“I’m definitely not a musical comic,” DeAnne Smith assures me, but not with the kind of vehemence a President of the United States might employ to deny shagging an intern, nor even the type St Peter might use to thrice deny knowing Christ as a prologue to bitter weeping. It’s merely a statement of fact, provided because I seem to ‘recall’ – erroneously, it turns out – DeAnne being a musical comic. In my head, I picture her wielding a ukulele. It’s an image wedded to the first memory I have of the slight, svelte, well-dressed (collar and tie, sometimes even a jacket) androgynous pixie in glasses, performing in the line-up of Ali McGregor’s late night variety show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival some years ago.
More recently, I’ve seen DeAnne at story-teller nights where the point has been to spin a narrative more than get laughs – although DeAnne does both rather readily. Point is, in my head, she started out as a musician whose between-song patter has grown to be the main feature. You know, like Billy Connolly – if you’ve been following him since his folkie days as a member of the Humblebums.
“I have only just started playing the ukulele this year,” DeAnne informs me. “I have literally three songs that I do. Maybe four. But it’s all so very new. I’ll probably play some songs in one-hour show, and if I’m doing a spot – like, say, half an hour, I’ll punctuate the performance with a song. But it’s not where I started, or where I’m coming from.”
Ah, now that’s the other thing I seem intent on being vague about: DeAnne’s origins. I’d almost certainly sign a statutory declaration stating my belief that she is Canadian, though very little supports that contention. In those more recent ‘story-telling’ gigs, she's told of having lived in Mexico - but that's not where she's from either.
So where did DeAnne Smith start? How did she start? Where is she coming from?
“I don’t know where I’m coming from,” DeAnne laughs. Stylistically, she says, her approach to comedy is “from a kind of ‘writerly’ place”. Geographically, however, she’s all over the place, having grown up – and studied – upstate New York.
“After university, I lived in Baltimore for about a year and a half, and worked at a publishing company and on a street outreach team,” she recalls, “which was kind of fun.” It’s more fun nowadays, when DeAnne’s out in the street, accosting passers-by in order to distribute pamphlets advertising her show – the fine art of ‘flyering’. “People say, ‘Wow that takes a lot of guts, approaching strangers to come to your show’,” she explains. “I used to approach strangers all the time on the streets of Baltimore, asking them if they needed condoms or clean needles. To give someone a flyer for a comedy show feels like nothing.”
DeAnne almost hit the stand-up stage in Baltimore. She got as far as going to an open-mic venue, but the night was cancelled:
“There weren’t enough people. I just never went back. I guess I didn’t have the guts or the desire. But it was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while.”
From Baltimore, Deanne “hopped to Mexico”, where she lived for the next five or six years. “I moved to Mexico for no real reason. I was just young and I wanted to do something different. I think I went for a bit of a lark, to do something different, and it was how my life became: I’d go to the beach, I’d teach English…”
While teaching English, DeAnne started writing humorous columns for online publications. And in time, she realised, “it would just be easier to get up and say this stuff, rather than taking so much care of my vocabulary choice and syntax.” Thus, when DeAnne Smith finally did start doing comedy, “it was definitely from a writing point of view than a performance point of view”.
DeAnne’s first foray into open-mic comedy didn’t come in Mexico, either, although she says that’s where she “got bit by the bug”. It began with a CD DeAnne’s girlfriend, an engingeer working on a project for Sirius Satellite Radio, burned for her, featuring comics and material from one of the station’s shows. She didn’t know DeAnne had any interest in comedy. Nor did DeAnne. “Listening to it awakened all this desire in me,” she explains. “It didn’t make me happy and relaxed, it made me feel jealous and angry. I could feel this clenching in myself: ‘I wanna do this. This is what I should be doing.’ So I did that.”
Not directly, mind. It still took another step before DeAnne got to the stage. “My girlfriend wanted to go to Mime School. In Montreal. There’s a mime school in Montreal!” (A very good one, it seems: l’Ecole de Mime, Montreal.) “I went, ‘Okay, I’ll go with you.’ Very whimsical. So basically I moved to Montreal to be with a mime.”
