WHEN AUSTRALIAN comedian Sam Simmons brings his award winning show, Not A People Person, to this month's Vodafone Comedy Carnival, it will be a double first debut for the Adelaide native.
The carnival will mark Sam's first appearance in Galway. "I hear Galway's beautiful, so I'm looking forward to coming," he tells me during our Monday morning interview. I warn him that many come to the city intending to stay for a short period, only to find themselves still living here years later. "Uh-oh!" comes the reply. The show will also mark his debut in the Republic of Ireland, but having played to Northern audiences already, he is well used to the Irish.
"I've only ever played to Northern Irish audiences," he says. "They were boisterous and vocal, which I love. I think the Australians are laconic and laid back, like you guys, and we were both under the thumb of the English." He then adds mischievously, "…so we've a common enemy!"
While Galway will be a new experience for Sam, Sam will certainly be a new experience for Galway, as his comedy is unlike almost anything else at the Carnival. To call it surrealistic is true, but that term is so overused it is almost a cliché. More accurately, with it' props, drawing boards, costumes, and pre-recorded sounds, Sam's comedy is left-field, unorthodox, and most definitely Absurdist.
Not A People Person has won critical acclaim precisely for its non-traditional approach. Chortle.co.uk called the show an hour of "memorably ridiculous scenes [and] WTF? weirdness"; "exhaustingly funny, daft and truly daring," said Time Out; while Indaily.com.au praised its "absurdist blend of non-sequitur humour, physical presence and hilarious dialogue with the audio montage." Sam, however, describes his comedy thus: "It's like you can't find the remote for the TV and you get stuck on the weird movie, but at the end you say, 'I'm glad I saw that'. That happens for a lot of people."
The Aussie, who is part Aborigine through his great-grandmother, sees his approach as being more akin to theatre than traditional stand-up. "I respect what stand-up is," he says, "and I get the simplicity of it, but I find myself getting bored with just words. I like to spice it up. It's for me as much as it is for the audience. I want to be challenged and mix soundscapes and costumes and create an experience that crosses over into theatre. It also means I have to haul around a large bag of props and costumes!"
The critical acclaim and numerous awards Sam has won (2015 Fosters Edinburgh Comedy award, best show; 2014 Sydney Comedy Festival Director's Choice Award; 2006 Adelaide Fringe Festival Best Emerging Comedy Award, to name a few ) does not stop audiences from at times finding his work on the challenging side.
"The whole 'man with a microphone' has become such a dominant force in comedy that a lot of the time audiences don't know to expect any different," Sam says. "Some might see it and go 'That's weird. Bye!' but my comedy is gregarious and silly. For me, it's not necessarily about the audience closing up, it's about wanting them to let go."
There is also a part of Sam which relishes audience confusion and confrontation. "I approach it all in a pretty gentle way but I'm nasty as hell," he says. "I will bite back! I love a heckle, oh God I just love a heckle!"
Sam cites "a mélange of all sorts of stuff" as having shaped his absurdist humor, but chief among these are, "my mother, a vicious, and funny, very funny woman, and [British 70s TV sketch comedy show] The Goodies, which were on every day in Australia at 5.30pm after school. It was shown on repeats for about 10 years, it was bizarre, but it influenced a whole generation of comedians."
Unlike most comedians, zoology and animals have played a central role in Sam's comedy career. Indeed if it were not for an injured elephant, he might never have become a comedian.
Sam studied zoology and originally worked at Melbourne Zoo as an elephant and seal keeper. "I worked in the paddocks at the zoo," he says, "and one of the bull male elephants had foot problems. He wasn't on display, he was behind the scenes, but when children come to the zoo they expect to see an elephant and are disappointed if they don't, so I had to stand in the paddock, with a headset microphone, showing them the elephant, and discussing animal behaviour. As I went on, I started throwing in more and more jokes, and it just went on from there, so I went, as I put it, from 'picking up poo to talking poo'."
Despite his success as a comedian, Sam admits to "missing that world". "It's more selfless as you are caring for something unconditionally," he says. "Working in a zoo is not really something you do nine to five, if an animal's sick you stay overnight and help look after it. Comedy is very selfish. You are giving laughs to the audience, but you want laughs in return. Don't believe any comedian who tells you they're in it to give 'laughs to the people'. That's bulls**t. You're in it 'cause you love being loved!"
Sam remains inordinately fond of animals, and admits spending more time getting cats and dogs to like him than he does people. "I'm known as The Cat Whisperer," he says. "I can lure a cat out of anywhere. I love cats and dogs. They're pure. People underestimate pet grief. When Uncle Rowan dies, you mourn him, but you also say, 'Yeah, but he was a bit of an asshole'. When Dr Noodles dies you say 'Remember that time he did a s**t on the rug?' You don't relly think of it as negative. That love is unconditional. It's a grief that's underestimated."
Sam, who is currently based in Los Angeles, was born in March 1977 which means next year he turns 40. "My next year is going to be crazy," he says, but his fortieth will be the least of his concerns. "It's just another number. My body is starting to feel things, but no, it's going to be fun. I never celebrate my birthdays. I get on stage and people cheer me. I spend enough time in the spotlight as it is so I won't have a party to mark the occasion, it's just be me and my wife."
Soon husband and wife will be accompanied by the third member. "We're heading back to Sydney in February to have a baby," Sam says, "then we'll be back in LA to begin work on stuff. LA is an eclectic, very friendly, place. I was so anti-American, it took me six months to get my head around what they were about, but in Australia there is an attitude of 'Bet you can't' but in the US there is an attitude of 'Bet you can!' I'm going to be across three continents making TV series. I'm making a series in Australia, a series in LA, and a series in the UK. My next year is going to be crazy. The UK one will be an autobiographical sitcom set in a zoo about a Larry David type character who works in a bird sanctuary. It's very exciting."
Sam Simmons - Not A People Person is in the Róisín Dubh on Saturday October 29 at 7.30pm. Support is from Waterford Whispers News and Gearoid Farrelly. Tickets are via www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com