It's been a pleasure seeing and hearing him regularly on Rove and radio, (not to mention his regular turn as Strauchanie), but it's been a few years since Peter Helliar has properly graced a stand-up stage - although the 2007 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala is a nice gig to have remembered as your last before taking a break to make a feature film. Back, if not with a vengeance, then at least with a new bunch of stand-up, Pete's playing the Sydney Opera House from Jan 5th with his Dreamboat Tour. In the meantime, here's an interview from a Sydney visit ages ago. It is from a time when Merrick & Rosso ruled drivetime radio with their shift on Triple J, and if it's too long ago for you to remember, rest assured, it seems like a life time ago for me, too. But even at the time, it felt like a particularly golden age of Oz comedy - Tripod appearing regularly with Peter on Merrick & Rosso's Triple J show. I know one day people will look back at a golden period just ended, when Ben Ellwood and Dave Jory would appear regularly on Dools's drivetime show. As it happens, Dools is now hosting Breakfast at Nova with Merrick Watts, all of which deserve a whole other bunch of blogs... for now, here's an early interview with Peter Helliar.
For Pete's Sake
A deep desire to perform, too many beers, boisterous mates and the refusal to “get a proper job” actually led Helliar to adopt this ‘cool’ way of life. Eventually.
“It took me a good seven years to get off to it,” he admits, having opted for travel after finishing school. In fact, Helliar almost worked up enough nerve to have a go at comedy overseas: “I was in London and thought, ‘maybe I’ll try here, where I won’t be humiliated in front of people I know.” The London debut never eventuated. Helliar instead returned to Australia where he finally got up on stage to start telling jokes at Melbourne’s legendary Espy comedy club (in St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel). “The rest,” Peter assures me, “is history. Not an awfully interesting history, but a history nonetheless.” Helliar finishes his story by revealing just how huge the amounts of money to be made in comedy are: “The harsh reality is that it’s only a couple of million a year.”
Only a couple, Peter?
“Um. Slightly less.”
Although he’s only been joking for the last two and a half years, Peter has been to Sydney about six or seven times. However, if you have yet to see him live, you may be more familiar with the contributions he regularly makes to Merrick and Rosso’s Triple J drivetime slot as Peter Helliar, PI. Merrick Watts and Peter Helliar were already familiar with each other by the time Helliar had started making with the funny business; they’d been introduced by a mutual friend. However, a “mutual admiration society” quickly developed between Helliar and the grouse duo, Merrick and Rosso soon inviting Peter along to fill the support slot at their Christmas and grand final shows in Melbourne.
“They were the first people who could give me a real break,” Peter acknowledges.
Recognising, no doubt, a kindred spirit as well as talent, Merrick and Rosso continued to send breaks in Peter’s direction. Last year they asked him to contribute to Hair of the Dog, the Triple J Sunday slot they were then filling while Roy and HG were overseas. When they had landed the drivetime shift, they likewise brought him on board.
Merrick and Rosso left Pete's exact role on the show pretty much up to him; their first question was, ‘do you have any ideas?’ Peter confessed to harbouring only the one and it involved him being “a ‘PI’ kind of guy,” mainly because the idea of ‘a race against time’ appealed. Thus, each week, Peter pits his wits against all manner of challenges within certain time constraints, for the entertainment of the Triple J-listening masses.
“It opens itself up to so many different possibilities,” he explains, “from tracking various people down to professing my love to certain people to singing songs like the one I did with Steven Gates from Tripod recently.” Part of the attraction that such a role held was that it would be so different; it would not require Helliar to either pen ten minutes of new material or use up dependable chunks of his stage show each week.
In his capacity as ‘Peter Helliar, PI’ Peter has established a very good track record, having ‘failed his mission’ only once, and even then, under “reasonably dubious” circumstances.
“I had to write a poem about the town of Orange, NSW, to the tune of ‘The Man from Snowy River’. ‘Orange’ had to rhyme four times within that poem. For those who don’t know, ‘Orange’ is one of few English words that has no rhyme.”
Geez, I offer, if that’s the only time you’ve failed, don’t be too hard on yourself. It was a pretty hard ask to begin with.
“Oh, thanks mate,” Peter replies, “but I do strive for a one hundred percent record.”
It appears that the “other hiccup” Peter Helliar, PI encountered involved Olympics commentator Bruce McAvaney. “We wanted Bruce to sing ‘Islands in the Stream’ because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s work. He refused. But Matthew White from Sports Tonight was great enough to step in and take over the mantle and he loved it.”
According to Peter, Sydney crowds often emanate “the right kind of vibes” for comedians who would otherwise avoid trying out fresh material. Thus, Helliar’s Sydney shows will be an amalgam of his recent Melbourne Comedy Festival show, This Much is True, and what will eventually become next year’s Comedy Festival piece.
“Just on the topic of this year’s show, This Much is True, Peter,” I ask. “How much of it was actually true?”
“Three percent,” Peter answers without pausing.
“That’s pretty good,” I acknowledge. “There are reconstituted orange fruit drinks that cannot boast as high a content of actual orange juice." And it's certainly greater than the comic's - or, let's face it, anyone's - hit rate at rhyming the town Orange in a parody of 'Man From Snowy River'...