DeAnne also made study plans for her new life in Montreal. She applied, and was accepted, into a masters degree at a writing school. “I deferred the writing thing for a year and started doing stand-up at open mic rooms, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Makes perfect sense, then, DeAnne Smith’s writerly approach to stand-up comedy. “So many people get into it with a theatre background or an acting background,” she says. “I just threw myself into it. I feel like I’ve been catching up with the performance aspect of things. But I think it works for me because I’m very much myself on stage – there’s not a lot of pretense there.”
The origins as a writer and the lack of pretense – along with the cute pixie androgyny – contribute to whatever it is that sets DeAnne apart. And something certainly does, stylistically. I just can't quite verbalise it. And although DeAnne agrees that something does, she can't - or won't - name it either. “That sort of thing is not for me to say. I don’t like to get involved. I probably should – I’d be better at promoting myself if I knew how to better articulate what I do and what I’m like…”
Probably better this way. Let other people - fans and critics - come up with descriptions. It's only when she finds one she likes that she should adopt it as her own, I tell her. “Good,” she agrees.
So back to that CD that inspired DeAnne to pursue stand-up in earnest. Who was on it? And were some of them – whisper it – a bit sh*t, in order to inspire the clenching response?
“That was part of it,” DeAnne confirms, unwilling to name the comics who seemed to solicit more approval from the audience than perhaps they deserved. “Hearing the audience’s response made me feel I oughta give it a try!”
One comic who did stand out for being brilliant was Maria Bamford. “She was amazing. I was like ‘Who is this person?’ I guess that was the immediate instigator to get me going. I started doing open mic and I never looked back.”
It wasn’t too long before DeAnne was visiting Australia for the first time – here for the 2008 comedy festival season. “It was fun. It went well and I met a lot of people. I wasn’t really thinking about making it an annual thing, but when all the deadlines for the 2009 festivals rolled around again, I realised I should come back again because I’d done a bit of groundwork. There was a tiny bit of buzz, so it would be silly to not come back the next year, and to come back in two years when everyone’s forgotten about me.”
It was when she was back in 2009 that DeAnne made her debut on Good News Week. “That was really good for me – it helped people know who I am.”
It’s also the reason we assume this American comic is Canadian.
When DeAnne first came to Australia and had to register for the Adelaide Fringe, she “didn’t know anything about anything”, she says. “George Bush was president and I hadn’t lived in the States in about eight years. I had to choose a ‘country of origin’ so I just put ‘Canada’ because that was where I started comedy and that’s where I lived.”
When she appeared on Good News Week, she would have been known as the comic from Montreal who had performed on the Australian festival circuit the year before. “They were talking to me a lot about Canada, and I just kind of went with it, and I regretted it – I lied to the nation! Unfortunately, my little lie has been reinforced because I meet a lot of people who say, ‘I know you were Canadian; you don’t seem like an American; those Americans…’ – and they start trash talking to me about America.”
Subsequently, DeAnne has spoken of her American origins on stage and on her website. Most people are hip. “I don’t pretend that I’m not from New York. But I hadn’t lived there for a while. During the George Bush years, I was like ‘I had nothing to do with that!’”
Currently, Montreal is still home to the comic, although she spends a lot of her year travelling, performing in Australia and the southern part of the United States. “I think the way I approach it is to make everywhere home, and any audience you’re performing for, that’s who you want to reach. I’ve been on Roadshow with Melbourne International Comedy Festival and played some really out-of-the-way rural towns and I’ve maybe looked out into the audience and thought, ‘Oh gosh, I’m not gonna connect with these people; we’ve nothing in common…’ and then go out there and do the show and everyone has a really great time. It’s hard to know where something will work better than somewhere else.”
There are, of course, subtle changes a seasoned comic can make to cater to different audiences. “If I’m in front of a rural crowd of middle-aged to older people,” DeAnne explains, “I might play up the ‘sweet, innocent’ angle a bit more just to get away with the things I want to say. And then, if I’m at the Feast Festival, in front of a group of lesbians, say, I might play up a slightly more aggressive or hard-edged angle. It’s just knowing what you can get away with in front of different crowds. It comes from experience and also instinct. You start to adjust onstage.”
Again, part of what helps DeAnne do that, is her image. People do assume she’s younger than she actually is. Which she readily acknowledges. She puts it down not just to her looks, but also to her spirit. “I have a brother and sister who are quite older than me – my brother is 11 years older than me and my sister is 7 years older. I had this revelation the other day: I’m in my 30s but I have this ‘kid sister’ energy. I keep waiting to outgrow it, but it just doesn’t happen.”
