Jim Jefferies has a lot of experience playing a version of himself; his standup specials are filled with real life stories of fights, drugs and sex toys. In his new show Legit, premiering Thursday on FX, he again appears as version of himself, a foulmouthed Australian comic trying to make it in Los Angeles.
The show’s pilot is also based on a true story, in which Jefferies accompanies a severely disabled friend to a brothel to lose his virginity. In his real life, Jefferies adventures now are more likely to focus on his two-month old son, who he was patiently trying to calm during our recent phone interview, as we talked about Louie comparisons, the c-word, and being Australia’s worst export.
The pilot is based on a story from your real life, which you’ve talked about in your standup. Why start the show with that story?
Well the idea of the sitcom was to get all my stories and dramatize them, basically. So I went into pitch to FX and because I dunno if they’ve seen much of my standup, I had like 12 stories to tell them that I thought would make a good season of television. And I told them that story to begin with, and they went, “Alright we’ll make a pilot of that.” [Laughs] So that’s how that decision was made.
We made that 14 months ago. I think I’m substantially fatter in episode two than I am in the pilot. And episode two actually follows directly on from the pilot, so there was a bit of debate whether we should say something like, “Geez, they had a good buffet at that brothel.”
Where does the show go from here?
Well, we were in two minds whether to have [DJ Qualls’s] wheelchair character in all the episodes. But then DJ, in my opinion, is so good. Why wouldn’t we use him, you know? So it is a story of those three guys basically, and although I’m the lead, I’m really the Fonzie of the piece. I’m the only person that you can really argue shouldn’t be there.
It’s all my stories. The airplane story that I talk about the armrest, and the break-in, that I’ve never told on stage but I’ve told a lot of times on radio. The whole season has a definite arc, but you can watch each episode individually. And it gets more and more twisted, I’d say, towards the end of the season. The last four episodes are fairly twisted.
Was the arc something that you planned out ahead of time and fitted the stories around, or did it just come naturally?
Well before we started filming episode two, we had all the episodes written and we had a definite arc worked out then. But then a couple of things came up, they were pretty loose scripts and when we liked an actor, we’d always work out a way to get that person back in the show. So there’s a lot of relationships we’ve built up. For a cast that really consisted of just three guys, we’ve built up a very big world around it. There’s a lot of people who are in two or three episodes, or four or five, in the same way that Seinfeld had Newman occasionally. We’ve also got, I don’t know if this has ever been done in a sitcom, or half-hour comedy as they like to call it, but we also have a mentally-challenged actor, a disabled actor who’s in six or seven of the episodes. We were meant to have him in one, and he was just, his timing was too impeccable and he’s just too much of a charming guy. We just kept on writing him in. We’d have episodes where we’d go, “Oh, Nick’s on today”, and we’d go, “But Nick’s not in this episode”, and we’d go, “We’ll figure out a way to get him in.” [Laughs]
So much of the show, like your standup, is based on stories from your own life. Do you ever worry that you’re going to run out of stories to tell?
Yeah, you know, I think by season three we’ll probably have to bring in some more writers. I can’t carry the load. But at the moment, if we get a second season, I’m not too concerned about that. We basically came up with sort of 16 or 17 scripts, and then narrowed it down to the 13 we really liked. There were some that we would have liked to have done but we had a few budget constraints, so we had to push those scripts away. Maybe they’ll let us do them next season if the show’s a success. There’s another episode where I was in Afghanistan, it was a story about me doing comedy out there, and then Louie had an episode, and we were pretty conscious that we didn’t get compared to much to Louie, you know? Obviously, being on FX and me playing myself, the comparisons are gonna come in, but I think it definitely has a different feel to it than Louie does. But a lot of people on the internet now are already saying that it’s gonna be the same thing, which it’s obviously not.
Do you have any other writers on the show?
Me, Peter O’Fallon and we had another guy called Rick Cleveland who came in after we sold the show to help us punch things a bit. But for the most part what we did was, I came up with all the story lines, and then Peter did a lot more of the character development and bringing in B-stories, and then he’d write a script, and then I’d punch it up with more jokes. I didn’t do a lot of typing, per se. I did a lot of laying on the couch and going, “How about…” [Laughs] And obviously, the privilege is that maybe eight of the stories in the first season are directly from my standup, so it was easy to work those scripts out. And then there’s other ones that were just linking episodes of character developments. Peter O’Fallon, this is the first time he’s worked on a comedy, but he’s a very good script writer. To have a writer/director like him, who’s done feature films and dramas and stuff, really helped me out because he put a lot more heart into the show, I think, than maybe if I was left to my own devices.
