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There’s no mess in here; there’s David Messer, and a Messiah, but no mess…

Sean Choolburra and Akmal Saleh

In honour of their respective Opera House seasons, I chatted to Sean Choolburra and Akmal Saleh. Which was important, since, although Akmal has some prime webspace on the Sydney
Opera House homepage, the details for Sean Choolburra’s show are a bit harder to come by – no doubt the result of the fact that ‘scheduling details’ led to Sarah Kendall’ show, originally intended to be playing at that time, being cancelled. I’m not even going to mention Libbi Gorr (the former Elle McFeast), save to note that one of the write-ups designed to drum up business for her show went so far as to suggest, in the nicest possible way, that there’s a good chance that this time around, her show would be significantly better than her last. In those immortal words of John Lennon, quipping, mid-Macca lyric, during the song ‘Getting Better’: “couldn’t get much worse!”. Stand-up isn’t the strongest weapon in her comedic armoury just yet. But enough snide disclaimation. Here’s the MP3 as broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, if you prefer, and if you don’t, here’s the text:

Soundbite: Sean Choolburra performing stand-up.

The whole world would be one big, happy world, we’d be one big, happy family, if we didn’t talk about and mention race, politics and religion.

I remember my first introduction to politics was when my old grandfather took me out to my homelands and he said, ‘ninanoka broolega boolega ninanega’[1], and he’s like a wise old man, my granddad.

Basically, he was saying, ‘You look out there at your forefathers’ country; one day, you won’t own that anymore.

Demetrius Romeo: Sean, comedy lovers might be familiar with you because you made you debut a couple of years ago with Raw Comedy. You were the Sydney finalist who went down to Melbourne. Did you find that Raw Comedy opened doors for you?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Yeah, massively. I only just went on a couple of times at the open mic on a Tuesday night at Fox StudiosComedy Store. How I got to doing the Raw was, one of the other comics who worked with the Comedy Store, he was putting people’s names up [on the marquee] and I was just mucking around one day and I said, ‘one day you’re gonna be putting my name up there’. He was laughing and he said, ‘hey, you should try out for Triple J’s Raw Comedy competition!’ I said, ‘yeah, okay’, so I went down there, watched it for the next week and kept going for it, doing what I knew, with a bit of dancing and a bit of didgeridoo stuff.

Demetrius Romeo: You clearly were a performer before you were doing comedy because the dance moves were so proficient. How long had you been performing before you took the stage as a comic?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: I’ve sort of been into dancing since 1983/84; riding around on my bike in Townsville with big sheets of cardboard, doing breakdancing and stuff like that, so that’s when I first started dancing, then coming down to Sydney and studying at the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in Glebe, I studied there for about three years – you’re supposed to stay for five but I lasted three – but you study jazz, tap, ballet, modern and traditional dance. After that I joined Bangarra and then had a year with Bangarra and then joined the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a resident artist and then opted out into comedy!

Demetrius Romeo: What a fantastic CV! I also notice that you played the didgeridoo in your early days of stand-up. Do you still play the didgeridoo on stage?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Yes. I use it in my show at the moment – I do a sort of hip hop song. It looks at Aboriginal identity, or just Australian identity, as being very Americanised. My old grandfather says, “look at you kids, you’re dressing up like Americans,” but at the same time the old people aren’t realising – ’cause he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots – that they’re dressing up like the old American westerns’ John Wayne days. But he’s having a go at all the young guys wearing American hip hop gear and he has a go at me for wearing an LA cap and says, “you’ve never even been to Los Angeles,” and I say, “Granddad, ‘LA’ doesn’t stand for ‘Los Angeles’, it stands for ‘Love Aboriginals’, so check this out.” Then I do a bit of a didgeridoo hip hop rap song.

Soundbite: A bit of a didgeridoo hip hop rap song, from Sean Choolburra’s stand-up.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, Akmal, when you started doing comedy, there was no Raw Comedy.

AKMAL SALEH: The whole thing was ‘raw’! The whole scene was really rough and raw and ready.

