Matt Okine is nothing if not honest. That’s why when he won the 2015 ARIA Award for Best Comedy Release, he didn’t just take home a pointy trophy — he also got people talking about the women who weren’t nominated.
The ARIA wasn’t the only big award the Brisbane comedian and Triple J breakfast radio host won in 2015 (he also took home the Director’s Choice Award at the 2015 Melbourne International Comedy Festival), but thanks to his frank acceptance speech, it’s the one you probably remember.
“I didn’t feel great reading that list of people,” he told the crowd, referring to the lack of female nominees.
“People might say that’s something you would say for attention, but I feel like, ‘What should I do, just be passive?’” he later told reporters.
“A lot of guys my age think you’re doing enough by not doing anything bad.”
It was a moment that seemed to presage the controversy surrounding this year’s Oscar nominations, which have been criticised for a lack of diversity.
Ahead of Okine’s appearance at the Brisbane Powerhouse with his new, self-titled stand-up show, we caught up with the forward-thinking comedian to talk about how we can fix everything.
2015 was huge for you. How do you follow that up in 2016?
Oh, man, you tell me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in 2016. There’s definitely a fear that I’ve reached the peak of the things that I could be doing.
I get really pessimistic about things. I’m the sort of person where, if things are going too well, I start preparing the bomb shelter. I’m always suspicious. I always think life is playing a mean trick on me. What goes up must come down, you know?
So I don’t know if 2016 is going to be the end of a great run, or the beginning of a downward slope. But either way, it’ll be a fun ride.
This show you’re about to start touring, this is your fifth solo show in five years. How has your life changed since your last show? What have the big developments in your life been since The Other Guy?
I don’t know. I won a couple of awards, I went overseas, I met a new person. I feel like I’m getting okay at radio now. I feel like I bumbled my way through the first couple of years and now I kind of know what’s going on. So that’s good.
I’ve faced a few existential crises in the last year, too. I get stuck on the internet watching videos about things and questioning whether I need to change my ways. Just today, I saw a video about how cows are treated in dairy farms, and all of a sudden I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, do I need to stop drinking milk?’ I went and got an almond milk coffee from the shop, because I was so confronted by what I’d seen, but then I had a sip and decided it tasted like garbage. So I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that forever. You know what I mean, though? I’m starting to ask a lot of questions about myself.
When you won the ARIA award last year, your speech focussed on the lack of female nominees. Did you expect that speech to make as many waves as it did?
No! Hell no! I didn’t even expect to be making a speech. I was pretty much put on the spot. I genuinely thought The Bondi Hipsters were going to win that award, so I hadn’t given it much thought. The decision to give that speech was made on the walk up to the stage.
It’s funny, because I guess a similar thing is happening with the Oscars at the moment. It’s such a funny world we live in now, because Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith have said that they’re going to boycott the Oscars, and the response has been… look, it’s just the world we live in now. If you try to do something good, people will find negatives about it. Not just about what you’re saying, but just about you in general.
So if I say, ‘Hey, there should be more women winning awards in comedy’, someone will come out and say, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, I heard you stole old mate’s lunch in Year 11!’ It’s like, what the hell does that have to do with anything, you know? So you feel terrified to say anything. The best thing you can do, in this world we live in, is just don’t do anything. Don’t do anything at all. That’s the only way you’re safe from judgemental eyes.
You know, Jada Pinkett Smith says, ‘I don’t want to go to the Oscars because all the nominees are white and they don’t respect people of colour’, and then in the news today, someone’s come out and said, ‘Well, I know for a fact that Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith are gay’. What the hell does that have to do with anything? But that’s what happens. People will flip anything you try to do around on you, if they’re feeling defensive themselves.
How do we change that, though? Because curling up into a ball and not doing anything can’t be the answer. How do we change stuff?
I mean, if you look at the ARIAs and the Oscars, I really don’t believe there’s anyone standing around twirling their moustache and saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to nominate any black people this year, and I’m not going to nominate any women, either!’ Nobody’s doing that. It’s not malicious. This is just how the votes have worked out.
So how do we change that to get more diverse representation?
Oh, man, that’s the thing. When I made that speech, it was literally the least I could do. I was just pointing something out. That’s all I did. I just said, ‘Hey, there are no women nominated for this award, and there’s only one woman headlining this event out of eight performers’. That’s all I said. I just pointed out a fact. But then you say, okay, when was a woman last nominated for this award? You do a little bit of research and you realise that the last one was Judith Lucy in 1999.
That’s 16 years ago, OK? So then you say, OK, well, what’s the situation? Have women released comedy DVDs in the last 16 years? And of course they have! In the last couple of years alone, I know Celia Pacquola had a special out, Felicity Ward had a special out… they’re there, right?
So then you say, OK, I know how the nomination process works. A certain amount of people are given voting rights, and they pick their nominees, they pick, like, three people they believe should win the ARIA. So then you wonder, OK, well, how many men are on that voting panel and how many women? Is it fifty-fifty? Are there more men than women?
