Not a political slogan, just good advice.
Although, 'keep lefter; keep even more left; keep ALL the left…' seems necessary for some drivers. True story!
Not a political slogan, just good advice.
Although, 'keep lefter; keep even more left; keep ALL the left…' seems necessary for some drivers. True story!
“Ack hghr lkjg alkhg,” offers Ben Mattick, the clean-shaven guitarist of the group.
I’ve phoned him at the appointed time on a Thursday afternoon, on the appointed number, in the hope of getting a quick interview with him. But Ben’s currently in the Seymour Centre Sound Lounge, below street level, so the mobile signal keeps breaking up.
When he moves closer to the door (I assume), he explains that he and brother Nick – aka Roger David and Fletcher Jones aka Smart Casual – are going through the tech run for their show Broken Dreams, the Sydney Comedy Festival run of which will be opening later that evening.
“I can call back later,” I suggest. “When’s the best time…?”
“Actually, now would be best,” says Ben. He hands the phone over to brother Nick, the hairy vocalist, who pops upstairs where reception is much better, and we’re off.
This year’s show, Broken Dreams, is about just that: Nick and Ben’s broken dreams in showbiz. “It’s about us selling out,” Nick confesses, “and wanting to move to Poland to start afresh.”
Poland? Why Poland? Is it because it sounds exotic, or do Nick and Ben actually have some links to that country?
“We’re under the illusion that musical comedy is getting really big there,” Nick says. “It’s very important to us, in the course of the show.”
Given Nick’s failure to elaborate further, I can only assume all will be revealed in the course of the show. But, I’m wondering, is ‘Mattick’ – the boys’ surname – of Polish origin?
“It can be…” Nick offers.
It can be! I love it. As ever, the world Nick and Ben offer is fluid with possibilities.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Smart Casual – and it may be the secret to their success – is their ability to ensure the song lasts as long as the joke. It’s one of the things that sets good musical comics apart from other comics who bung a song in. According to Nick, however, it’s common sense:
“We thought that’s important because if we're bored of something then the audience is probably very bored of it!”
Fair call. But – after five-odd years of success as a musical comedy duo – is it still important? Does a long-term audience, or the fact that you’ve been at it so long somehow meanyou can maintain interest in other ways and it isn’t so imperative to crack the gag and get out, as it were?
Actually, it does – because you learn ways to maintain interest. But Smart Casual have always known how to do that. They have a few “builders”, according to Nick, referring to devices that enable a song to last longer because they continue to add something that ‘buids’ upon the initial idea. “Something has to happen, if you know what I mean: there has to be a twist or a change-up,” Nick says.
A perfect example is Smart Casual’s first big hit, ‘The Hawk’: each verse develops the idea. Someone has to push The Hawk. On the catwalk. And, even after the verses have ended, things continue to happen: Nick keeps building with his shrieky 'CAW!' noise – the cry of a hawk – while he flaps his wings.
The 'origin story' of Smart Casual is simple enough. Brothers Nick and Ben wanted to do acting and music, respectively, but having set out on their chosen vocations, neither seemed to be doing particularly well just yet. According to Nick, “we met in the middle, I guess, and it just seemed to work.”
‘Just seemed to work’ is an understatement. As a comedy duo, the brothers complemented each other perfectly, each bringing something the other lacked to form a classic gestalt, where the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.
They competed in the Triple J/Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy competition of 2008 where, making it to the national final, they proved a crowd favourite. They were subsequently selected for 2009’s Comedy Zone, the show the Melbourne Comedy Festival puts together from the best up-and-comers.
“Raw Comedy opened a lot of doors, especially in Melbourne,” Nick recalls. “We got success really early and we thought it was easy, easy, easy. Then we hit a wall with our first full-length show.”
I’m not sure what exactly Nick means. Their first full-length show, technically, was Art vs Smart Casual, which took place at the Melbourne Fringe Festival of 2009. The show saw the pair line up the multitude of art forms – acting, dancing, painting, et cetera – against musical comedy to see which held more merit (“it was a draw”). Among the reviews garnered was a particular favourite, the verbal feedback of a punter: “you guys are shit-hot”. The Age considered them “immediately likeable”, opining that “Aussie laconic humour is alive and well”, while Buzzcuts recognised their work as “exceptionally clever and well executed”, predicting the duo to be “destined for big things”.
2010 saw them deliver the show Same Mother, Different Fathers at festivals around Australia.
