If you’ve spent any time in or around the Adelaide comedy scene, you’d have encountered Kehau Jackson, a comic who’s been doing comedy since 1993 back home in Honolulu, who somehow decided to trade in her idyllic island home for Australia – I guess you could argue it’s just a much bigger island – in 2002. ‘Starting out’ with a lot of newbies younger than her, Kehau appeared as kind of a ‘mother hen’ of comedy, insofar as she had – and continues to have – a nurturing attitude towards her fellow comics and comedy itself. Fittingly, she – along with close friends and colleagues Kate Burr and Maggie Wood – has devised a show about motherhood: Three Stuffed Mums. It debuted at The Maid, Stepney, as part of the 2011 Adelaide Fringe Festival, where it was nominated for a Bank SA Adelaide Fringe Peoples’ Choice Award, and returns there as part of the 2011 Adelaide Cabaret Fringe for three nights in June. Here’s a chat with Kehau.
Dom Romeo: What brought you to Australia?
KEHAU JACKSON: My second husband! He’s Australian.
I had a full time job in the travel industry for 25 years, organising travel groups, airfares and customer service and working at hotels and all that kind of stuff. I worked for large wholesalers and two or three of them were Australian, so I’ve had friends in Australia for many years.
Dom Romeo: Were you doing the same line of work when you came to Australia?
KEHAU JACKSON: No, when I got here my husband thought, if I wanted to do comedy full time, why not do that? I started at the bottom again – going out to the clubs and doing open mic and all that sort of stuff. Nobody knew me here, so if I said, ‘I’d done corporate, I’ve done some radio, I’ve headlined at some level back in Honolulu’, nobody knows me from Adam here; it doesn’t matter ultimately until you get on stage and the audience judges whether you’re worth listening to or not.
I got here in July 2002 so I had just missed that year’s Adelaide Fringe. I started checking out all the comedy clubs, going to all the open mics. I entered Raw in 2003, not thinking I would win – my goal was to be seen, to start making connections with other comics in a comedy setting, which I did. I did very well – I got to the state semi-finals. I achieved the goals I wanted: I got seen, I got known, I got offered gigs – by Craig Egan to do Adelaide Comedy gigs. I kept working steadily after that.
Dom Romeo: I find Adelaide a really interesting, particularly as someone who’s only visited it from time to time, because the comedy scene looks like a close-knit family.
KEHAU JACKSON: Adelaide is funny because it’s a city, but it’s a small town at the same time. You tend to get very close to the comics. Although the area is spread out, the area’s not as populated, so that relative amount of comedy per area is not as great. Because of that it’s a tighter-knit community. There’s good and bad for that. Too much of the same scene in any city isn’t good – too much inbreeding. It’s when people start going away and coming back, like any cultural experience, that it begins to grow.
Adelaide has an excellent comedy scene and excellent comics, but as a relative outsider, I think Adelaide suffers a bit from a feeling of inferiority to the other cities. The amount of talent isn’t really recognised for what it is until people come here and go, ‘wow, there are some really good comics!’ You’re never appreciated in your own neighbourhood! I think people really suffer from that here, and yet there are some outstanding comics from Adelaide who have gone on to do other great things: you’ve got Justin Hamilton, Dave Williams, Cameron Knight….
There’s a close scene also in Perth, I find. Perth comics are a lot like the comics in Hawaii – they all hang out together after shows. They’re a very close community. I found that when I worked in Melbourne and Sydney, not so much: you’re on your own afterwards.
Dom Romeo: You didn’t just do a show at Adelaide Fringe, you ran a room.
KEHAU JACKSON: This is the second year I’m doing it. Well, actually the third, technically.
The first year I did kind of a basic little thing over at the Griffins Head. They had rooms and charged us a decent amount for them and I charged a basic cost to the comics. It was pretty much a self-serve room: you do your own door, you do your own sound, announce yourself and jump onstage. The stuff was there for you to use, that’s how come it was so cheap. I didn’t make any money on it, but the idea was to give people a chance to do their first show without spending an arm and a leg so they could make some money – and most of those guys made more money than me. Two out of three nominees for best newcomer at the Adelaide Fringe came out of the Griffins Head: Jason Pestell and Michael Bowley.
