Laughing from the rooftops - Carl Barron

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Carl Barron likes attention so much he considers it a compliment when people don't like him. "It means you're thought of, considered in some way," he says. "Even if it's out of hatred."

This probably doesn't happen much. Barron, who is in New Zealand for the Comedy Festival, is one of Australia's favourite comedians. Throughout his 13-year career he has appeared on TV shows including The Footy Show, The Glass House and Rove Live.

In 1993, his first year doing stand-up, he was named Comic of the Year. The former roof tiler is loved for his accessible humour, dry delivery and stories so relatable it's hard not to shout "Yes!" as he poses such quandaries as, "Do you ever laugh when you see a dog poo with a big footprint in it?"

In fact, to call his comedy routine a routine seems too sterile. For about two weeks, he tried wearing a microphone earpiece like those slick, experienced stand-ups.

"I didn't like it. I felt like Anthony Robbins. It was nice to have my hands free but I was just conscious of this thing on my head. I went back and realised I needed that microphone in front of my chest. Without it I felt really vulnerable."

He says it's taken years in his profession to work through the self-consciousness and nerves, but he has learned to use his mistakes and to count that uncertainty as a good thing.

"That's what I think it's all about: when you break down, when you drop your guard.

"That's the stuff that is more real to me, the stuff that slips out. You don't want to get slick, y'know? I personally don't. I like things that are rough."

Barron grew up in Queensland with his cranky sheep-shearer father, who is often the butt of his jokes. As dad worked in the shed, son worked on it. For 15 years he was a roof tiler, despite deciding that he hated it on the first day. "I didn't find any humour in that job at all."

At 26, he moved to Sydney and three years later, his career in comedy began. Even on his first night, when he forgot his lines, he made people laugh. "I realised that people laugh at stuff you wouldn't even consider funny."

Barron's easy-going, working man's perspective is part of what makes him so likeable. But watching him from the dark recesses of a crowd is different from sitting across the table, one-on-one. He suspects people would be disappointed meeting him because he can be "really serious. But also in a second I can be absolutely ridiculous, to the point of people telling me to shut up."

Go on.

"I've got to build up to it."

It not until afterwards the realisation hits that Barron looks a lot like Tool singer Maynard James Keenan, which is funny because he used to be compared to Aussie muso Paul Kelly. Like Keenan, he has an unsettling intensity. He is flirtatious one minute, sceptical the next, as spring-loaded as a cat on its haunches.

"Most of my friends are pretty intense, mental people," he says. "People who are serious. Everything is really important. The smallest thing can be a whole discussion. I like people who think deeply about life. I wouldn't have said that a year or two ago. But I do like people who think."

At this, you can almost see past the probing eyes into a whirring mind. For a guy known for turning the most banal of human exchanges into side-splitting fodder, you can't help but worry, is he picking up on something?

He did earlier. Someone said, "Pleased to meet you".

"So immediately my mind goes, 'Why would you be pleased to meet me?' They didn't know me so why are they pleased? Mostly when I meet people I'm ambivalent. Not that there's no potential. But why pleased? I'm uncertain when I meet people. You can't go, I'm uncertain to meet you."

When the plane began its descent into New Zealand a day earlier, he took pleasure when the air steward announced it was time to "take your seats and finalise your movements".

Barron insists, unconvincingly, that he finds this funny for reasons not related to toilet humour. He looks mildly offended at the suggestion that this is a favourite topic of his but quickly gets over it by confessing that no matter where he is the world, the fart jokes never fail him.

Instead he says he wondered if "looking out the window or scratching your leg is how you finalise things. My brain started to associate finalising movements, taking it literally. That's what my mind does."

It's a trait that has frequently got him into trouble. At school, he often came across as the "smart-arse" with his constant questioning, the relentlessness with which he'd pick up on certain words.

He upset a soon-to-be-married mate by asking him if he had any doubts. He said no but Barron kept asking. And asking. And asking.

"I like to tease it out of others. It really irritates people. I've lost friends and partners just from going too far. Not in my mind. In my mind there's never too far."

This might explain the premise behind a novel he says he's writing. It's about "not always looking externally for direction", he says vaguely. "About passivity and waiting for things to come to you."

This does sound serious. Is it true comedians really are ... "Depressed?" he says. "With creative people there's a certain amount of pain involved. It's not easy doing this. The best bit is going on stage. It's a stereotype but there is a lot of truth in it ...

" In the beginning it was really important to make everyone laugh all the time and get on all the shows but as I've got older I think, who cares? So someone doesn't like me. You learn to live with that. That can eat you up. Am I liked? Do people like me?"

Either way, at least he's getting attention.

Lowdown

Who: Carl Barron, Aussie stand-up
Dvds: Carl Barron Live and Whatever Comes Next
Show: May 16-19, SkyCity Theatre. Tickets from Ticketek.

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