“Is that true?” I ask, a little sheepishly, about the title. After all, Nick and Ben do look quite different. “Esau is an hairy man, while Jacob is a smooth man,” to borrow from Alan Bennett’s paraphrasing of Genesis 27:11. If I hadn’t been told they’re brothers, they look different enough that I wouldn’t have guessed it.
“No, that’s bullshit,” Nick says. “It’s just that I’m ‘Fletcher Jones’ and he’s ‘Roger David’ and we’re brothers; that’s the way we worked that out. In our shows, if it helps us being full brothers, we’re full brothers; if it helps us being halvies, we’re halvies. The truth doesn’t matter!”
Well, that’s one bit of the folklore dealt with. There was another story that did the rounds a little while ago, that both brothers were working as teachers’ aids until some of their material was deemed perhaps a little unsuitable. Maybe, at some level, there was a conflict of interest having both careers running concurrently.
“Ben still is a teacher’s aid,” Nick reports, but sets me straight on the story: Smart Casual have a song about autism. Nick worked in a class with autistic kids. One of the kids’ parents went to see the show.
“I didn’t know she was coming, but she loved it, so it was okay,” Nick says. “They seemed to not mind it. But then it got out that we did that…”
So that’s the story: a non-offensive song that didn’t cause offense, that through a process of ‘Chinese whispers’ enraged someone at a distance who probably neither saw the show nor is attached to a child with autism, who got offended on the behalf of others. Isn’t that always the way!
“I think it’s important to note that the joke is about the misconceptions of autism,” Nick says, “rather than having a laugh at someone’s expense. I think that if the joke’s good enough, and in the right place, you can laugh at almost anything.”
Definitely. Given the right context and enough talent (the greater the talent, the less necessary the context) than anything can be funny. The comedian’s job, always, is to say the unsayable. But that’s not what’ll turn an audience, necessarily.
2011’s The Story of Captain Entrée marked a departure from the duo’s earlier work. “It was narrative, which I liked, but if we didn’t get the audience early, they were gone,” Nick explains.
It would be disingenuous – or just plain wrong – to think Smart Casual’s audience prefers a program of funny songs with no linking story over a program of less funny songs; or that Smart Casual have done away with the narrative form. If you had trouble lasting the entire voyage of Captain Entrée without threatening mutiny, rest assured, Broken Dreams will satisfy you. But it still contains a connecting narrative. Still, Nick advises, “it’s more of a variety hour. It’s got everything: dance, song, a bit of art, film…”
My immediate thought is that it thus also harks back to Art vs Smart Casual, the difference being intervening years of experience and development, and a lot more sophistication in its execution. And rather than merely talking about those other artforms, Smart Casual are actually physically executing them and incorporating them in the show. Hence the need to complete a tech run before opening night in Sydney, despite having spent a month doing the show in Melbourne.
And then my subsequent thought is that, if Smart Casual are presenting a multimedia variety show on stage, surely their own television show or Smart Casual: The Movie can’t be too far away.
However, what’s actually happening is that, having performed Broken Dreams some 50 times this year already, they’re able to pull it off every night, and spend their days writing their next show.
“But we’re definitely looking toward the future,” Nick assures me. “We’ve done a lot of filmed stuff that we’ll throw onto YouTube after this run finishes, and we’re gonna do more of that kind of stuff. It’s really fun to do that.”
Which begs the question: does Smart Casual have a DVD out yet?
“No, we don’t have a DVD,” Nick says. “We have a very old CD. We probably need to get a new one of those, as well.”
All in good time. Right now, it’s all about the Sydney Comedy Festival run of Broken Dreams.
“This is the best thing we’ve done, this show,” Nick says. “It has taken us four or five years to get here, so it’s a solid hour. It’s very fun to do and it’s very fun to watch.”
See Smart Casual’s Broken Dreams Sydney Comedy Festival run at Seymour Centre Sound Lounge at 9:30pm until Sat 28 April.
“I really want to be in musical theatre, but I can’t sing,” insists stand-up comic Joel Creasey. “But I only want the leading lady roles, because they’re better roles. So even if I could sing, I still wouldn’t be able to play the roles I wanted. I want to be Miss Saigon; I want to be Elphaba in Wicked. Unless I have a sex change, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
I’m talking to Joel not long after his touching down in Sydney on a Tuesday afternoon, in that brief respite between the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which has just ended, and the Sydney Comedy Festival, whose opening gala will be taking place in a matter of hours. Joel’s show Naked is featuring at both festivals this year. According to Joel, the Melbourne run was “definitely my favourite season so far”.