Demetrius Romeo: So how did you get into comedy?

AKMAL SALEH: By accident, I think. I tried a lot of other professions and I failed miserably at all of them. This was the only one I could do with any sort of competency.

Demetrius Romeo: As a comic, you’ve done a lot of interesting things. I mean, you had a sketch show with some mates who started out around the same time – …


Demetrius Romeo:The Fifty-Foot Show on the Comedy Channel – …

AKMAL SALEH: I think seven people saw that. They used to come to our house and have pizza and used to watch it. Comedy Channel! Who watches that?!

Demetrius Romeo: And you’ve also helped make a feature film.

AKMAL SALEH: Yes. I wrote and starred in a film called You Can’t Stop the Murders, and nobody’s heard of it. Again.

That particular film was the unluckiest film in the history of filmmaking. This is absolutely true. It took us two years to write and finish production, and it opened the day that America declared war on Iraq. That night, the film opened, it was called, You Can’t Stop the Murders, starring Akmal Saleh. You just could not get it any more wrong, could you. How unlucky is that?

Demetrius Romeo: I was about to ask you what opened the comedy doors for you, but it seems that they were all…

AKMAL SALEH: No, they were all well and truly slammed in our faces. You might as well have called it Osama Bin Laden Hates Aussies. Come and see that.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the things I find interesting about you, Akmal, is that when you started out doing comedy, you had a different name. You were ‘Peter’ Saleh.

AKMAL SALEH: I was always Akmal, but then I changed my name to Peter, so that people would think that I was white. I thought, “maybe they won’t know.” ‘Peter’ seemed like a common name. ‘Akmal’ is such an awkward name, a very difficult name to remember.

When I started at the Comedy Store, there was a woman who you may know. She was quite aggressive. I guess you have to be because it was a very male-dominated, very competitive environment, and you had to go and put your name down for the open mic.

Finally I got in and she went – she was really abrupt, and she said – “Okay, we can fit you in. What’s your name again?”

I said, “Akmal Saleh.”

She went, “What?!”

I said, “Uh, Peter.”

She went, “Oh, okay. I thought you said something different.”

So I got on as Peter, and I did well. For the first show, I did actually all right. And all the comics were going, ‘Hey, Pete. Well done, Pete! Good onya Pete!” and it just kind of stuck.

Demetrius Romeo: Which would have been great, until all the other Peters came through, like Peter Berner, Peter Green, Peter Egner

AKMAL SALEH: Peter Meisel![2] There’s a lot of Peters. It never stops. So it was the worst name you could pick. So, yeah, when September 11 happened, I thought it would be a good time to be an Arab again. No, I actually changed it when I did The Fifty-Foot Show, because Anthony and Gary – Gary Eck and Anthony Mir – who I wrote the show with, decided – they said – “just use ‘Akmal’”. And I thought, “It’s the Comedy Channel; who’s going to see that?” Who cares? So they credited me as ‘Akmal’. But strangely enough, enough people saw it and saw me in the street and said, “Hey Akmal, good show mate! Loved The Fifty-Foot Show.” And it just felt so much nicer to have people call you by your real name, so I changed it back.

It’s a terrible career move; I think I’ll change it again to something Aboriginal. I’d like an Aboriginal name, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, Sean, when you first started out in Raw, you weren’t ‘Sean Choolburra’, you were Jilkamu. Why the original name, why the name change?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Well, with ‘Jilkamu’, I thought the audience would have thought that I’m a white person. No…

AKMAL SALEH: You should have gone on as ‘Peter Saleh’.

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: … And then I changed it to ‘Peter’! But um, I thought ‘Jilkamu’ because it is my Aboriginal name. ‘Jilkamu’ is a name up in the eastern and central Cape York meaning ‘taipan snake’. My other Aboriginal name was ‘Gidgeroy’[3] which means a centipede. And then ‘Sean’ is my birth name, which means ‘double-oh-seven’. But I used ‘Jilkamu’ because I thought it would be a great name. It is my actual spiritual name and I thought, well, there is a million Daves, and like Akmal was saying, a million Peters, and I thought there’s only one ‘Jilkamu’. But my agent said, “how about going back to your original name, ‘Jilkamu’”, and I thought “oh, okay”, and they said, “”, and obviously, ‘Choolburra’ sounds like ‘kookaburra’ and so on. I just thought, “well, what the heck; I’ll just stick with Sean Choolburra. Yeah.”

