Some comedians might take some time during their set to build up to a controversial or taboo topic. Not Jim Jefferies. He kicks off his latest Netflix special, “Freedumb,” by addressing the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. Jefferies obliterates Cosby in a way that can make the skin crawl. But he also mentions how, if someone wanted to slip a drug into his drink to take advantage of him, he’d take it as a compliment.
“I always like to start off with a bang,” says Jefferies of starting his set with the Cosby routine. To him, it’s a strong bit, and there’s no sense in waiting to make an audience uncomfortable until the middle of the show.
Jefferies, who brings his “Unusual Punishment Tour” to the Wilbur Theatre for six shows starting Dec. 29, has been criticized for routines like this, a subject he also addresses in the special. He takes issue with an article that had transcribed part of his set, saying he doesn’t think his humor translates in print. “My whole skill in life is being able to say horrible things and still seem likable,” he says.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles this week, Jefferies addressed what elements might be missing if someone were to read his words instead of hearing him speak them. “It’s timing, inflection in the voice,” he says. “Anyone who’s ever misread a text from someone knows you can’t communicate as well in the written form as you can in a performance. If you read the Beatles’ lyrics, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick and choose which one was a bad one. You know? If you read them, you’d go, ‘Oh, that one’s ‘Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.’ You’d go, ‘This song’s rubbish.’ ”
Throughout his routines, he’ll remind audiences that’s he’s only joking. But then he’ll blur that line too. In a bit about pay equity from his 2014 special “Bare,” he mentions that women still earn only 70 percent of what men make for the same work, “And of course that’s disgusting. How dare women earn so much?” Then he adds, “A lot of things that I say tonight will be jokes that I don’t actually mean, but this is something I’m really passionate about.”
“That’s obviously a joke,” he says on the phone. It begs the question, how much of what he says onstage does he actually believe? It’s not an easy question for Jefferies to answer. “I mean all of it and none of it, you know what I mean?” he says. “The only thing I know for sure is I’m trying to be funny. I’m not trying to change minds or anything like that. My first thing is that I want to be funny.”
In at least one case, his words may have had some influence in a real world debate. A clip about gun control, in which he talks about the role the strict laws in his native Australia might have played in preventing massacres, has been widely posted on opinion sites and social media and continues to pop in the wake of news about gun violence. He’s flattered that people might post the routine when they can’t find the words to express what they think. “Through jokes, maybe more people heard my point than if I just said a speech,” he says. “That was kind of cool. It saddens me that it gets more popular every time there’s a shooting. That’s not the way you want to get more popular.”
In the coming year, Jefferies may be bringing his own commentaries to television. He has been working on a pilot for a news-based show for Comedy Central that will seat him at an anchor’s desk for at least part of the time. He’s optimistic it’ll get picked up, and he’s looking forward to the challenge of a “Daily Show”-type arrangement where he’d be reacting to the news of the day. “There’s difficulties involved in that, but it’s also exciting,” he says. “You’re watching the news all the time trying to see the next thing you can latch onto and joke about. Keeps you on your toes.”
Comedians often bemoan how audiences have become too politically correct, and how it makes their job less fun. But Jefferies isn’t sure that contemporary audiences are any more easily offended now than in the past, it’s just that social media has made it easier for someone to call attention to it. “It used to be that people were offended and they’d sit in their house going, ‘Oh, I’m offended,’ ” he says. “Now they get on Twitter and say they were offended. Now they get on Facebook and say they were offended. Then they post a [expletive] inspirational quote on Instagram about how we have to be good to each other.”
Jefferies’s popularity is such that he can perform for bigger audiences at festivals and in theaters, where he can tell longer stories and take more risks. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t offensive or not myself back in the clubs, but I couldn’t do the shows I wanted to do,” he says. “I don’t like performing anything under an hour.”
He might still feel some heat from the easily offended, but it doesn’t affect what he does. “I do, but I don’t care,” he says with a cheerful laugh. “I’m not gonna spend my time worrying about that. I’m amazed that people do worry. ‘People are politically correct.’ What if they are politically correct? If people want to get offended, if they want to complain, [expletive] just let them do it. They don’t have to watch it. No one’s holding anyone down to watch any comedy. You can walk out of the theater. You’re free to [expletive] stay. You’re free to change the channel.”
Jim Jefferies: The Unusual Punishment Tour
At the Wilbur Theatre, Boston, Dec. 29 at 7 and 9:45 p.m., Dec. 30-31 at 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets: $41.95-$51.95, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.