A mate of mine who is a comedian updated his Facebook status with these words:
anyone know ant jokes? i gotta fill 20 minutes tomorrow
I didn’t really stop to think. If I had, I’d probably wonder why a young guy relatively new to the comedy scene with really only a killer five-minute set to rave about, would be doing 20 minutes.
I say “only a killer five-minute set”. I’m sure he has more material. There’s probably seven killer minutes that I can vouch for – that I’ve seen work and that will work time and again. No doubt he could stretch it to ten. Stuff might play to silence within that ten, but he can be confident in the knowledge that he can come back with something solid should an item not quite work. In fact, I reckon he could stretch beyond 10 with self-confidence, interacting with the audience. It might be the hardest 20 minutes he ever spends on a stage, and he’ll come away from it a better comic than from any of the five-minute killer sets he’s done that always work. Only, none of his stuff is about ants.
Still, I didn’t stop to think. Twenty minutes of ant material is a tough ask.
If I did stop to think, I’d wonder what sort of gig he’s landed. A corporate booking of some sort, surely. Perhaps he’s the comedy relief during the keynote dinner that opens an entomology conference; maybe he’s one of a number of comics doing animal-related material for a zoo – but if so, he drew the short straw since ants must be the animals least conducive to comedy. Hard to project character on to them. Can’t anthropomorphise them so easily as you might other animals.
Fact is, I’ve had a bit of experience with ants. And when I think about it, so have certain comedians. Specifically, George Smilovici wrote a book about ants – The Ant Book. It’s almost a joke book. It contains a lot of question/answer set-ups whose answers consist of words beginning, ending or containing ‘ant’ in them. But they’re not that funny. Not only that – all the answers are on the final page, jumbled in a way to make the shape of an ant. All I’m saying is it’s no help to my buddy.
But one of my favourite ‘dad jokes’ is about ants. It‘s a corker – although I wouldn’t risk doing it on stage:
A: What did the Pink Panther say when he trod on an ant? B: Dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead ant, dead aaaaant…
Of course, for the joke to work, you need to ‘sing’ the punchline to the tune of the main saxophone melody of the ‘Theme to the Pink Panther’:
(I know, it’s up there with the one about the Lone Ranger taking his rubbish ‘to the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!’)
I posted the Pink Panther joke as a comment to his Facebook thread, thinking at least he’d have one ant joke.
The 20-minute ant routine was starting to develop, even if it wasn’t going to contain anything original in it. Those bug-studiers at the conference were certainly going to get their money’s worth, I thought…
But then I noticed another comment on the thread, by the comedian’s mate:
Wha? How’s that an ant joke?
And then I realised: the status update contained a typo.
The comic wasn’t asking if we knew ‘ant jokes’ in order to fill a 20-minute spot; he was asking us if we knew ‘any jokes’ – (‘yeah, your face is a joke!’) – but had hit the ‘t’ next to the ‘y’ on his keyboard.
Oh well. At least now he has got about ten additional minutes of material – other people’s material, granted – albeit, about ants.
Ah, but – it gets better: the gig isn’t in front of a room full of entomologists – it’s in front of TAFE students. Building students. Somehow I reckon the ant stuff ain’t gonna cut it. The comic knows it, too. His most recent update:
if i am killed tomorrow by angry tradey/brickie tafe students, know that i loved you all.
Oh, but if they’re tradey/brickie students, I reckon he should do Gerard Hoffnung’s ‘Brickie’s Lament’ routine.
Good luck, mate. Whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Even if you ‘die’ in the process. (I mean, on stage, not at the hands of a horrible tradey/brickie students.)
<meisel> people ask me how do I tell the difference between ant and aunt </meisel>
“I had an ant farm... Those fellas didn’t grow shit! Plus if I rip off your arms you would look like snowmen.” - Mitch Hedberg
How could I also forget? Insect Nation, Bill Bailey’s musical about the ants enslaving humanity.
Another ‘book gag’: A man is standing in an elevator when all of a sudden 15 ants come in.
He turns to the ants and says, “Sorry, you can’t all come in here” “Why
not?” asks one of the ants. The guy points to a sign that
reads, “Tenants only”!
(As pointed out by other comics. Since original comic and initial commentator weren’t named, I’ve included these comments anonymously too.)
Two Italian American comics are currently headlining at the Comedy Store as a double bill: Andrew Norelli and Mike Vecchione. They’re not a double act. And they’re ethnicity has virtually nothing to do with their comedy – it was just a starting point to the conversation. Well, more to the point, I started with the pronunciation of Mike’s surname which, in Italian, would require all the vowels to be sounded, and the ‘cch’, to act like ‘ck’ in English. This is the full Q&A from the hotel foyer, the day after an incredible opening night. They’ve still got another week at the Store. See them.
Dom Romeo: Mike, at the beginning of the night, you were announced as Mike Veck-i-OH-nee; by the end of the night, it was Michael Veck-i-OAN. In Italian it’s closer to the first, but you prefer the second version. Is that how it’s been – I’d say ‘anglicised’, but it’s more like – Americanised?
MIKE VECCHIONE: That’s actually a good version of messing my name up, ‘Veck-i-OH-nee’. If it’s just that, I don’t mind at all. But people have just butchered it. It’s a tough name to say if you’re Americanised – it actually means ‘old’ in Italian, but the correct pronunciation is ‘Veck-i-OAN’.
Dom Romeo: And I have no idea what ‘Norelli’ means in Italian.
ANDREW NORELLI: I don’t know either. I have no idea. But there are ‘Borellis’, there are ‘Morellis’, so I’m sure they were all the same name at some point.
Dom Romeo: Initially I thought you were a double act because you’re billed together, but you’re actually two acts who happen to be headlining together. Is this something you do often, or is it a first time?
ANDREW NORELLI: No, we had never worked together; we had never met. We had no idea what to expect. In America there are not many acts that go onstage together. I feel like there’s more of that in Europe and Australia. Is that true?
Dom Romeo: It’s definitely an English thing to have double acts nowadays –
ANDREW NORELLI: It’s very uncommon in America. And partly, I think it’s a practical thing – how do you make money when there’s not enough money for one person. Why would you split that money up for someone else?
Dom Romeo: I’ll throw this open to Michael: how is the money working?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It’s good for me – it’s my first trip here so I’m like a novice. I just wanted to perform because I’ve never performed in Australia. I just wanted the opportunity. I’m glad I got the opportunity to work over here.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, you’ve got a lot of local references. Have you been here before or have you done a lot of homework?
ANDREW NORELLI: I was just here in May, for two weeks, doing the Comedy Store and a lot of other venues in Sydney, so I figured out, way back then, which jokes were making people stare blankly into space and which ones were just completely losing them. Sometimes the crowd – it’s not that they don’t follow what you’re saying, it’s that they don’t care; they’re not invested in it. So sometimes you have to change a joke to make it something they find interesting and not detached from – because otherwise, they get it but they just don’t care.
I think me and Mike talked about it last night: for example, there’s a huge problem with steroids in baseball in America. They may be aware of that here, but they don’t care about it because they’re not fans of American baseball, for the most part.
Dom Romeo: I didn’t know that. I know that steroids is a problem in sport in general – so would you generalise it? Would you pick another sport? Or do you give it more context to make it work? Or do you steer clear of it altogether?
ANDREW NORELLI: I have several jokes about steroids, so I just cut out the couple that are so specific that the audience either wouldn’t know or, once again, wouldn’t care. Whereas in America it is a huge topic that is discussed all the time, and everyone knows the nuances of it in America: everyone in America knows what players tested positive for steroids, what the implications are for the Hall of Fame… that sort of stuff.
Dom Romeo: Mike, on stage, your persona is much scarier than Andrew’s and you really play that up in the way you interact with the audience. How did that develop?
