Sam Simmons, comedian
Success for me is the luxury to be an idiot ...
A comedian who doesn’t like stand-up is a rare find. But then, Sam Simmons is anything but typical. An aversion to beige and an unwavering commitment to personal authenticity underpins everything the Adelaide-born, LA-based comic brings into the public arena. From offbeat sketches about the trials of queue etiquette to hosting Shitty Trivia segments on radio, Sam is spectacularly unconventional. Given his catalogue of work, one might expect the man behind the jokes to be eccentric and difficult to talk seriously with, but as The Weekend Edition found out this week, the preconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Insightful and observant, a hungover Sam talked to us about his childhood, his new life in LA and his Brisbane Comedy Festival show.
You’re performing at the Brisbane Comedy Festival this week, what hints can you give us about your show Spaghetti For Breakfast? All we’ve heard so far is that you shouldn’t go if your name is Linda or if you like chia seeds in your salad …
Well, it’s just really silly. It is about something, but if I tell you, you’d think the actual topic is a bit full-on … That’s the great thing about it, you find out at the end what it’s actually about. But gee it’s good. That’s really arrogant, but it’s really good! I’m not going to give away the end, only because it’s kind of a touchy subject, but it really resonates with people, it’s really cool. I’ve done good! I’m pretty happy because it’s also very silly. There’s a moral message but it’s not like I’m preaching you – you know those comedy shows, they all turn into TED talks now. Why are comedians suddenly qualified as spiritual guides to your life?
Will there be any audience ‘intimacy’ this time?
Ah, well there’s a cuddle. There’s one cuddle in the audience … But yeah it’s a cool show, I think it’s kind of come about from hanging out with weird shaman-like people in LA.
There are some great names on the festival line-up, are you going to see anyone else perform, or do you prefer to stay away from comedy when you’ve got time off?
No I do, but not too much. I mean I don’t really like stand-up comedy … I really don’t. I like weird performance art stuff, but I’m not mad for it. The one I will see is Tom Gleeson – there’s something so dry and country wisdom about him. I love him, he’s wonderful. And Dr Brown – you should go see him, he’s amazing. I’m doing a show with him in Melbourne; we’re actually rehearsing later today. If you like really interesting stuff, you should check him out. That’s a really great tip – trust me, he’s amazing.
So you’re living in LA now, what do you love and hate about the city?
I love the climate and the friendliness of the people – god, they’re so nice. The stereotype is that it’s all plastic and fake and everyone is air-kissing, but it’s not like that at all. I live in Echo Park, it’s a cool suburb that’s verging on being a working-class, Mexican family suburb. It’s a nice, healthy lifestyle and it doesn’t have the drinking culture of Australia.
Do you ever miss that?
No, no I don’t. Especially after last night …
Oh, have we caught you with a hangover?
A little bit. Just a little one … But yeah I adore the place. It’s kind of got that hippy, spiritual thing but not in a way that really annoys you. I didn’t think I would, but I totally adore it.
What about Australia do you miss when you’re away – our beautiful accents, surely …
Yeah, you realise how sharp the accent is, oh my god! I’ve been away for the last year so I’ve missed some pretty bad stuff in Australia – I know I’m getting all serious with you, but it feels like a bit of innocence has gone, that’s for sure. This government is definitely not helping with stuff overseas as well. I was being introduced on stage one night and the American MC said to the people in the audience, “Hey, watch out, he’s an Australian”. Which is funny, but the view that people have of us over there is not glowing. So there are things I miss and things I don’t …
You’re a pretty unique guy, we’re curious to find out what you were like as a kid …
Well that’s really interesting, you’ll actually find that out in the show: why I am like I am.
Were you the class clown at school?
No, but I was very good at writing stories and being the little fantasy guy. I had a wild imagination, I was very into fantasy and escaping reality. I was a weirdo little kid. I was a cellist and an Aussie Rules footballer – it was a weird mix!
And back then, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a vet scientist. Which I almost did because I did zoology and I had a beautiful opportunity to work at Melbourne Zoo as an elephant and seal keeper … and then I threw it all away to pursue being a clown! Which I kind of regret sometimes; it’s really good being on the road but it’s also pretty lonely. I sound like I’m whingeing, but after a few years of it, it’s like, “Oh god, I need to just be in one place and grow some vegetables”. But I miss the zoo stuff for sure, it was a beautiful job.
How did everyone around you react when you gave it up – were they supportive?