“I really like the show,” he says. “Normally, by this stage, I’d be sick of it. But I’m not – I’m still enjoying it.”
At the ripe old age of 21, Joel Creasey is a veteran of two Raw Comedy competitions – “I made the State Final two years in a row in Perth but then lost two years in a row” – and three festival shows, with Naked marking a clear progression in the comic’s development.
“It’s definitely a better show and a better structured show,” he insists. “And it has more to it than my other shows have had.” Part of what gives it more substance is the fact that Naked is all about Joel, whereas his first show, Joel Creasey’s Slumber Party – earning him a nomination for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the 2010 Melbourne Comedy Festival – dealt with celebrities. And the subsequent year’s Party Animals was about politics.
The reason the focus of his scathing wit has been turned inwards, Joel says, is because “I’ve bagged out a lot of other people and I figured it was my turn.”
Joel’s first forays into self-expressive arts were theatrical, tinged with comedy. Over time, the theatricality has fallen away to the point where it’s the pure stand-up of a comic not even making observations about the stuff around him, but about his own life experiences. And it may seem a bit premature to be doing that at age 21, but you have to remember, Joel’s been doing this since he was 17. Though comedy wasn’t the grand plan, so much as it was an escape route:
“I couldn’t be bothered studying and realised you don’t have to study for comedy, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do that!’”
But it’s not as clear-cut as that. Because after finishing high school, there was a cursory attempt at tertiary education – a good three months pursuing a degree in political science. “I pulled out because I was hating that and loving comedy,” Joel insists.
At school, Joel’s major passion – and strongest subject – was drama. Indeed, having gone to drama school, Joel reckons he would have stayed in theatre had comedy not “come along”. But I doubt that, because even when he was doing theatre, he could never stay in it without turning to comedy.
Consider Joel’s final Grade 12 drama piece: he was one of the few Year 12 drama students in his state – or perhaps the country – who opted to deliver a comedic piece. “Grade 12 kids aren’t funny,” he argues. “Their pieces are always serious – about suicide or something heavy like that.” Not Joel’s. He chose to write a funny piece about a character of his own invention – flight attendant Glen Suavé, “hell-bent on taking over the world”.
The character was disgusting, racist, offensive, and – according to Joel – “based on many Qantas flight attendants I’ve had the joy of meeting”. Naturally, Joel’s peers failed to understand what Joel was doing. Thankfully, his examiners did.
“I got amazing marks!” says Joel. “That was the thing that got me through Grade 12; it evened out my bad marks in maths and science and every other subject.”
It was also the thing that got Joel into stand-up comedy – since that monologue formed the basis of his first routine. “I was actually doing character comedy when I started,” Joel admits. “Now, obviously, I wouldn’t touch that, but I spent my first six months doing characters.”
Character comedy isn’t for everyone. As with all the various comedic subgenres, there are the truly talented who do characters very well. And chances are, had he stuck with it, Joel would have become such a comic. Instead, he found himself jealous of other comics who could “just get up and chat about their lives”. Realising that was the sort of comedy he wanted to be able to do, he soon realised he had to “drop the character”.
Which is why Naked serves as a marker in Joel’s career trajectory: he’s gone from being a character to being himself talking about other people, to being himself talking about himself. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Particularly in the first year after Joel jettisoned the character, there was the fear that nobody particularly wants to hear about his life. “And still, sometimes I’ll get halfway through a story and think, ‘oh god, do people really want to know about me?’”
Clearly, they do. Particularly when Joel can make it sound so funny. But right now, I mostly want to know about his relationship with his parents. Clearly, they’re cool about his career choice in showbiz, if they had sent him to drama school!
“My parents are actors themselves, so they’re cool,” Joel confirms. Now that he’s based in Melbourne, Joel’s folks travel from Perth every year to check out the show. “They’re pretty into it. They’ve never tried to dissuade me in any way.” How could they? As Joel points out, having started at age 17, he actually needed his parents to attend all of his performances as they took place in pubs.
“I had to go with them to get in. That was fun! I’m sure that that’s how all the big-name comics do it…”
So Joel didn’t have the usual comedian’s story of “my parents disowned me when I started doing comedy”; perhaps he might have has a “my parents disowned me when I started doing musical theatre taking on the leading lady roles” but that’s just as unlikely. However, he still has the basic tale of overcoming adversity that so many comics have. The disbelievers, against whom every one of Joel’s successes is a victory, are “everyone I went to school with!”