MIKE VECCHIONE: I’m mostly a joke writer-type guy, so I just deliver the jokes, but I kind of like to have fun in between and let my personality come out. I like sarcasm. I think sarcasm is funny, and I like playing with the crowd. I have a cocky kind of look and I play off that, but then I smile in between to let them know, to ‘let them in’ on the joke. I think it’s funny to be sarcastic and a little over-the-top.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, I see a bit of a dramatic bent in the way you perform. Your physicality is different, but there are points where if you couldn’t actually convey different emotions in a quick period of time, the joke wouldn’t be as funny, and it is down to the physical acting more than the words. Or you’re physical actions undercut your words.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah, I agree. I feel like comedy is heavily based on emotion.
I don’t do it just because the crowd responds to it, I do it because that’s what feels fun to me on stage: to connect emotionally with the crowd. I don’t want to be one of those comics who is only about emotion, I want to have jokes too. Hopefully I combine those two elements.
Dom Romeo: Very well indeed!
You began your performance with a bit of a striptease – was that ‘off the cuff’, rehearsed, or – would you prefer not to discuss it for fear of giving away ‘trade secrets’?
ANDREW NORELLI: Not at all. I always leave room for spontaneity in my shows, always. And sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you lose the crowd for two or three minutes and you have to get them back. Or maybe you don’t lose the crowd, you might lose momentum and rhythm in the show. But I will often do or say something totally unplanned, sometimes for several minutes.
Dom Romeo: That’s great – because then new stuff comes out of that, that you didn’t even know might come out of that.
ANDREW NORELLI: I agree, yeah. And truthfully, as a performer, it’s sometimes the only way to make it fun, because you don’t want to do the same thing over and over and over again – it drives you nuts. Some would argue the worst part about stand-up – the repetition.
Dom Romeo: And having to make it look like you’ve just made it up on the spot.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. So I would rather sort of make it up on the spot. Even if it’s a joke I’ve said before, I’d rather find a way to say it differently or segue into it differently or put it in a different context so that there is some spontaneity in it. And I think the crowd can feel that, when that’s there.
Dom Romeo: I had no idea when you were gonna stop disrobing or how that was going to play with the rest of the show.
ANDREW NORELLI: But truthfully, I was also very hot up there. Which is why I do not wear a sport coat, because I really don’t like it. I actually like to be in loose, light clothing on stage. You saw how I move around: it feels better.
MIKE VECCHIONE: Speaking of the monotony and ‘keeping it fresh’, I think that’s what forces us to write a lot of the time: you get tired of the material. I know sometimes when I do it, I’m like, ‘I can’t do this material anymore; it works, and it’s great, but I’m tired of doing it!’ That kind of forces you into a box where you have to sit down and write new material, or at least play with it and try to manipulate it so that it works and that’s how you come up with new material. ‘I have to do something new just so that I feel alive and fresh on stage!’
Dom Romeo: Mike, as you say, you write a lot of gags, and it was rapid-fire gagging, but the persona you bring out in that – talking about scary cops with short-man syndrome – and you mock-intimidate the audience – or just members of the audience up the front, making them uncomfortable, and us in the process. But what I notice is a lot of your material seems to consist of dichotomies – the cops and the citizens; environmentalists and the people who have no interest in maintaining the environment; the vegetarian and the carnivore… where does that come from?
MIKE VECCHIONE: I never really thought about it, but I guess it’s true. I’m more of a writing-based guy. I’m trying to improve more by connecting with the crowd and allowing emotion to come into it more-or-less, in addition to the writing. We’re always trying to catch that balance between good writing and being a performer in the moment – being authentic. That’s really what we’re striving for.
Dom Romeo: One thing I find interesting, Andrew, is that during your set, you mentioned Australia differs from Europe because we don’t hate Americans; I don’t know if that, strictly speaking, is true… you’ve clearly not heard of the term ‘seppo’, which is slang for American. ‘Seppo’ is short for ‘septic tank’, which is rhyming slang for ‘Yank’.
ANDREW NORELLI: I hate those rhyming slurs – those are the worst!
Dom Romeo: Because you never know what they actually mean?
ANDREW NORELLI: That means somebody put extra thought into it to insult you, when they rhyme.
This is part of the problem with me being sort of an ‘improvised’ or ‘off-the-cuff’ comic, because sometimes I word things a little inaccurately. What I think I meant to say more there was that Australians don’t seem to have a superiority complex over Americans, whereas Europeans do, and sometimes rightfully so: they tend to be more well-read, they tend to be more well-rounded, they tend to be more cultured, and they’ve explored more.
Dom Romeo: That was a great point, the journey – but what was interesting about you saying that was that it reminded me of Mike’s set that I’d just seen, because what he does is play up some of the scarier aspects of American persona – ‘redneck America’, as we see it from there. In fact cops in general feature prominently in your material.
MIKE VECCHIONE: My thing – and I didn’t know if it was gonna work over here, but it did – was to try and get a rapport with the audience by being a little self-deprecating. Because I do look cocky, by being self-deprecating, it forces a rapport with the audience and I can take them where I want to go.
Dom Romeo: Once we trust you, you can. Whereas, if you hadn’t won us over, we may have remained truly afraid or disgusted when you do your disturbing, insinuating humour. Which is humour, unless we can’t see the joke, in which case it’s drama.
Now, as you hadn’t worked together before, did you draw straws or flip a coin? Who decided who’d go on first?
MIKE VECCHIONE: We sat down and had a talk about references and what was going to relate and what wasn’t. For me, I was just trying this stuff to see what worked and what references they got and what they didn’t – it was like ‘trial by fire’. But because Andrew had been here already and new what to expect, and I had never been here before, he graciously said, ‘if you want to go first, you can’. I was like, ‘very cool; I appreciate it’. It was easier for me, just to test the waters and see – and I watched the opening acts too – to test the waters and see what they got. I hope the rest of the run goes like that because they got everything. I couldn’t ask for a better crowd, to be honest.
ANDREW NORELLI: I totally agree! I’ve performed a lot in Sydney and the crowds at the Comedy Store are incredibly receptive. They want to laugh, they want to be opened. That’s a great feeling, because when a crowd is sceptical, there’s nothing worse. You can’t really make someone laugh who doesn’t want to. They have to want to.
We’re gonna flip-flop for the rest of the week. I think the hard part is going last, because the crowd has been there … last night they were there for nearly two hours. That’s the hard part: you’re following all these hilarious people and you have to come on last and say, ‘oh, here’s a little something extra’.
Dom Romeo: Last night was brilliant, but you would have an easier job had there not been so much good comedy before you. They audience loved you, but they would have been even more demonstrative of that had you not had to follow other good comics. If someone had stunk before you, they would have loved you even more.
I’m glad you’re going to alternate it, though – find out whether there’s a set order that works better or continue to alternate it.
ANDREW NORELLI: Headlining shows in the States, we are both aware that that is the downfall: you are following a lot of funny comics, and the crowd sometimes has a breaking point, where they’re just tired now. It’s not uncommon.
Dom Romeo: The other thing that really worked for you was use of local references – that were spot-on. It didn’t feel like you’d just changed that place name to this, or that phenomenon to this or that company to this, you actually picked the ones that made the best sense, and so were most funny. In fact I’m surprised that you’ve only been to Australia once before.
ANDREW NORELLI: Well when I was here before I did about 12 or 13 shows. You learn real quick. Not only did I learn, I also did stuff while I was here. I went around, I experienced things, I talked to people, I saw stuff. So I was able to understand the references that I’m making.
MIKE VECCHIONE: I was surprised. I knew the audience was going to be smart, but it’s in terms of what’s in their frame of reference. I was surprised so much was in their frame of reference, to be honest. I have jokes, but then they’re tagged a bunch of times at the end. For the joke to hit, and then all the tags to hit, the way that it was written, was really surprising. I just hope that that continues the rest of the week. That’s a good sign for me. I’m going to try to do some Australian stuff while I’m here because it’s fun. But as far as comfort level on stage, I felt very, very comfortable. Even going back-and-forth with the heckler, I felt very, very comfortable and felt the support of the crowd.