The second year, which was last year, we hooked up with The Maid. They had missed getting involved with the Fringe the previous year – they had been renovating and re-branding themselves: the old Maid & Magpie became the more upscale Maid. By the time they figured out what was going on, it was too late to be a Fringe venue. So when we came in and said we’d like to combine space, they said yeah. They were a bit cautious with us because they didn’t know what we could do or if it was going to work or whatever because they’re a bit outside of the main hub of the Fringe. They’re close to it, but not within all the madness. The Maid’s got a lot going for it. It has free parking – that’s like gold during the Fringe. It has a bistro, so you can make reservations for dinner, you can go to the beer garden, and it’s convenient: you don’t have to go back and get your car. It’s accessible from three main roads, and it’s still within ten minutes’ walk from the Garden of Unearthly Delights. It’s the best of both worlds there.
So the Maid were happy to do it and they ended up getting quite a lot of business out of our people coming to the shows. From a production point of view, it was a bit better than self-serve – you still had to have your own door person because I didn’t want anyone hassling about money problems. But it became a hassle for people – particularly for the comics coming from interstate or overseas who didn’t have anyone on hand who could do their door: they don’t travel with an entourage or whatever. So this year I raised the price a bit and put on a door person – so the artist just has to turn up, give us their comp list, and we’re good to go.
I’ve learned a little bit every year. This year we had banner up on the front of the hotel advertising the Fringe shows – ‘Maid for Comedy’ – and we made a group poster, which we’ve never done before. I learn something every year and try to make it a bit better every year, and without gouging anybody, I make a decent amount of money for all the work I have to do, but that it’s still as competitive as possible.
I know there are some people who do a lot of work and charge a lot. My idea of the Fringe is not to make a ton of money, it’s to allow this stuff to happen. As long as you can be fairly compensated, you’re good. It’s the enjoyment of it. Because it’s what I love and what I think people can do well with, I’m happy to do a little extra work with a little less money, to make sure the entire thing goes off as well as possible. I work in the comedy industry all year long, not just during the Fringe, and you have to have some principles to go by. There are a lot of good people doing good stuff and willing to do good stuff. It can be a win/win for everybody.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about your show, Three Stuffed Mums, that pokes fun at ‘the oldest profession in the world’
KEHAU JACKSON: It’s myself, Kate Burr and Maggie Wood.
Maggie and I met the first year I did the Fringe, the second year I got here, at a photoshoot. It was 2003, the first year Raw had so many women entered – I think it was six – so they wanted to do publicity for it. They did a ring-around to see who was available, turns out she and I were the only ones who were. We did the photo shoot and started talking. We ended up going to each other’s heat to support each other. She was from Scotland and fairly recent arrived, and I was from somewhere else and so we kind of hooked up and been friends ever since. Kate we met around that time because she started getting into comedy. We worked together in Titters!, a showcase for female comics. We were the founding cast and Titters! won the People’s Choice Award that year. Ever since then we’ve been working together, off and on. Kate’s just had a baby, Maggie’s got a teenager, I’ve got an empty nest… and there’s a show!
Because Maggie does a lot of musical theatre, she said, ‘let’s write music’ and we said, ‘okay’, so we did. This is the first time we’ve all done stand-up comedy and music. We used some of her musical theatre contacts to make backing tracks, got all these lovely people that didn’t even know us to donate money to get a musical director and make backing tracks. We each wrote a song about our individual level of motherhood, so we each perform a solo song. We also have a theme song – which is traditional, so we don’t have to pay any royalties. It’s ‘Three Stuffed Mums’ to the tune of ‘Three Blind Mice’.
It’s been really fun to do and we’ve gotten a lot of support because although people talk about mothers, and Fiona O’Loughlin talks about being a bad mother, there’s not a lot of comedy aimed towards that market.
Our songs say it all: Kate’s is called ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Mum Today’. It’s so frenetic; there are so many things you have to do: they hit their heads, they roll over, everybody has advice…
Maggie’s is in that transition period: her son is 16 and her song is called ‘Teenage Blues’ – it’s a bluesy number.
My song is ‘You’ve Grown’. We’re at the end of the cycle now – you’re up, you’re out, you’re gone – with a bit of a twist at the end. It involves a feather boa but I’ll leave it at that.
The tagline is, ‘for everybody who’s had a mum or been a mum or is just wondering what the heck your mum’s been thinking all these years…’
Even though this show has a theme, each of the comics have different styles of comedy within that. We’re talking about mothers in our own era, but also in our own styles. Mine is a bit more brash and a bit more ‘what the f*ck?!’; Kate’s is very cheerful and very good-hearted and a very ‘good ol’ Aussie girl’ kind of thing. And Maggie’s a Scot, and has a different way at looking at things, and she’s got a teenager with all the problems…
It’s very good to see unity within all the diversity.