Well I was right at the beginning of that career and right at the beginning of this one as well. But yeah, they were all really supportive.
What do you think that child version of you would think of the man you are today?
These questions are really interesting because it’s kind of what the show is about. They’re really good, they’re making me think. Yeah I think he’d be really proud. Because it wasn’t the greatest of upbringings, but yeah I think he’d be really, really proud. Aww, I’m so proud of me!
So lame …
Take us back to your first comedy gig – what can you remember?
It was about 2003 and it was in St Kilda in Melbourne. A friend of mine, Alison, had her handbag stolen from the pub, so in jest we did a ‘benefit’ cabaret show to raise money to replace her handbag. It was a joke, but it all started from there – that was it. I proved to be a little hit and I thought, “Well this is kind of fun”. I’d never seen stand-up before so I went to some shows, but I thought “Nup, this isn’t for me”. So I started doing my own thing and it blew out from there …
So did you raise enough money to get Alison’s handbag back in the end?
Yeah! And a few beers. It was great!
You always seem so comfortable on stage, but did you ever get nervous in the early days?
I used to perform without my glasses so I couldn’t see the audience because I was scared. I thought there was something really punk about that too, because I was like an anarchist on stage, I couldn’t see anything!
If you could give that guy just starting out his comedy career any advice, what would it be?
You know what, I don’t know. It’s been interesting because I don’t get the opportunities that are more mainstream, like you wouldn’t hear me on Triple M or that kind of thing.
Lots of your fans miss your Shitty Trivia segment on Triple J though …
Yeah, I used to love doing that as well. But even Triple J – I did host a full shift for a whole year, and then I was like “I can’t do this anymore, I’m doing weekend breakfast”, it was fun but it wasn’t me. But I do look around at my peers sometimes who own things. I do well, but I’m not at the point where I’m buying property and things like that. I feel like it will all crack open pretty soon because I’m lucky enough to have a career overseas now, which is pretty exciting. So I don’t think I would change anything.
You’ve had critics say some pretty funny things about your shows – like “this is what your dreams look like when you’ve drunk too much absinthe” – but can you tell me about any odd interactions you’ve had with fans?
Oh, they’re so respectful. They’re everywhere and they’re so varied – like I had a toothless dude yesterday in his 60s and he was quoting things at me I’ve been doing for years, and then I get Hollywood starlets over in LA. It’s like how the hell is this happening? I’m not a cool brand. I did a university gig for Orientation Week yesterday which was really, really hard – the kids are very impressionable but they’re also worried about what they’re laughing at in case they look a bit weird.
I saw you posted a photo of a cake with your face on it this week – what was that all about?
That was really cute – that was a guy whose birthday is one day after Christmas so he always gets left out, so his mum went out of her way and made him a cake with my face on it. It was really sweet, I was like “Awwww”.
Who or what would you love to see in your audience one night?
I had Paul Kelly last night, which was kind of cool because I actually had a Paul Kelly joke in the show – it’s weird how the world works! I reckon what I’m aiming for – and I know people will probably be a bit surprised at this because it’s really broad and mainstream, I guess – but I’d go nuts if Will Ferrell was there. I just love him. In Australia, we do subtle comedy, we’re not about being big and over the top, it’s all very self-deprecating, kind of dry, whereas he’s all about being big and bombastic, and I just know in my little heart if he saw me, he’d be like “Yeah!” A lot of comedy is restrained and cool, but we’re just about being stupid – which is the most basic form of comedy, just to be silly and joyous. So I’d just love to see him in the audience one night, I’d totally love it – and I will, I believe in all that stuff, I will see him one night.
You’ve obviously had plenty of success with what you do, but what in your life are you most proud of?
Maybe getting through some stuff as a kid I guess, just being able to overcome it. And probably the friendships I’ve made, that’s my greatest achievement – I’ve got beautiful friends.
What’s your personal definition of ‘success’?
I think for me, it’s the luxury to be an idiot. I’m allowed to do anything I want on stage, I don’t have rules and a lot of comics do. I’m so lucky and blessed to be able to get up on stage and do what I want, in a way. I’ve stuck to my guns and I haven’t tried to beige out in any way. I did try to do regular stand-up once and it was just the worst – it was really bad. And then this guy I admired pulled me aside and was like, “You’ve just got to do what you are, you idiot; you’re terrible at stand-up”. And he was right. I totally got it.