One of my favourite spectacles used to be watching a young audience less familiar with live stand-up comedy in Australia regard the appearance of Garry Who, as their headline act of the night, with a degree of disappointment. Perhaps they didn’t recognise the name, but they certainly recognised the face: from a primetime Aussie comedy. Surely this guy wasn’t gonna make them laugh, armed only with a microphone. Not long into the performance, they’d be loving it. That was almost my own initial response. Oh, I’d known he was a stand-up comic, I knew his name, but I hadn’t seen him before. I’d stumbled on his comedy album in one of my favourite second-hand shops that, back in the day, always had a well-stocked comedy section. But at the time of finding the record, I’d thought, ‘That guy?! That guy’s a real comic?’ Yes he is. And he’s a good one. See him. This week at the Laugh Garage. Meanwhile, also read this interview I did with him ages and ages ago.
“I’m not gonna be relaxed until I get a cappuccino,” Garry Who explains, adding that he assumes from my “vibe” that I must want to get this interview over with. If I am unsettled it is because I need to make a confession: my first knowledge of Garry Who was during his incarnation as Dougie, John English’s faithful roadie in the Channel Nine sitcom All Together Now. I had become aware of his career as a stand-up comedian later, through the discovery of a live album. But Dougie still looms large in Garry Who’s legend. This confession of course leads to essential questions that revolve around the gorgeous blonde female co-star of that sitcom, Rebecca Gibney. Although hindsight casts her as a precursor to the ‘Nanny named Fran’ archetype, she was a major prime time recipient of unbridled lounge room lust across Australia.
“I’ll tell you two things about Rebecca Gibney,” Garry thankfully anticipates before I have to pose the question. “She was gorgeous. And no, I didn’t.” A pause. “Oh, one more thing,” he adds, throwing in an answer to a question I didn’t think to ask: “she wouldn’t let me.”
All Together Now was fun to make, Garry acknowledges. He’d do that sort of work again if the right project came up, but he wants to concentrate on his stand-up now. Despite having been Ray Martin’s resident comic on The Midday Show for two years, and having been a stand-up comic prior to his television work, Garry tells me that “a lot of people” still think of him as ‘Dougie’. “And that’s fair enough,” he adds. “It was great exposure. It opened up doors to other things. But I want to concentrate on my stand-up now. I want to get that exposed.”
Who’s own first exposure to stand-up comedy when he was a young apprentice sign writer. Fresh out of school, a lack of sufficient grades prevented him from following his desired vocation of commercial art. “I wasn’t good at maths, which really has fuck-all to do with it as far as I’m concerned, but I didn’t pass so I couldn’t get a job as a commercial artist,” he explains. Garry opted for sign writing, the next best thing. He “dug” it, he says, until the realisation dawned that sign writing “is only art when it’s a little ten by eight work, when it’s something in front of you or something you can get to. It’s not art when you’re up on a wall in the blazing hot sun, splashing out with a big paintbrush. When you get up on those big wall signs, you’re no longer sign writing, you’re painting a building.”
Despite the admission that he had “always been the class clown, like everybody else,” (that’ll account for your lack of grades, Gazza), Garry claims that when friends, amused by his antics and anecdotes, advised him that he ought to be a comic, he had no real idea what they meant. “I’d never, ever seen a comic,” he says. That all changed when he attended an ‘all-mens night’ in a club above the Rex Hotel in Kings Cross. There, amid… things they showed only to men in clubs in Kings Cross in the early- to mid-1980s on all-men nights, Garry Who saw his first comic. “He was a guy by the name of Barney Coombs, who was an American club comedian working out here. He had an American accent. It blew me away. I thought, ‘Wow!’ That was what really inspired me.”
Garry had, by this stage, come to loathe the boss to whom he’d been apprenticed. While scouring the Herald one morning, in search of another sign writing job, he came across a “really weird ad” which, he claims, said “‘comedians and script writers wanted, phone this number.’ I thought, ‘Gee that’s how they get to do that for a living; it’s an actual job’. I’d never thought of it as a job; I thought people were just in show business.”
Rang the number. Visited the offices on Oxford Street, near Taylor’s Square. Paid the guy for some courses. “The guy ripped me off,” Garry insists, “but he gave me some very good notes. He got me into talent quests. If it hadn’t have been for him I wouldn’t have known how to go about it. So he kind of started me. I didn’t really get ripped of.”
Within two years Garry was doing the pub and club circuit. “I was very young. I was twenty one or something. I had hair down my back, I just didn’t suit the crowd. They didn’t understand me. You could only do old gags.” When the Comedy Store opened soon after, Garry had the opportunity to do more than just old gags. “I always look upon the Comedy Store as my beginning,” he says. Film and television work allowing, he has been a regular on the comedy circuit ever since.
Garry acknowledges the difference between a ‘party comic’ and a ‘stand-up comic’ being that “the party comic says things funny” while “the stand-up comic tells things funny”. He also acknowledges that stand-up comedy and sitcom acting “have nothing to do with each other”, that they are “different worlds”. However, he amends this by pointing out that stand-up, ultimately, is acting. “No matter what sort of comedy you’re doing, you’re still acting. You’re saying, ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way over here tonight’ when it didn’t. How far you want to take the acting depends on the style of comedy that you’re doing. Just doing one-liners, you don’t have to act particularly well; you only have to deliver in the word or the phrase.” The comedy of Garry Who involves telling stories, and so, one assumes, there is a bit more acting involved. But a difference certainly does exist between audiences of today and those Garry played to when he started out. Audience awareness has grown, comedy has become freer and as result of both, it is more sophisticated.
“The only thing that’s different today is that you’ve got things like The Comedy Channel, so you can actually do shit on telly. It doesn’t pay or anything, but it’s experience.” In the not-too-distant past, a comic’s only option was signing with a network, and if you didn’t, you weren’t on telly unless you could land on the ABC. “Now there’s a chance for people with their ideas…”
However, the scope for ideas appears to be somewhat limited at this stage of the game. While I have never had cable access, Garry got rid of his. “Too much repeating,” he says. “I’d see the month’s movies in two nights; I come home from a gig and by six o’clock in the morning, I’d have watched all the movies for that month. I’ve got to go to the video store anyway, so I didn’t see the point. Discovery Channel: What I discovered was that nothing changes on that channel. Just repeats.”
This does not preclude Garry Who from appearing on the Comedy Channel. His recently filmed guest spot on ‘Headliners’ will be… re-broadcast with regularity, because it’s the Comedy Channel. But keep an eye out for a new telemovie he is in, called Close Contact:
“I don’t know when it’s coming out,” Garry explains. “Some time between now and the end of the year. Kimberley Davies is in it.”
“Oo-er,” I venture, contemplating the gorgeous blonde. “What was it like working with Kimberley Davies? Same three things as Rebecca Gibney?”
“Yep,” Garry confirms. “Same three things.”