Keegan Joyce Finds Humour In Other People’s Misfortune – And, Of Course, His Own

12 July 2019 | 4:44 pm | Hannah Story

Gagging For It is an excuse to ask interesting people about how to cope with life’s challenges through laughter. This week Hannah Story talks to Keegan Joyce.

Pic by Pia Johnson.

Pic by Pia Johnson.

The thing that has always made actor and musician Keegan Joyce (Please Like MeRake) laugh is schadenfreude. The German word translates to "pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune". It's the reason he finds it funny when his close friends miss flights, or when his brother shaves his face and misses a patch.

"There was just this one long patch at the chin area that I think he either just missed or something and it was just gross. And that made me laugh," Joyce explains.  

Not that he has a perfect track record with facial hair: "I recently had a moustache and I have a set of friends that hated that, a set of friends who loved that. The best thing is on Instagram I get negged by people just messaging me and being like, 'Please shave your dirty moustache so I can see your beautiful face.'" 

He says he laughs at lots of things – “dumb things, smart things” – and then with the people around him. “My girlfriend makes me laugh probably the most, and my friends and my brother. And the things that I hate the most in the world are puns. But other than that I'm ok, I laugh at anything.”

But when he delves further, it occurs to him that he’s probably laughing at his girlfriend, friends and family rather than with them. “Stuff that I think is funny is stuff that people probably don't intend to be that funny. I laugh the most at, I guess, just everyday things that people do that are weird. Or I laugh at myself.” 

He laughs at his own weird obsessions and bad luck. For instance, when we speak, it’s just ahead of opening night for Malthouse Theatre’s Solaris, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel about a psychic ocean on a far-off planet, in which he plays Ray. “I'm sick today and we're opening the show and that's pretty funny to me,” Joyce says.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

It’s “infectious”, he says, “to make the best of a bad situation with laughter”. “It's that feeling of when you stub your toe and then you yell, 'Fuck!', and then you laugh about it because there were two four-year-olds in the room with you.”

He concludes that what’s funny to him is maybe just “unfortunate, tragic humour” – something that sprang out of growing up with two younger brothers who constantly tried to make each other laugh. “We did some really dumb shit when we were bored,” Joyce admits.

The game was often just to make each other laugh “so much it would hurt”. The house rule was that you couldn’t leave the table until you’d finished your food, and Joyce laughs, his mum wasn’t such a good cook back in the day.  

“We would sit at this table for two hours when it was particularly bad or we were just being naughty and I would try to make my middle brother laugh so much that he had an asthma attack. He would start wheezing and I would find that so, so funny that you would kind of snot food out your mouth.” 

Even as they’ve gotten older, they still make each other laugh – the kind of laughter than can pull you through a difficult patch. Joyce recalls a year or two where he wasn’t getting any acting jobs, and was instead working at a liquor store and in a hospital. Meanwhile, his youngest brother was a manager at McDonald’s, through which he won a scholarship towards his university tuition.

When his brother was interviewed by the Parramatta Advertiser, and asked if he always wanted to go into business, he answered: “'No, I wanted to be a performer, but then I saw how my brother struggled financially.'”

"Even when you're at the bottom, someone can dig you a little deeper and it's kinda fun.” 

At a time when he really was struggling, trying to figure out whether or not he should keep going, he says he laughed reading the article, even while cursing his brother, “This fucking bastard!” 

“Now I've just vowed to get revenge in every possible way through every media outlet I can get my hands on to just say that – it's not true, but – he's still a burger flipper,” Joyce laughs.

Ultimately, he realised that he was actually doing ok: “When I read that in the fucking paper, I was like, 'Fuck, ok,' I'm doing ok. It's really fine.' Even when you're at the bottom, someone can dig you a little deeper and it's kinda fun.”

Laughing at his mistakes is potentially a “coping mechanism”, Joyce says. “It doesn't matter how much [my mistakes] hurt, I can't help but laugh about it.” 

Joyce released an album of “sad folk” songs in 2016, Snow On Higher Ground. When touring the record he realised “it’s really shit to do an hour-and-a-half of sad music”. So, he started to try to make jokes up on the spot to break the tension. The jokes didn’t land. 

“I guess what helped there was that I'd take pleasure in the awkwardness of no laughter and making a mistake or something like that, and people seemed to find that funny so I kept doing that for a while. “ 

Sometimes he’d play a song at one of his gigs and acknowledge a mistake by saying, ‘Well, that was shit.’ When gigging in America, he says, people would reassure him that he did nothing wrong at all, apparently confounding Joyce with his character in Please Like Me, the anxious Arnold. 

“Partially because of the characters that I've played on television and maybe partially because it's actually just me, people come up afterwards, and are like, really concerned for my mental wellbeing and if I'm ok.”

He finds “self-flagellating on stage” funny – self-deprecation and making rubbish jokes are a way to cope with his mistakes. 

It feels like a deeply Australian method, one Joyce quips is a kind of “self-imposed tall poppy syndrome”. 

But it’s a way of thinking about himself that again goes back to, the way he grew up. He was cast as the lead in Oliver! in 2002, a production that toured from Sydney to Melbourne to Singapore. 

“I probably got too cocky and got a big head,” Joyce concedes. “I just remember my brother one day being like, 'Yeah, you might be ok now, but it probably won’t work out.' And that was fun to us to tease each other that way, and that's kind of kept [my ego] in check, and probably kept me going a little bit.” 

While he’s always been able to laugh with his brothers, and at mistakes and misfortune, he does see his sense of humour as evolving as he gets older. Now almost 30, Joyce says he’s much more interested in the craft of comedy than before. Lately, he’s been thinking about it more than ever. 

“I wouldn't consider that I do comedy, but I've done some comedy shows and I feel like I've been around those people, watching them work.” 

He’s noticed the way they play with form, or structure jokes and stories. He’s into “really specific, long-form jokes or meta-comedy” at the moment, citing this year’s MICF Award winner James Acaster, Sarah Silverman and his Please Like Me castmate Hannah Gadsby as examples. They each break down their comedy, unpacking how a joke is crafted live on stage. 

“That's the kind of stuff I'm really into [now] but it doesn't mean I've lost that sense of schadenfreude.”

Solaris plays until 21 Jul at Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre.