Montreal opened all kinds of stuff, I booked a spot on Conan, and I made a pilot with Animal Planet a few months ago that incorporates both my loves of being an idiot and showing you strange animals.  Hopefully we find out if that gets a green light really soon but even if it doesn’t I’m still really positive about what’s going on at the moment, it’s really exciting, not a lot of Australians have had this type of opportunity overseas.

I saw you on Conan, that’s huge, it’s a big opportunity for comedians, what was that like?

It was amazing. It was such a great experience.  It was also just meeting Conan, I mean fuck I never thought that would happen, never in my wildest fantasy did I ever think I’d be on Conan being weird.  I sent them my first script and they were kind of like, “yah, it’s alright but maybe you could put in your weird stuff?” they encouraged me to go weirder. That would never happen at home, they’d think it was too weird even if I sent in my most banal stuff.  I sent in a script to Conan that I guess was easier to get and I was encouraged to do something weirder,  It was just extraordinary. Conan said, “I can’t wait to have you back” it was really really fun.

Is that why you moved to the United States? For more opportunity?

Definitely for more opportunity. You sort of hit a glass ceiling here.  Australians love making lists and they love labelling things as what they think it is.  There’s no room for evolution.  I’m just known as the “weird guy” and they think, he’s just going to be weird so let him be weird and if an opportunity comes up to do a weird show get him he’s weird.  In the UK they get a little threatened by it, the Brits are pretty easy to read, if Australians or Canadians beat them at sport they can understand that but if Canadians or Australians beat them in the arts they fucking hate it because we are the colonies, especially Australia because we are a penal colony.  They’ll look at me and say, “you’re weird but we have a history of weird as well, we’ve got Monty Python, we’re the originals”.

Then I get to America and they’re like, “oh my god you’re so weird let’s just fucking do something” (perfect American accent) they’re very excited by it and not threatened and thinking about demographics like, “oh shit, you won’t work on some big network show” they just think “this place is so huge there’s gotta be a niche somewhere like Adult Swim” they just see opportunity everywhere and are very encouraging.

What’s a big misconception about what you do?

I think a lot of people assume it’s nonstop purple monkey dishwasher all the time but I’m normal as fuck, I’m bordering on boring.  People assume that I’m crazy all the time and that’s a big misconception.  I love what I do, I love creating more than I love performing.  I’m writing a new show now and I’m a pig in shit. I love it. I’m lucky as fuck.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Wake up, bang down a couple of espressos, sit down, write, look at all my little index cards, reshape the show, think about the material again.  I won’t eat until about midday then I’ll go out and have a bowl of Pho or a big lunch.  I’m way better first thing in the morning when I’m writing so I’ll spend until 3 p.m. just writing and then go into my leisure time after that.  It’s a pretty cushy life.  Then I’ll go off and try all the stuff at night at the gig.  It’s kind of like an office job but in reverse.  I’m on a little bit of a break at the moment so I’m just back at home in Australia and I won’t be here for a couple of years after May so I’m just trying to enjoy it.  I’ll do the festivals here for the first few months of the year, which is heaps of fun.

I read that you were done doing the Old El Paso Taco Kit bit and was wondering how do you approach putting together a new hour of material?  Are you writing a new special this year?

I’m doing that now.  It was weird how that Old El Paso thing came about. I was in Edinburgh a few years ago walking around with my mate Dave Quirk and we started talking about the Old El Paso taco kit and then he said, “you should do a bit about that” so I thought about it and grabbed the kit and I doing a gig that night so I’d get to try new material. I took it home just to look at it to evoke a memory, which sounds really lame, I was trying to write stuff about the Taco Kit and then I was listening to Gustavo Santaolalla from Brokeback Mountain and it’s so beautiful and that was it. I put the song on my iPod, I went in, and said, “hey, I’ve written a song, it’s about the Old El Paso Taco Kit, come on everybody, join in” and then I played the Brokeback Mountain song and started slowly taking apart the taco kit and instead of smashing them on my chest I was smashing them directly into my face, it was this weird sort of performance art piece to Brokeback Mountain but people were losing it.  I was actually eating the powder and eating the salsa, these were three mistakes I’d never make again.

