“I Sleep Too Much Now, It’s Pathetic”: Matt Okine On Comedy, Diversity And Life After Triple J

"No-one wants to give you sympathy when your biggest problem is oversleeping.”

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Matt Okine, comedian, ex-radio host, television personality and hip-hop artist, sounds pleasantly surprised by everything, including my call, which was pre-arranged. Perhaps it’s just that he is slightly amused by everything — which is perfect for a stand-up comic.

After exchanging greetings, right away we get down to the obvious: “How does it feel to have your mornings back?” I ask him. “Ummmmm, really good,” he replies. “I sleep too much now though. It’s pathetic.”

This is the first thing I’ve noticed about Okine, who is a comedian, writer, musician and the former co-host of Triple J’s breakfast radio program — he’s gently self-deprecating. It’s quite endearing considering Okine puts himself out there so much: with his music, his TV work and his stand-up. After explaining that he sleeps so much now he ends up aching, he brushes it all off, concluding, “No-one wants to hear the plight of an oversleeper. No-one wants to give you sympathy when your biggest problem is oversleeping.”

It seems that Okine, who spent four years hosting Triple J Breakfast with Alex Dyson before retiring from radio last year, is still missing his former gig. Despite telling me he has a further three years of sleep to catch up on before he can get back to a regular schedule, Okine admits he still listens to Breakfast and is somewhat jealous of new hosts, Ben Harvey and Liam Stapleton.

“I was in the car this morning listening to the guys do the big One Night Stand announcement,” Okine tells me. “And that made me a little bit sad knowing that I wouldn’t be a part of it this year. Even them, like, hinting about where it’s going to be and all ‘Oh, we don’t know where it’s going to be’. It’s like, I know that they know where it’s going to be. And I’m like, ‘Damn it!’ I want to know the secrets as well.”

Aside from being in the know, Okine says that he also misses the daily grind of radio hosting. “Just talking shit with Alex every day was my favourite thing. Not having many barriers and guidelines to follow, and just really opening our mouths and seeing what came out. Bouncing back and forth. That was easily one of my favourite things.”

Okine is no stranger to performing to test the boundaries because he’s also a stand-up comedian, and was a joint winner of the prestigious Director’s Choice Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Show in 2015. It’s clear Okine worries how people perceive him, because he tells me that his major challenge since leaving radio is “reminding people that I’m primarily a stand-up comedian”.

“I guess there was a while there when people would be like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to come to his show. I hear him every day on the radio’,” he says. “So I guess I’m reminding people that I’m a real human being with a face and a body, and not just some imaginary voice that floats in their cars every weekday morning.”

I’m not sure Okine will have too much trouble being recognised as a stand-up comedian. In 2015 he won the Aria award for Best Comedy Release, and used the platform to reflect on the gender imbalance present in the Aria nominees and in the guests performing at the awards. I ask him why he said what he did, and he becomes instantly introspective. “It was just about looking at what I do in terms of feeding those problems, because I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. That’s what I realised, that I wasn’t doing anything but I was noticing a lot.”

He continues, “I guess the speech was an interesting one because it kind of prompted me to change how I saw things and start making decisions, where I could, to try and recalibrate that balance. If someone asks me who to go see, I can always suggest a female comic. Or if I’m going to hire a support act, I can hire a female comic. And it’s not about doing that every single time, it’s just making sure that I’m keeping my biases as minimal as possible.”

Okine has a lot to say about the imbalance in his industry, which he agrees is a bit of a boys club. “A lot of people tell you that it’s very difficult to book women, like statistically there are less women performing [in comedy]. So to have the call for 50/50 line-ups, it can be challenging for promoters, right? But for more women to get involved in the industry, it’s important to see more women on screens and on stages first.”

“I guess it’s all about the building blocks. It’s talking to ten-year-olds who watch comedy on TV,” he explains. “And if nine out of ten are guys, [girls] are going to think, Oh, OK, well maybe this isn’t the industry for me.”

Okine, who is African-Australian, knows a lot about representation and correcting biases. He tells me that he found it disheartening growing up because he couldn’t see any people in the spotlight who looked like him.

“When I was growing up there was certainly no African faces that I recognised on TV. And there were no brown people on Neighbours. So I got into comedy because I realised that this is an industry where I could be on stage and show people who might not be considering brown people for their roles, ‘Hey, look, I’m a possibility’.”

That strategy seems to have worked. This year Okine will premiere a TV adaptation of his award-winning stand-up show, The Other Guy, on Stan. “It’s weird because you start realising very quickly that life is not interesting enough to be a good TV show. You know, life is actually pretty boring, hence why we have movies and TV, otherwise everything would just be documentaries.”

Okine reveals he struggled initially with translating his real life to television, where there are producers and the dreaded “notes”. “I’ll have my character do something in the script. You know, act a certain way to someone or do something silly for that situation, and all the notes will come back and be like, ‘Yeah, sorry, the character shouldn’t really do this, because he’s just too unlikeable.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s funny, because that’s actually what happened.’ So I realised pretty early on in the whole process that I am a very unlikeable person.”

Okine is a thoughtful comedian and a natural storyteller. I ask him about his recent stand-up act, We Made You. “So it’s looking back on 2016,” he explains. “The highest and the lowest points for me. I mean, everyone talks about 2016 as being this terrible year because of celebrity deaths and terrible political situations unfolding in the global landscape, but I think we also need to look at the positives.”

“Like, I was able to write a definitive list of the top 18 ways to prepare and eat a potato.”

Matt Okine has comedy festival shows in Sydney and Perth, grab tickets here

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.