It might happen. In time. Perhaps it should have already. Perhaps that's why her next festival show is called About Freakin' Time. “It’s about time in general, and nerdy aspects like time travel, the concept of ‘forever’ and the passage of time, that sort of thing.”
If you haven't seen DeAnne Smith live yet, you really should this time round. It's About Freakin' Time.
I first encountered Sammy J at The Local, a pub in St Kilda, Melbourne. It was a Monday, so its comedy night, Local Laughs, was running. There was – as always – a strong bunch of comedians, each one standing out for different reasons. Sammy J was a musical comic, nattily dressed in suit pants, collared shirt. He kept a ‘popper’ juice on hand, with a straw, and he’d sip it from time to time, pinky extended. Tall, thin, angular… he looked a little awkward, but totally at ease with the awkward look. And he was great. Musically proficient – but you don’t notice that as much as you notice incompetence in a musical act – and very funny. You notice that, because in a musical act, it can often be the exception to the rule (though not at The Local, where being funny is always the pre-requisite for getting on stage). I particularly loved ‘The Backwards Song’, and immediately wanted to feature it on Radio Ha Ha, a podcast I was producing at the time. Turned out Sammy had a CD, ‘The Backwards Song’ was on it, and he was selling copies after the gig.
“That was Sammy J Live,” Sammy J recalls, speaking to me in Sydney in the middle of the current Opera House season of Ricketts Lane, his most recent collaboration with Randy – a puppet voiced and operated by Heath McIvor. It’s also the show for which Sammy J and Heath McIvor won the Barry Award for Best Show at the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
According to Sammy – who always appears genuinely modest about his talent and success – he started producing CDs early on because he had a heap of material. “You’re very prolific when you start out,” he says, “because you’ve got so much energy and ideas. And a great deal of them are not good ideas, but you just throw them out there anyway.” These days, Sammy insists, he’d spend more time on each show and each song, resulting in “less output, but output of a much higher quality”. He pauses before delivering the punch line: “In a word: ‘funnier’.”
What I instantly liked about Sammy J was that he was down-to-earth and at ease with himself and his material. Knew it was good; was happy to back it up. Handed me a CD and was happy to chat about it. Half a decade on, with a string of hit, sell-out seasons in Australia and elsewhere, Sammy J still happily hands over his latest CDs and DVDs, more than happy to make time to chat about his work.
“I was more than happy to talk about back then,” he confesses, “because there was very little interest in me. Not in a bad way. I was still just very much ‘up-and-coming’, and people had a lot of different opinions, of course, as every does about everyone. To some extent I’d been pigeon-holed at that point. But you showed an interest and you listened to the CD, and that means a lot when you’re starting out.”
Not long after I met him, Sammy J was named ‘Best Newcomer’ at the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his show Sammy J’s 55 Minute National Tour. It wasn’t just a showcase for a bunch of his best songs. It was a clever show that positioned the songs in a narrative. It was the first in a long line of shows that continue to do just that. But before we discuss Sammy J’s current show, we have to backtrack.
There’s a couple of rumours about Sammy J that you hear from time to time. One is that he only attended university in order to partake in the university revue tradition – a proving ground that has given rise to a heap of brilliant comedians both locally and internationally (think: the entire OxBridge Mafia of Pythons and Goodies, not to mention Aunty Jack…). The other is that he can’t actually play the piano…
“There’s a great deal of truth to the first rumour,” Sammy confirms.
Turns out, come the end of Year 12, Sammy J was shocked to discover he’d earned an excellent final mark. “People started telling me I should do law,” he says. “I was quite a nerd, so the idea appealed to me on one level. But the thing that clinched it was, all my comedy heroes – like the D-Generation and Shaun Micallef – had come out of law school and had spent time doing law revues and sketch comedy shows. So whenever anyone asked me whether I was looking forward to doing law, I’d say yeah, because I was looking forward to being involved in the revues.”
Sammy didn’t care much for the actual law, mind, which resulted in his dropping out two-and-a-half years into the degree. “I made it halfway,” he says. “By that point I’d appeared in and directed the comedy revues, so I’d got what I wanted. I kind of did a ‘smash and grab’ on the law’s legal system!”
