Being totes Gen Y ‘n’ that, before I interviewed comedian Matt Okine I posted on Facebook to see if there was anything people would like to me to ask him. Aside from the usual pseudo-witticisms of social media, one question stood out: “ask him who the fuck he is”. Winner of the prestigious Best Newcomer Award at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), Okine is a rising star of Australian comedy. However, his imminent ascendancy has not been without its setbacks.
As a nineteen-year-old novice he burst onto the scene in 2004, reaching the national final of the MICF Raw Comedy Competition. “That was my fourth gig; the first three being the heat that I won, the semi-final that I also won and the state final where I came runner-up,” Okine explains. Having launched the careers of the likes of Wil Anderson, Josh Thomas, Tom Ballard and Chris Lilley, performing at the national final is often the impetus needed to elevate a comedian from open mic nights to sell-out shows, radio, and television. “It was a great intro into the scene, but I didn’t do very well… a guy called Nick Sun came on, he ended up winning that year, and he had this great act about making fun of ethnic comedy,” Okine says. “Basically [he was] shutting it down, which I couldn’t hear from backstage, and it’s my fourth gig, I’m a half-African dude, so that was a lot of my gear at the time,” he laughs. “So I went out there, did my best, and came off going: “why didn’t anyone laugh?” Then four months later I got the tape from Raw and I saw Nick Sun demolish it… and then I came on afterwards and did pretty much everything he’d just made fun of.” The disappointment of failing to impress the comedy institution is still fresh in Okine’s mind. “That probably set me back a year or two… I mean it’s one thing to make it to the Raw final, it’s another thing to make it and then bomb in front of all the important people who are watching.”
So, instead of throwing himself headfirst into the comedy circuit, Okine returned to Brisbane to complete his acting degree. “We were there every single day for eight hours… pretending to be a tree,” Okine recalls, “like genuinely pretending to be a tree or a bee or a sloth.” From there, he continued to follow his thespian calling: “I finished the degree, stayed in Brisbane… did a couple of awful ads. I did a McDonalds ad,” he says. “I had to go out to the meat factory and get shown that it’s all natural beef or whatever and then at the end the lady goes: ‘so it’s all 100% beef’, and I’m like: ‘no bull?’, and she goes: ‘nah mate, no bull’, we all have a little chuckle and then I shoot myself in the face.”
Despite these dalliances with advertising, comedy was still in the forefront of Okine’s mind. After yet another setback in 2007 involving a disappointing Rove appearance, Okine was desperate to silence his critics. So, he wrote his debut solo show and took it to Melbourne, determined to win Best Newcomer. “Fuck man, that was so stressful,” he recollects. “I cannot tell you how intense that entire festival was for me. Because I had one shot to win that award right? Because of the Rove thing I felt that I needed to earn back respect from the industry,” he says. “I’d wake up and spend the whole day just stressing, being like: ‘how can I make this show better?’… It took me up until the very final week… to accept that what I wanted to say in the show wasn’t what I was saying and that I needed to trim the fat, stop being indulgent… [stop] skating over the top of it because I was too scared to commit to the whole point of what I was saying,” he explains. “Expressing the whole experience of my mum dying, and the circumstances in which it happened. Making it so that it wasn’t just story of someone dying, you know ‘this happened and oh isn’t it sad,’ but more about the various points along the way that made me who I am today.”
A Best Newcomer award on the mantelpiece, having opened for Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari at the Opera House, and with regular guest appearances on Triple J and Can of Worms, the future looks bright for Okine. “Hopefully TV this year… having a regular spot, be it in a sketch show or a live panel show capacity,” he forecasts. “I think at least one of those things will happen this year.” He has learnt from his past mistakes though: “I’m hoping, but you never know… I never believe anything until I’m sitting on my couch and watching myself, otherwise there’s too many variables that can get fucked up along the way.”
So to answer that first question: Matt Okine’s the next big thing in Australian comedy, that’s who the fuck he is.