So Arj Barker plodded along as a comic in the U.S. He found some success in Australia until he starred in a cult favourite television show and then he blew up down under.
It's not the usual path to chart for a comedian but, hey, there's nothing usual about being a comedian. In any case, he's huge in Australia, selling out 2,000-seat venues and appearing alongside other national comic heavyweights on live comedy programs.
He recently completed a four-month tour of the continent and is prepping the release of his fourth DVD. He has a fifth in the can, ready to go.
"I'm just like a factory over here," he says from his home near Byron Bay.
He credits much of his success to his role as the apathetic Dave on Flight of the Conchords, the HBO program starring Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement — better known as the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords.
Barker had known the duo for years, having performed alongside them on the stand-up circuit when they were all still "dicking around" at clubs in Australia. When the HBO show was in development they asked Barker to come along for the ride.
"Most comics when they get a show together think of some buddies that they want to get involved and they make some phone calls. It was a very lucky thing for me, obviously," Barker says.
"That show introduced me to a cool, young demographic around the world. It was incredibly helpful. I was already doing well over here (in Australia) but that added another layer to the audience for sure."
And everywhere else he went, in the U.K., in Scandinavia and so on, he could sell tickets because fans recognized his face from the show. The ticket sales weren't huge, mind you — Flight of the Conchords is still only a cult favourite — but it's earned him international recognition that he'd never had before.
And yet, notoriety of the kind he's found in Australia eludes him at home. In 2007, the same year Flight of the Conchords premiered, he was cut after the first episode of the fifth season of Last Comic Standing. He says that if he's lucky, he'll attract a couple hundred people to his shows at clubs in big U.S. cities.
No hard feelings though, right Arj?
"I still love it," he says. "In fact, I'm planning on spending the second half of this year in North America because I like working in the clubs. I want to work on material and I still enjoy that. It's still a good life and it still pays the bills."
What pays the bills, in fact, is complete absurdity. Unlike many ethnic comedians (Barker was born Arjun Singh), he shuns racial humour in favour of social commentary with an absurdist's twist. And unlike many comedians, he has a hard time explaining where he gets his ideas from or what, exactly, he finds funny.
"The things that make us laugh are the things that really surprise us, you know? It's like a punch line. It makes you laugh because you don't see it coming, so I can't really say (what I find funny) because I don't know what's going to make me laugh.
"If I did then it wouldn't surprise me and then it wouldn't be funny."
He says it's the same thing with writing jokes. There's no science behind it, no method. Each joke is crafted in an act of spontaneity.
"It's kind of got to be a surprise almost," he says.
Now, having reached a certain level of notoriety, more people are watching. A lesser known comic can get away with recycling older material (though, come on, they should write some new material) because most people have yet to hear it. But Barker, with more ears tuned in, he says there's definitely more pressure to come up with new material. He's taking this year off to craft new material.
And, of course, to build a larger fan base in the U.S. Naturally, he wants to gain wider recognition at home. Unlike so many comedians (maybe too many), his routine rarely dwells in negativity or pessimism. He's no different on the phone.
He says, "If you're at something for so long you're going to get a break, you know?"
Barker will perform for two nights as part of the Snowed in Comedy Tour at the GLC. Also on the bill are Dan Quinn and Craig Campbell. Tickets for both shows are $20 and can be purchased at the GLC.