Australian-Italian comedy superstar Joe Avati heads back to Canada this fall as part of his Back to Basics World Tour. His hotly-awaited Canadian tour kicked off in Windsor, ON on September 22 and will end in Montreal on November 9, with stops in fourteen cities and four provinces.
One of the biggest names in international comedy, Avati will return to Canada after a five-year absence. He still holds the record for the fastest-selling comedy show ever in Canada, selling 3200 tickets in just nine minutes at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The Back to Basics Tour will also include stops in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.
I had the chance to sit down with Joe in advance of the Canadian tour to talk about working clean, how his comedy has evolved over the years, and what role the internet now plays in a comedian's career.
Mark McLeod: How did you get your first start in comedy?
Joe Avati: I was at university making fun of the lecturers, mimicking the lecturers to my fellow students and then I would tell jokes at the university reviews and university parties. And so a friend of mine suggested to me that I should get up and give stand up a go. So I went to The Comedy Store in Sydney and I saw what the amateurs had to do and it was more than telling jokes. You had to get up and say your own personal routine so I went up the following week and that's how it all started: some observations that I had, like my name's not really Joe and how I could never find a mug with my name on it, so that kind of annoyed me as a kid. So I started talking about that and that's how it all happened.
MM: So what were you going to university for? Were you on a career path somewhere?
JA: Yeah, I was. I was studying food science. I actually got a double degree in food science so that really changed once my career took off. I dropped it altogether.
MM: So that's what you would be doing now?
JA: That's right. I'd probably be married with children living in the suburbs. You know, working for food companies.
MM: How would you describe your style of comedy?
JA: It's very, very observational. Raconteur-ish if you like; I like to be able to tell a long story but I embellish it with laughter along the way.
MM: So do you prefer to do longer sets then?
JA: I've been doing a lot of only half-an-hour sets in the last few years because I've been part of an ensemble show in Australia, but this show I'm on the stage for an hour and a half so that's a different animal altogether. You've really got to take the audience on a long, winding journey. And actually when you're doing an hour and half you've actually got to, at a certain point, do some weaker material to give the audience a break from laughing and then you've got to wind them up again because you want to end on a high. They're exhausted, then they can't laugh. If you laugh a lot it's pretty painful. If you're making them laugh and they're laughing at the support acts a half hour before and then you come along and you really kill them with laughter, they're not going to have any wind in them to give you the big gusto that you need at the end for your encore.
MM: So that's a difficult skill then? To build a set?
JA: Absolutely. It's difficult [and] also very challenging, and that's ever-changing, so sometimes I'll move gags around. So this gag works better here, or it's not as funny as that gag, so you've got to do it before the funnier gag because you don't want to be funnier then have an anti-climax.
MM: Do you tailor your material to the different markets, like North America versus overseas?
JA: Not really, no, but the North American market can take more of a show feel. You know, you come out with music and you have songs and that kind of stuff. You can have a video presentation at the beginning of the show. It can be a bigger production than it is in Australia, 'cause in Australia they'll all think, "Who do you think you are?" Whereas here, if you don't show them who you are, they don't take you seriously.
MM: You've been doing comedy for a while now. How has your act evolved since the beginning?
JA: Looking back at some videos of when I first started, it's a lot more polished and the jokes are a lot more interconnected. And I'm a lot more comfortable on stage, so I'm a lot punchier. There's a lot more gags within the whole routine and they're more true-to-life. whereas when you're first starting out you're just clutching at whatever you can to get bits and pieces that can make people laugh and sort of putting it together in a mishmash. Now, it's a nice long story with themes and you do start developing -– once you're comfortable doing that, then you can start playing with the audience and moving things around so it's more sophisticated and a more complex set.
MM: Now obviously the internet has sort of changed comedy. Before, people could record an album, take their time on an album, it wouldn't really go as wide as fast. How do you think the internet has changed the comedy scene now? Now you have people throwing things up on YouTube instantly and material cycles over faster.