“They were horrible to me because I was the Drama Captain – Surprise! There were just so many arseholes I went to school with. I just want to stick it in their face.”
Consider it stuck. One of my fonder moments in Melbourne took place in the shopping centre, Melbourne Central. On one level, every pillar is a poster board, meaning that on that level, literally hundreds of posters are Blu-Tacked to be viewed by the multitude of passing shoppers. I regret not having taken a photograph of the poster for Joel’s Naked, in which he’s depicted pretty much as the title suggests. Because someone had gone to the trouble of fashioning a cock-and-balls and adorning his poster with it.
“I’m hoping they used a lot of Blu-Tack,” Joel says.
I’m not in a position to confirm the anatomical accuracy of it, but anyone can graffiti a poster with texta, and Joel concurs that it is “a very impressive effort” that someone has gone to. “I’m very proud of that,” he says. “That took time and effort. I’m flattered. I hope they bought a ticket to the show as well…”
Speaking of the show, it’s worth chasing down what it is actually about.
“People say Naked is a ‘gay show’,” Joel says, “but it’s not. It’s relatable to everyone. It’s just that I’m so camp, people are always going to assume that. Which sometimes annoys me, because reviewers come to my show and call me ‘really gay’, and I don’t think they would go and see a woman comic and call her ‘really feminine’.”
That Joel’s camp persona is larger than life should come as no surprise. That’s what a camp persona essentially is. And while it will always be part of Joel’s comedic style – “I have very limp wrists throughout the entire performance, and my gay nasal twang is out in full force” – it doesn’t dictate the substance of the material. Party Animal, for example, was more ‘gay’, insofar as, since it was dealing with politics, it had to address the issue of single-sex marriage.
Naked – a title devised “years ago” – is all about Joel. It consists of stories stretching from primary school to high school and involves “getting drunk and things that everyone does, not just gay guys.” Although, he adds, “we probably do get drunk more than most people…”
Furthermore, in the more pat description, Naked is “all about fears, secrets, nudity and Xena the Warrior Princess”. Since one of the secrets is that Joel’s “a mad fan of Xena the Warrior Princess – and not ashamed!” it’s easy to see why some reviewers will consider the show a bit ‘gay’.
Thing is, as with many gay comics, the audience, paradoxically, will consist mostly of ‘straights’. Forgive the generalisation – or at least, hear me out first – but it seems that gay men usually have such a biting sense of humour that, usually, nobody else can be as funny as them and their mates, or at least, systematically amuse them as much as their mates. So they don’t go out and see comedy as readily as ‘straight’ audiences. And it’s the straight audiences who dig the gay comics most, because they’re getting access to insights and observations they wouldn’t usually hear.
Don’t freak out at the last paragraph. Particularly, don’t freak out just because it contains the adjectives ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. It’s just a more specific example of the greater truism, that comics are like prophets: appreciated less in their own land, they have to go off and preach to other people who have not been brought up in the same environment/class/belief system.
“We are very good at taking people apart, piece-by-piece,” says Joel, agreeing initially that he doesn’t have “a massively gay audience”. Then he corrects himself:
“I do: I would have more of a gay audience than, say, Dave Hughes.”
However, he says, his “dream audience” are the ones found in regional towns and “rough clubs” because of the challenge they pose: “you can win them over; they’re easier to shock. Whereas, while gay guys generally seem to have a great sense of humour, they’re very hard to shock. There’s always that weird element of competition there.”
But there are a lot of gay people in his audience, Joel realises, because when he was playing in Melbourne, the women playing in the venue before him noticed how fabulously attired his audience was. “They said they loved walking out and seeing my crowd queuing to come in because they’d all be so well dressed. They’d see what sort of looks were in season and take notes!”
The major demographic a good looking, young gay guy naturally plays to is present and accounted for in significant numbers in Joel’s audiences: teeny-bopper girls.
“I love them because they are great laughers,” Joel says. “But sometimes they bring their parents, and I think, ‘Oh god, you don’t know what you’re in for…’” Not that there are awkward moments during the show, so much. More likely, there are “many awkward car rides home”.
This is particularly true given some of the fears Joel addresses in Naked. One of them is, indeed, of being naked. Hence the show’s title. And poster.
“The show’s about me getting my kit of metaphorically,” Joel says. “And physically…”
There is a point in the show when the comic strips.
“So, yeah, when the young girls bring their parents it’s like, ‘oh god… I’ve got to take my clothes off at some point…”
In addition to his fear of being naked, Joel also has podophobia: “a weird fear of feet”.