Dom Romeo: The heckler was interesting. He was vocal a few times throughout the night and he did undercut a great routine of yours, Mike, but you dealt with it very well. You didn’t lose your cool, and you made it funnier.
MIKE VECCHIONE: He was kind of trying to say that I stole some material for my show – which I wasn’t really aware of – so I just tried to handle it as diplomatically as possible in a joking way. Realistically, I have to check the reference out. What I was saying to him on stage wasn’t a lie, and if it’s too close to that television show, I’ll cut it or I’ll change it so it’s not like that anymore.
Dom Romeo: Are you always able to handle hecklers so well?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It depends. That guy was trying to be a little bit dicky, but he wasn’t a mean-spirited guy. If he was mean-spirited he would have kept after it and kept on me about it and we could have dialogued out of it. I saw him trying to undercut me but I didn’t see him as real mean-spirited.
Actually the worst kind of hecklers are the ones just yelling shit and making noises you can’t even respond to. If you’re making a statement I can at least respond to it and we can go back-and-forth. But if you’re making noises in the back and I can’t tell who’s doing it or what it is, it’s hard to defend against that.
Dom Romeo: He struck me as a comedy nerd, and I mean that in a nice way; he knows a lot of comedy for him to be able to go, ‘this reminds me of that’. He was showing off, but he didn’t seem to be malicious – only that he was a bit keen to be part of the comedy event, I felt.
MIKE VECCHIONE: I believe that’s exactly what it was. He was trying to undercut it just enough to let us know that he knew about comedy but he wasn’t trying to be real, real malicious with it.
Dom Romeo: How do you deal with hecklers, Andrew? Do you get them?
ANDREW NORELLI: That’s a part of comedy because any time there’s alcohol involved, there’s going to be behaviour that’s immature. I mean, that’s just a fact. The funny thing is the crowd seems to think that you’re highly skilled if you can shut down a heckler, and as comedians – at least from what I’ve gathered from my peers – we don’t care. We don’t put stock in a comic if you can shut down a heckler or not. That’s completely separate from being impressed by a comedian’s ability to ‘riff’. ‘Riffing’ is completely different. That is a nice skill when someone is able to interact with the audience and come up with clever things. But that is a different dynamic than someone shouting something derogatory or mean or intrusive and you topping what they said. That is a skill comedians don’t care about, and frankly, it’s irrelevant. Because the really good stuff in comedy like television appearances and appearances at big festivals like Montreal – there is no heckling. It doesn’t exist. So you’re honing a skill that is less and less relevant the better your career is.
Dom Romeo: I’ve never heard that take on it. It’s so true. And riffing is a different thing – although depending where you are, sometimes riffing with someone does make them a bit more cocky, and they do start interrupting more than they should, and then you need to shut them down.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. Riffing can promote heckling. That’s part of the art of riffing: how do you riff without encouraging heckling? But the problem is, if the crowd realised there is a difference between riffing and heckling, they wouldn’t let riffing lead to heckling, because hey would realise sometimes you are just interacting with the crowd: you just want to see who they are, you want to talk, you want to come up with something clever in the moment.
Dom Romeo: That’s great – really, what happens is, it’s up to the comedian on stage to maintain control, it’s the comedian’s job to go, ‘this is going too far now’ – not by actually saying those words unless they need to be said – but to know when, ‘all right, I’ve given this person too much attention, we need to move on; I’ve got the microphone, I need to continue to be in control’. And I assume the ability to do that comes from just getting good at what you do.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah, it is. That’s just from doing it. And it can be hard because the crowd has this romanticising notion of heckling in their mind as a contest between the comic and crowd. We don’t see it that way. It’s not a contest to us, so believe me, if we ‘lose it’, we don’t care. No one cares. The industry doesn’t care, producers and agents don’t care, other comics don’t care. They care about ‘How good a comedian are you? What is your material? How smart, clever and original is your material?’
Dom Romeo: And there is a point where if the heckler doesn’t shut up, the audience turns on them as well. And then the management comes and ejects them if they still don’t stop. One would hope. If it’s a good venue.
To be honest, if I was a dickhead heckler who wouldn’t shut up, I’d heckle you more readily, Andrew, because you, Mike, look far more capable of snapping my neck with minimal effort.
MIKE VECCHIONE: When it gets to that point, it’s time to let the club step in, if it becomes a violent confrontation. I try to never let it become mean. We’ve all seen the situation when either the heckler was being mean-spirited, or the comic was being mean-spirited and then it just becomes like a pissing contest, and that’s just not fun for anybody involved. You want to just weather it, and then maybe hit ’em, and then you want to just continue doing your material and making it as entertaining on possible if that happens on stage. Unless you’re an ‘insult’ comic, you don’t want that to happen. But if it does, you have to have the skill to be able to deal with it.
Dom Romeo: Speaking of ‘insult’ comic – early in your routine, I thought you were that kind of comic – only you break out of character to show that was the joke. Then you break out of that character, to show that breaking out of character to make the first insult ‘just a joke’, was also, just a joke, so we never really know. But your staying in control reminds us that you’re the comic, this is happening on stage, and we have nothing to fear. That’s me over-analysing it; what’s it like for you on the stage at the time?
MIKE VECCHIONE: It’s a live performance, so it’s all about getting that rapport with the crowd – going into the crowd, going into the crowd – the two girls in the front, calling them ‘baby chickens’ and stuff and then coming back, and then doing material, and then referencing them once in a while just to get a laugh. You’re going in and out just as a live performance. You’re bringing them into your world a little bit, I feel, by going out, but not basing my whole act on it. Going out and grabbing them to bring them in a little bit and then joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, and then back out to bring them in a little bit more so it’s really trying to pull them in, is the goal.
Dom Romeo: And as they’re in the front row, you can see them from where you’re standing. You can see if they’re getting a little uncomfortable – so you’d know if you’d need to tone it down or let ’em off the hook or turn it up, if that’s what’s needed.
MIKE VECCHIONE: That’s what I like about that venue: it’s very intimate. It’s an intimate venue as opposed to a theatre or a huge stage where you can’t see them. It’s intimate and you can see them. I like that better because it fosters a better rapport between comic and crowd.
Dom Romeo: Andrew, you actually played with the same two girls down the front, but you did something different with them. Whereas Michael was doing the intimidatory shtick verbally, you did it physically, pointing out that they looked uncomfortable and then acted it out on stage by getting into the corner and looking uncomfortable. It was interesting, getting different takes of the same situation.
ANDREW NORELLI: Yeah. It’s hard for me to even explain that. I don’t know. That’s just what I felt in that moment.
Dom Romeo: That’s the beauty of comedy: why should you explain it? You did it and it was funny.
ANDREW NORELLI: Right. And I wanted to ask them a couple of questions, so maybe that was my way of letting them know I was about to talk to them and ask her a question, she answered, which is what you want, if you’re riffing. I wanted to ask them questions, so I did, and she answered. She answered quickly and honestly. Which is the best thing that can happen. It’s the worst when you’re really asking them a sincere question and they think you’re messing around or something. So maybe that’s why I did: to make them comfortable real quick, so that I could ask them a couple of questions.
Suddenly the atmosphere is broken by the foolish sound of ‘Wackety
Sax’, the theme to The Benny Hill show. It’s my mobile phone ringing.
ANDREW NORELLI: I like that ring!
I take the call, but keep it short.
Dom Romeo: Sorry
about that. I have a cousin visiting from southern Italy and that was
my mother telling me where they’ll be in case I can meet up with them
after the interview. Sorry about that.
ANDREW NORELLI: We
came from America. That’s just as far. So you need to spend time with
us! We’re probably distant cousins. We’re from Italy, too.
Dom Romeo: What ever you do on stage tonight, don’t for a second stop to think about it like I’ve made you do right now – just do it.
