Sam Simmons on the Pure Joy of Silliness
You’ll never mistake a Sam Simmons show from any other comedian, unless that other comedian happens to wear loaves of bread on his feet and don an astronaut suit during his show.
Simmons, a veteran of Australia’s entertainment scene with cult shows such as Problems and his short series The Urban Monkey Murray Foote has taken silliness and abject insanity, woven it with musical cues rivaling your best “Hot 103” radio station, and created something unmissable that has won him a coveted spot on Conan O’Brien twice and seen him invited to comedy festivals all over the world, including Just For Laughs.
I spoke to Sam recently in the run up to his new stage show, Death of a Sails-Man, which recently debuted.
Karen: Do you think there is a growing appetite for comedy that is silly?
Sam: I’m only feeling it now that silly is, not to say “back in fashion,” but comedy can be so cynical these days. It’s all been done before, though. The Brits did it before with Spike Milligan and the Goon Show. Then it became something really cool in the 70s with Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman. That’s just the world I’m comfortable living in. I love silly. A lot of people in comedy get really offended by silly, and just go “what the fuck? That’s not craft. You’re just saying random words like “purple monkey dishwasher.”
I think we need silly. The world’s getting worse, isn’t it? I love what I do, because it is joy and self-effacing.
I didn’t expect anyone in the Northern Hemisphere to get what I am doing, but they did. I showed [Australian TV Show] Murray Foote to some executives in America and they thought it was great, and they wanted to know how they could bring it to America. It’s very exciting
Karen: Who influenced your comedy the most growing up? There’s something very lo-fi, very “a child who was left in front of the TV a lot” about your material.
Sam: Aside from my best friend and I being idiots at school, there was no “pivotal moment” that made me want to get into comedy. When I was a kid, I was a John Cleese fan, though not for Monty Python. Something about Monty Python always bugged the shit out of me. I loved a show called The Goodies. It was replayed nonstop throughout Australia all through the 80s and 90s.
Growing up with a single mom, who was working all the time, I had the television on constantly. It lends itself to that manic performance stuff. Using audio really influenced my performance, because I realized you could go anywhere with it.
Definitely being left alone, and being left alone in a radio station as a kid opened up a whole new thing for me. I don’t even think I’ve got the hang of it yet. I’m still discovering what’s possible.
Coming overseas really made me realize that people like what I do, and it’s not (as people had told me here in Australia) that “you’re just weird and it’s easy to do what you do.” That made me feel really good.
Karen: Many comedians are told along the line that they need to change their act to make it more broad, yet, Conan O’Brien has mentioned the insanity of your stage show is why you were asked to perform twice on his show. What has your reception been like?
Sam: The show I brought to North America is a couple of years old. I still do prop stuff, but I enjoy bringing it overseas because everyone’s just like “what the fuck?”
North American fans are great. Instead of just thinking I’m weird, they say lovely things like [in an affected American accent] “Oh my god! I didn’t know you could do that on stage!” It’s such an encouraging scene there. I love them so much.
Whenever stuff happens over there, I’m always amazed. I never thought I would be on Conan at all. And he really dug it, which was awesome.
I was in high school when I first saw Conan. There was this bit that I loved called cat accountants. He used to have those new cable channels. It was little cats in visors. There was a little death metal riff… “Cat Accountants!“
See, comedy should be joyous.
Karen: You created an entire show around one taco kit. That taco kit has since taken you all around the world and helped you book your own show (Problems.) Are you ever legitimately surprised that audiences come along for the ride?
Sam: It made it onto the television show through sheer desperation. We made that show really quick. The reason that whole storyline evolved is because I was doing this thing one night in Edinburgh called Old Rope. There is a noose up there with you onstage. You hold up the noose when you’re performing new material.
I was walking the streets with my mate Dave looking for material for that. We were in a supermarket and walked past a display of boxes of tacos. I remember saying, “how good was taco night when you were a kid?”
Later, I was in the kitchen, looking at this taco kit that I bought, and listening to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack, and so I just got on stage that night and said, “Do you remember the commercial for taco kits? And I just did this performance piece where I started smashing the tacos into my own face to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. It just turned into this whole thing.
I thought, “I’m going to write a show backwards from that.” That’s how I’ve written my last two shows, actually.
Karen: You have Synesthesia. Is there a strategic advantage for you when you create a show that’s both visually and auditorily all over the map?
Sam: It does. Right now I’m writing a story over the music of Franz Liszt. The music is informing and inspiring the story. It sounds like conceptual bullshit, but it just makes it easier for me to remember. It’s a bit like that mind palace thing. I mean, just for remembering, I mean, I’m not an idiot savant or anything. When I work like that, it’s fuller and bigger.
Karen: You’ve done Setlist a number of times, despite you appearing as though you hate it. You must get something out of it to continue.
Sam: I love doing it. It’s weird because I’m out there without all my accoutrements. Being bare on a stage is like being totally naked. I do freak out, but GOD, I love it. That show really shows you who has the funny bones and who doesn’t. You can see who was the smart kids at school who just had the quips, and who is really funny.
I love that show, except Troy — well, Australians sound really racist when they say anything racial anyway, so I asked Troy not to give me any race-related suggestions. They just gave me all racial things one night at JFL Toronto.
Karen: What’s next for you?
Sam: I’m heading back to LA in May. I have a new show called Death of a Sailsman. The description is, “Man fights photocopier live on stage for an entire hour while having an existentialist mid-life crisis on a sailing boat.” I’m really happy about that.
Sam just finished his run of Death of a Sails-Man in Melbourne and can be found at @samsimmonss on Twitter.
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