Comedy gold: Jim Jeffries' Contraband

Laughing Nightmare

Title: Contraband

Year: 2007

The setup: There is a romantic idea of the standup comic that has lingered since Lenny Bruce. It goes something like this: while most of us do not dare express our opinions fully, for fear of harming our chances in the world, the standup is someone special, who risks everything to be free. Often they may be someone such as Jim Jeffries, someone already damaged, who has less to lose.

As soon as he arrives on stage with his usual performer's ration of two pints of beer, you know where you are. ("We drink because we have to, because life's a miserable piece of shit.") He is known as a boorish mouthpiece for the frustrations of young men, and he is that, partly. Certainly he has many drunken adventures to draw on for his storytelling – his first sitcom Legit, based on his experiences, has just aired in the US. Yet his tales of fights, casual sex, drug-taking and generally laddery never feature him as any kind of hero.

On fighting, for instance, when he dissects the famous YouTube clip of him being punched by a heckler it is his own cack-handed reaction – "The first punch I blocked with my face" – that interests him. Yes, he'll give casual and unfaithful sex his full approval, but he'll also talk about being bad at it, or about his fairly small (and briefly cancerous) penis, or even about his disastrous experiment with a vibrating masturbation toy. And it remains extraordinary to hear a comic raising laughs from his experience of being sexually abused as a child (as Jeffries was by his scoutmaster). His point seems to be that men not are cleverer, stronger, braver or in any other way superior as a group – but that they are expected to be, and few can take the pressure.

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Funny, how? Jeffries is magnificently blunt. Far be it from me to suggest Australians have a tendency to express things straightforwardly, but the accent does seem to give the perfect flavour to a line such as: "If you're religious, you're a fucking idiot." Jeffries can speak pointedly about how little fuss is made of Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin both having relationships with girls under 16, yet the section comes alive when he asks: "How talented do you have to be to fuck a kid?"

At times, his willingness to confront an audience directly is breathtaking. "The only reason you people are here is because you want me to make you laugh for a fucking hour, because you know that when you go back to work on Monday your life's going to be shit," he tells them. Later he asks all the couples to look into the eyes of the person they love and know that: "Sooner or later one of you will be dead, and the other one will be miserable. It's just something to think about."

As theatre, Contraband is an amiable shambles. The final third is filled by Jeffries chatting to someone behind the camera about how much time remains. He puts no effort into making oft-recited stories seem spontaneous. He is a performer who can't be bothered with anything as phoney as a segue. "Anyway, that's all I have to say about dick cancer," he'll announce, to end a section. And of course he isn't right about everything. He doesn't need to be. What he gives us is an honest and grimly funny account of the world he knows, both casualty and sage.

Comic cousins: Doug Stanhope, Sam Kinison, Brendon Burns, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks

Steal this: [On a visit to Sweden] "I think they might be killing the ugly people."

Powered by article was written by Leo Benedictus, for on Thursday 11th April 2013 16.38 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010