Speaking of Louie, FX has a great reputation for giving their shows a lot of freedom. How have you found the process? Have there been things that they’ve rejected?
They’ve been great. I don’t have the Louis CK deal where I can do whatever I want, but also I’m not Louis CK. I haven’t earned that position in life yet. But they’re pretty trusting. The few times they questioned a joke, I can ring them up, and if I perform the joke for them, then I can win them over. If you can make a good argument, you can keep it. And the censorship people, FX have actually fought for us on many different things. There was a debate whether we could say the c-word. Not say cunt, but whether we could actually say “the c-word.” And turns out, you’re not allowed to, so they fought for us to be able to say that because they thought that was silly, that we couldn’t even reference it as a word. We bleeped the word out once, and then we just had someone go, “He said the c-word.” And then they went, “You can have the bleeps but you can’t say that, you know, cause then you’re telling everyone what word’s bleeped,” and it’s like, oh my God, this is so silly. But apart from that little tiny things like that, man, it’s been really a good experience.
The only thing I’ve done in TV before is selling scripts, I’ve never actually gotten anything made. And every time I sold a script, it went through 12 rewrites, and it never resembled anything that was even close to what I first wanted. At the time, I was probably so desperate to get on TV that I kept on nodding, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m happy that, by the time I got to FX I was a little bit more stubborn, and I was ready to set my heels in. And they didn’t make me. They just let me do what I want, basically.
Watching your standup, I would say your comedy doesn’t exactly have a mainstream appeal. Why do something more traditional like a sitcom?
Well, you know, I’d like to stretch myself. I don’t believe that I’m defined as an entertainer just purely by my standup. Obviously at the moment I am because that’s all I really have to show anybody, but my favorite actor when I was a child was Richard Pryor. Not my favorite comedian, I didn’t even know he was a comedian. I just watched The Toy over and over and over again, and Stir Crazy and all that type of stuff. So when I was 10, I thought Richard Pryor was the funniest thing on TV. I had no idea how dirty he was. And then I saw Eddie Murphy in Delirious and Beverly Hills Cop, but there’s a whole generation of children now that would know Eddie Murphy from Daddy Daycare and Dr. Doolittle. It doesn’t take anything away from the fact that he made Delirious and Raw, I don’t think. And it’s not like I’m doing Daddy Daycare or Dr. Doolittle now either. I’m still staying pretty true to what I do. I’d like to get some acting jobs where I’m not playing myself, I guess. I don’t imagine if I get an acting job where I’m not playing myself and I’m not writing the script, that I’ll get any freedom to be like my standup persona, so I better get used to it now.
The character in the show is pretty similar to your standup persona, which is a version of yourself. Is there an appeal to playing a character that’s not particularly likeable? He’s kind of an antihero, or worse.
Yeah, I know what you’re saying, I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about the fact that I’m playing myself and I’m not that great a guy. Look, I don’t know if I’m a bad person in my real life, but I think the character on the show has a few redeeming features. Obviously, there’s things that I do on the TV show that I obviously wouldn’t do in life, but I also think that Larry David’s probably not a prick to everyone he meets either, you know? But playing myself, like my genuine self, I don’t think would very entertaining for anyone. And that character is me. I believe in most of the things that I say on the show, but only for five minutes during an argument. Normally, rational thought comes in. I don’t have such aggressively bad opinions on whatever subject, but I think everyone does when they’re angry. It’s just trying to make that person be like that 24 hours a day, which is a different thing. Or making like that for an hour every Friday night.
Do you find that people expect you to be more like your persona when they meet you in real life?
The amount of people who come up to me and say, “Jim, you cunt!” Thinking I’ll go, “I say that word too,” and we’ll high-five or something. And the amount of people who write to me like, “When are you coming to Denver, you faggot?” Like you go, “Ah, it’s such a nice invitation you’re just giving me. How I can pass that up?” You know, I do find it odd that people, you know, can’t…I feel often when I meet people, I just disappoint them, to be honest with you.
