What with Sarah Kendall’s up-coming (in December) season at the Sydney Opera House Studio, I think it’s time to dip into the comedy archive and publish some old interviews with the criminally talented gorgeous and hilarious Sarah Kendall. Time flies: It’s been three years since I’ve interviewed this comic, but I caught up with her in Edinburgh last year, and look forward to seeing her live again. Even the most stern punter who has difficulty conceding that women can actually be funny always sets up a subset of women who are hilarious, and in addition to Kitty Flanagan, the list always includes Sarah Kendall. This first piece appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of Revolver.
War Veteran: Sarah Kendall dazzles them in the comic trenches
The fact that it’s been a while since we’ve seen her – possibly too long – no longer matters once she takes the stage. Her svelte and spunky form is unlaboured hip and unpretentious cool in flared jeans and a Rolling Stones logo’d t-shirt as she strides towards the microphone. Surveying, from the centre of the now expansive stage, Sydney University’s renovated Manning Bar, she reminds the audience of the “shoebox full of vomit” that it used to be when, as an undergraduate, she decided to try out for the lunchtime activity being run there, stand-up comedy.
Turned out she was a natural. A lot of time has passed since then, but she is so polished now that she looks, as always, natural. Her comedy, like her incredible, incandescent mane (which, she admits, has caused many an inhabitant of LA to mistake the back of her head for Nicole Kidman’s) dazzles ever more brilliantly than the last time she allowed it to shimmer before us. She’s got the goods. That much is clear from her ad lib’d opening gambit through the tight routines that are peppered with loose observations and associations, until the final killer line, a clever ‘call back’ to an earlier gag that appeared deceptively disarming as she cracked it. The comic’s name is Sarah Kendall, and she’s fucken funny.
“I’m based in London now,” the comic says when I catch up with her later. “If you want to do stand-up as a living, London is the place to live.” A much bigger population than Australia has, in a much smaller space than New South Wales means, according to Sarah, that “statistically, there are more rooms and more people going to see comedy.”
This means more gigs and more experience. It’s no wonder this woman is doing so well. She recently made her debut at the Montreal Comedy Festival – the traditional ‘foot in’ to the US, on account of the producers, directors and writers who swoop down upon the cream of each year’s crop – and she went down an absolute treat. The necessary courtship by the American entertainment industry naturally followed. Which left Sarah unfazed, only because the American comedy scene is ultimately no different to the Australian one. “When people like CBS say ‘we want to meet with you’, your first reaction is ‘fucking hell, it’s CBS!’” Kendall explains. “But then you realise that it is just a huge television station. It’s like Channel Ten with another fifty billion dollars on top of it. I think that once you put that into perspective you go, ‘okay, let’s talk business’.”
Sarah Kendall did talk business, but didn’t actually entere into any. “A lot of stuff that I was being offered wasn’t right for me,” she concedes, pointing out that a bigger industry must also have a bigger dose of mediocrity. She asks the rhetorical question: “Do I really want to play the crazy foreigner living upstairs who pops in occasionally to say nutty stuff?”
If someone came up with a suitable, interesting project, Kendall would approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, nothing pitched at her seemed to fit within those parameters. “It sounds really trite,” the comic concludes, “but ‘all that glitters is not gold’. I think that’s true.” According to Kendall, evidence suggests that each of the best sitcoms has at its helm “ a comedian who had been doing stand-up for over ten years – Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Roseanne.”
Thus, she concludes, successful sitcoms are the work of consummate professionals who have “honed their craft for over a decade”, who “know exactly what they want” and who “retain ultimate creative control”. Thus, her time on telly will only come, she says, “when I’m really on top of my shit”.
So what’s Sarah gonna do for the next ten years? Funnily enough, the answer is ‘stand-up’. “A lot of people think that stand-up has to be a means to an end,” she observes, “but that’s incredibly dismissive of the craft.” Sarah Kendall will be content spending nine out of every twelve months of the year in England, returning to an Australian summer in time to prepare shows for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. In fact, she is currently working on her second Festival show now. Entitled War, the show was inspired by her father’s reaching that “certain age” at which men decide to do family trees. “It turned out that about six of my family members died in World War I and II”, Kendall explains, and so a kind of long-term interest in war was revived. She considers the topic to be “really difficult” but insists that she has reached that point where she wants to attempt something challenging. So although she fears “falling off the horse”, she knows that she’ll be climbing right back on it – and maybe even leading the charge of the light brigade thereafter.
What does this mean for you, the punter? If you don’t know if you can wait ten years to see Sarah Kendall in a sitcom, and if you can’t wait to see her at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, you can see her in a preview season at the Roxbury Hotel. Max Sharam’s Mad’moselle Max, Tom Gleeson’s Pirate Copy and Sarah Kendall’s War will play over three nights from Thursday March 15th to Saturday March 17th, and you can buy one ticket for all three shows. If you don’t, it could be another year before you get the chance to wallow in Sarah Kendall’s brilliance.
