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A man of many acts

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ON THE LINE Jonathan Atherton: `Actors can blame directors, the theatre, the other cast members and even the audience. But as a comedian you have no one to blame'
ON THE LINE Jonathan Atherton: `Actors can blame directors, the theatre, the other cast members and even the audience. But as a comedian you have no one to blame'

Comic Jonathan Atherton has had a life that is the stuff of dreams, from law to acting to globe-trotting to comedy and more, writes RAKESH MEHAR

The idea of chronicling a life as colourful as Australian comic Jonathan Atherton's is enough to give one nightmares. After all, there is more than enough material for one to plumb through. But at the end of it all, one is left wondering just how to satisfactorily represent in a few hundred words a life that encompasses everything from a stint as a law clerk, a successful career as a comic, a walk-on appearance in a Robin Williams film, political detention in Uganda, a futile search for spiritual healing in India and dozens of other stories that are better left out of print. Take the stint as an articled law clerk. It was where the stand up comic, who recently performed at Hint, Bangalore Central and Taj Residency, began his career. "I went into law optimistic and naive, believing that I can make a difference and bring justice to people who need it," he says. "But I found out that the law is more about finding loopholes for the advantage of the wealthy than about bringing justice to the disenfranchised." Dissatisfied, he quit the profession to work for various film and TV crews, and for the Australian Ballet; always behind the scenes rather in the limelight because: "It's more fun being on the crew than waiting tables while waiting for your dream part to come." To this day he has held onto that appreciation for the visual, he says, preferring to capture it now in still photography, but doing very little of it because, "I'm no good at working for others, so I just do photos I like doing." Then there's the jail time in Uganda. Even as the idea is sinking in, Atherton throws in the plainly ludicrous story of having two girlfriends, one of whom was the sister of the President, while another was the daughter of a minister from the previous government. As you ponder over the veracity of that story, he comes in more seriously. "Actually they were concerned that I spoke the tribal language Luganda. Westerners do not learn the tribal dialect, they just learn Swahili. So they thought I was a spy."From there, Atherton moved to the far East, which was where he landed a role as an extra in the Robin Williams-starrer "Good Morning Vietnam". "Robin Williams is always on. Between the takes he takes the time to talk and joke with the crew and stuff. But I sensed that he always worked on pure adrenaline. To sustain that for 12-14 hours is incredible." The journey in the Far East ended for Atherton some time after, when he had an accident and had to be flown out. In many ways, this was the start of his comedy career. After a year in traction, and almost losing his leg to amputation, Atherton was at a barbecue telling jokes about his journeys around the world, when a singer friend noticed that he had the crowd eating out of his hand. She took him to the club where her band performed, and Atherton bluffed his way onto stage. "I didn't have any jokes to tell, just my stories." Listen to Atherton's act, and you'll notice that's still the format he sticks to, weaving long stories of multicultural and gender differences. "A majority of the comedians have a tight script that they've honed over time, but if that script doesn't work then they have no other go. Actors can blame directors, the theatre, the other cast members and even the audience. But as a comedian you have no one to blame." The multicultural tag gets thrown around a lot in connection with Atherton. So is a multicultural comedian one who makes fun of all races equally? "I make fun of the human experience. Cultural, religion and so on are just the icing on the cake, which comes in only two flavours — men and women." And poking fun at human experience is one thing he does really well, with a keen insight into the differences and similarities that push us apart and pull us together and a wonderful ability to pick up just about any language and accent he comes across. "I think it was hardwired into me at a young age. My dad was a journalist, and we lived in New York for a few months when I was seven years old. And the area had a number of UN families. There was one family from Maharashtra, one from Japan, one French Canadian family, another from Sri Lanka and another from Nigeria. And we all spoke different languages and still understood each other. So one gift I have is that I can understand the gist of what anyone says to me no matter what language they speak in because I can find that other harmonic." For the tour in India, Atherton had a special package of jokes from right here, from the bookseller who refused to give him change for a hundred because, "all change must come from within" to the sadhu who went to McDonald's and asked the waiter to "make me one with everything." Much of his take on our country comes from two trips to India, one when he was seven and his family was quarantined in the country because of a cholera outbreak and another when he came as a young man searching for spirituality like a lot of people. "That first trip opened my eyes to the world. We saw monkeys in the Delhi airport, and I told my dad this is the best airport in the world." On his second trip, he did the entire "chai, chillum and chapathi trip. And unlike Bill (Clinton) I didn't exhale." Of course, he adds quickly, he is older and more mature now. Still, with just one short dose of the mature, settled Atherton, one is left wondering if there was anyway one could have kept up with Atherton in his manic, nomadic prime. Indeed, one doesn't even want to try.

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