Also by that point, Sammy J had started to make a mark on the comedy circuit. “I did my first ever gig during my first week of uni,” Sammy J recalls, “so the two really sat side-by-side. I moonlighted as a legal student by day, and at night I’d be at the Comic’s Lounge in North Melbourne, warbling away on my piano.
Ah, see, that’s the thing: warbling away on the piano. How much, and to what degree? Does warblage extend only as far as the songs require? Can the songs only embody a degree of complexity that Sammy J’s piano warblage allows? To put it simply, is it true that Sammy J has never had piano lessons?
Piano wasn’t his forte
“The short answer is that I’m self-taught,” Sammy begins. And he adds, “But the long answer – and it is a long answer – I will give to you because you have asked.”
From about the age of seven, the young Sammy J wrote poetry. He was so prolific that, as others become known as the ‘class clown’, he became the ‘class poet’. “That’s not something you necessarily want to be known as, I assure you,” he says. But Sammy J had a love of not so much ‘poetry’, as ‘rhyming’, to the point where all his teachers were immortalised in rhyme. In fact, all his written expressing – “all my stories!” – were composed in rhyming verse. “Well before any musical influence,” Sammy says, “I was into words and poetry”.
Piano appeared in the form of six months of lessons when Sammy J was ten years old. His entire pianoforte formal education consisted of being shown how to play, off by heart, Rolf Harris’s ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’. “There was no technique behind it; no theory; the teacher just told me which fingers to put on which keys.”
Was it worth it?
Well, Sammy J assures me, he can still play ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’.
But, he adds “it’s like driving”.
No, he corrects himself.
It’s more like “finding your way around the city by memory, without opening your eyes at any point: ‘count to ten, then turn left; count to three, then turn right’”.
However, it did ensure that ‘piano’ was the instrument, more than any other, that Sammy J identified with.
Five years later, the 15-year-old Sammy J was still writing poems, but better ones; ones that were “getting a little more risqué, perhaps,” he suggests. His music teacher, Mr Savage, suggested Sammy put one of his poems to music, and David, one of Sammy’s good friends, composed the music to what constitutes Sammy J’s “first ever proper song: ‘The Nerd Song’”. Sammy J even went on to perform it on Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s Red Faces segment. A successful enough debut.
However, David was a few years ahead of Sammy J, so their “Bernie Taupin/Elton John-styled combination” was due to come to an end. Thus, Sammy realised, if he were to keep “writing songs”, he’d have to be able to write the music as well as the words. So he gave it a go with his first completely solo song, ‘Fridge Man’, the “horrifying, sad story” about the little man who lives in the fridge and turns the light on an off, and who ends up “face-down, in a jug of lemonade”. Sad.
“I wrote the song literally sitting at a piano,” Sammy says, “trying to work out where the noises would sound best. It was completely self-taught, and it shows when you watch the video, because it was pretty appalling piano.”
From there, Sammy J kept “bashing away” on his own, “trying to work out what sounded good”. In time he discovered “chords”, or “collections of notes”, around which Sammy J’s entire musicality is based.
“I can’t read music, but I developed a musical ear,” Sammy J says. “Now if that wasn’t a long enough answer for you, I don’t know what would be.”
The long and the short of it
Sammy J’s music has come a long way. So much so that it’s surprising that he can’t actually read music – even though he understands chords and how they work. “I’ve certainly developed a musical mindset and understand a little bit of musical theory, but notes on a page mean very little to me,” Sammy J confesses. “And so does timing, sadly, and that’s something that I wish were different.”
While Sammy J can turn any idea for a song into an actual song, and play it in virtually any style – giving the joke depth by playing it in a musical genre at odds with the lyrics, when necessary – whenever he watches a “trained pianist”, he says, he’s “filled with rage and jealousy”. Yes, he’d love to learn musical theory at some stage. And yet… I can’t help imagining that, at least initially, this would take him backwards before it enabled him to progress forwards.
“I think that’s true,” Sammy J concurs. He’s had the chance to sit and learn with more accomplished musicians. In fact, Tim Minchin invited him over for a lesson a few years back. Each time, Sammy J says, “it was like standing naked in gym class: all your flaws are exposed…” Perhaps, he says, given three months off, he’d “lock” himself “away with some angry German tutor” who’d impart the important lessons by “strapping” Sammy J “with a cane”.