JA: Well yes, it does, but it also makes people -- there's a lot more competition now. Anyone can go up there and come up with something funny for two or three minutes, but then you have to back that up. So if you don't have anything to back that up with, then you've got no show. What are you going to do? You can't just be funny for three minutes. People aren't going to pay to come and see you be funny for three minutes. So it makes you work harder to be able to back that up, number one. It also makes you work harder to try and give you a platform to be able to do that. So I'm always trying to come up with a routine that I can put on YouTube that's going to propel me to the next level again. So it definitely gets you to work harder and keeps you on your toes without a shadow of a doubt.
MM: Can you still sort of tour the same show for long periods of time, or do you have to reinvent things?
JA: You're constantly reinventing anyway because my audiences tends to be the same audiences coming back. So if I go and do a show and they've seen it before, they're not going to come back again. If I do the same shows I did four years ago now, they're not going to come back. Why not just come back in three or four year's time? So you have to have a lot of new material.
MM: Do you feel that the internet has changed the comedy landscape in the sense that a lot of comedians are throwing things up on their own website for $5, $10 -- like comedy specials -- as opposed to releasing them on DVD?
JA: I don't know too much about that 'cause I don't do that. I just release a DVD and I've got a lot. I've got five DVDs, three compilation DVDs, and five CDs, and a couple of compilation CDs as well. So I churn out a lot of material whilst most of it's sold mainly at the shows. I don't rely so much on that, I don't worry so much about that aspect of it so it doesn't really affect me.
MM: You're going to be touring across Canada for a couple of months, including a stop in Toronto where you apparently broke some kind of ticket-sale record. Why should Canadian comedy fans who may not have heard of you come out and check out your shows?
JA: Well I think they're going to see a very, very good quality show. It's a clean show. It's a family show without it sort of being [clean] in a Disneyland kind of way. You're going to see good, clean humor, smart humor, from a very well-polished act, who's been performing and touring around the world in large theatres, stadiums, for the last 10 years. So if I was a comedy fan I'd want to see that.
MM: You work clean. Has that been difficult for you to make that choice to work clean?
JA: No, I've always worked clean. I've never not worked clean. I think maybe only a few times when I was doing shows at The Comedy Store, but other than that when I do these shows, I always think if my mum and dad were in the audience, and my grandparents were in the audience -- because I get a lot of mums and dads and I get a lot of grandparents coming to see my show -- would they get offended? If they would then I wouldn't do it.
MM: Do you think it's harder to work clean in this sort of industry?
JA: No, it's not! I don't think it's harder at all!
MM: I mean, sometimes when you go dirty you can rely on a curse or shock value type stuff.
JA: I don't think shock value sells tickets unless you do it in a very sophisticated way. Swearing for the sake of swearing doesn't do much. If it's a well-placed curse, then yeah, I could understand that. But if you've got very weak material and you're adding swearing to it, that's not going to sell your tickets. If you've got very, very, very, very, very clever material and you can swear that will sell your tickets, that shock value, otherwise it's not going to. Unless you're going to do it very well, then don't do it at all.
MM: On this tour are you hitting any market you haven't hit yet in Canada before?
JA: Umm... [long pause] no. I had to think about that. I think we're playing everywhere we've played before.
MM: Is there any city you're looking forward to playing?
JA: I really enjoy Vancouver because last time I was in Vancouver, the audiences laughed so much. There was big laughter. A show that's normally an hour and a half lasted two hours because the laughter was so big. And when you've got that, you can just take them anywhere, and so I'm really looking forward to that. I'm really looking forward to working the big theatres in Toronto. I'm looking forward to working in places where I haven't performed for seven, eight years –- it's sort of exciting, 'cause they wouldn't have heard a lot of the material. And I'm also looking forward to Montreal. We're doing show after show, we're doing 15 shows back-to-back. So when you're working night after night like that, your act really develops very quickly because you don't have much of a break between one weekend and another weekend.
MM: Do you prefer playing larger theatres or smaller clubs?
JA: I like large theatres.
MM: Comedy-wise, who are you listening to? I know in the past you mentioned Bill Cosby as an idol. Who are you looking at nowadays?
JA: There's a guy called Steve Hughes which I like. He lives in England now -- he's an Australian comedian originally. We actually started together. I really enjoy his style of comedy. He's very shock, but a very, very smart, extremely intelligent guy. I really enjoy his comedy.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.