The Storyteller: Jon Bennett

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It would not be an overstatement to say that Jon Bennett is some kind of winning-at-life Zen master genius, because what he does for a living is this: he travels the world telling stories. Jon transitioned into storytelling after starting out in comedy, and was catapulted into fame by his photographic foray into pretending that inanimate objects are, in fact, his cock.

Jon’s shows are simultaneously heartwarming and gut-wrenching. His love of trickery, penchant for pathos and self-deprecating, down-to-earth wit have seen him receive numerous international awards and nominations (some of which include the Critics Choice Award at the San Diego Fringe and multiple nominations for the Just for Laughs Award at the Montreal Fringe). Over 15,000 people currently participate in the Facebook chapter of the Pretending Things Are A Cock legacy, and Jon is continually producing new additions to his current arsenal of shows.

In the midst of the recent launch of his latest show, It’s Rabbit Night!, we talked to Jon about his career, process, and a hypothetical scenario involving a pug.

How did you end up doing comedy and storytelling?

When I was in high school, I was really good at sports, and I wanted to be an AFL footballer and all that shit. I wanted to be a high school PE teacher, so I could play football all the time, you know that sort of stupid thinking a 16/17 year old kid does.

I loved school. I was like, the guy. The cool kid. But I didn’t get the marks I needed, because I messed around a lot – like really fucked around – I was captain of the football team, of the sports team, pretty much spent most of my year 12 just… partying.

I didn’t fail year 12, I just didn’t get into what I wanted to, so I did year 12 again. But then in the second year of year 12 I was like, “oof, I hate this,” ‘cause I actually had to work, and about halfway through I thought what am I thinking, why would I want to be a teacher?

I was getting into more creative stuff. I used to write the morning bulletins for school, like funny stupid things that the teachers would have to read out, and then I thought I want to work in the media – I was really into films and television – and then that made me change my degree, and so then I did media and communications at uni.

And then I entered into a comedy competition. And I didn’t win. And I didn’t come second, or anything like that. But after I did it, the guy who ran the competition asked me if I wanted want to keep doing this, and I said yep and so he booked me in for some shows.

My early standup is horrible. I’ve got videos of it. I show them in my storytelling shows now, and people watch it and go “oh, you were one of ‘those’ comedians”. Just very Australian. Really Australian. Because all I knew was Australian comedy. Really sort of, you know, boys you start noticing girls, girls you start noticing boys, that sort of thing. So that’s how I got into it; it was never ever something I really wanted to do, I just sort of fell into it and it took off from there.

My early standup is horrible. I’ve got videos of it. I show them in my storytelling shows now, and people watch it and go “oh, you were one of ‘those’ comedians”.

itsrabbitnight

How did you move from standup to your current series of different shows?

Like with anything, the longer you do something, the more you mature into stuff. With me, I was doing comedy for quite a while, but I wasn’t into it. I was into it but I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it.

The reason I stopped doing the joke-style stuff was because one night I did a show one night, and this guy came up to me and said, “Do you know who this other guy is?” And I said yeah, I know him.

And he said: “You just did his joke.” That’s a really frowned upon thing. I didn’t even know; I woke up in the middle of the night and came up with it and wrote it down. I said sorry, and the guy said it wasn’t really the same joke but everything about it was the same, it’s obvious in that kind of setting.

I thought: fuck this. If I can’t be original then I don’t want to do it. I thought, what’s the most original thing I can do? And that’s honest storytelling type stuff that can only happen to me.

Then this guy wrote to me and he was opening up a storytelling night here in Melbourne, in Northcote, and he wanted me for my connections initially. He wanted me to get comedians to tell stories. And I did the first night that he did.

It was really crazy because usually with comedy you do 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, and I’d written this whole piece, just all true stories from my life, and on the opening night I went for an hour. I was only supposed to do 20 minutes, and I went for a whole hour.

When you do storytelling, you don’t have to worry about punch lines and jokes and that, but people were really laughing. It was a weird thing where it was like: people are really enjoying this, and I’m not doing jokes! And I didn’t know that that sort of thing existed.

So after that night, the guy who ran it asked me to help him run it, and later he went away and I took over, and I ran the only storytelling night in Melbourne for 3 or 4 years. And then when you do more and more of it, you get better at it.

…what’s the most original thing I can do? And that’s honest storytelling type stuff that can only happen to me.

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You mentioned tricks earlier. Can you tell us more about that?

My shows always need a trick. The trick with Pretending Things Are A Cock is that everybody comes to this show thinking that it’s going to be quite puerile and like Puppetry of the Penis, and then it’s actually quite a lighthearted show, about me travelling around and about my family. Someone once said I spend an hour showing people pictures of me pretending things are a cock, and then convincing them that I’m not the kind of person who does that.

Or say the poster for Story Whore, which is now called How I Learned to Hug, it’s another little trick that I love. I love that it’s a really sinister photo but it’s about hugging. Oh and there’s another trick – I do the whole show in a dress. But I don’t really allude to it, I’ve just got a dress on. I’m telling really heartfelt stories and then they go, “Why is he still wearing a dress?”

