AJ Holmes on satire and his biggest influences

Best known for his performance as the bumbling Arnold Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, the actor and singer is heading back to his roots as a writer with his Adelaide Fringe debut

feature (adelaide) | Read in About 5 minutes
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AJ Holmes
Photo by Dylan Woodley
Published 07 Feb 2020

There are some huge differences between Broadway and fringe touring. What do you love and hate about each?

Getting to play Arnold Cunningham in The Book of Mormon was the greatest role of my life and was incredibly creatively fulfilling. That being said, I am just over the moon to be performing my own stuff again! Deep down I’ve always known I was a writer, and Fringe touring has been an incredible opportunity to get back to performing my own material. It’s been hugely fulfilling and satisfying to keep changing my show, even from night to night. I love that freedom, and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Which is good, because it really doesn’t pay well.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I get my best inspiration from good conversations with my best friends. People are endlessly inspiring. Relationships are fascinating. Even if it’s just my relationship with myself, I find that I’m most creative when I’m engaging in a dialogue. Whether that means I’m imagining a relationship with another person, an audience, or just another part of my own psyche, the push and pull of relationship seems to yield the best creative fruit. I’m still learning to recognise when those great ideas pop up, and working on becoming diligent about writing. Them. Down!

Why is satire and comedy important to you?

Beyond just sheer enjoyment throughout my life so far, comedy and satire have given me a way to organise my thoughts, speak up for what I believe to be true, and connect with people. George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Comedy is like this incredible cultural scythe, cutting to the core of what's true without getting lost in the brambles of people's prejudice. It’s also so helpful in being gentle with myself. If I can laugh at my feeble attempts at life, then maybe, just maybe, I don’t need to get lost in a depressive spiral.

Who are some of your comedic influences?

Speaking of truth in comedy, I think two of my biggest influences growing up during the George W. Bush presidency were Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Aggressively funny, they cut through the BS and gave my little mind a window into what original comedic and authentic thought sounded like. I grew up memorizing their routines without even trying, so complete was their influence over me. Mike Birbiglia has also been hugely influential as someone who is a master of narrative storytelling in comedy. Even without music, he's probably the closest model I have to what I’m trying to do in my solo show. These days I’m ridiculously inspired by the talent in the Fringe world – Demi Lardner, Tom Walker, Courntey Parouso, Caitlin Cook, Trygve Wakenshaw, Viggo Venn and so many more. It’s probably most inspiring that I get to become friends with these incredible performers. That drives me harder than anything else – knowing my friends are doing shows next door and kicking my ass. 

How have recent economic and political shifts impacted your work?

I don’t get too political in my show, but the political world seems to me to be in a great deal of trouble, and the physical world even more so. One only has to try to take a deep breath in Australia to know that the climate desperately needs our attention. I’m absolutely guilty of crisis fatigue – so much seems inconsolably wrong that it’s hard not to get overwhelmed. Perhaps the worse things get in the world, the sillier my show gets. I think it’s important for people to have a space to laugh and escape the constant pressure to save ourselves before we, you know, destroy everything. Truly, I think rest is essential. I believe laughter and music have the greatest unifying power of anything, and even when we’re talking about complete escapist fluff, comedy and music can be like a fresh coat of snow over the seemingly endless mental cacophony of our cultural conflict. In short, I’m trying to bring people together, whatever their beliefs, for just one hour – if for nothing else than to remind me that that is still possible.

What has been your most memorable onstage moment? 

It may sound silly, but whenever I get this question, I flash back to my 8th grade production of Oklahoma at Lindero Canyon Middle School. I played Curly. Before singing ‘Poor Jud is Dead,’ Jud and Curly have what amounts to a pissing contest over who’s a better marksman. As written, Curly takes out his gun, points it squarely ahead of him, and shoots, proclaiming, “See that? Bullet straight through the knot-hole.” However, in the actual performance, I lifted my gun above my head before shooting, thinking I would take a moment to prepare. The man running sound effects must not have been on my wavelength. With my gun pointing squarely at the ceiling, the gunshot sound-effect rang throughout the theatre. Clearly, something had gone wrong, and the whole audience knew it. Not to be deterred, I pointed a finger upwards, pretending I had meant to shoot there all along, and shouted, “Bullet straight through the knot-hole!” I got the biggest laugh of my life. Something clicked. That moment sparked a love for live performance, improvisation and the endless unpredictability of the present moment – all three of which are at the core of how I work today.