English comedian Jack Whitehall teaches Hannah Story everything he knows about emus.
Jack Whitehall has arrived in the country a few weeks ahead of his first Australian tour, Stood Up. While he’s here, he’ll be heading to a Big Bash game in Sydney and visiting an emu farm – the native bird is a subject of fascination for the London comic.
“I'm a big cricket fan,” Whitehall gushes. “I love cricket and I've always wanted to come and watch cricket here. In fact, I've nearly on occasion flown out to watch the Ashes, and have always at the last minute decided against it. And then every time been very pleased that I didn't, because watching Britain getting thumped would not be a great way of spending time or money.”
But Whitehall is quick to point out a match that we lost – the Great Emu War of 1932, a failed attempt to restrain the emu population in Western Australia. “I love the facts about the emu war that you had, that you lost, against the emus. Fucking cool.”
That grim – albeit amusing – piece of history is just one of many facts that he can rattle off about the bird, the result of research for a routine about being the emu in a school nativity play: “They’re double-feathered; average land speed: 31 miles per hour [50km/h]; volume of the egg equivalent to eight chicken eggs. You thought I was joking. I know facts. I know my shit,” he brags.
When Whitehall toured around the UK last year, the bit didn’t land. “Most of the time people would be looking up at me, going, 'We don't even know what an emu is, Jack. Why are you banging on about emus?’”
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But he’s thrilled that all his study of emus will finally land in Australia. “I researched emus so much for this show, and it's fallen on deaf ears in England – they haven't got a fucking clue. But here it's gonna be great. I literally can't wait to do the emu material.”
The emu farm Whitehall will be visiting, run by a couple who make emu oil, offered to serve him the bird as a meal, but he declined. “I think that my journey with emus – that's not how it ends. It would feel wrong… We have too much history.”
People also keep advising Whitehall not to corner an emu – something he has no desire to do.
“Maybe I give off the vibe of a guy that would try to corner an emu. I think I give off the vibe of a guy who if an emu squared up to me, I would run a mile. I would have to run pretty fast, because they have an average speed of 31 miles per hour.”
While Whitehall has never played in Australia before – “I literally had no idea anyone would bother to come and see me here” – he reckons growing up in Putney, southwest London, known for its Aussie expat community, made for decent training. His “home-turf gig” once every couple of months was at the local Australian-themed pub, Walkabout, run by an Aussie named Pete.
“I feel like I've played to Australian crowds before, because I did so many shows in Putney and Fulham, which is basically Australia in London… That always seemed to go down well.”
He’s pleased to be able to do material that centres on the word ‘cunt’. Repeating the word about 100 times for the bit resonates in Scotland, Ireland and Australia, he says, but doesn’t work in England or America. The word can “kill a room” in the States, while swearing in general can turn people off in both countries. “But in Scotland if you don't swear, if you don't drop a C-bomb, then they'll be disappointed.”
It’s part of Whitehall’s endeavour to tailor his jokes for his audience, by inserting local references. “I landed in Australia, and after a day I was like, 'Great, I'm gonna get to do the cunt routine.’”
Whitehall travelled to Australia with his entire family – his mother, father, brother and sister. He quips that the Hyatt in Sydney is finally “a hotel my father can’t complain about”; holidays with his wealthy, old-fashioned father, Michael, are the subject of his hit Netflix series, Travels With My Father. Has it become strange to travel without his father?
“It's just a relief when I get to go without him. It's way less stressful, and I'm reminded of how easy travelling can be,” he laughs. “Being able to do it with and without him is a very good way of appreciating your own company.”
The popularity of the series, and their work together on stand-up-show-turned-TV-series Backchat, means people are familiar with Michael Whitehall, retired theatrical agent. It gives Jack Whitehall the opportunity to make jokes at his 79-year-old father's expense. “Audiences seem to know him now and really enjoy me telling indiscrete stories about him… [It’s] been fun to start slagging him off on a more extensive basis.”
Stood Up is altogether a “big, dumb, fun show”, Whitehall explains, which will see the comedian talk about relationships, travelling, and living alone since his break-up from actor Gemma Chan in late 2017. He filmed the show for Netflix at London’s Wembley Stadium in January. “Just saying, 'Hello Wembley!' at the beginning of the night is thrilling and exciting.”
He originally thought ‘2020 Vision’ would be a great title for a comedy special – except that’s already the name of Oprah Winfrey’s tour. Now, the streaming platform are asking him to change the title, which he came up with before he’d written any jokes. “Aww, fucking Oprah, again, stealing my ideas,” he moans.
Whitehall adopts a persona on stage that is pretty true to himself in real life – at least half of the time. The other 50 percent of the time he’s actually “pretty fucking boring”. He admits that he plays “quite approachable” characters, including his breakout roles on shows like Fresh Meat and Bad Education, the latter of which he also wrote and created. Fans buy him drinks, think he’s their friend, and want to make jokes to him.
“I much prefer that than being someone that people found unapproachable or didn't want to have a laugh with.
“I definitely think people have a degree of feeling like they know you,” he says. “Maybe I need to play like a really scary character and then people will give me a bit of distance. I'll play like a serial killer in You and people aren't gonna come up to me because they're gonna be like, 'Oh, he's scary.’”
The aim of Whitehall’s comedy is to distract people from “the rather depressing state of the world for two hours, and make you laugh about dumb stuff”. He doesn’t desire to be a political commentator, engaging with troubling issues. “I prefer looking inwards and making jokes at my own expense,” he says. “Maybe in 20 years I'll be ready to do a show where I tell people what's what… But at the moment, I'm just going to stick to some nice, light toilet humour.”