Jim Jefferies joins late-night TV crowd; he'll try not telling too many Trump jokes
Jim Jefferies has been racking up stamps on his passport.
To film segments for his new weekly Comedy Central series, which debuts at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 6, the Australian comic's itinerary has included the Netherlands, Slovenia, the Great Barrier Reef and China.
"We can get hung up on America, how health care's coming or Comey being fired or people not liking the president," he said in a recent interview. "Everywhere's got its foibles."
For instance, he visited liberal Holland -- to check out its annual Christmas tradition of wearing blackface.
These field pieces will be one component of "The Jim Jefferies Show," which adds to the growing television landscape of news-driven comedy shows. Jefferies hopes to bring a bit more of an international perspective -- as well as his signature caustic style.
Television audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for politically charged humor since Donald Trump became president. Late-night comedy shows that have doubled-down on political material, like "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" and "Saturday Night Live," are drawing record numbers of viewers. New programs -- a satirical Trump talk show, a limited run of prime-time "Weekend Update" episodes -- are cropping up across channels.
Jefferies doesn't see an oversaturated field. "There's a lot of action movies -- why would we make another action movie when you've got hundreds of them?" he said. "It's just whether people want to hear what you have to say."
On the weekly show, Jefferies presents a casual manner, at times leaning back and swiveling in his chair, and delivering lines with his thick Australian accent.
"I don't know if it adds more authority. I think the British accent does. I don't think anyone's ever gotten news from an Australian and thought, 'Wow, that Australian accent really cushioned the blow.'"
If you don't know Jefferies -- one of Australia's most successful standups -- from numerous comedy specials (his jokes on drugs, women and religion will definitely offend some) or his short-lived scripted FX series "Legit," you probably know him from that 2015 viral gun control routine. He delivers a roughly 15-minute, joke-laden exploration of the Second Amendment and Americans' attitudes toward gun control.
After that bit, his theater-sized audiences changed from mostly white men around his age "and people wanting to hear me tell sex jokes and swear" to a more diverse crowd interested in a brutally sharp takedown of governmental policies. Add in a more recent buzzed-about pre-election joke cautioning audience members about Trump ("Don't be the a-hole, America"), and Jefferies said he's been "accused a lot of America-bashing."
"The thing is ... you only do it to their faces. I would never go over to Australia and start performing material on how (expletive) America is," he explained. "If I got a problem with you, I'll say it to your face. So I don't think that's anti-anything. I think it's just anti-everything."
The interest in news-driven humor doesn't surprise Jefferies, who points to one of his heroes, George Carlin, who rose to prominence during the Nixon and Vietnam War years.
"Comedy comes out of everyone's worst day. No one writes a sitcom episode about everyone having a good day. It's always about someone being locked out of their house, or someone being dumped or whatever," Jefferies said. "At the moment, whether people like it or not, there's a lot of conflict in our society."
He also often receives messages from people complaining they "used to like comedy when it wasn't all political."
"It's not at all new. Charlie Chaplin was dressed as Hitler and doing 'The Great Dictator,'" Jefferies said. "We've been doing political comedy before the talkies came."
Still, Jefferies echoes a number of other pros who think Trump is bad for comedy. "The difference between comedians and the general public is that we are meant to be funnier. And when you've got politicians giving material so easy that the general public is doing it, what is the necessity of us anymore?"
That dynamic has forced plenty of liberal satirists and comedians to get creative with their approaches. The Onion dumped 700 pages of jokes in a trove of fake Trump administration memos and classified documents. McSweeney's published Trump's actual Black History Month remarks as a piece of humor.
The amount and speed of recent breaking news has left comedic TV hosts scrambling to use the latest headlines as joke fodder or missing the biggest stories due to taping schedules. Samantha Bee is on Wednesdays, John Oliver is on Sundays, Anthony Atamanuik's satirical Trump talk show airs Thursdays, Trevor Noah is on daily and will soon be followed by Jordan Klepper.
"We're all on different days so we're all going to beat each other to the punch," Jefferies said.
"The Jim Jefferies Show" won't be just mock, joke-laden news casts. The show's first block tackles more time-sensitive newsy nuggets, but the last block -- "a fluff piece," he calls it -- gives Jefferies a little more time to presentthe kind of shocking joke premises that punctuate his stand-up act. There will also be some guest interviews.
Head writer Jason Reich, an alum of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," said Jefferies's storytelling skills fit well with the late-night TV format.
"Part of the brilliance of Jim's stand-up is that no matter the subject, he knows how to get the crowd on his side and bring them along for the ride," Reich said via email. "Our goal is to capture what makes Jim such a commanding performer on stage, and bring that same energy behind the desk."
Jefferies prefers joking about social issues "which are always sort of there no matter what politician's in place," and said he isn't out to be known as the late-night host who consistently eviscerates Trump. "In fact, I'm hoping to do as little Trump as possible."
"I feel like it's such an easy target," Jefferies added. "If he does something right, I might want to do a comedy piece on that. ... I've never seen one of these shows go, 'Look, I wouldn't vote for him, I don't agree with him, but look at what a great job he did with whatever!'"
Whether it's straight news or comedy news, "everyone's already tuning into the things they already agree with," Jefferies said. "I don't believe for a second that I'm going to change people's views -- I don't believe that you're going to hear me do a joke and all the sudden minds are going to change, but if I could start a conversation, that would be good."
In between tapings and press for his new show, Jefferies still has stand-up gigs lined up and plans to record a new special after the first season of his show wraps up.
When will he stop touring? "When I die," he said.
Jefferies has attracted controversy over his act before. He's been punched on stage, and has been criticized for jokes about rape and not respecting women.
But he said his material has shifted in recent years. "I used to do a lot of misogynistic jokes and I've sorta stopped doing those because I thought everyone was in on it -- that was a character I was playing -- and it was a joke. It wasn't real," he said.
Jefferies said he won't tone down his act for the small screen, but he's mindful of the difference in format.
"I'm still going to try to be extreme but I don't think I can do what you do on stage, where sometimes what you're doing on stage, it's almost a boldfaced lie -- it's like, what's the funniest line I can say here?" he said. "But doing a show like this I can't just say, 'What's the funniest line?' I have to go, 'What do I believe to be correct?'"
Premieres at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 6, on Comedy Central