Storyteller and comedian Jon Bennett carries eight different shows with him wherever he goes: Pretending Things are a Cock, My Dad’s Deaths, Fire in the Meth Lab, Rabbit Night (adult version), Rabbit Night (kid version), How I Learned to Hug, The Jason Donovan Board Game and his latest: Aussie Rules Footy (Playing With Men). He talks about them with the affection and frustration a person might use to talk about their children. This one he can do in his sleep. This one he has always wanted to end differently. This one has him asking everyone for advice. He has stories about each one. He recounts the time some guys watched Pretending Things Are a Cock from under the tent even though they had already left the show after announcing they were disappointed that no one really got their dick out. And like children, he also has dreams for each one. Jon says his ultimate goal for Pretending Things Are a Cock is to get a shot aboard Virgin Galactic with the earth as a cock (hey, Richard Branson, you reading?). “That’d be a good way to end it,” he says.
At the moment, Bennett is agonizing over his troubled child of a show, Aussie Rules Footy. “This one is driving me nuts,” he says. “I’m changing it around all the time, taking parts out, adding other parts. It’s a lot of work.” He tells me that during its run in Australia, he worked out the kinks, but it seems to have derailed in Orlando and he’s still not happy with it after the run in Montreal. “I’ll go home and cut and change and perform a different show tomorrow. It could be good, it could be trouble,” he says. Nonetheless, he knows it’s a new show and that this one is unique. “I’m prepared for it to be bad the first ten times or so,” he says. The show’s subject matter, the death of a difficult friend, is “heavier.” “I wanted to make a heavier show that covers death,” Bennett says. “And also for it to be more existential. I guess, it’s also what your hopes and dreams are growing up and not fulfilling what you are destined for. That you have all these disappointments, but when you look back, you realize you’ve got it pretty good.”
It’s this kind of honesty and desire to craft something through constant work that makes Bennett such a charismatic figure. I won’t mention his pretty hazel eyes. He’s been on the Fringe circuit for several years, spending more time this year touring across Canada than in his home country Australia. While Fringe Festival performances provide stability — he’s hitting up Toronto, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and Indiana — he adds in comedy shows (as he will tonight at the ComedyWorks) and storytelling events like The Moth. He even managed a tour in South America with fellow comedians Jon Selig and Darren Henwood. “He organizes comedy shows for charities,” says Bennett. “Like a library, a women’s shelter, a children’s hospital. I get myself there and they cover your expenses. They gave me a five star resort in Belize!”
Bennett even went off the tour to do some additional shows. He’s always working. “I think of this as my work, my 9 to 5 job,” he says. “I did three shows a day at Edinburgh. People told me it was crazy, but that’s my work. I perform.”
Life on the road is never lonely. Bennett says, “I love it. I stay with friends. I’m comfortable in other people’s houses. You’re always the new and exciting person. People think it’s hard, but it’s not.” He explains that when he’s going to a city, he posts on Facebook and someone always offers to put him up, either a friend or a friend of friend. Even in Hong Kong, he found a place to stay. I ask him if there’s a secret to being welcomed back. “I’m a good guest,” he says. “Do the dishes. I make sure I am tidy and quiet. A lot of people are like, ‘I didn’t even know you were here.’ I make sure I cook. I also tell them that if you want me to go, I’ll go.”
Although he may not have a proper place to call home, a man on the road relies pretty heavily on his computer. “My computer is my home. It’s a mess,” he says.
Being a full-time mostly Fringe Festival performer is more than just living on the road, it’s also about performing to a range of audiences that can be anywhere from zero to hundreds.
How small can an audience be? “The average audience size in Edinburgh is four people,” he tells me. He explains that a festival like Edinburgh is a fee-paying festival. You pay a fee and you’re in with the results that there are hundreds of acts. In contrast, Montreal and a few other festivals are curated or lottery based. The smaller size helps build an audience.
Bennett has performed to small audiences. “I’ve done a show to two people twice before. One was a pair of brothers. I had them get a bottle of wine. We sat and chatted. We sat and the show went for 2 1/2 hours. I gave them tickets to another show. They came the next night when I had a proper audience; that was great. There was another couple, a Canadian couple. We chatted for awhile.” When one member of the couple saw him perform again, it was in front of hundreds of people in Edmonton.
“You learn that no matter the size, you give,” he says. “You’re performing to the audience and you have to learn that.”
I also ask him what the trick to getting people to come to his newer shows, which are often more in process than fully polished. “I start a festival doing Pretending Things Are a Cock because it gets people in and messes with their expectations a bit,” he says.
Pretending Things are a Cock has an inspired beginning. It began in the Adelaide Fringe, a curated festival. Bennett was given an art gallery space next to a major comedy show. He put different “cock” photos on the wall from his travels and walked visitors through. “It was a ‘meet the artist’ tour. I would tell the story behind the photos,” he says. “I did not think it was original. I thought it was a stupid thing I was doing.” The comedians from the club would wait in the gallery before the show and spend 15 minutes among his pictures.”
Then he met Dan and Claire of Die Rotten Punkte who turned him on to the Canadian festival circuit. He performed the show once before heading to Montreal. “It was so different. George Hamilton Braithwaite was hosting. We had a lectern,” he reminisces.
What is interesting is how the show also grew out of the way that comedy is handled in Australia. In America (and Canada), comedians work to put together a five to ten minute slot. “In Australia, you work up to doing an hour show,” he says. Writing an hour-long show was more the norm rather than a ten minute stand-up performance.
But if one really wants to find out what Bennett’s passion is, ask him about his travels to see animals. Bennett says that the three things that are shared by the countries he wants to visit are “Great animals, great scenery, and social unrest.” At the end of a Fringe tour, he makes a point of taking a trip to an “exotic” place.
What has he seen that’s blown his mind? “Elephants. Seeing the pygmy elephants in Borneo. They tell you that they can’t guarantee you’ll see elephants, that you won’t see elephants. We saw seven of them. Babies. Meters away. Their habitat is tiny because of the forestry.”
He also loves whales. He mentions that in Tadousac he saw a fin whale and that he saw orca’s breaching in Victoria. “Whales are crazy,” he says. “There are certain people who love whales.”
Catch Jon Bennett performing Pretending Things Are A Cock at ComedyWorks (1238 Bishop) on June 23-25 at 8:30 p.m. $15. Tickets HERE.