With the big shows, I’ll put stuff all over the stage, like brooms, pool noodles, just stuff will be covering the stage. And I don’t mention them, I don’t reference them at all during this show, and so people are like “Is he just going to grab things, and make them his—”, and I just don’t do anything with them. And so that’s another little trick.

howilearnedtohug

Pretending Things Are A Cock is a comedy, but there are some very serious undertones there.

Yep, all of my shows have that. I think that’s because I ended up studying film, so when I have a story, something real that has happened, the way I remember it is sort of the way you remember a film.

So you build the drama, and when the drama hits the highest point you drop in a joke, and that therefore becomes funnier. It’s almost like a laugh of relief. It’s a really good technique that I quite often use.

And all the stories are true things that have happened. But of course I’ve embellished them, or added in jokes, or built up the drama, for entertainment’s sake. I like stuff that takes you on a ride, up and down.

It keeps the audience interested as well. You build a lot of dramatic tension, and talk about some things that are quite personal, and could be seen as sensitive stuff, and people are feeling empathetic towards you, and then you drop in something funny, and then – it’s the release. And I like doing the opposite as well.

I like stuff that takes you on a ride, up and down.

What’s the most extreme reaction you’ve gotten from an audience or audience member?

It all depends on the show. I’ve had lots of people cry during some of my shows. One woman screamed at the end of the show I do about my dad.

Screamed? 

Yeah, with the show about my dad – My Dad’s Deaths – I go through my childhood up until now constantly thinking that my dad was going to die, because he’s very melodramatic and accident-prone. He’s hurt himself a lot of times. So I go through all these deaths and how they affected me, and our relationship, and how he hates the cocks and he’s this stern religious man.

It’s the show that a lot of people cry in. I finish with this serious bit about relationships with parents and stuff like that. You know, you never know when they’re gonna die, and that really puts an emphasis on the relationship that you’ve got. I finish the show on a note where it’s still quite unknown whether he’s dead or not. Most people think he’s dead.

And I’ve always got a chair reserved for him in the audience. And it says ‘Reserved for Ray Bennett’ and I stick it on the chair, and I say, “You know what, we’ve got a good relationship now and he’s retired, and I’ve actually brought him here tonight”, and in a good show I’ll get a spotlight to go on that chair – and it’s empty. The ongoing theme throughout the show is he never comes to my stuff.

So that’s where the woman screamed – she turned around and just went [insert face blanch]. All her emotions got played on at once where she was sad, then relieved, and then WHAT THE FUCK. And she just turned around and stood up and screamed.

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Do you ever get bored with the shows you’ve done a million times?

Yeah, that was the lesson I learned at Edinburgh [Festival Fringe]. I was like, I hate this show, I hate everything about it, and I was just churning it out. I was just doing it, if anyone responded I didn’t give a shit. And I got about halfway through and got some really bad reviews, and people were still coming to it. It was probably the most successful show I did in Edinburgh, even though it was the worst I’d done it. It was actually my manager who was like: what are you doing? This is the biggest festival in the world, you can’t just dial it in.

The worst thing was that just before Edinburgh I got ‘Pick of the Festival’ and you know, sold out audiences of 300 people a night, and it’s like “whoa! This is easy”, and then I did it in Edinburgh and was like, “oooh, everybody hates me.”

So I changed it, I fixed bits up, I made it more interactive. And it was this weird turning point; I got a little too big for my boots. So now whenever I do that show I will put in – I’ll act like it’s the first time I’ve done it, even if it’s in the living room of someone’s house. You need to not get complacent with that when you’re performing.

Now different things will happen, different audiences, different places. And so I’ll find little bits more interesting. That’s all I need. Just one little bit that I did differently. Something that will keep it fresh for me.

That’s all I need. Just one little bit that I did differently. Something that will keep it fresh for me.

Let’s say you’re in a circular room, with no windows or doors. You’ve got to get out of the room, and what you have with you is a pug, a pogo stick, and a pencil. How do you get out of the room?

I’d draw pictures of the pug on the walls with the pencil. And the pogo stick, well that’d be for exercise, you know you get cramps.

Do I have food? Do I have to eat the pug? I don’t want to eat the pug. Pugs have become my new favourite dog. I love them.

Here’s what I would do: I’d live in the cylindrical room, with my pug and my pogo stick, and I would draw the outside on the walls. And then I would draw a door, and then pretend that I’d walked through that door, and then I would have to start again and draw the next setting.

So I’m still living with my pug and my pogo stick, but I’d draw a new world so I was living in different worlds.

I’d live in that room for a little while until I got sick of it, and then draw another door and go again. Use the pug’s saliva to clean the walls. We wouldn’t need food, we would draw food. I’d sharpen the pencil with the pug’s teeth! And with the pogo stick we’d also be able to draw on the roof.

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Jon is currently performing at the Perth Fringe, and you find out more about his tour dates on his website. To follow and/or partake in Pretending Things Are A Cock, go to the Facebook page here.

Photo credit: Images by Elly Freer.