“I’ve never liked them,” he says. “I hate them. They freak me out…”
Although he can deal with his own, Joel loathes other people’s. “I just don’t want to see feet. I hate thongs and sandals and crocs and things like that.”
Initially, Joel’s foot fear was not part of this show. Not until he happened to mention it to fellow comic Adam Richard while at a dinner party.
Adam’s immediate reaction?
“He put his feet in my potato salad, of course!”
The following day, Adam told his multitude of Twitter followers that Joel Creasey has a foot fetish, asking people to send Joel pictures of their feet.
“It was awful!” Joel says. “He’s got ten thousand followers, so I got a lot of pictures of feet.” And, being “very OCD”, Joel was forced to open every single attachment, “just in case one of them was a gift voucher for a million dollars.”
Oh, that reminds me of a horrible photo I saw online, of someone who had been shot in the foot.
“If I can find the image, I’ll send it to you,” I promise.
“Please don’t,” Joel says. “That’ll haunt me!”
See Joel Creasey's Naked at the Sydney Comedy Festival at Seymour Centre Sound Lounge at 7:30pm, Thurs 26 April to Sat 28 April.
McGinlay follows Maron - WTF?
You probably know Danny McGinlay - perhaps as Australia's only Three Michelin Star Comedian, the ‘Food Dude’ who’s presented a dedicated menu of cuisine-related festival shows over the years. Maybe you’ve seen him on The Circle; or as the warm-up guy for The Circle and other television shows. Possibly you read his soccer blog, or have seen him as an extra in a film. At the very least, you should know him as a solid headliner that can turn even the coldest, reticent room into a den of happy punters, howling with laughter.
Even though I know him as the first guy I ever saw make a Harry Potter reference - long before it was de riguour to make those references – like a lot of comics I never got to see coming through the Sydney open mic scene, my first awareness of Danny McGinlay was via a recommendation from another mate of mine who is a stand-up comedian: Julia Wilson. She’d gigged with him in the UK and one day assured me if I ever met him that I should say g’day cos he’s a good comic and a good bloke. When that opportunity arose I did indeed say g’day, and discovered Danny to be both the good comic and good bloke that Wilson described him to be.
“Wilson’s ‘Good Bloke’ police?” Danny asks, laughing, when I tell him. We’re sitting in my kitchen, about to go to a gig at the Old Manly Boatshed, chowing down on a homemade pie (courtesy of my girlfriend) before we leave.
Turns out Wilson had recommended me to him as well. He was staying at her place while playing in Sydney, and one of his gigs was a Raw Comedy heat I was judging at the Comedy Store back when I used to judge Raw Comedy heats at the Comedy Store. Danny McGinlay was the feature act who entertained the crowds during the judges’ deliberation.
“I was panicking about how I’d find my way back to Wilson’s place,” Danny recalls, “around the corner from you. She said, ‘Dom Romeo’s a judge; you’ll give him a lift home; he’ll direct you. You’ll be best friends forever’.”
That’s more-or-less the case. And why not? Danny’s that perfect mixture of good comic and good bloke. He’s pretty down-to-earth. Take, for instance, the time he followed Marc Maron on stage at HiFi an MICF ago or so.
“I gigged with him, not knowing who he was,” Danny recalls, “and I think that helped.”
Speaking to him briefly before the gig, Marc “seemed like a bit of an angry bastard,” no different to so many other comics. So rather than awe – the universal response of every comic and comedy lover who has heard Maron’s legendary comedy-deconstructing WTF podcast and actually recognises him when they encounter him - Danny approached Maron with the polite indifference of the ignorant, concentrating on the gig at hand. “I followed him on and afterwards people said, ‘oh my god – you just got as many, if not more, laughs than Marc Maron’. I was like, ‘yeah, so? He’s just an international…’
Danny McGinlay started gigging in London at 23 – an age I consider quite young when you’ve not actually grown up and started doing comedy in England. But he puts it in perspective for me. “I started very young. I was the first of the ‘underage’ comedians!”
Apart from earlier school concert spots – consisting of the sort of jokes you rip off from joke books – Danny made his open mic debut at the ripe old age of 16 at St Kilda’s legendary Esplanade Hotel – aka ‘The Espy’. Still a full time school kid, Danny couldn’t hit the comedy scene “properly”, instead being forced to “sneak into a few places underage”. It wasn’t until he’d finished high school that Danny could “dive into the open mic scene”. Which is exactly what he did.