ANDREW NORELLI: I would never let anything you say deter anything I would do on stage. No offense.
Dom Romeo: None taken!
Mike Vecchione and Andrew Norelli are at the Comedy Store until August 1st.
Even though I’ve mostly loathed the so-called ‘reality’ television shows, particularly the ones that seem to reward cunning and stupidity over talent and intelligence, MasterChef proved genuinely entertaining. It even got the chattering classes interested in things like duck fat and pigs’ heads. I was so hooked that – well, I was never really hooked. If I was not busy, the television was on at the right time and I was in the room, I watched it. If I was busy but at my computer, I’d check Twitter for updates from friends – mostly comedians – whose commentary was as entertaining as the show itself would have been had I caught it. On certain nights, one who had recently become a mum, would tape the show and watch it later, after bubby had been put to bed. Following her tweets an hour later, not having seen the show, was genuinely entertaining.
I knew, before the last couple of weeks, that most guys were in love with Justine, most viewers wanted to see Julie win, and expected her to be up against Chris in the final. By the endgame, it was down to Poh, and a lot of people still wanted Julie to win, but thought Poh was in with a good chance. The Daily Telegraph certainly seemed to want Poh to win. Before the show even ended – it was meant to finish at 9.10pm – Erin McWhirter, TV Editor, broke the news at 8:57pm on the Daily Telegraph’s website: “Poh Wins MasterChef Australia”.
TV Editor Erin McWhirter, I don’t watch much television anymore. I prefer to consume the shows I like mostly via DVD, at the end of the season. But when I do actually watch shows as they’re being beamed out from television stations, am I watching the same shows as you? Because by the time you had filed your story, I think we pretty much knew who had won MasterChef Australia – and it wasn’t Poh.
So what happened?
Were you slipped a preview tape with an embargo, that deliberately contained a trick ending just to test you? Did you write two stories in preparation and accidentally file the wrong one? Or did Channel Ten record two final episodes, with different endings, and despite gauging the reaction of a test audience, supply the media with the correct episode ahead of schedule, but accidentally screen the wrong one?
I asked as much, in the ‘reader feedback’ box on-line. After, of course, suggesting on Twitter that perhaps the Telegraph ought to reconsider who it employs as ‘TV Editor’ and directing traffic to the story. It took an awful long time for my comment to be submitted – all the while, a dialogue box that had a appeared when I hit the button to submit, instructed me to
Please note that we are not able to publish all the comments that we receive, and that we may edit some comments to ensure their suitability for publishing.
Feedback will be rejected if it does not add to a debate, or is a purely personal attack, or is offensive, repetitious, illegal or meaningless, or contains clear errors of fact.
Although we try to run feedback just as it is received, we reserve the right to edit or delete any and all material.
When I was able to close the dialogue box, I hastily ‘screen captured’ the page (in sections, and then assembled it in Photoshop):
Good thing, too: the page soon disappeared, hastily replaced with a new headline (but illustrated with the same picture; and followed, for the most part, by the same story).
Closer inspection revealed that the web address remained the same. Which was a bit unfortunate, since it contained the words ‘poh-wins-masterchef-australia’. I chose to point this out in the new ‘reader’s feedback’ submission I made, in the appropriate box below the story.
Was it any surprise that when I tried to find the article at that address a little later, I ended up with a ‘page not found’ error?
“Unfortunately, we stuffed up and now have to hide the evidence rather than redirect you,” doesn’t appear to be one of the reasons offered as to why they “could not find the page” I’d requested. Never mind.
Browsing further afield on-line, it turned out that the general News Ltd website, www.news.com.au was running the correct story – albeit with the dubious headline of ‘Shock Victory… Julie Cleans Up!’
Shocking? To whom? Oh yeah, to the TV Editor of that News Ltd paper The Daily Telegraph. And don’t you love how their breaking news headline, at 9:40pm is “MasterChef winner named”? What they mean is, “MasterChef winner correctly named”. That's the news!
At least they saw fit to include a photo of the winner this time – even if the article’s headline still skews it towards the competition final rather than the winner.
Meanwhile, back at the Daily Telegraph website, there was a new headline on the ‘front page’: by now, they’d gotten the result absolutely correct. Even if the blurb accompanying it was questionable…
A majority of Australia’s culinary experts didn’t back her, but
MasterChef Australia contestant Julie Goodwin went from underdog to
winner last night…
Majority of Australia’s culinary experts? Don’t forget entertainment reporters in denial after the actual results were delivered!
But at least, by 9:42pm, Erin McWhirter had filed an accurate news story. Even if Julie still wasn’t worthy of a photo to go with the article.
And now the web address correctly includes ‘julie-wins-masterchef’. I don’t know if it’s significant, but I can’t help noticing that between announcing Poh’s win erroneously at 8:57pm and finally reporting Julie’s victory at 9:42pm, Erin had somehow ceased to be ‘TV Editor’ – or at least ceased to be acknowledged as such in the article’s byline.
In totally unrelated news, by browsing the News Ltd family of websites, I discoverd that Kyle Sandilands’s wife has lesbian tendencies. Don’t know how that’s news, but lucky Kyle. I think. Perhaps not. Perhaps, should I try to find that article again in an hour or so, it might turn out that lesbians have Kyle Sandiland tendencies.
Thanks to Alexandra Craig for posting the link to Erin McWhirter’s original story on Facebook, pretty much as soon as it appeared.
Turns out Erin McWhirter prepared two stories and the wrong one was used; journalists got to conduct interviews on the Friday with conestants, who had been coached on how to give answers to hypothetical questions without giving away the results or lying – the final had been taped at the beginning of the month.Crikey has great coverage of the story.
There’s not much point in reporting old news, even less in recounting past weather reports, but this clip of Tim Bailey is so good, and I’m surprised that there are people who still haven’t seen it.
Here’s what happened: Ten evening news bulletin. Weather report. Anchor throws to weatherman:
“And now, over to Tim Bailey, who has some very musical friends joining him this evening…”
Tim starts doing his thing:
“Aw, isn’t it lovely to come back to work after a holiday, and work with some of your favourite guests on this weather segment.…”
I reckon he’s got the slightest look of nerves or fear at this point – he can see something’s about to happen – but he carries on regardless, trooper that he is.
“They’re about to take off not just through New South…”
But it’s a bit hard to carry on when someone’s invaded your stage. Still, Timba tries to persevere:
“… through New South Wales…”
He really is trying to carry on the segment despite the two boisterous bogans.
“And… Excuse me…”
The ‘and’ is an attempt to carry on the broadcast; the ‘excuse me’ is his admission that they’ve gotten the better of him. At least he doesn’t curse in front of the cute little girls in the choir who manage to maintain decorum. Some of them smile, but all resist the desire to squeal like the bogans, or join in, running amok.
“Excuse me… Can someone please…”
He’s repeated the polite ‘excuse me’ that once again is ignored. As is his request for “someone” to “please”. Instead he grabs hold of the toothy one in the crimson stripes. She doesn’t stop smiling or squealing, but tries to get free of his grasp by slapping Timba away. She only manages to brush his contact mic.
My favourite sequence takes place as toothy bogan tries to run away. Timba’s holding tight and she’s kind of ‘cornered’ by TV execs or whoever the off-camera folk are. I say ‘cornered’ – ToBo (toothy bogan) runs straight for them, Timba still attached. When she gets there, ToBo is face-to-face with a power-dressed… I dunno… station executive? Segment producer? Timba groupie? Whatever. ToBo facepalms her (could be a pretty ‘him’; hard to tell…) out of shot with Timba still attached.
At which point we cut back to the studio, so the anchor can say,
“Some problems obviously with Tim Bailey there with the weather. We’ll try and move forward…”
I can only assume they couldn’t cut back to her sooner because she was laughing too much. Well, I wanna assume that. By the look of her, she didn’t find it funny at all, either because ‘sense of humour’ was never in the contract (someone at Ten has to be serious about something!) or because she was the one who hired the girls.