Then you have to wonder why aren’t there more women releasing comedy DVDs, and does it have something to do with the industry as a whole? Is the industry not as welcoming as it should be? I was at a RAW Comedy heat the other day and there were two women in a heat of 16 people. So then you just have to figure out what to do.
It’s just about starting a conversation and saying, ‘There’s something here that’s not working’. I don’t know what it is. I don’t have any answers. It’s just a really slow-burning wheel that gets the motion going.
Do you think boycotts work? People are pressuring your good mate Chris Rock to drop out of hosting the Oscars this year because of the lack of black nominees. Do you think that would achieve anything?
I don’t know. Boycotts are interesting. I always think I would be able to do it, that I’d be the person who would boycott. But no doubt, if they gave me two million dollars to host an all-white Oscars, all of a sudden I’d miraculously become colour blind. ‘What is race? Who knows? Who cares? Here are my bank account details!’
It’s really tough. Money talks, for sure. And that’s not to take anything away from Chris Rock, because he’s an incredible performer and artist and he can make those decisions himself. It can feel… I don’t know, I guess it can be difficult if you feel like you’re a hostage to an industry. Like if you speak out, you’re going to get shut down.
Putting aside the ‘hosting the Oscars for two million dollars’ scenario, let’s say this year the ARIA nominations come out again — and I have no idea if you’re putting out a DVD this year, but let’s say you do — and those nominations come out and you’re nominated, but once again, it’s a sausage fest. Would you boycott the nomination? Is that a thing?
Maybe. But then again, it’s pretty easy for me to say that, given that I wake up looking at my ARIA every morning. It’s not going to make a difference to me if I’ve got two or three. I don’t really care anymore. But I think I probably would [boycott the award], if that was the case. I’d have to look at how many people were nominated. If there were no women put forward, that’s difficult for me.
Is that the ARIAs’ fault? Whose fault is that? Is it the production companies that aren’t willing to make DVDs of women doing comedy? You have to look at who’s at fault here. Is it a matter of having separate categories for men and women? Does that help the situation or does that hinder the situation?
Well, yeah, exactly. Are you guaranteeing that some women will be recognised, which is great, or are you ghettoising the female nominees by doing that?
Well, that’s a really good question, and I honestly don’t know. But I do know that things like the BET Awards were set up specifically to recognise black entertainment. Is that a bad thing? The Deadly Awards were set up to recognise indigenous artists. Is that a bad thing? There’s arguments to be made either way.
Nobody wants so-called ‘special treatment’, but sometimes you just have to give people an avenue to be recognised. You’ve got to, otherwise they’re not going to be recognised, unless there’s a major restructuring somewhere. What you’d prefer to see, in all cases, is just a restructuring of people’s attitudes, and a restructuring of the whole formula as it stands.
Is introducing a women’s category a good stepping stone? Maybe. It might encourage more women to submit their work to the ARIAs. It might encourage a female comic to say, ‘You know what, I am going to release a DVD, and I’m going to submit it to the ARIAs, because I know there’s a category just for me’.
I can’t answer any of these questions, because I’m not a woman. I really don’t know.
Sure. On a more personal note, you mentioned that you’ve met a new person. Given how intimate your shows can get, especially a show like The Other Guy, is that awkward when you’re starting a new relationship? Is there any fear on their part that they’re going to end up being the subject of one of your shows down the line?
Ha! Yeah, I’ve had a fair few arguments about what I’m allowed and what I’m not allowed to put on the radio. Something will happen at dinner and I’ll go to my phone to write a note down and they’ll say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’ll say, ‘I’m writing this down for the radio’. ‘No, you’re not.’ OK! Fair enough! No, I’m not.
It’s really funny, because sometimes I forget that not everyone is as open as I am, and they haven’t signed up for a life that is all about being honest in front of other people. I’m definitely learning those boundaries a bit better as well.
But then there are those moments that are too funny, you know? Like when you do accidentally start doing a Ja Rule impersonation when things are getting heated in the bedroom… you’re allowed to talk about that on the radio.
How could you not?
Exactly. I wouldn’t deny the world an opportunity to find out what a doofus I am when it comes to my romantic exploits.
Finally, the Hottest 100 is obviously coming up next week. Who are you backing for the top spot?
Oh, man, this changes every single week, hey. If you’d asked me five months ago, I would have said Major Lazer, Lean On. If you asked me two months ago, I would have said Drake, Hotline Bling. If you asked me yesterday, I would probably say Courtney Barnett. But today… you know, I’d love it if it was Courtney Barnett, but I reckon it might be Jarryd James. I don’t know.
Let’s lock in Jarryd James.
Don’t get me into trouble, okay? If you print Jarryd James, and then it actually is Jarryd James, I’m going to have conspiracy theorists all over my Facebook. And we know how friendly people on Facebook can be.
Matt Okine plays Brisbane Powerhouse from 3-6 March as part of Brisbane Comedy Festival. Click here for more information.