From 4 February 1998 Issue of Revolver:
“I’m vulgar?” Sarah Kendall demands.
It’s as though you can’t spit over your shoulder without hitting Sarah Kendall square in the head at the moment. Barely a month ago she was plying her stand-up trade in the Comedy Hotel’s annual showcase of fresh talent, The Night of Nights. She supported Judith Lucy days later. Now she appears, several nights a week, on stage in the sketch-based Larfapalooza and on the telly presenting the ‘humorous’ story for Today Tonight. Her rise, apparently from nowhere, seems almost unfair in its rapidity. Which may explain the criticisms that I have heard leveled at her in the last couple of days. One person dismissed her stand-up as ‘vulgar’. Another, her television work as a ‘sell-out’.
Sarah’s stand-up routine makes clever reference to the Barbie Doll’s aberrant genitalia. It includes vivid reminiscence of the olfactory ecstasy derived from whiffing the inside of your recorder at school. But the corker is Sarah’s enactment of ‘the secret to landing a man’, as contained within a teenage glossy mag. The article posits ‘unpredictability’ as the key. Sarah embodies the same by letting rip with a mighty burp. The audience loves it.
Sarah, who cheerily burps on demand for me, has never considered her act to be vulgar. “I don’t know whether to be offended!” she says. Her initial look of bewilderment gives way briefly to hurt before steeling itself into resolve. “Next time I’ll light my fart,” she announces. “That’ll get my point across.”
The allegation of ‘selling out’ appears to strike to deeper chord. Assuming the melodramatic persona of a ‘wounded diva’, La Kendall exclaims, “Oh god, my public’s turning on me. Now I know how Evita felt!”
Then, as her real self:
“It’s hard to get high and mighty about your career moves when you’re at this stage. It’s a matter of, you do stand-up, you take the opportunities when they come. You don’t really know where your next job’s coming from. So for someone to go ‘that’s a sell-out’, I think – they’ve sort of got their head up their arse.”
Fair comment. And it’s not even as if Sarah is doing the bland ‘panda that can’t get an erection after the weather’ story that news always gives you, either. The news has to end with that fluff because prime-time entertainment is to follow and viewers are better advertising targets if they are not still ill-at-ease from the evening’s harrowing headlines full of fatal tragedies, horrific sports results and the likelihood of continued rain.
The task of injecting a bit of humour into a tightly timed innocuous advertorial is not easy, but Sarah rises to the occasion. Consider the ‘best café’ segment that ends with her ordering an extra strong espresso, “hold the sugar, hold the milk, hold the water”. In the final shot, Sarah shovels coffee beans into her gob and actually eats them. Readily acknowledging that the ‘human interest’ story “traditionally is not about humans, or interesting,” Sarah holds far nobler sentiments about her television work: “basically, it’s just an opportunity for some fart-arsing about.”
Sarah’s rise hasn’t really been that rapid. She’s been fart-arsing about since day one. “In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” she has said. “Someone for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” Sarah was that kid, always prepared to entertain “just as long as there were at least three people watching.”
The fart-arsing came to the fore at the University of Sydney, a campus responsibility for the likes of Adam Spencer and those wags who featured in the Uni documentary. “I’ve had a go at just about every activity that can be done on campus except maybe go to the library,” Sarah says, having covered extra-curricular majors such as stand-up, faculty revue and Theatresports.
Sarah took to stand-up immediately, landing impressive gigs like Amnesty International’s ‘Take No Prisoners’ fundraiser last year. Some of her routine found its way on FM programming courtesy of Radiowise. Theatresports, she found more daunting. “I’m shit at Theatresports,” she admits. And then elaborates. “I don’t know if I’m shit, but Theatresports terrifies me. Scares the bejeesus out of me.” The problem lies in the very nature of the game, which seeks to let improvisation take the performance into uncharted territory. It calls for a lot of faith in your own ability, which is usually at odds with the stand-up’s natural disposition of insecurity and the fear of failure. The comic walks the tightrope in the hope of landing in the safety net of good punchlines. Theatresports forces you to jump and trust that, should there be no punchlines to catch you, something else will. It is a leap of faith.
“I’m always looking for the gags in Theatresports,” Sarah admits. “I’ll still have about ten ideas flying through my head thirty seconds into the scene, and by that stage, you should have committed to one of the other team member’s offers.”
Even though Sarah finds Theatresports more difficult, the audience is much more compassionate. “Doing stand-up is like…” She begins to mime driving a heavy vehicle. “No,” she coerces it, hands glued firmly to an imaginary steering wheel, knuckles glaring white. “With me,” she insists, “with me.” Then she takes on the mindset of the punter: “Oh, you think you’re funny? You’ve got a microphone? You deserve it more than I do? I cracked a joke at work today, and I’m pretty funny.”
With a fear of the unknown and a stand-up audience to placate, it comes as no surprise to note that Sarah doesn’t leave much room for improvisation in her routine. She won’t stray from the set text “unless there is a great offer from someone in the audience.”