If that never happens, Sammy J shouldn’t be too worried – he’s come a long way by his own devices. “I look back on my early stuff, and my playing has a lot more confidence to it now,” he says. And not only that: the arrangements are more exciting, the shows have a lot more going on… it’s been a natural progression. And, furthermore, Sammy adds, his focus has changed. While the piano “is doing its job”, his “number one passion” is “comedy – more than music, more than theatre, more than anything.” The piano is there to serve the comedy, and the time that could have spent learning musical theory, Sammy J says, has instead been spent “getting back to the jokes and trying to make them funnier, as well.”
It's worked a treat.
That was the inspiration that was
Music teacher Mr Savage was responsible for more than just making a musical comic of the fledgling Sammy J. He also had a hand in directing Sammy’s style. Comedy nerds might have noticed a stylistic echo, in Sammy J’s work to a satirical songwriter of the 1960s, Tom Lehrer. Lehrer was a Harvard mathematics lecturer who wrote funny songs, and financed his first releases himself: Songs and More Songs. However, a certain so-called ‘satire boom’ that took place in the 1960s in Britain gave rise to a successful weekly television show entitled That Was The Week That Was, hosted by David Frost (of Frost/Nixon fame). That show proved popular enough for a successful American version to come into being. Tom Lehrer contributed a topical song each week, the best (or most enduring) of which were compiled and released as the album That Was The Year That Was, leading to further albums and international success for Lehrer. He undertook a sell-out tour of Australia.
Turns out Mr Savage used Tom Lehrer’s song ‘Pollution’ to teach a Year 7 music class about verse and chorus in song structure.
“I don’t think I’d be talking to you now if it wasn’t for him playing me that song,” Sammy J says. “That’s what made me think of writing poems in a musical context. For three years, from when I was 12, I was listening to Tom Lehrer’s That Was The Year That Was, with all of these ridiculous obscure 1960s American political references, which I had no understanding of. I just found them all hilarious and utterly enthralling.”
Like a lot of kids of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s with hip parents, Sammy J still finds himself occasionally “reading an historical article” when “another reference will pop up” to lyrics he committed to memory 15 years go. “I’ll suddenly have a chuckle because I’ll understand the joke Lehrer was making about Hubert Humphrey or something…”
If you don’t believe me, or weren’t aware, do yourself a favour: dig out some Tom Lehrer. If you’ve read this far, you clearly like Sammy J’s work. You’ll dig Lehrer. A lot of Sammy J’s early songs were responses to Lehrer’s influence.
“The ‘Train Network Song’ I wrote about Melbourne was my own ‘hat tilt’ to ‘The Elements’ song,” Sammy J says. “I wrote a song about the gangland shootings in Melbourne, called ‘Gangland Lullaby’, which was a response to ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’, a beautiful, sweet song, talking about something quite morbid. And my final big reference was to his song, ‘I Got It From Agnes’, his very risqué song about sexually transmitted diseases… ‘The Fingering Song’ was my modern-day take on that.”
It may be worth noting that Tom Lehrer also contributed to a kids show, The Electric Company. It was produced by The Children’s Television Workshop, the entity also responsible for Sesame Street. If you’re aware of the educational songs Lehrer wrote for it, you’ll note a similarity to the songs (and animations) of Sesame Street. Joe Raposo – who wrote and arranged a lot of Sesame Street music – collaborated with Lehrer on this material.
I bring it up because Sammy J’s current show, Ricketts Lane, features Randy, a puppet brought to life by Heath McIvor. Heath and Sammy first collaborated on a full length show a couple of years ago, in the form of the magical Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams – winner of the Age Critics Award at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Sammy, a real person, is transported to a fairytale land populated by puppets. There are shades of Muppets – and Disney – at work here.
“It was very much a childhood-based show,” Sammy confirms. “I made a point of having no piano, so it was an opportunity to show a different side of me – and introduce Heath McIver to the comedy world.”
How Sammy got Randy
Sammy met Heath – who’d been a puppeteer for a decade – a couple of years ago when they appeared on the same bill on the comedy circuit. “We saw each other, loved each other’s work, and started doing a few late night shows at the Butterfly Club in South Melbourne as Sammy J & Randy.” It was after those late night shows that they decided to collaborate on a full-length festival show, Forest of Dreams. But that show didn’t include Randy – or the piano; Heath and Sammy were exploring new territory. “It was such good fun that we decided to follow up, but in following up, we went back to the future – so Ricketts Lane is about Sammy J and Randy, which is how Heath and I first met. There is a nice continuity.”