Do you worry that now with the show, there will be more people doing that kind of thing?
I guess so, but I’ve also got to play to my strengths. Maybe if I ever write a second sitcom, I might be Larry the guy who works at the post office or be a cab driver or whatever. But at the moment, I’m very comfortable that these stories are funny already. I think the character does enough good things throughout the show to make him somewhat likeable at least. I hope I’m not coming across as a Danny McBride character, but I know it’s not that far off it. I hope there’s enough difference that I have some redeeming features. I don’t think the character’s overly selfish, I think he’s more, if there’s a ride to be had, he’ll take it. You know what I mean? I don’t think the intention of the character is to get anyone else in trouble.
You’ve moved around the world, now you have your own TV show and a baby. How do you see your comedy changing as your life changes?
Well, I don’t ever want to be Ray Romano. And the way I had the child and everything was a bit of a shock to me, and we’re trying to work through everything there. I love being a dad, and I’ve already written a lot of jokes about it. My hope is that my fan base is aging with me. I think it would have been pretty sad in my mid-40s to still be just talking about one-night stands constantly. You know, you can talk about missing them or the ones you had in the past, but to be talking about having sex with some girl after a show and getting wasted drunk and taking coke and all that becomes less and less charming the older you get. And if people don’t follow me afterwards, well so be it, but I’ll do the comedy I want to do. I’m not gonna pander or try to make up any new false stories.
The stuff I always enjoyed doing on stage was the stuff about me talking about my mum and dad and my childhood. And the religious stuff. So the religious stuff’s not gonna change, there’s always gonna be a god I don’t believe in that I can take the piss out of. And as for me running out of stories about my childhood, that’s fine. Now I have a child of my own, I can write stories about his. That’s the hope.
You started doing comedy in Australia, then you moved to the UK, then you came here. How have you found the attitudes toward comedy different in those places?
You might find this odd, but I find Australia to have the most sensitive crowds. Australia has a reputation as being this real knock-about bunch of people that are up for anything. And those people exist in Australia, of course they do, but Australia, in my opinion, also has a bit of chip on its shoulder because of the reputation we have. We like to be considered to be more highbrow than we are. So in the media, I get more grief in Australia than I do anywhere else, I always get like, “Australia’s worst export” or something stupid like that. It used to bother me, and now I’m sort of like, well what am I meant to do. I’m arguably the biggest Australian comedian in the world and the country I’m the least popular in is Australia.
The UK, I think it really [has] the best sort of thinking man’s crowds, but they’ll turn on you faster than anywhere else. If they decide they don’t like you, they’ll turn on you. And also, the religious stuff in Australia, no one gives a shit. In Britain, they just find it funny, but they don’t really care that much because most of them are atheists. And in America, it’s seen as controversial and cutting edge [laughs] and it’s not really. At the moment I’m reading the Bible because I’m out of stuff to talk about in religion. I’ve given most of my opinions, and now I’m just trying to find little phrases to take the piss out of, really.
I personally think American comedians are the best the world’s produced. I know of a lot of brilliant comics in the UK that should be famous over here but they’ve never really left the UK so you guys don’t even know who they are but they’re famous over there and they’re just ace. But I think for me personally the guys that I looked up to, Richard Pryor and George Carlin; I don’t think anyone did it much better than those two guys did. As for Australian role models, there was a guy called Anthony Morgan who never really went on to do anything, who I think is still a club comic over there now, and he was the best one I ever saw. But the problem with Australian standup comedy is, when I go out there now and play a theater, I’ll sell out all the tickets. I’m not on Australian TV and I think that people know me from the internet or whatever, and I’ll sell out a lot of tickets. But the comedy club down the road, no one will go to. So comedy’s big in Australia but only for touring acts. The problem is, you get rid of the grassroots stuff, people give up too easily and so we’re just not producing enough really great guys. You can’t live off that circuit over there. It’s too small, there’s not enough clubs, the population’s too small. So a lot of guys, when they show promise, someone gives them a radio show where they’re earning a hundred thousand dollars a year doing talkback radio in the morning, and they give up on the standup. It’s just a dead end job over there. I think if I stayed in Australia and didn’t move to the UK, I wouldn’t be a standup right now.