The answer is, whatever’s going: ‘entertainment reporters’ (anyone can read a rumour on Twitter and repeat it on air); weather girls (anyone can entertain an audience for thirty seconds before reading a bunch of places and temperatures off an autocue – as demonstrated by the clip in contention); assistants to Clare Werbeloff, helping her ‘do’ whatever it is she actually ‘does’; the list is virtually endless.
And the beauty of being at Nine means one day, not next week, not the week after, but within the next couple of financial years, say, as long as they don’t get ‘boned’, one of them could actually end up running the joint.
I fell in love with this ad, made by GetUp, as soon as I saw it – not just because it’s clever, it’s for a good cause, and the punchline actually works, but also because I recognise so many comedians in the cast. Good on everyone involved.
I did think the parody name was leaving the entire project open to legal redress. You don’t need to know that the name ‘Censordyne’ is a parody of a real product. But if you’ve ever suffered from sensitive teeth, you’d be familiar with Sensodyne. I didn’t want to blog about it at the time – I don’t want to be the guy that inadvertently informs the owners of the original product that there might be some kind of… something infringement.
Well, no need for me to fear that – GlaxoSmithKline, owners of Sensodyne, are already aware, as the Sydney Morning Herald explained in the same article that outlined the Censordyne ad’s censorship. Turns out Qantas won’t run it because the airline’s policy is to not run any political advertisements. GetUp wanted it on all of Qantas’s domestic flights to Canberra, so that all politicians would have the opportunity to see it.
Maybe a public battle with GlaxomithKline will have the same result – getting the ad on prime time television as the story is reported on the news and those after-news gossip shows that purport to be about current affairs.
I notice that when you try to watch the Censordyne ad on the SMH website, it is preceded by an advertisement for dental hygiene. Not a GlaxoSmithKline ad, though – rather, an ad for Procter & Gamble product, Oral-B. Is this further grounds for GlaxoSmithKline to allege damages? Oughtn’t that make SMH also partly responsible? Who’s going to be paying through the teeth for this, I wonder? (Not me – I’m giving both firms and products equal billing. Because I brush with Sensodyne on an Oral-B brush. Your Honour.)
A pleasant walk took me from Redfern down to Chinatown until I met up with Alan Moyle, AKA Photobat, not quite at the prearranged corner we’d intended. Alan was in Sydney to serve as one of the judges of the Canon Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) Australian Professional Photography Awards (APP), as he explains in his blog. We’d arranged to catch up, have a coffee and maybe take some photos. (He'd be taking, I’d just be in ’em. Possibly.)
We kind of had a vague idea of a ‘dodgy’ photo we’d intended to take with me in it – but in the process, Alan was taking other photos ‘for pleasure’ (that is to say, not as part of a commission). The theme for these ones was decided by his followers. I mean, he’d posed the question either on Twitter or his blog or FB – I can’t remember which – and went with an idea put to him; I’m not suggesting he’s started a cult.
You’ll notice I’m being deliberately vague here – I don’t think I should be giving more details about Alan’s methodology than he does, unless it’s via an interview that he’s consented to take part in.
Not that he’s got anything to hide.
We weren’t taking photos of embassies and government buildings or anything like that. Not to my knowledge. I know you’re supposed to check now according to that government ad, because ‘not knowing’ is not a good enough defense anymore, but we weren’t on holiday. Well, Alan was, technically, but only interstate. And there are no embassies where we were – or at least there didn’t seem to be. Not that we were specifically looking. Or even deliberately not looking. We were neither looking nor not looking for official, government buildings or nondescript office blocks that might house espionage agencies.
We weren’t doing anything like that.
But if there was some sort of adventure aspect about this that I’m currently withholding, rest assured, either Alan or I will blog about it soon.
Or after we’re released, if it comes to that.
(No, I promise, that last sentence was just a joke. Your Honour…)
Anyway, we wandered the city – from Chinatown to Darling Harbour then back to the CBD – and in the process Alan decided he could improve upon his initial idea of the dodgy shoot. So, in his words, we “had a chat, had a walk, had some coffee and came up with a little idea for a photo. So we did it.” It took place in one of those streets in the south-eastern part of the CBD, just before the city gives way to Surry Hills and the Eastern Suburbs.
I’ll either blog in more detail about the shoot – or just as briefly – but with another link to Alan’s Batblog, when he’s processed more of the photos. For now, enjoy this one.
I swear the apparent thematic relationship between these two photos – that just happen to be the last two taken on my phone – are coincidental. The belief that it was intentional is phallacious.
Perhaps the Blackadder fan within might want to make reference to an irony relating to a thingy, but I just want to proudly say these rather small carrots, grown in the backyard, had a phenomenal amount of flavour!
Meanwhile, if I were to invite you to try a length of my stiff, fat, Italian salami, at least consider the offer before you slap my face. Because I did just spend a day helping insert a pile of pork flesh into sheep intestine. This was the end of the day’s work (I only turned the handle on the mincer to fill them – didn’t do any of the hard work required to prepare the meat up to that point.)
And before you shudder, repulsed, like some people have been known to when an order of pork belly has hit the table (until you point out that had it been sliced thinly in a different direction and friend instead of baked, they could safely refer to it as ‘bacon’ and have it with eggs, as they always have!) I’d prefer you approach me with that same air of smug superiority as you do pontificating about foods and customs of third world indigenes that – although you’d never confess this bit – you only found out about five minutes ago on-line, or watching the Documentary Channel, or by dating someone ‘really hot and exotic’. As a southern Italian, there was a time when this would have constituted a third world food and custom. The smug superiority is slightly less annoying than the contempt and disdain that is more frequently held for second generation non-anglo Australians who somehow ‘aren’t Aussie’ (or ‘really hot and exotic’) enough.
This is the season of year when, traditionally, my people would slaughter a pig and use every single scrap of it in order to survive winter. In the old country. Back then. Over here, we used to refer to it as ‘salami season’ but I no longer am able because someone always miss-hears it as ‘tsunami season’ and wonders what the hell I’m on about.
Although this has kind of almost sort of changed since, about a week ago, that cat in the hat cooked a pig’s head on Masterchef. So it’s almost okay to eat ‘soul food’. Except – as my father would point out, were he still around – it’ll be far more expensive to buy now that l’Australiani have found out about it!
Oh, and by the way: if god didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?
I blame Woody Allen. In his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s character points out that “comedy equals tragedy plus time”, essentially telling us anything is fair game for comedy, once it ceases to be too raw in the hearts and minds of most people to still be considered ‘off limits’ or offensive if joked about.
So every wannabe ‘taken seriously’ comic and essayist who thinks they know about comedy (calm down, I fall into both categories!) carts out the phrase as if it actually has any meaning in contemporary society.
Space Shuttle jokes were being devised before the debris hit the earth; Michael Jackson’s death was still a heart attack when the flurry of humorous status updates were flying on Facebook; in the early hours of what was September 12 in Australia, The Chaser – then a newspaper rather than a television show – was holding its first page (the rest of the issue had been completed) as a second plane was approaching the World Trade Center while smoke billowed out of the hole made by the first – they were trying to devise a headline that would still be relevant and funny by the time the issue came back from the printers. I know this because I was in contact with the editorial office that night. (I think they eventually ran with something about the janitor who was pleased to have the day off.)
So how soon is ‘too soon’? Among people who create comedy as a living, there is no such thing as ‘too soon’; among people who tell – or email – each other jokes, there is no such thing as ‘too soon’; among people involved in the tragedies, forever can often be ‘too soon’.