There is also a nice kind of magic between the two. If you’ve seen them perform, there is a kind of ‘party trick’ they sometimes do, where Sammy J will talk for a long period of time without pausing. Initially you think, it’s off the top of his head. But Randy delivers the same speech, word-for-word, so it’s clearly a learnt script. What’s amazing is that Randy does his a few seconds after Sammy J, effectively talking over the top of him. It’s amazing – they don’t manage to throw each other or trip up. Turns out this bit of stage business can pop up at any time, and Sammy and Heath refer to it as the ‘talkie-walkie’.
“If we’re having fun on stage, we’ll start to do the ‘talkie-walkie’ – one of us will start talking and the other one will start to cut in, in a creepy, psychedelic fashion – just pick occasional words and repeat them. There’s no method to it – Heath and I know each other so well now that we’re not afraid to go out on a limb, and so we know one of us will be there to catch the other person if we try something different.”
Ah, I see.
In light of that explanation, I can only assume that the night I saw the ‘talkie-walkie’ in action, what happened was that Sammy J was, indeed, speaking off the top of his head. And that Heath, as Randy, was listening intently and repeating everything a few seconds later. But it was no less amazing – because they sustained it long enough for it to go from silly, to annoying, to weird, to hilarious. And it’s no easy feat, really. I know this, because at this point of the interview, I attempt to perpetrate a ‘talkie-walkie’ on Sammy J. I’m no Heath McIvor. It throws him. There’s a long pause. I have to explain my foolishness and apologise.
After he’s finished laughing at me, Sammy J tells how “the late show at the Opera House on Friday night…” – because there were two that night – involved a scene where Sammy visits Randy in gaol. During this scene, something usually goes wrong. “But this time we just started having a long, intricate discussion about my secretary Wednesday, and what sort of an umbrella she takes to work, and so on.” In all, they’d improvised from nothing a good three minutes of funny dialogue on the spot. “There’s something magical about it,” Sammy says of the ‘talkie-walkie’, and indeed, of his working relationship in those moments with Heath McIvor . “I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s like going down the comedy luge – you never know how it’s going to end up.”
The road to Ricketts Lane
Apart from a gaol scene as described by Sammy J, and the song about a love triangle that featured in the recent Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala, I know nothing about the plot of Ricketts Lane.
“Let me tell you about it by confessing that that song in the Gala has nothing to do with the show,” Sammy fills me in. “That song was written a couple of years ago when Sammy and Randy were doing spots like that on the circuit. The name Ricketts Lane came from that song.”
According to Sammy J, he and Heath love callbacks – the act of referring back to a previous joke, or work – and they love involving previous shows in current work. So Ricketts Lane contains nods to Forest of Dreams and Sammy J’s Heathless subsequent show, 1999 (which, produced in 2009, looked back at Sammy’s school life a decade earlier).
“It seemed very appropriate to call our new show Ricketts Lane. ‘Ricketts Lane’ became the name of the fictional street we live on. There is no love struggle whatsoever in Ricketts Lane, but when it came to promoting the show in the Gala, all the songs in the show – as they so often are – are some way linked to the storyline, so to pull one of those out, it’s suddenly not very funny because it’s out of context.”
Thus, as confusing as it is to set up an expectation for the show, by using that song in the Gala as the ‘ad’ for the show, it doesn’t appear in the show. It is perfect advertising though. It features the name prominently. And, Sammy adds, “it’s us and it’s our style of humour. That’s all people need to know.”
But can I know more about Ricketts Lane, I ask, concerned. That is the primary reason for this interview, even though the comedy nerd in me loves tracing everything back to earlier, if not first, principles.
“Absolutely – that was just my caveat,” Sammy laughs, letting some of his inner law student out. “I wanted to start by eliminating things from the plot before revealing the actual plot.”
Ah, an argument by induction: move from the specific to the general. I love it.
