Alana Schetzer has a rendezvous with humorist Ben Pobjie and finds a man too old to be a wunderkind but too young to die.
Walking into Negroni, a chic bar and restaurant in Collins Street, I stop dead in my tracks. Inside, the lights are dim, gentle music is playing and there are candles flickering on every table. Crap! I’ve accidentally picked one of Melbourne’s most romantic nightspots to interview writer and comedian Ben Pobjie. He’s waiting inside, sipping a Coke, and I feel like an idiot.
I had planned to disclose my great personal affection for his work, but in this context, with everything but a violinist playing in the background, it might come across as a bit Fatal Attraction. Maybe later, I think, as I stretch out my hand to greet him.
Pobjie is here to discuss several things – among them his new Fringe Festival show, being funny and Ikea furniture (more on that later).
If you look into the nooks and crannies of Australian media, you’ll find Pobjie’s name attached to some of the wittiest, sharpest and at times most absurd writing around. He’s had a go at critics of the carbon tax, News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt, written a poem about Bob Brown and taken a pot shot at those who claim women aren’t funny. He’s the official satirist on independent journalism website
newmatilda.com, is the author of two books, Handy Latin Phrases and SuperChef, a popular Twitter citizen with almost 10,000 followers, writes a weekly column for The Age and was the unofficial king of the MasterChef recap on theage.com.au earlier this year.
Case in point: ‘‘Whether hugging each other, dropping a bowl, or doing a third thing, there’s no doubt these amateurs have made us feel a variety of feelings at certain times.’’
Oh, Ben. Is it as fun to write as it is to read? ‘‘Television [writing] is the easiest stuff that I do because I’m watching television all the time,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m kind of of thinking that way anyway, because that’s the nature of being a writer and in particular a comedic writer; you’re always open to it.’’
Pobjie is following up his 2011 International Melbourne Comedy Festival show, Ben Pobjie’s Funeral, with a Fringe Festival show, Let’s Put on a Show, which he describes as a collaborative effort between himself and his audience.
It sounds like the Ikea version of comedy, a kind of do-it-yourself, I suggest. ‘‘I’ll bring out my flat pack and we’ll put it together,’’ he says.
Pobjie describes himself as the Allen key in this scenario, with the audience providing the pieces. And what if the ‘‘pieces’’ don’t fit?
‘‘Then I’m going to lose it!’’ he chuckles. ‘‘Which is what I do. I’ve put together so many things at home, not always from Ikea, but Ikea is pretty bad. It reduces me to tears whenever I have to build something, because it never goes quite right. There’s always a screw that won’t fit or things that go uneven. I once put up a trampoline and I nearly killed myself.’’
Each night the show will be different, which is what appeals, he says. It’s an exercise in exploring Pobjie’s comedic range and, he says, helping him find his place in the industry.
‘‘I’d hate to pin myself down to one kind of comedy. When I step on stage, what do people want to see from me? So that’s what the show is based around: a sort of searching for a comedic identity.
‘‘It’s completely different to what I’ve done before. I’m interested in that. I’m very keen on subverting expectations,’’ he says.
In person, Pobjie is self-contained, articulate and self-doubting. At 33, he laments that he’s now ‘‘too old’’ to be considered a wunderkind.
‘‘There are so many things to do and it’s so cool to be the wunderkind, the prodigy, all these things at a really young age, and I’ve lost that opportunity. There’s nothing I can do now and people will say, ‘Wow, and he’s so young’, apart from dying.’’
Despite his success and his admirers (ahem), Pobjie says life has stagnated since he was 12, his ‘‘glory years’’.
‘‘Everyone who is succeeding in entertainment is so young. These kids, these comedians who are on TV all the time. And I’m not.’’
Is it an injustice?
‘‘I don’t know. That’s for other people to judge. But then there will be people who will say, ‘No, that’s one of the truly fair things that’s happened in the world, Ben Pobjie is not successful’.’’
Having a high-profile is a two-edge sword. On Twitter and as a result of his online writing, Pobjie is open to public comment. He’s been told not to read feedback, but as someone with a self-described fragile ego, he said he has a need to know what readers think of his work.
‘‘First of all, some of the comments are really nice. But also, it nags away at me, wondering what people are saying and also, when articles are online and comments are open, that’s one of the measures of whether you’re reaching your audience. So I do like to see whether it’s made any impact on the world. It eats away at me not knowing.’’
Humour, being the subjective beast that it is, is rarely consumed in a universal way. In early August, Pobjie jumped to the defence of Triple J breakfast hosts Tom Ballard and Alex Dyson after they were accused of making fun of holocaust victims.
‘‘Comedians don’t tell us about things that are funny: they take things that aren’t funny and try to make them so. As a matter of fact, if the only things we could joke about were things that were already funny, comedy wouldn’t even exist – there’d be no point in making jokes if everything we made jokes about was funny to begin with,’’ he wrote in The Age at the time.
On his own work, Pobjie says being accused of being racist or something equally abhorrent is much worse than being accused of being a bad writer.
‘‘What I dislike more is people misunderstanding what I’ve written. And I don’t want someone who misunderstands my article to put it out there on the internet.
‘‘What you grow to realise, when you start putting your work out into the public, is that you can’t be responsible for every reaction. If people are going to be outraged or offended, then they will be. All you can do is stuff that doesn’t outrage or offend you and hope that most people understand what you’re trying to do.’’
There’s a common misconception that a comedian is going to be ‘‘on’’, performing for the public, at all times. The idea that they are complex, intelligent people whose humour is derived not just from talent, but also from a lot of hard work, is something that many people either can’t – or won’t – accept.
Pobjie is willing to lay himself bare in an attempt to explain not his work – that can speak for itself – but his attitude towards it. He cares not only about how it’s received but about how it makes him appear.
‘‘I want to sound like the type of person who gives interviews in magazines,” he says. “I don’t want this to come out sounding like a strange person with strange speech patterns.’’
And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did tell Pobjie I was a fan. And despite the candlelight, it wasn’t weird at all.
Let’s Put on a Show runs from October 6–13 at the Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol Street, North Melbourne. Tickets $20. The Melbourne Fringe Festival runs until October 14. Details: visit melbournefringe.com.au.