Comedian Arj Barker is a man of the world

The Snowed In Comedy Tour’s Arj Barker is a big star in Australia and elsewhere, but not because he plays the race card in his act.
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Who knows how many thousands of comics there are around the world? But one gets the sense the community is pretty tight when looking at the Snowed In Comedy Tour. Local standup Dan Quinn is the straw that stirs this comedy drink, bringing together comedians from here, there (Britain), and everywhere else to perform at night and snowboard during the day. He and expat Craig Campbell, now a resident of England, are mainstays, while other thrill-seeking comics have joined the tour since its inaugural run in 2008. This year, in addition to Campbell, Quinn has brought together erstwhile locals Pete Johansson and Glenn Wool, as well as American Arj Barker.

Barker, perhaps best known for his role as Dave on the HBO sitcom Flight of the Conchords, is a California native but also a man of the world. He was one of the first international comics to make regular visits Down Under, starting in 1999, and now finds himself living about half the year in Australia, where he’s the star he deserves to be.

“I just got here and kept coming back,” says Barker from his home outside Sydney. “One day, something just shifted and people started to know who I was.…I think Australia was probably the first country to really say, ‘Hey, this guy is pretty good.’ I feel like this country gave me my props. I don’t think it’s because I have this magical connection specifically with Australia. I think it’s easier to get recognized for something when you appear to be a little more exotic.”

But make no mistake: Arjan Singh (Barker’s just a stage name) is talking about his Americanness, not his Indian Sikh heritage. Despite working in a burgeoning industry where hyphenated comedians talk almost exclusively about their ethnic backgrounds, Barker will have none of it. The 37-year-old gave up joking about race his first year in comedy and hasn’t looked back.

“Very early on, I lost interest in playing the race card,” he says. “I’m going to tell you right now, and I’ll go on the record: it bores the shit out of me, personally, to make observations about different cultures based on race. I find it quite dull to talk about race, because I think, for me, I would like to break down racial barriers and speak to audiences as a group of humans.”

Barker isn’t one to overanalyze his choices or his comedy. But one possible explanation he gives for not delving into the obvious is his relatively white-bread background.

“Probably a big part of it is I grew up in northern California, in a mostly white population,” he suggests. “There was the odd Asian kid kicking around and a couple black guys and me. It wasn’t a big issue. It was very liberal, at least not outwardly racist. There’s always some racism that’s well-hidden, but generally it was a pretty liberal, quote-unquote open-minded area, so it just wasn’t an issue.”

And, in turn, he reaches a broader—or at least higher—comedy base.

“I get some Indians at my shows, but not in droves,” he says. “Occasionally, people come because they find out I have Indian heritage, but my heritage hasn’t been a big part of my world-view.”

The dry humorist has attracted fellow stoners since 2004, when he and comics Doug Benson and Tony Camin created The Marijuana-Logues, a stoned spoof of The Vagina Monologues. And his role beside the New Zealand folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords has also brought new followers Down Under.

“Things had already started to turn pretty well here and then that came,” he says. “It [the series] was another nice little wave to help boost my profile and make a lot of new fans, specifically the cooler, hipper, younger folks who really love that show.”

Barker was one of several veteran comics to appear on the show, along with Todd Barry, Demetri Martin, Jim Gaffigan, and Patton Oswalt. But there was no jealousy from his end of the deal.

“One guy can do comedy 20 years and another guy can come along and get his own show in his first year,” he reasons. “There’s no rules in this business like that. It’s very flavour-of-the-month, too. But I do think they deserve everything they got because they have been doing it a long time before people knew. I haven’t seen people work much harder than they did, and I just think they deserve all the success. I don’t want to take away from that just because I’ve been doing it a long time. I was honoured and privileged to even have a small part on that show. They’re great guys and I can never say nothing negative about them.”

Spoken like an upstanding member of the comedy community.

The Snowed In Comedy Tour plays the Granville Island Stage at 8 and 10:30 p.m. next Saturday (January 14).

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Daljeet Sidhu
A new comic has to find an anchor to start creating funnies and jokes, and create a niche. Barker has done a good job at using his Sikh heritage to create a space for himself among comedians.
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