Rather than waste time pursuing one of those ‘careers to fall back on’, so beloved of parents, Danny gave uni a miss. “All I wanted to do was be a stand-up comedian, so I didn’t go to uni. I didn’t even apply for anything. I just wanted to do comedy.” The fact that he was an intelligent but seemingly under-achieving kid – “I’d get Cs and Bs, and comments like, ‘you’re correct, but you haven’t structured this essay properly’” – suggested that Danny would always be a better talker than a writer. So making his case humorously, on stage, had to win out.
While it’s not uncommon for Aussie comics, particularly of a certain (youthful) age, to make their foray into the UK scene – there’s always a bunch of ’em – Danny didn’t head over for the comedy. It was for a girl. “Who I’m now marrying,” he assures me, “so it’s fine”.
Danny’s fiancée did go to uni, and furthermore, after completing her degree, “did the whole ‘finished uni so I’m going off overseas for a couple of years’ thing”.
What chasing a girl to England means is, whereas there should have been some research and organising and a five-year plan to get somewhere in the stand-up world, Danny went more on a whim. And happened to get a bit of work while he was there.
“I certainly didn’t set the comedy world on fire,” he says of his time in Ol’ Blighty. “And that’s fine with me, because I have no desire to live in England. Every other aspect of life is better here in Australia.” To prove it, he invites me to pick something at random. But I don’t need to. I wasn’t long in England before I quickly realised how much I take the quality of fresh food for granted in Australia.
“F*ck yeah! You know exactly what you’re talking about,” Danny says, before adopting the instantly recogniseable voice of a surly pommy git: “Nup! You can’t ’ave that!”
Not that living in the UK doesn’t have advantages: the US and Europe are much easier to get to. And the comedy scene is awesome. But occupying a three-bedroom sharehouse with eight other people is much less so. Particularly when you’re the only one who has English as a first language.
Hang on, does not compute: didn’t Danny chase a lady to England? Yep. And her English is perfect. But, being of Ukrainian descent, Ukrainian was her first language. Turns out Danny’s true love was initially “the weird kid in prep school with funny-smelling lunches who couldn’t speak English…”
Danny insists life “wasn’t great” in the UK – cramped living conditions, virtually broke all the time. “The only thing you can do there is drink, because that’s cheap,” he says. But it did lead to his developing a love of soccer – “because all I could afford to do was have a few pints watching all the matches that were on in the pub” – and becoming a better comic – “I was doing three or four gigs per week, most of them paid, though only about 40 quid to MC”.
Turns out one of the flaws of the English comedy scene is that MCing isn’t so highly regarded, with the least experienced person made to MC. Really, the MC is the second most important person on the bill, after the headliner: a good MC paces the room to ensure every act has the opportunity to ‘kill’ – rather than ‘die’ – thus ensuring the audience gets the most laughs. They may have come only to see the headline act (or support their buddy the open mic-er) but if the night is run badly, they may not manage to stay to see the headline act, or may be burnt out by the time the headliner comes on. The MC has to ‘re-set’ the room after each act so the next one has the optimum opportunity to entertain the crowd.
“Only in London’s Comedy Store – in my opinion, the best comedy club in the world – does the really good comic MC,” Danny says. “And they get paid better than everybody else.”
Despite the excellent opportunity the UK offers comics – this isn’t cultural cringe, the truth is the comedy scene is far more developed and more generously rewarding for the truly talented – Danny returned to Australia in 2006. Ask him what brought him back to Australia and he’ll be adamant in his response:
“Everything! I want to spend my days off in a flat that’s not the size of a table. I wanna see my friends. I want to eat good food. I want to go out and not have all the pubs close at the exact same time, so that everyone who’s drunk and just sculled three pints cos it was ‘last drinks’ is now out together on crammed tubes –I’ve no idea how they think that prevents violence…” On that subject, he adds, “If you had 24-hour drinking in London, for the first three months, nothing would get done. But after that, the whole culture would change and there’d be less violence.”
Believe it or not
Culture of violence is an interesting tangent to pursue with Danny. He’s proper Irish Catholic, and has what he describes as “a very controversial position” on religion: “I think religion ultimately does more good than harm. But you can’t really say that to someone in the very sectarian arts world, where not being an atheist is as bad as being an atheist in Alabama.”
At the same time, Danny says, he probably would not identify himself as ‘Catholic’ were it not so important to his grandparents that they call themselves ‘Catholic’. It looms large in his heritage. “They had to fight, and were spat on, for being Catholic,” he says.
