John Hastings: ‘I’m big so people think I can take it, but I have kind eyes so people think I’m weak’

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John Hastings: ‘I’m big so people think I can take it, but I have kind eyes so people think I’m weak’

Words by Joanne Brookfield

Ask any stand-up and they’ll have a story about their weirdest gig. It’s an inherent part of the landscape, given no two nights, no two audiences, will ever be the same. Usually it’s a tale retold, but not for John Hastings. He had one of his animated.

Yes, animated, uploaded to YouTube and, for a moment in time, viral. The other, where despite performing the actual gig to an audience of empty seats, has been seen by millions.

Both gigs took place in Los Angeles. The first one was his first-ever set there. Performing at The Belly Room at The Comedy Store, former professional basketball player Denis Rodman was in the audience that night, and his presence – which let’s say he had made known through the medium of heckling – had become part of the broader show.

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“Everyone was just having reverence for Dennis Rodman,” recalls Hastings of the “insane” gig which was captured on an audio recording that he later had animated. At the time he was still living in London, and thought to himself: “I’m never going to be in LA again. Fuck this, time to go after Dennis Rodman…”

Having already spent years honing his craft, first in home country of Canada, where he collected several awards, then the UK and at festivals around the world, and with the attendant television appearances under his belt, Rodman proved no match for Hastings and his superb improvisational skill, where he took the chaos unravelling around him and spun it into fine lines of gold.

Hastings riffs on Rodman’s pro-wrestling career (of which Hastings is familiar, given he hosts The Wrestler Review podcast), literally yells at him for going to North Korea and then Rodman – in a move that only a celebrity, or a drunk, or in this case, it would appear a drunk celebrity, would pull – decides to join him onstage.

“He grabbed me by the back of the neck, the two women he was with end up having a fistfight on a flight of stairs and he just walked down the middle of Sunset Boulevard and disappeared. It was wild,” he tells Beat, from his home “in weird Eagle Rock adjacent Glassell Park” because LA, after all of that, is now his permanent home.

“I got cats and a girlfriend. I’ve got my main coffee shop, and then I’ve got the backup coffee shop when the main coffee shop is doing a terrible job of customer service. I’m definitely settled here,” he says. After six years in London, it had been time for a change: “that place was like living in a bog”.

A conversation with Hastings is peppered with plenty of quick quips, and “sarcastic mirth, he said for some reason not knowing why he chose those two words and regretting them immediately. Why is he talking in the third person?”

The Rodman Incident, as Hastings tells it, seems to be something he attracts. “I was working with some guys, punching up some material, and they were listening to a lot of my stuff and they were like ‘you get heckled more than any comedian I’ve ever heard in my life’. I was like ‘yeah, I think I just bring it out in people.’ I’m big, so people think I can take it but I have kind eyes so people think I’m weak”.

The producers of America’s Got Talent wanted those kind eyes to cry, but Hastings was having none of it when he filmed the second of his two weirdest gigs. “We got into a real ding-dong about it,” he says of how much of his ‘personal journey’ he didn’t want to reveal. “They were like, ‘we need more’ and I was like, I’m not crying on America’s Got Talent,” he says. “I was just in there with the goal of ‘you’re presenting yourself as a comedian, not presenting yourself as The Crying Guy’”.

That wasn’t even the weird bit. When this was being filmed, the pandemic was taking hold and California had just gone into lockdown. So while the celebrity judges and crew were on set, the rest of the massive auditorium was empty. Tough crowd, as we say. But the judges loved it and Hastings now has “the coolest calling card in the world” which has enabled him to gig in comedy clubs across the States.

“And I may have a bit about it in the show,” he says of what was “the weirdest way to kick off the weirdest three years of my life”. With a soft spot for Australian audiences (“as a Canadian, it feels like almost home turf”) Hastings has been making annual visits here since 2015, either as part of the Best of the Edinburgh Festival line-up show or doing his solo shows.

For the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year, he’s presenting a new hour in “The Times They Are a John Hastings”.  “It’s all about being an elder millennial and being a reluctant cat owner and coming to grips with who you are as you hit middle age,” he says, admonishing himself for that not sounding funny enough so he takes a second shot.

“Listen, it’s got a great cat bit. A bunch of fun sex jokes, an excellent fart joke…it’s got everything you would absolutely want. You know what I’m saying? Funny enough for a date, but with enough big words that people will think ‘hey, he went to university’, you know what I’m saying? I know my demographic – condo owners!”

Over the past few years, there’s been death, divorce (“what’s even more unfortunate? Not even a fun divorce story!) and bed bugs, plus plenty of other life events “and all of those things have been translated into fun stand up comedy bits,” he says of the show that he’s performing at The Greek Centre.

“That’s been a fun journey, sort of tracking the tragedy of the last three years, and finding the relatable little chunks,” he says, adopting a little bit of that ‘sarcastic mirth’ tone when he adds “and then throwing them at people’s faces.”

John Hastings’ new show The Times They Are a John Hastings runs at the Greek Centre as part of Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 30 to April 23. Buy tickets here.