A comedic device that seems currently in vogue among stand-up comics involves telling a joke incorporating a long-past event that is constructed in such a way that it still creates some level of outrage – or at least, causes the audience to want to laugh and at the same time, question that involuntary reaction of wanting to laugh. So amid the nervous laughter, there may be the odd admonishing groan and a very noticeable sharp intake of breath. Frequent examples include Holocaust material of some kind, either alluded to or explicitly dealt with, or a Charles Manson reference. Amid the audience’s indecision there is the palpable danger that the crowd will be lost – until the comic steps in with an ‘ad lib’, asking, sarcastically, if it’s ‘too soon’ for such a joke. Relief, laughter and resumption of the comedian/audience relationship ensue.
When done well, the material ought to reveal to the audience some kind of hypocrisy or double standard, without the actual process being apparent. When done badly, the comedian is merely going through the motions, delivering not-so-clever humour in a structure that should work – and will, with more experience. It’s usually obvious when you’re in the hands of a less-experienced comic. Either the ‘What, too soon?’ tag doesn’t quite fit the preceding material – because it has proven so outrageous that clearly not enough time has passed – or the comic is so eager to pull it off that the material is badly delivered and the tag, poorly timed. In effect, the ‘too soon?’ comes too soon.
I hope the mini essay has been edifying. I present it merely to justify the blogging of this fantastic clip I found on YouTube, in reaction to Michael Jackson’s passing. Adolf Hitler essentially does his lolly before his most trusted, highest-ranking officers, because Jacko can’t play his birthday party.
The potency of this little work of art is somehow diminished now, and the question of taste seems more pertinent after the memorial service, than had this done the rounds closer to the breaking of the news and the commencement of the media circus. But if this seems somehow mistimed or irrelevant, it will seem less so looking back from the parallax error-inducing position of the future. Try not to analyse it too closely; it’s just an elaborate, well-executed joke. But if you must, marvel at the conflation of Hitler (too soon?) and the passing of Jackson (too soon!) with my bad timing of blogging about it (too late). Or not.
Q: What do you get if you play a country record backwards?
A: You get your wife back, you get your farm back, your dog comes back to life…
I’m grateful to comedy writing legend Graham Linehan for tweeting the link to this clip with the words “1,000,000 times better than a complaint letter”. It’s a YouTube clip by country musician Dave Carroll who was, as all country musicians are, done badly by someone. His guitar was damaged by airline baggage handlers. On his YouTube page he explains how his band Sons of Maxwell
were traveling to Nebraska
for a one-week tour and my Taylor guitar was witnessed being thrown by
United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. I discovered later that
the $3500 guitar was severely damaged. They didn’t deny the experience
occurred but for nine months the various people I communicated with put
the responsibility for dealing with the damage on everyone other than
themselves and finally said they would do nothing to compensate me for
So he’s written a song about it: ‘United Breaks Guitars’. If you play it backwards, I’m not so sure that he gets his guitar back. But just enjoy playing it, cos that’s how he gets United back.
The following day Linehan tweeted the link to this story, announcing that the airline is now ready to behave better. Nice ending.
Country and folk music (nowadays usually conflated with blues as ‘Folk, Roots and Blues’) has always had the ability – perhaps even the duty – to document events. A recent event struck me, though, for having been inadvertently documented about thirty years ago, give-or-take. It’s unrelated to the broken guitar story, but I’ve no other segue so just bear with me.
I’ve always loved the Smothers Brothers’ brand of musical comedy, their sibling rivalry somehow adding to the beauty and simplicity of their genre-parodies. I particularly love their song ‘Chocolate’, which I always dragged out when asked to present some examples of recorded comedy on air. The delayed punchline, put on hold for the typically folky ‘lolly-dooo-dummm, lolly-do-dum-day’ repeated refrain, produces greater humour when it finally comes. Since folk (and country) songs frequently lament – in ballad form – tragedies, the ‘death-by-chocolate’ scenario is perfect for the folk parody.
Now a tragedy has occurred that reminds me, with each news update announcement of the event, of this song. I don’t mean to be a heartless bastard – well, I guess I must when I refer to the event as ‘an Augustus Gloop impression’, I suppose… but again, Augustus Gloop was so obviously a comedic device because nobody ever drowns in chocolate!
So I still can’t think of the event without thinking of the comical aspects of it. It’s all down to the incongruity. Indeed, there used to be a restaurant I’d pass daily on the journey between my house and the city, called ‘Death By Chocolate’. You think of it in terms of extreme and deliberate gluttony. Dying in a huge vat of it is not the ideal way to shuffle off this mortal coil. And yet part of me can’t help thinking – what a way to go!
‘Delamere’ is a Norman name. Neil Delamere knew this. His sixth
grade classmates didn’t. His teacher chose to inform them in the
process of teaching the class about the Norman invasion.
teacher linked England and 800 years of misery, death, famine and
oppression to the Norman invasion and then added, ‘Neil is Norman’,”
the comic explains. “Ding, ding, ding, ding… break time!
went out and I got battered – absolutely battered. It was the Irish
families versus the Norman families. Me and one guy called Steven
Prendergast got the crap kicked out of us by the Dunns, the O’Kellies,
the O’Sullivans, the Moores… the fact that the Cappuccis joined in was
a bit of a disgrace, to be honest with you. They owned the chippy; he
was hitting me with a cornetto, the Cappucci lad was!”
I had no idea Irish comic Neil Delamere was of Norman descent, and it’s hardly the most vital biographical detail to arm yourself with when going to interview him. Neil is in Sydney to present Crème Delamere, his most recent festival show, at theComedy Store for two weeks, but good luck trying to find out anything substantial about him to take to the interview. There’s precious little on offer on-line. Or at least, that’s the case before I meet him: neither the ‘Neil Delamere’ Wikipedia entry nor his homepage have much detail, the homepage bio still refering to Delamere’s 2007 Edinburgh Fringe show as his most recent. Which is almost grounds for embarrassment, the surprisingly soft-spoken comic reveals when I meet him face-to-face. True to his description ‘banter bomb’ (as dubbed by The Scotsman) we have a long, entertaining and effortless chat – as you might surmise from the amount of text that follows. Thankfully, the handful of stand-up comedy and chat show clips available on-line reveal enough to get us started.
For example, there’s the set Neil delivered at the 2008 New Zealand Comedy Festival Gala, where he opens by explaining he’s from “the southern part, not the scary Northern part” of Ireland, and in so doing, demonstrates the mischievous and cheeky streak he brings to the world around him. He notes that New Zealand public transport is “the opposite” of his girlfriend: “this bus kneels on request,” he quotes. He marvels at the kauri, a species of tree native to New Zealand and famed for its longevity, that he longs to touch. “It’d be brilliant – just rubbing up against 2000-year-old wood. Like Catherine Zeta-Jones does.” But it’s his cute observation, that it takes “an awful long time” to get to this part of the world, that will prove the best point of departure, so to speak:
I left my house on Monday; I got here on Wednesday. Two days just f*cked off! Don’t know where they went. It was like being Jesus at Easter. He wasn’t crucified – he just flew to Auckland.
While it’s nice to see the Easter references emerging in his humour – suggesting a religious upbringing – I like it most because Neil’s surname, ‘Delamere’, is French for ‘of the sea’; this international visitor is clearly descended from international visitors. As we sit before a not-quite-roaring open fire – a gas flame in the fireplace – in the hotel foyer that clearly once was the drawing room of a fine and stately home – the perfect place to interview a visiting Irish comic – I put it to Neil Delamere that he “comes from a long line of travellers”.
“That could mean anything!” Neil laughs, not revealing whether I’ve somehow suggested he’s a bastard, or implied some other insult. There is an entirely different tale of lineage and bastardry to relate, it turns out. ‘Delamere’ is, indeed, French, and does mean ‘of the sea’, and “the fact the Delameres moved to the midlands – the only landlocked part of Ireland,” Neil explains, “suggests an awful lot about the lazy branch of the family from which I am descended.”