I know Danny’s proper Irish Catholic, with overtones of ‘The Troubles’, from the time I posted a YouTube clip of Paul McCartney and Wings playing their first single, ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’. Unlike everyone else who had a go because it is, essentially, a lousy song, Danny had a go because I referred to the ruthless suppression of a protest that inspired it (and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Luck of the Irish’ and U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’) as a massacre that took place “in Londonderry”. Danny assured me the place is called ‘Derry’.
“But that place is called ‘Derry’,” he reiterates. “My family is from the north of Ireland, both the Republic and the ‘Occupied Counties’. I correct ‘Londonderry’ because it’s still a big factor; whether you call it ‘Derry’ or ‘Londonderry’ shows where you’re from.” And indeed, your politico-religious leanings. Or in my case, ignorance.
In settling in Australia, Danny’s father has tried to ensure piece would reign for subsequent generations. But when visiting the homeland, Danny says, “of course the relatives are still angry and talk about it.” Furthermore, he says, “half the family’s from Glasgow, so it’s ‘Belfast’ on a larger scale. They never had the bullets – they punch each other instead.”
The cousins in Glasgow still refuse to consider themselves ‘Scottish’, even despite being born there – of parents also born in Scotland. “They’ve barely been to Ireland – but they’re still Irish!”
Sounds like a future show…
Before London, Danny spent time as an on-air radio personality – again, proof of his early over-achieving. In 2002 he appeared in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together from that year’s batch of best up-and-comers.
“I was head-hunted from that to be on the Fox Brekky Team,” Danny confesses. “Which lasted all of six weeks.” The powers-that-were at FOX FM decided to add Danny to ‘Tracy & Matt’ – the on-air team that consisted of Tracy Bartram and Matt Tilly. Only, they hadn’t really informed Tracy and Matt. “They got told on a Friday that there’d be a new guy on Monday.”
And how was that Monday? Well, all of Danny’s radio experience thus far was “not much community radio”, so he was always going to be “nervous as f*ck”, as he so descriptively puts it.
“I was 19. I’d never had a real job. Suddenly I’m on Fox FM Breakfast. I don’t know what I’m doing. The atmosphere was tense, but I figured that was just my perception, on account of my nervousness.”
Luckily, Tracy & Matt were able to send young Danny out in the field. The Osbournes was the big reality television show that everyone was talking about, so FOX FM started a competition to find Melbourne’s weirdest family, ‘The Melbournes’. Danny lasted “a good month” by going out to families’ houses in the morning, and interviewing them. “That was my segment. They’d cross back to me a few times. It was pretty awful.”
Knowing not to make that mistake again, Danny says, FOX FM had the good sense to introduce the next new team member as a writer, just one day a week. And then two days a week. Get him in softly before giving him his own segment. “Within six months he was part of the team and I’d been shafted to Black Thunder driver,” Danny says. “I got the arse.”
Who was that other new guy, I wonder? Did he go on to bigger and better things?
“He’s a guy who’s done nothing with it subsequently,” Danny says. “Don’t know if you’ve heard of him: Hamish Blake.”
Ah yes. That underachiever. Who’s done nothing subsequently. Apart from just about everything. Including winning a Gold Logie. “You lost your job to Hamish Blake?!” I demand, Admittedly, a tad too insensitively. Still, it was ten years ago now.
“I was the first guy who was ever sacked for Hamish Blake,” Danny concurs. Adding: “Twice.”
What? Danny McGinlay lost his job to Hamish Blake twice?
Oh yes. Turns out Danny was doing late nights by the time Hamish & Andy got their own radio show. And, he says, “I got shafted for that!” So Danny McGinlay has lost his job to Hamish Blake twice… “before he was even famous!”
Although it wasn’t immediate and total. At first, Hamish & Andy were only on one night a week. So Danny – hired as a comic, demoted to Black Thunder driver, ended up just another jock doing late nights. And as it was commercial radio, there was no end of directives instructing him how to be better at it.
“They’d say things like, ‘We hired you as a comedian on air, so why don’t you be funnier?’ So I’d try to do stuff. And then I’d get calls from above saying, ‘Why are you talking for so long? People just want to hear the music, not your opinions or your banter with callers. Get to the point or get off the microphone!”
