Arj Barker’s ongoing love affair with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has earned him the position of one of Australia’s favourite comedians. But after 15 years of consistently entertaining shows, can Barker continue to deliver the goods?
Short answer: yes, indeed he can. Expectations are high as long queues assemble outside Melbourne Town Hall and within minutes of the doors opening every seat is filled. Whilst many comedians arrive onstage with self-deprecating humility, Barker makes his entrance with the bravado and showmanship of a rock star blessed with a sense of humour.
As Barker’s touting 85 percent new material – covering menstruation, diarrhoea and ejaculation amongst other things – those unacquainted with his performance may well be expecting the comedic depth of a 12 year old. And yet, through his natural charisma and wit, Barker is able to transcend this potential toilet humour and tap into universally comical observations. Through American eyes, Baker points out the hilarity of Melbourne’s tram-ridden streets and weekday beer nights. It’s this confidence and familiarity with Australian culture that allows Barker to connect with Melbourne crowds so easily.
Barker himself describes the show as “what audiences expect from me… and the last thing they expect from me” – which is certainly true from the moment he steps on stage (without giving too much away, think Barker meets Broadway). His self-reflexivity is the key to his funniest punchlines, at times deliberately confusing the audience before revealing the hysterical methods to his madness. This ability to intuitively direct and react to the audience in unpredictable ways highlights Barker’s status as a professional performer.
Amazingly, Barker actually delivers moments of infectious optimism, encouraging audiences to embrace the ways of Go Time by living life to the fullest. His unassuming persona prevents these moments from becoming too preachy, yet Barker does make an honest effort to inspire people on some level. Whether his message is undercut by the odd inevitable penis joke is up for debate, but it’s refreshing to see a comedian attempting to share his motivation rather than resorting to dry cynicism.
In addition to his 60-minute set, Barker commits another hour of the night to selling his ARIA-nominated DVDs and other merchandise in the foyer. Sure, $10 might be a rip-off for a page of custom-made stickers, but since Barker is happy to sign it, pose for a photo and stick around for a chat after every show, it’s money well spent for any casual fan.