James McCann: Comedy and selling Shoenberg to a Mozart audience

Words by Samuel McDonough

Poster Art by Henry Stentiford.

Poster Art by Henry Stentiford.

I find James McCann at Zambrero’s on Rundle Street. He is sunburned and tired, and eating the remains of his nachos. Over pleasantries he rubs his eyes, raising his glasses, exposes skin the glasses hid, and the stark contrast between the normally hidden pale skin with the red hue of everywhere else is made even clearer.

“I’m so poor I had to walk six hours across Brisbane to get to the airport yesterday”.

I collect him and we drive back to his parent’s place where he’s been living since his return from Sydney around six months ago. Walking down the hall I notice boxes filled with his belongings. This isn’t unusual for him. He has lived in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in the last four years, rarely staying put in one place for longer than a year. We make our way to the backyard area of his family home and begin to talk about his show. It’s the first in three years. The last was Nunopoly 2: Mo’ Nun, Mo’ Nopoly, the second instalment about a hedonistic Guatemalan girl who becomes a Monopoly champion, having a fall from grace and eventually finding God and becoming a Catholic Nun. I ask him how this new show, Deplorable, differs.

“I’m trying to do a show people will actually like. It’s annoying, because the hipsters keep telling me that I’m getting better, but it’s not them I’m doing it for. It’s for the 50 year old man living in his caravan. I’m just starting to work out that people actually like jokes. Nunopoly, would fill out my venue every night, but I didn’t make any money. The only people who attended were a small core group of people who really liked it and came multiple times, and other comedians with Fringe passes who didn’t have to pay. I’m still trying to work out what normal people like.”

James hasn’t struggled to find respect within the industry. He was South Australia’s RAW comedy winner at the age of eighteen, and recently won SA Comedy’s the ‘Jester’s Jester’ award for being the most favoured comedian amongst other comedians. I ask him why he thinks he finds the respect of his peers, and how he feels about it.

“Honestly, I think it’s because I started being nicer to people. There’s a strange relationship that exists between people who work in the same artistic area. Take classical music, for example. People who are within the classical music scene really like Shoenberg and 12 Tone and all that unlistenable complicated stuff. They dismiss Mozart for his boring traditional cadences and for never offending the ear.

“But painters and plumbers and nurses all love Mozart; he gives them what they want. But to do the Shoenberg thing, you have to dismiss Mozart as a simplistic slave to form, and boring, and especially anyone attempting to imitate him, which is most of the people in the classical music game. If you dismiss what the majority of your peers are doing as uninteresting, and try to do something different, all the little malcontents will like you within the community, but it naturally means that you think most of them are terrible. You still have to be nice though if you want to keep getting booked”.

The tone of his voice and the weary expression on his face makes it seem like he’s already lived his twenty five years twice. I ask if comedy still excites him.

“Oh of course, but I mean, when you watch ten hours of live-stand up a week… I’d say there are around five comedians I genuinely like and who I genuinely think are doing good, interesting work that excites me.”

I push him on what he means by interesting.

“Well, so there are mechanisms, right? Ways of telling a joke which are familiar to an audience and the various elements can easily be changed for whichever subject matter the joke is about. There is a way to write stand up comedy - a certain structure - that’s super easy to learn, and which audiences think they want. Easy techniques that you can use to manufacture jokes in quick succession, to get rolling laughs from decent, ordinary people who don’t watch lots of comedy.

“But see, the comedian telling that joke would hate that joke -and other comedians hate that joke - but it works! I want to watch comedy that goes outside of that. That’s what I’m interested in doing.*”

I want to know if that’s what Deplorable is.

“It is, but it’s also an attempt to be much more marketable. I don’t want to do a show just for hipsters and other comedians. I hate that shows get pigeonholed for a particular audience and I don’t want to be the hipster’s comedian. I want to do a show that both the audience and I like.

“I almost quit trying, and it’s taken me three years to put together something worth doing. Trying to write something that pleases people, and that’s really good, takes forever.

“I mean, I don’t think comedy can change the world, it frequently fails to make for an enjoyable evening, and you can’t please everyone all the time, but if you work really hard for three years, you might just be able to satisfy fifty percent of a sixty seater room”.

Our conversation drifts back to the fact that he hasn’t done a show at the Adelaide Fringe for so long, and I ask him what he thinks of the Fringe as an event these days.

“I hate it. No that’s not true. It’s just, it’s a victim of its own success. There are like, one thousand shows? One hundred are big name, high quality shows that would probably get an audience even outside of The Fringe. They are the ones most folks will go to. Then there’s, say, eight hundred and ninety five pieces of garbage. Really rubbish shows that nobody should ever have to see.

“Those remaining five or whatever shows - five in a thousand - might be great and glorious and new. Maybe. I don’t blame people for not taking a chance on something new - it’s overwhelmingly likely to be wretched. Greatness is hard to find.”

James’s show is one of those worth looking out for, if only if you want to see what a man attempting to do the comedic equivalent of selling Shoenberg to the Mozart audience looks like.

*James asked to read the interview before it went to publication. “Fuck,” he later wrote to the interviewer in an email, “when it’s all written down like that, I sound like an utter fuckhead.”

James McCann’s Deplorable is playing throughout the Fringe at D.E.W. on Hindley Street.

Click here for further details.