“The plot is quite simple: I’m Sammy J, and I’m a shit-kicking tax lawyer – which is a sort of Sliding Doors moment, because what would have happened if I had finished that law degree is anyone’s guess – and Randy is just Randy, a cruising sort of dude. He’s probably ten or 15 years older than me, he’s seen a lot of the world, and he’s really down on his luck, but he doesn’t moan about it much. I’m basically told by my employees that I have to find a high profile tax evasion scalp otherwise my job’s on the line because I haven’t had any successful prosecutions, and it just so happens, in the course of my investigations, I discover Randy, my best friend and housemate, has some dodgy tax skeletons in the closet, and so I’m forced to decide whether I’ll prosecute my housemate for tax fraud. That’s the nub of the drama.”
That’s quite a brilliant plot. Sammy J, nice guy, forced to be horrible, to his mate. He’ll be torn…
“That’s right. It’s classic Disney film; it’s Forest of Dreams… You’ve always got to have the breakdown of the relationship at the two-thirds mark; that’s always the same with any good three-act structure of any play or film. It sets up the characters.”
The greater plan with Ricketts Lane was not just to produce a show, but to establish Sammy J and Randy, and their style of comedy. “Nothing would suit better than for Randy to have to defend himself for all his past misdemeanours,” Sammy explains, “and Sammy J to be really finicky and anal about his job and basically rat on his best friend if the job requires it.”
Now, of course, Sammy J has always had a clear idea about how to produce merchandise – from his first CD, Sammy J Live, through Sticky Digits and the DVD Forest of Dreams. I assume there’ll be a DVD of Ricketts Lane.
“That’s an option,” Sammy says, revealing that they’re taping the Opera House season. “But we have ‘grander’ ambitions for Sammy J and Randy. One of the reasons for doing this show was as a bit of a TV pilot.” Rather than going to the trouble of filming a whole pilot – which requires time and money – Sammy and Heath have written a stage show that reflects the television show they’d most want to make. “By doing it as a live show, everyone can come and see it anyway, and you’ve killed two birds with one stone.”
That’s very clever indeed. Sammy J and Randy have the ideal relationship for a sitcom. Ricketts Lane establishes the characters with a clever plot, the way a first episode should. “We’re already working on the next episode, which will be our follow-up show next year. It’s a good use of time, to be writing another show, which could – in a dream world one day – become an episode of something.”
Sammy J and Heath McIvor are happy with how their work is going, to be aiming at a bigger plan. And they’ve clearly given it a lot of thought. After all, they took a year off from each other after 2008’s Forest of Dreams.
“It went so well,” Sammy explains, “and we’re such naturally cautious people that we wanted to not only preserve the relationship, but also challenge ourselves. It seemed almost far too easy to say, ‘let’s do a new show and cash in on that success’ because we enjoy moving the goalposts and want to avoid being typecast.” Thus, Heath undertook his first solo full-length show, Randy’s Postcards from Purgatory, which proved successful both in Australia and at Edinburgh Fring. And Sammy J did “the show that I’d wanted to do for a while, which was a tribute to school days: 1999”.
While “some people don’t have a good time at school” and others “love it”, Sammy J reports that he had the “whole range”, from being at “the bottom of the social ladder” to discovering “who I am, getting into comedy and becoming the class clown”. It can all happen in the period of six years. Or, in Sammy J’s hands, the sixty minutes of a musical comedy show. But, he acknowledges, a lot of people came to see the show off the back of Forest of Dreams, not knowing what to expect, and were thus confused, if not disappointed, because 1999 was “comparatively dark” as well as “sentimental”.
“It was a bold thing to do, but it was really fun to try something different,” Sammy says. “I hope I get the chance to do it again.”
Despite sharing the general experiences, being older means that some of the details of 1999 differ from my own school days. But I do recall friends closer to Sammy J’s age indentifying with the discman bound in bubblewrap to minimise disc skippage in transit. (In my senior years of school, few kids’ families had compact disc players yet, and only the wealthier had video recorders. Most kids played tapes.) However, the memory that most stands out of 1999 is of Sammy J in ‘dick stickers’. Or ‘budgie smugglers’, if you will.
“I’ve never heard ‘dick stickers’ before,” Sammy J says. “That’s great. I love it!”
Sammy J also got his top off to dress as a ‘commando’ in Forest of Dreams. And I know countless kids who not only saw Ricketts Lane repeatedly during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but who happily travel interstate to see subsequent seasons of it. I’m sure it’s the comedy that draws them. And the music. But Sammy J in various stages of undress must also help. Does he get his gear off in this one?