It is at this point that he tells me the name is in fact of Norman origin, as he always knew, but as his teacher only revealed to his classmates when it could do the most damage – bastard! That the chippy-owning Cappuccis joined in to go him with a cornetto is particularly insulting, since the Cappuccis and Delameres may well have been neighbours in the ‘old country’; the Normans did colonise the southern half of what is now Italy, as well as the islands off its coast. But that’s by-the-by. Turns out the Normans were originally Vikings – which Neil again knows a great deal about, since his 2007 Edinburgh Fringe offering was The Viking Show. “My mother’s side were Vikings, as well,” he says, “so technically, I am 100 percent Viking – although I don’t look it, to be honest.”
Well… okay, Neil Delamere is not tall and lanky, but he is at least a bloodnut – a common Viking trait. It’s an alternate explanation for why the ranga gene is common amongst the Irish – the other being that they are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
What did he say about his mother?
I’m glad Neil brought up his Mam. As mentioned, there is a dearth of biographical detail available regarding Neil Delamere on-line. According to the Wikipedia entry, he was born “circa 1980”. Wha? ‘Around 1980’? Either side, give-or-take? That’s an unfeasibly long labour – which, let’s face it, given Viking lineage, Neil’s poor Ma may well have been equipped to endure. Or Neil is being coy about his date of birth.
“No,” Neil says, “there’s no coyness. I’m 30.”
The reason there’s not been much of Neil Delamere on-line, the comic confesses, is because “I’m really lazy with my website – which is kind of ironic considering my degree was…”
“That’s another thing!” I interupt before he can finish. The Wikipedia entry says he “completed a degree”. No specifications. “What degree? Where from? It could have been purchased off…”
Turns out, Dublin City University – Ireland’s self-proclaimed “most innovative” university – is now producing bookmarks. Neil discovered this while visiting his alma mater. But that’s not the most innovative bit. They feature photos of the institution’s more impressive alumni – or, in Neil’s modest words, “people who are meant to have a bit of a profile”. So, along with Matt Cooper, one of Ireland’s leading broadcasters and journalists, and Jamie Heaslip, who plays No. 8 with the British and Irish Lions rugby squad, you can find Neil Delamere’s “stupid face” (his words) peeking over the top of book pages. Of course, like any good comic should, he does material about this find. “The new Edinburgh show is called Bookmarks,” he announces.
So Neil Delamere attended Dublin City University where – get this – he completed a degree in Computer Applications. That’s the irony of his rather meager homepage. Since graduating, Neil’s “gone the other way” and become a “luddite”, more-or-less: “I still enjoy gadgets but I have no interest in geekiness,” he says. Unlike Neil’s older brother, who completed the same degree. “Now he’s earning millions from IT and I’m doing this. I feel like Dannii Minogue!”
Offaly nice place to visit… by mistake
Neil’s branch of the Delamere clan comes from a small town called Edenderry, in County Offaly, virtually slap-bang in the centre of Ireland. As fitting as it may sound that marauding Norman invaders might settle in a place named after offal, Neil explains that ‘Offaly’ is actually an English corruption of ‘Uí Failghe’ – pronounced something like ‘ee-VOLE-ya’ – which means ‘land of the Failghe’. This is the original kingdom that occupied what is now Ireland, before said marauding Normans invaded. That the county takes its name from the land’s earliest known inhabitants suggests that it is steeped in history, and indeed it is. But the other way of looking at it, Neil points out, is that “the midlands of any country is the place time forgets”, producing “odd places and great characters”. He cites England – “always a bit odd in the middle” – Ireland, and even Australia, whose middle includes the likes of “Alice Springs, the Nullarbor and all that sort of nothingness”. According to Delamere – (‘of the sea’, remember) – “most people are drawn to and hang around coasts, and the ones who go further inland are the people who kind of look at you with a twitch.”
Historically, what is now County Offaly once included Clonmacnoise (I’m not even going to attempt to spell it phonetically!), a monastery whose monks kept learning alive while barbarians destroyed Europe during the First Millennium. Offaly’s more recent past has not proven so spectacular. “If you name the year, I can name the tourists,” Neil boasts, offering an example: “1994 was Jans and Ulrich, two lovely lads who grossly underestimated the cycle to Galway, and ended up in Edenderry.”
If two lost tourists are the highlight of your calendar year, there can’t be a lot to do in your small country town in your landlocked county. At least Neil had the influence of two brothers – one ten years older, the other seven – to broaden his horizons. They essentially introduced him to comedy.
“I’d be watching Blackadder when I was 12 or 13, and Cheers and MASH…” Neil recalls. When stand-up became popular enough to feature on BBC television, he was exposed to the work of Tommy Tiernan hosting The Stand-up Show. Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted, My Hero) was hosting by the time the likes of Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran were winning the Perrier Award for Best Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (1998 and 1996, respectively). “So,” says Neil, “it was put in my head that ‘these are the lads who could do this sort of stuff and they’re from roughly the same background as you’.” Thus, he figured, he might as well give it a go. “I did it once in a bar and just kind of kept doing it. But didn’t do it until I left college – I was 21 or 22.”
Havin’ a laugh
That was in 2001. International success wasn’t too long in coming. In 2004 Neil Delamere was invited to play the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, featuring in a related television show at the same time. “Somebody saw me and got me to do The Panel,” he says. Oh yes, Working Dog sold the format of The Panel to other countries, and Ireland’s version features Neil Delamere as a regular panellist as well as, in more recent years, host. He works a treat on it, as YouTube clips demonstrate. He’s so natural that it’s hard to tell if he’s pulling in pre-existing bits of stand-up where relevant, or is very good at making with the funny business on the fly. Neil insists he rarely resorts to doing pre-existing ‘material’.
“The great thing about The Panel is you’re on with four other people and we make each other laugh. We’re not good enough actors to fake that, to be honest with you. So what happens is, when you see one of us laughing at the other person’s jokes, it’s genuine and spontaneous.”
This is, of course, ground that would have been covered when the local version of The Panel hit big – and is probably asked of every humorous topical game or chat show: how much is spontaneous and how much is rehearsed? “There is no rehearsal whatsoever in the show that we do,” Neil explains. Of course everyone’s pretty much going to know what the main stories up for discussion are each week; working comedians would have written gags about them or immediately seen a funny side of them anyway – that’s what comedians do. I reckon if you put the same people from The Panel in each other’s company in, say, a pub, they’d have virtually the same discussion, and Neil agrees – adding you’d probably have to record the entire conversation over the course of the night and then “cut it down to the funniest 50 minutes.” But that’s the greatest compliment to the show – that feels as though it’s a bunch of mates – even you and your mates – having a bit of a yack at the pub.
“The lack of contrivance is the aim of all stand-up,” Neil reckons, but it’s also “one of the problems of stand-up”: when you make it look like uncontrived “talking off the top of your head” – as the best stand-up should – “the lines are blurred”. Nobody would heckle a play; they can’t heckle the telly. But they heckle at stand-up because “it’s like talking to you in a pub!”
This raises an important issue every comic must face: not every heckler is trying to be disruptive and some heckles actually contribute to the performance, giving the comic something new to react to and build on. But if you encourage it, it may become ‘open slather’ for the audience and then detract from the show. Where do you draw the line? How do you ensure it adds to the audience experience?
“You have to take each heckle as it comes,” Neil acknowledges. “There are myriad reasons why someone would heckle. Each one has to be dealt with on its own merits.” Pause. “And I have a hammer…”. We both laugh at the tag. “No, I don’t, I don’t,” Neil reassures me. “But it would be good if I did, though, wouldn’t it!”
The way the cookies crumble
You wouldn’t expect it of a so-called ‘topical’ comedy panel show, but old episodes of Irish Panel are be hilarious. At least, the bits that make it to YouTube are. There’s a clip that features the discussion arising from an expensive biscuit company wanting to sue a budget biscuit company whose packaging is, they argue, indistinguishable. Neil, as host, reminds the other panellists of the time when cheap brands actually looked cheap, because, he says, “poor people needed to be reminded that they were poor. Big military writing: ‘YOU ARE POOR!’”
