Brendon Burns: 'I've never felt more like a stripper in my life'
- Murray Robertson
- 23 January 2018
In the wake of recent sex scandals Brendon Burns decided it was time to tackle gender in his stand-up
It was Brendon Burns' wife who first made the comedian reconsider his attitude to masculinity. Pointing out that the UK-based Australian stand-up has been very open about his attitudes to race on his podcast, Dumb White Guy, why then has he been so guarded when it comes to gender? 'I thought that was really interesting, so I started talking about it on stage and it became very empowering,' Burns explains. 'We've only really been looking at racism since the boat was invented; gender is tens of thousands of years of social preconditioning.'
There's been a seismic shift in gender politics over the past few months, particularly since the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the various men who have been brought down in his wake. But that's not actually what inspired Burns to write Mansplainin'. 'It was just the sheer volume of sexual assault,' he explains, incredulous. 'On the podcast, instead of addressing race like a lot of comics do by just saying, "hey, Farage is a racist!" I think it's more valuable and interesting, comedically, to ask, "when am I racist?" So, when the Weinstein and Louis CK things came about, I got defensive. And so straight away I thought, "why the fuck am I defensive? Shouldn't I be celebrating this?"'
Last year, Burns played the Edinburgh Fringe with Aboriginal Australian comedian Craig Quartermaine in a show called Race Off, a provocative examination of interracial politics and white guilt. The show hung on a twist designed to expose the audience to their own hidden prejudices, albeit with mixed results. 'The first week I had braced myself for the way a certain element of the Edinburgh faithful treats performers of colour, but nothing had quite prepared me for it. If you think the Edinburgh Festival is a liberal, progressive place, just go outside the Soweto Gospel Choir show and listen to the audience coming out.' He winces at the show's title. 'I think we really fucked up calling it Race Off because that audience came to see us. It was one of the most misunderstood and least ambiguous things I've ever been involved in and it was the most wilfully misrepresented. But the argument was watertight: we've all been brainwashed into normalising whiteness.'
Burns is touring his new show as an independent performer, booking venues where and when he sees fit and organising everything himself. He says he relishes his freedom and it's been a long time since he last looked forward to getting back on the road. 'The first date of the tour was in some guy's lounge room and the audience was about 75% women,' he remembers. 'And I turn up with my own PA and microphone and there's about 50 women in the room as I set up: I've never felt more like a stripper in my life.'
Burns is modest but sanguine about his standing, now a decade on from winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award. 'In this post comedy-boom period, you're hearing these horror stories of household names playing to 30 people in 400 seaters in Folkestone or some place: it doesn't make sense to me. Everyone has the reach and scope to find out themselves through analytics and their own social media and fanbase: where am I wanted? Right, I'll go there. If Edinburgh taught me anything, it's, "play to the right crowd, 'cos the show will suck otherwise".'
A poker analogy helps Burns explain where he thinks he now fits within the industry. 'There's a handful of comics that are like a straight flush or a full house,' he explains. 'Michael McIntyre, Sarah Millican, Terry Alderton, Gina Yashere: put them on any show and they're gonna kill. I'm like two pairs at best. You need a very specific set of circumstances for me to be a good hand. Unfortunately for me, that set of circumstances is broke people with a very diverse circle.'
Onstage, Burns is a thoughtful and intelligent performer, keen to puncture prejudice and fight social injustice; but he's also built something of a reputation for being aggressive and confrontational. Does he think he's mellowed with age? A long pause. 'I think so. God, I hope so.' He thinks about it longer still before roaring with laughter: 'of course!'
Brendon Burns: Mansplainin' is currently touring.