This sounds really weird and mechanical but I realized that’s an awesome closing bit to a show, which is what it became.  So then I wrote this show backwards about a taco kit with all fake memories and a load of bullshit. I started with the finale and worked backwards. This year I have a new show but don’t have a finale, which is great, so I’m writing the forwards, which is weird.  They’re happy accidents.  Who honestly just goes, “I’ve got an idea, I’m going to smash tacos into my chest” it just happened by accident.


Performing the Old El Paso Taco Kit finale

I tried to explain it to my friends and I just couldn’t. I just told them to go see the show.

(laughs) I look back at that show and I’m really proud of it because it is weird, I know what happens in the audience when I start smashing tacos on my chest to that beautiful music, it’s weirdly strangely moving.  I can tell what people are feeling and the last line of that show is probably my favourite line ever because I’m trying to recapture this memory of tacos from when I was a child all the way through the show and then I get it wrong.  You try to relive something but it’s never going to be the same.  So the finale line, “that’s not how I remember it” I love it, it’s a perfect line.  That’s sounds arrogant that I love myself but I do, it’s a really cool ending.

Did you have an agent to help you start getting bigger gigs? How would you recommend getting an agent?

Wait for them to come to you. Do not actively seek out an agent because I know for a fact that agents do not like that.  It might be a different thing elsewhere but I know in Australia you just wait for someone to approach you and you build a career together.  Inviting them out to shows is definitely the thing to do.  But I don’t think an agent or a manager can really make your career unless you’re a pop idol or something like that, you’re either funny or you’re not.  An agent can’t make the general public believe you’re funny because it’s a such a basic thing, you can’t fake it, you either laugh or you don’t.


The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote

What were you filming with Animal Planet and what do you have coming up this year?

We’re waiting on that.  I got to have a meeting with Animal Planet in New York and they knew about my zoo background and they had seen a video I had done when I was the world ambassador for tapirs.  I did this little thing online talking about tapirs and animal planet got a hold of it and they loved it, it’s a bit absurd, an Australian guy who’s not Steve Irwin but is still really positive about animals. That stuff is conveyed because I’m so into animals so that passion comes across when I’m talking about them on camera.  They said to pitch them a show and the pitch was basically that I’m a weird guy so I’m going to look for my favourite weird animals around the planet.   So I got to make this pilot about armadillos in Albuquerque with one of my best mates in the world David Quirk, who was in Problems.  So potentially the show is just me and him travelling the world looking for really weird animals together. He samples the local culture and I look after the animal side of it.  It’s like this weird symbiotic road trip.  I really hope we get it.  It’s really funny and it’s got a really good heart.

Do you have any final advice for aspiring comedians or even anyone looking to to pursue their own artistic endeavours?

It’s as simple as just do it.  Just do it.  I mean listen to criticism . . . I’ve been reviewed all over the world and I’m hugely lucky to have had 5 star reviews in every paper in the UK except one and when you start believing in that shit that’s when you start going wrong. Don’t listen to the positive so much but listen to the criticism because it makes you angry and it gets a little fire in your belly and pushes you.  I think just do it.  Go out there and make your mistakes.  I still make mistakes.  I have a gig on Saturday and I know I’m going to make mistakes, I have brand new material and I know some of it is going to go really really badly but that’s just the nature of the beast.  It’s good to die on stage.  Dying on stage is fantastic.  I’d rather valiantly fail on stage than make people kind of laugh and say “oh that’s kind of funny theory he has on whatever contemporary event about Syria”.  I’d rather just go out there and die being a fucking idiot than be this beige boring social commentary stand-up comedian.  It’s a good death. It’s so important and it’s good for your heart and soul to really believe in what you’re doing.  I fucking love what I do and I love watching people take risks.  It’s what makes life great.

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Date: March 18, 2014 • Category:
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