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Jem Atkins is an effortlessly funny comedian. This week he brings his show, The Single Dad, back to the stage after rave reviews following its debut in April and run at the National Arts Festival. In a frank, hilarious Q&A with Tonight, we learnt a bit more about the man behind the funny…
You were in IT for six years before turning to comedy full-time in January. Do you ever miss IT?
There have been moments when I wake up alone, frustrated, behind on a few bill payments, wondering what could have possessed me to choose this crazy career path and what the heck I’m going to feed the cats that day… yet even then I have no regrets!
What’s the most annoying thing your son does?
He sneaks into my bed some nights when I’m asleep. I wake up cold, with no blanket, no pillow, relegated to the edge of the bed… and he still shouts at me for snoring or “taking all the space!” I love it though.
Any advice for aspiring comedians?
I know it sounds so cheesy, but be yourself! My biggest accomplishment so far in my five-year career has been to discover, or at least start discovering, who I really am and also having the courage to portray that on stage.
“The closer you are to being you on stage, the closer you are to being the best comedian you’ll ever be” – Jerry Seinfeld said that.
In your show, you talk and laugh quite openly about having been stuck in a loveless marriage and going through a difficult divorce. Do you regret ever being married?
Absolutely not. Everything I’ve been through has made me a better person, a wiser person. These are life lessons you can’t learn out of any book. I’ve made it to the other side and life is really good right now. This is why I can look back and see the “funny” in it, in everything. Besides, we have a beautiful son and that pretty much tops anything I’ve ever achieved in my life.
What might people take away from your show, besides great comedy?
Well, first and foremost, I really want Single Dad to be an hour and a half of top-class entertainment. I want people to be thrilled, shocked, intrigued, tickled pink. I want people to be able to relate to my everyday life and issues, to see themselves in me: I’m a devoted father, divorcee, ex-corporate rat, sometimes insecure, single guy who spent many years depressed and unfulfilled and is
only now just finding himself and enjoying this adventure called life.
And, of course, I want people to laugh their asses off. So far, I believe I’ve definitely achieved that.
I have, however, tried to have a general theme permeate the show, so that maybe, just maybe, some will leave with more than just sore stomachs and cheeks. You’ll have to see the show to see that for yourself though.
Any advice for single parents?
Come to my show. You might just learn a thing or two, and realise that maybe you’re not as crazy as you think.
Do you have any hobbies?
I recently started running – it’s torturous, but it makes me feel good and keeps the mental demons at bay. Also, since getting divorced it has dawned on me that I need to stay in shape, just in case I ever start dating again. I can’t stand being a skinny guy with a boep – people think I have kwashiorkor. “What is that?”
Another hobby I seem to have picked up is quitting things. So far this year, I’ve quit smoking, eating meat, sex and dating.
What kind of person does it take to get up in front of hundreds of strangers and make them laugh?
You know, I’ve always thought of myself as a little cracked, a little crazy, different. This is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it makes me who I am and it’s part of my charm. Part of the allure of this journey I’m on is that I’m embracing the crazy. I think this is called “acceptance”. It’s great.
But being a comic involves more than simply making people laugh. It’s about intelligent observations, witty social commentary, engaging with strangers and drawing them into your world. I’ve been an actor since I can first remember, so being up on stage feels like home to me.
Yes, I’m different – we all are.
But we’re all so similar too, it’s incredible. And comedy has taught me that.
What inspires your material? How do you come up with it?
Everything. I see things through comedic eyes nowadays so anything, if you tilt your mind slightly, has comedic potential. And I’m not just referring to the government, even though they are hilarious.
For example, some guy won a hot dog eating competition last week – and he’s my size. I’m watching this, thinking, “where’s he putting those hot dogs, man?” The next morning he broke another record, with his coffee and his newspaper.
Or the fact that in the Olympics, Caster Semenya came second – proving once and for all that she really is a woman. Awesome.
My son cracks me up constantly. The other day he showed me he’d learnt the months of the year: “January, February, Marchruary, Thursday, Sunday.... um... 99, 100!” I’m thinking of changing schools.
What’s the best gig you’ve ever done?
There have been a good few, from packed-out theatres, to the Grahamstown National Arts Fest, to being on stage with John Vlismas, to performing with my good friend, Dusty Rich – easily one of the most talented guys I know. But a recent one involved me performing at a supper theatre evening at a well-known restaurant.
Unfortunately, a large group, about half the restaurant, cancelled their booking at the last minute, leaving me to entertain about 12 people – for an hour. It turned out to be one of the most relaxed, intimate, enjoyable gigs I’ve ever done – it was fantastic.
What’s your biggest fear right now?
That nobody will come to my shows… and I’ll have to flip burgers at McDonald’s … or sell one of my… livers?
What’s next for the Single Dad?
I’m taking the show to Joburg and Cape Town – very excited about that.
• Single Dad is at the Sterling Theatre (Italian Club) from Thursday to Sunday. R80. Bring your picnics and snacks. Bookings: 076 786 1127 or email@example.com. Shows: 8pm, 3pm on Sunday.