Nowadays, I guess, printing is affordable enough that the so-called cheap brands can look expensive – and your parents always would argue that they tasted the same anyway, so why pay more money for the ‘prestige’ product? Because, Neil argues, “if your mates caught you with that” in the supermarket, they’d tease you mercilessly: “HA HA HA HA HA! Yellow Pack!Vincent de Paul! Vincent de Paul!”
Since the cheap stuff is virtually indistinguishable from the expensive, there has been a shift that coincides with Ireland’s fortunes. “Ireland was one of the richest countries in the world in the last ten years,” Neil acknowledges, “all based on a house of cards, really. But we went through this period of being loaded and lovin’ it. Lovin’ it! We completely lost our inferiority complex with Britain because it’s a lot easier to take a derogatory joke from somebody if you know deep down you can afford to have them killed. But now we’ve gone back the other way and it’s become genuinely fashionable to be thrifty again, so we’re all going back to those days and buying ‘home brand’ stuff.”
One other thing that may change back to how it was, now that Ireland is less well off, is a massive and groundbreaking tax incentive called The Artists Exemption. For a time, creative types who contributed to the cultural life of Ireland were granted tax breaks so significant that it was in the best interest for talented people like U2, say, to stay put, and inject their massive earnings back into the local economy, rather than going, as English performers were wont do, into tax exile. But it was such a good tax break that people like Van Morrison – from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and therefore part of the UK rather than the Republic of Ireland – and Elvis Costello – a Liverpudlian with Irish heritage that he conveniently rediscovered – moved to Ireland to make the most of it. The Artist Exemption was introduced in the ’80s by then-Prime Minister – or ‘Taoiseach’, as it’s called (pronounced something like ‘TEE-shock’) – Charlie Haughey, Neil explains.
“It was for struggling artists – your guys writing books or self-publishing poems, sculptors or artists or whatever. But they didn’t think to cap it, so you had people like Frederick Forsyth and Lisa Stansfield moving over.”
“There was a lot of controversy over that,” according to Neil. “Bono on one hand saying, ‘give your money to the poor and make poverty history’, meanwhile moving most of U2’s business holdings to a foreign country.” Question is, does such an exemption aid comics? Do government officials consider comedians as creators of art, contributing to the social life of their country?
“We absolutely do!” Neil insists. “The trouble is that it’s very hard to prove that it’s original material and it’s very hard to hand something to the taxman. If you write a book, you can hand him the book; if you write a script, you can hand him the script; if you write an album, you can hand him the album. It’s quite difficult to hand him your set of jokes. It’s weird, because it’s only on the writing of stuff, it’s not on the actual performing, so it’s complicated. I think it’s a great idea, but I would say that in six months, it’ll be gone, because we are poor again.”
Well then, Neil Delamere, you have six months to record, release and hand to the taxman a DVD of your work, I offer. To which he replies, “the DVD is already recorded – the second one. It’s coming out in early November.”
Neil’s first DVD, No Message was released in 2007 and went platinum – “in Ireland, that’s 14 DVDs, so all the family bought it” – but he has no idea where it’s available, and he hasn’t smuggled any into Australia to make some sly, tax-free spending money. “Once you release it, you kind of forget about it,” Neil explains. “I’m sure you could order it from somewhere.” Pause. “I’m the worst salesman in the world! ‘I’m sure you can get it somewhere…’ Jesus!”
Neil’s success as a stand-up comic grew with the success of The Panel, enabling him to tour off the back of the show. It’s also meant that he could return to Edinburgh Fringe with a bigger profile, and has been doing so over the last few years, as well as record and release DVDs. For local audiences, it’s meant he’s had a big enough profile to justify doing a show at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and returning to Australia now for his two-week residency at the Comedy Store. But just as this year’s Comedy Festival turn wasn’t his first, this current stint at the Store isn’t his first visit to Sydney.
“I was here four or five years ago and probably did three or four gigs around Sydney, but people wouldn’t even remember,” Neil says. “That year we did the Fringe Festival in Adelaide, and then did a mini tour around places like Ayr, Townsville and Mount Isa.”
Mount Isa, eh? I had a friend in Mount Isa who, if you named the year, could probably tell you which comics toured, maybe even which ones misjudged their Georgetown cycling holiday.
“It was kind of strange, but a brilliant craic, I have to say,” the comic fondly recalls. “It was a ‘Best of Irish’ compilation show, which is amazing: you can put them on anywhere and people will go to see them, for some reason.” The reason is, as Neil says of that tour, and I’d say of this conversation, because it’s kind of strange, but a brilliant craic!
Lord of the flights
Seeing as we started our chat with long-haul flights, it’s fitting we should end with them. Neil flew to Australia this time with Air Etihad, a carrier he “can’t recommend enough” because they fly direct from Ireland. Which makes the most difference heading home.
“We always used to have to go through London, and there’s nothing worse than being on a plane for 24 hours and then realising you’re not home yet – that it’s going to be another four hours before you’re home!”
I’d agree, but before I’ve had time to, Neil considers what he’s just said. “When I say, ‘nothing worse’, I mean, obviously, crucifixion is pretty rough; and mutilation is pretty bad, as well. But four or five hours when you’re stuck in London…”
I’m wondering if it’s all down to a matter of those final hours, though. I’d heard Neil had been banned by Ireland’s low-cost airline – the ‘yellow label’ of flight, if you will – Ryanair.
“Well, that might be a slight exaggeration,” Neil says of the story. “I certainly did a gig with Michael O’Leary, who’s the Chief Executive Officer of Ryan Air, and I may, perchance, have slagged him off in front of 700 people…”
It was a corporate gig that Neil was MCing and the organisers had gone to great pains to point out that keynote speaker Michael O’Leary, “worth half a billion Euro”, was doing the gig for free. “Please don’t mess with his introduction,” they begged, and Neil, of course, promised he wouldn’t. But he was lying.
“I had no intention of agreeing,” he confesses. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to get this opportunity again’.” So he introduced Michael O’Leary:
“In 1987, Ryanair ferried 5000 passengers across Europe; in 2007 they carried 50 million passengers across Europe. Of those 50 million, 10 million got to the country they originally booked for, and some got their bags back. Ladies and gentlemen… Michael O’Leary!”
Naturally, O’Leary took the stage and started slagging off his MC. So when Neil returned to the stage after him, he gave O’Leary “dog’s abuse! It was dog’s abuse!” The best bit was when Neil produced a paper aeroplane, and said, “I’d like to symbolically represent a Ryanair flight right now. If you can just imagine that corner to my right over there is the country you actually want to get to – watch!”
And then 700 people watched Neil Delamere turn and throw the paper aeroplane in the opposite direction. The crowd loved it. Michael O’Leary leant over and said, “It’s good to go last, isn’t!” to which Neil replied, “Yes it is!”
For Neil, it was an opportunity to be funny with a well-known identity. “I thought, you’re never gonna get this opportunity again’. It was an odd gig; it was very loud. But as he was the keynote speaker and I was the MC, I knew he would be the one whose introduction I would listen to, so I took the opportunity to get the few lines in there and just kind of slag him off a bit.”
So there is a conclusion you can draw, as to why Neil Delamere may avoid flying Ryanair nowadays. “I had a horrible feeling, the next time I took a Ryanair flight,” Neil concurs, “that as I walk up to the counter I’d see the guy reach under for a silent alarm and dogs would bound up and rip my testicles off. But that only happened once…”
Time to go
Our own craic has run its course. Neil’s got a gig in a few hours, and since he only touched down in the country five hours earlier, it’d be nice if I let him rest. But I’m quite amazed that he’s awake and so lucid.
“No,” Neil corrects me, “I’m actually asleep. This is entirely a dream. I’ll have no recollection of this conversation in about 20 minutes.”
Neil Delamere is at the Comedy Store until Sat July 18
Some YouTube Clips:
2008 New Zealand International Comedy Festival Gala clip