With Larfapalooza, Sarah gets the best of both worlds: sketch comedy is performed as part of an ensemble, and so like Theatresports depends heavily on group dynamics. Yet it is scripted, and so provides the safety of a ‘routine’, from which risks may be taken only as desired to suit the individual audience and performance. “I really enjoy writing sketch,” Sarah says. “I love the whole idea of taking a notion and hammering it out; starting with some sort of idea, and taking it tangentially. I just love the set-up.”
Talk about hammering out a notion: the ‘Mabel and Tamsen’ sketch is a scream. Sarah and Rebecca De Unamuno feature as two “ridiculously bad actors who were really into it,” like the avantgarde performers who’d subject classes of school kids time and again to that bizarre sort of theatre of the abject that only visiting thespians can create. They warm up with grotesque body stretches, they recite vocal exercises like “red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…”
“We used to have the Hunter Valley Theatre Company come and put shows on at my school, and the shows were so fucked up,” Sarah offers as an explanation. “They were so weird. You’d see teachers up the back thinking, ‘Fuck, why did we have to book these people?’” Sarah delightfully relates memories of one such entourage whose self-penned play “about heroin, AIDS and rape” featured an actress screaming “I was just a dirty piece of cunt!”
“It just flattened Year 9 one rainy day when P.E. was called off,” she recalls.
The other two members of Larfapalooza are ‘Malcolm’ (a stage name, perhaps inspired by one of the more popular human hosts on Here’s Humphrey during the 1970s; his real name is ‘Tom’, but that is all you – or I – are privy to) and Subby Valentine, both of whom are established stand-up comedians. The four were brought together by Simon Morgan, owner of the Comedy Hotel and a long-time patron of the Sydney comedy scene. (It was in fact Simon who pitched Sarah for the Today Tonight position.)
“As a team,” Sarah says, the members of Larfapalooza “all write together well and get along well. We’re all just one big, happy family.” I’m wondering if, like all microcosms of society forced into such tight working relationships, the necessary and inevitable couplings have, well, coupled. “Yep,” Sarah reports, matter-of-factly, slightly tilting her head so as not to have to meet my gaze. “Tom and I have been sleeping together for about two weeks and we included Bec, and then there was this whole sexual jealousy thing, and… uhm… she kind of ran into Subby’s arms, because she’d never had a threesome before. That fucked her up a bit. I think she and Subby are seeing each other now.”
I try hard not to flinch, willing neither to believe (because I don’t want to look foolish) or disbelieve (you don’t get scoops like that every day, and this is the comedy industry, after all) but Sarah cracks before I do, bursting out laughing.
When the phone suddenly rings, Sarah is summoned to it and I take that as the signal that the interview is over. But as I get to the door, Sarah looks up from the phone and says,
“I just told Tom that someone’s called me a sell-out, and he said, ‘that’s fantastic! That’s really exciting! Someone’s noticed!’”
Tom’s advice to Sarah is to “tell them you didn’t sell out for nothing, you sold out for CASH!” Sarah brightens.
“I take it all back,” she says. “When I said that person can stick their head up their arse, I take it all back.”
The following piece constitutes the first time I spoke to Sarah Kendall in a professional capacity, and the last time I let The Sydney CityHub hoodwink me into handing over copy with the promise of payment that never came, sometime around late ’97.
“In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” says Sarah Kendall, “for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” The young, precocious red-headed Sarah was such a kid, always prepared to perform “just as long as there were at least three people watching.” It was this schoolgirl experience that led to the realisation that she had the potential to be funny.
Sarah honed her talent at university, through faculty revue and Theatresports. Despite her friends telling her how funny she was, it took a “kick up the bum” from established comic Adam Spencer before Sarah was ready to give stand-up a go.
When asked to cite her “numerous” inspirations, Sarah necessarily names big guns like Robyn Williams and ‘her boy’ Billy Crystal. But it was the camaraderie amongst the local Sydney circuit that proved most important. “Peter Berner, Anthony Mir, Tommy Dean, Adam Couper,” she lists. “I love their material; I think they’re brilliant. They’re also nice people.” When you’re starting out, you’re really scared and in need of support, Sarah explains; the encouragement of peers-to-be is important.
The sort of routine that seems to work best is the personal reminiscence. “Kids’ stories get the best responses because the audience can identify with you. As soon as you begin, people seem to relax and get ready to laugh.” One of her popular bits involve a barbie doll. I ask her how it goes. “I’m not going to do it for you now; it will spoil it for people who want to come and see it.”
Sarah loves stand-up because “there’s something appealing” about the autonomy of being the “writer/performer/producer”. Despite having to wear it all yourself when you “fuck up”, the success is far more rewarding. Not that she’s turned her back on ensemble work. “I still love the teamwork of theatresports,” Sarah is quick to reassure, and she’s currently appearing in the Sketchy Sketch Show at the Comedy Hotel. But “stand up,” she says, “is something that I’ll always come back to.”