“You have no idea!” Sammy informs me. “I’m not going to rule anything in or out, but let’s just say that after going the full revolution outfit, and then the Speedos, there was only one thing we could do for Ricketts Lane, and you won’t be disappointed.”
Now, now, Sammy. My mind is on the verge of boggling, but I shan’t allow it, because, being a boy, you simply aren’t my type.
“It’s not necessarily the first thought you’d have, as far as how you’d go worse than Speedos,” he offers, but I still refuse to consider it.
“I’ll just wait and let you sit on that one,” Sammy J concludes. In a manner of speaking.
The interview is pretty much finished, but I’ve got Sammy J on the phone and there’s other great stuff he’s done I’d love to talk about. Like his 50 Year Show. Every five years – well, I say ‘every five years’ – the first took place October 3rd 2008; the next instalment takes place October 3rd 2013 and the last show takes place October 3rd 2058 – Sammy hosts a show with the same cast… as though the intervening years have been a mere interval. “As I said at the very end of the last one, ‘okay everyone, go to the bar, have a drink, finish your degree, lose a few loved ones, and pop back in five years time’. It’s really just a big comedic time capsule.”
Adam Hills took part, commencing the ‘50-year crossword’: “he pulled out that day’s newspaper and he had five minutes with the crowd to solve as many words as he could. He has to come back and pick up exactly where he left off. We’ll see how far he gets over the next fifty years.”
Frank Woodley undertook the ’50-year physical stunt’: “he did a backflip and we’re gonna see how he can do that every five years…”
Sammy opened the show by dancing with a bunch of five-year-old girls. “They’ve all agreed – or rather, their parents and legal guardians have agreed to let them – come back every five years and join me for the same dance while the video of them as five-year-olds plays behind us on the screen.”
Although Sammy has no clear idea where the show will lead, or how it will develop, the first installment was impressive. “It was a really electric night and it’s incredible that it actually worked out”. I’m looking forward the the DVD – well, I say DVD, I probably mean the memory chip I insert directly into my skull – in 2058, of the highlights of the show. There is a collection of edited highlights on YouTube.
“Even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow,” Sammy J reasons, “I will be happy that I kicked that off. And there will be plenty of good folk who will carry it on for me.”
That, too may well have been the point at which to end the interview – except that there’s still more news for Sammy J’s near future. He was one of a number of comics who filmed shows before a live audience, in a warehouse somewhere in Melbourne, a couple of months back. The resulting series of performances will be broadcast on ABC2 next year, as Warehouse Comedy, to be followed – or, let’s face it, preceded nowadays – by a DVD release. Sammy J took the opportunity to put a lot of his solo songs to bed: repertoire he hasn’t necessarily performed in a while, and may not perform again for a while.
“It was a really fun night,” Sammy says. “Ali McGregor came along to sing our song together – which was really nice.”
If you’re not familiar with Ali McGregor, you’re not really trying. Her late night variety show has long been a mainstay of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – not just a great way to end an evening of comedy – also a great way to be introduced to other acts worth seeing during the festival. But again, you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you know and like Sammy J’s work. Go back to Forest of Dreams – you’ll recognise her voice at the very opening bars of the theme song.
“We have the full version of her song on the DVD, with her playing the autoharp, Sammy J says – and I can’t help pointing out how cool it must be, being part of a performing community that is as generous as it is talented.
“It’s lovely,” Sammy agrees. “It’s one of the advantages of straddling the musical and comedy worlds – because music is a whole different world. I never would have dreamed that I’d have someone of Ali’s skill and talent to come and perform on my shitty DVD, but I’m very lucky that she agreed to be a part of it…”
“That’s a very lovely thing to say,” I interrupt, “but it’s not a shitty DVD…”
“You haven’t seen it yet,” Sammy laughs, but agrees – “no, it shouldn’t be too shitty…”
“Oh, that one,” I offer; I thought Sammy had been referring to Forest of Dreams. “Okay, your Warehouse Comedy DVD might be shitty, but it will be all the better for Ali McGregor’s presence.”
“That’ll be the sticker I put on the front,” Sammy announces: “‘Definitely less shit, because of Ali McGregor’.”
I can’t help myself. “In a lot of ways, this is the perfect ending for the interview, Sammy.”
Sammy J laughs in agreement:
“Sammy J: Less shit, thanks to Ali McGregor. And Heath McIvor.”