Sam Simmons is one of the most singular voices in comedy. His outlook on life, his way with words and his imaginative scope is unparalleled in its originality. He’s about to perform his new show, Death Of A Sails-Man, at the Sydney Comedy Festival and when the BRAG spoke to him, he was also about to have a newborn named after him.
“I had the most amazing show the night before last,” he tells us. “A couple came to the show and she went into labour 15 minutes after the end of the show, and they had the baby yesterday, which was my birthday, and they are seriously considering naming their baby daughter Samantha.”
Death Of A Sails-Man has been described as one man having a nervous breakdown onstage. With the help of a pre-recording of Simmons’ voice, a real-time dialogue with himself leaps across various subjects such as dolphin sexuality, Vodafone, population growth, mental health and a story in song about a granny dying and ascending to space. These imaginative leaps are, unusually for Simmons, contained within a narrative – the story of a man marooned on a windsurfer swept out to sea. Simmons says he loves the show and reckons it’s his best yet.
“It’s totally my favourite show. I’m in love with it. I absolutely adore it,” he says. “It’s about a guy who’s having a midlife crisis. I thought, ‘What is the most douche thing someone having a midlife crisis would do?’ and the idea of a windsurfer came to mind. I turned 37 yesterday and perhaps I’m having a bit of a midlife crisis myself.”
Why does Simmons like this show so much? “Number one – it’s a pun,” he says proudly. (Those of you looking blank ought to Google playwright Arthur Miller.)
He does admit that he may have cut a few corners in preparing for the show. “No, I didn’t go windsurfing. I faked it. What I do is definitely not grounded in reality … I wrote most of this show wandering around LA.”
“It’s a basic story,” says Simmons. “There’s nothing snarky, nothing random about it. He dies at the end. You work that out pretty early in the show. It’s just what someone would go through if they were swept out to sea. You’d think about things like cannibalism. My stuff comes from a place of stupidity. It’s odd.”
Simmons doesn’t tie things up neatly or resolve his stories with heart-warming conclusions in his performances. “I hate shows with epiphanies,” he says. “I hate shows that are lectures. Or shows that want you to learn about yourself. Fuck that. It’s boring. I’m sick of leaving a show that’s too preachy. I don’t want lectures. We’ve got our own opinions and going to a show isn’t going to change that. Who do these people think they are?” He reckons there should be less worthiness and more daftness in comedy. “There’s not enough silly. I’m hoping the tide is turning. We need more absurdity.”
Despite this demand, there is logic to his show. “It’s not random,” he explains. “None of that. It’s scripted. There are a few moments I can ad lib if I want to but I’m not there just for laughs. I’d rather give you something.”
Along with paper cut-outs, Death Of A Sails-Man includes original music and songs composed especially for the show, which, it must be said may leave audiences feeling a bit baffled. “It’s absurd,” says Simmons, redundantly for anyone familiar with his brand of comedy. No-one is arguing with US TV show host Conan O’Brien, who said to Simmons after he appeared on his show: “You’re a very weird man.”
Simmons has recently relocated, and now splits his time between Sydney and LA. “It’s sensational,” he says of LA. “I thought I’d hate the place. They are so enthusiastic there. I thought that would really annoy me but the people there, they’re not mean people. When they say they’re super happy to see you, here, we’re challenged and threatened by that sort of thing. It’s very different. I’m not being anti-Australian here, I love being Australian, but it’s different. There isn’t that snarkiness in comedy rooms. They’re really receptive to what I do. I imagined having a secondary career in the UK; I thought I’d go well there but I never thought I’d be able to break the US scene. I’m really blessed to have a career in two places. I did not expect to have a career in the States.”
There is a difference, albeit a small one, Simmons says, to how his comedy is perceived here in comparison to the States or the UK. “In the States, I am really encouraged to do what I do. I think I’m like the Jimeoin of comedy there, with the exotic accent. There’s a small sense that I’m a bit too weird here, my stuff is threatening to Australian men. It’s seen as an effeminate thing.”
Simmons says he would always prefer to be confounded and challenged when it comes to experiencing comedy than to get a laugh out of a performance. When asked to name his favourites, he brings up intelligent, wacky comedians. “I love the rage in John Cleese,” he says. “There are some great stand-ups in Australia. I love Tom Gleeson. I love him. He’s a master. He’s so measured and smart. He’s got the funny bones. He’s got delivery and timing and he’s just got his own thing. He’s like our Bill Cosby. His phrasing is sublime. I love him.” He is equally enthusiastic about Zoë Coombs Marr. “She is extraordinary; I love her. She’s unique; she shares a similar mind to me. She’s quite odd, got her own thing up there.”
Outside comedy, being away for much of the year has given Simmons a fresh perspective on a mainstream representation of Australian culture and urban life in the media that he describes as “disgusting”. What he sees on TV particularly annoys him. “Where are the Tongans on Neighbours? You don’t see any Vietnamese on Home And Away. When is this going to change? It annoys me; it bores me. And Ernie Dingo is the only representative of indigenous Australia you see on commercial TV. It’s really sad.”
Simmons has some simple advice for anyone wanting to emulate his success. “Just do it. You’ve got to fail. Forget all these courses and classes – they might be an empowering thing if you do them as part of a work program or something but you can’t learn comedy. Get up there and fail and keep going. But if you haven’t got a funny bone, don’t do it. There are too many class smart-arses up there already.”