Demetrius Romeo: Your name does tie in to the sort of comedy you do, which is also tied into your ethnic backgrounds, respectively. Tell me a bit about your comedy.

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: A lot of my comedy’s based on, I guess, white stereotypes and how we laugh it off, because I think we may not have survived as a race if it wasn’t for our humour. And that’s with a lot of races around the world, not just meaning black races; like, the Irish will say the same thing, and the Jewish will have similarities as well. So I find a lot of comedy in things like everyday experiences with Centrelink or real estate – just everyday experiences.

Demetrius Romeo: Akmal, like Sean, you play a lot on your background and experiences, and the fact that you’ve gone back to being ‘Akmal’ plays a part in your humour. Tell me a bit about how you come to comedy, and what sort of jokes you make.

AKMAL SALEH: Well, I do talk about terrorists, but I actually talked about terrorists before September 11, and suddenly September 11 happens and those jokes are much funnier. So there’s always a positive outcome to every tragedy.

Soundbite: Akmal Saleh in performance.

I reckon the most uncool thing that can happen to you is if you’re walking in the street during the day, and you walk into a spider web. You ever done that? You feel like an idiot when that happens, because noone else in the street can see spider web. All they see is you walking and then suddenly going, “Ah, f…!” And people just look from across the street, and go, “Ah, what’s wrong with that guy?! Ya gotta watch ’em, mate, these darkies just go off; Pauline was right!”

You have to talk about your background no matter who you are, because we’re all ethnic in some way. You know, you’ll get five white guys, and they’ll have very varied experiences of life. No one’s had your experience in the same way that you’ve experienced it. And you add to that a cultural difference, of course it’s going to play a part in what you talk about.

Demetrius Romeo: So you’re saying that to make the comedy you make, you’ve got to talk about yourself, because that’s what you know, and that’s where you derive your humour.

AKMAL SALEH: Yeah. You know, whatever you choose to talk about, reflects who you are and your experiences. You may not ever mention that you’re from another background, but it will come through somehow if you’re honest enough. Because stand-u[‘s so raw; you’re just presenting yourself out there, and it’s kind of hard to leave out something like your cultural heritage because it is such a big part of who you are.

Demetrius Romeo: When you guys do what you do, you make it look easy. How hard was it the first time you had to get up and be yourself on stage and communicate who you are for laughs?

AKMAL SALEH: Well, to me, it’s the audience, right: if the audience allows you to do that. I can get up and be myself, only if the audience is open to that, if it’s a good crowd. That’s why doing a show like the Opera House – you’re going to get an audience that’s going to allow you to open up and be yourself. Someone said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “you’re only as good as the audience allows you to be.” And that’s true. You’re limited by them. If they’re a good crowd, you’re going to be at your best, you’re going to open up and relax, and reveal yourself. And if they’re a terrible audience, you’re just going to have to go and just be aggressive and hammer them with the jokes and do the job so that you can get the ten bucks and go home!

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: I once watched Akmal and was just blown away with how, when he performed his comedy, how proud he was of his background. It is something that is drummed into us, and obviously, with mainstream society, it allows us to being mainstream and fit right in. Having comics like Akmal who are proud of their heritage is more comforting for someone like me, because I am, at the moment – I don’t say ‘the only Aboriginal comic’; y’know, I think we’re all comical people – but I’m the mainstream at the moment, yeah.

Demetrius Romeo: Akmal, Sean, I look forward to seeing you. Thank you very much.

AKMAL SALEH: Thank you.


[1] I’ve tried to spell this phonetically. Download and listen to the MP3 version.
[2] Let’s not forget Peter Wylie!
[3] See note [1] above.

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