In the end, Danny was doing the graveyard shift on Triple M in Sydney, from Melbourne. “By that time I knew I didn’t want to be a jock anymore so I had fun with it,” he recalls. It was that period of broadcasting when everyone had to have a nickname, and one of Danny’s best afternoons was the one he spent devising his own nickname. “I was trying to come up with stuff that was really nerdy but didn’t sound nerdy. Like…” – adopting commercial radio ‘jock’ voice – “…‘Hey, it’s the Raven Claw!’” (One of the Houses at Hogwarts in Harry Potter, Danny thinks he ought to explain to me. I am a half-generation older than him. “Or ‘It’s Slayer here’, as in ‘vampire slayer’.”
Despite spending an hour compiling an extensive – and extensively nerdy – list, the first suggestion on it was ‘The Wookie’, so the email came back almost immediately: “Wookie. Great. That’s who you are.” Danny’s certain they never even read beyond the first item.
“And what was your response?” I demand, but don’t give him time to reply before adding: “Do it!” Danny complies, offering an excellent Chewbacca impression.
“I was doing graveyard shifts on Triple M Sydney: ‘It’s the Wookie…’” – does the sound effect – “‘…here’s Khe San’.”
Since it was midnight to dawn shift on commercial radio, Danny was certain nobody was listening until the last half hour – between 5am and 6am, in the lead-up to the breakfast crew. “That’s when you’d have to be quite good – which was always the hardest because you’d be exhausted. But you’d have to go to a news break and you knew that people were starting to listen.”
This is when ‘The Cage’ was Triple M’s highly-rating breakfast crew, so Danny often had to announce, “The cage is on in 20 minutes” and throw to a highlights package. One time he extemporised a little with, “Tell you what – today’s episode of The Cage is the best. Ever. If you miss a second of it, you will kick yourself. It’s just going to be absolutely fantastic. Anyway. Here’s some stuff they did last week…” before cuing the highlights package. At which point a call came through from Triple J’s program director, who also happened to be the anchor for The Cage:
“Mate. What are you doin’?”
“I’m plugging The Cage.”
“Sayin’ it’s the best show ever?”
“What if it’s not? Why are you putting pressure on us? What if it’s not? Why would you do that? Now people are gonna turn it off if it’s not.”
Ah, the pressures of breakfast radio.
“What I wanted to say was, ‘if you get off the phone and do some research and prep, maybe it will be the best show ever!’” Danny relates. “I got in trouble for over-selling the show!”
Sounds like Danny McGinlay was just about ready to disappear overseas…
Danny established himself as the ‘food’ comic more-or-less out of the blocks. His first ever solo festival show was a cooking show entitled Monumental Cook-Up. “It was on at 10:45pm, down an alleyway. It got reviewed on its first night really positively by Helen Razer before there were star ratings in reviews, but I reckon it would have been a four-star review. I got a lot of ticket sales from that, but being on at 10:45pm down an alleyway, the season fizzled out.”
Though not all Danny’s shows have beena bout cooking, many have been. This, he insists, is mostly out of practicality: “When I procrastinate, I cook. This was a way of using procrastination to my advantage.” But apart from that, and also out of practicality, being the ‘Food Dude’ meant that Danny had a theme that set his shows apart. “It meant I was doing something that nobody else was doing,” he says.
Although, when you see headlining at a club or pub gig, you’re not gonna see Danny cook, and there’s a practical reason for that, too: “When you’re cooking and telling jokes, you’re splitting the audience’s focus.” It’s too difficult to listen and laugh if you’re concentrating on the food prep – which is borne out by reviews saying the same thing: “It’s a very funny show, but it’s more interesting than funny”. That’s “fair enough”, he says: “I’d be creating things with my hands, and even though I’d throw funny jokes out there, often they were too engrossed in what I was doing to pay attention to what I was saying.”
Of course, Danny’s a clever enough comic to overcome this issue, devising the perfect method to avoid splitting audience attention with his last foodie show, Recipes for Disaster: he included pre-recorded sketches.
“People would be watching the sketches on screen while I did the involved things, so by the time we would finish showing the sketch, the food would be ready to serve.”
In addition to standing out from the festival pack by doing shows about food, the food ensures Danny can stand out from the pack in his poster art – which is essential, because so many comics are, to the less comedy-savvy, pretty much alike. “What can you do?” Danny says. “We do all look the same – white males…” So Danny’s always got a food prop to ensure he looks different. “One year there was the wooden spoon – another year I had a chef’s hat. Last year I was zapping the chicken with jumper leads…”
In my opinion, so many comics look alike on their posters because they go to the same handful of photographers for their images. James Penlidis is popular in Melbourne. (I’m fond of the work of Photobat – who took great photos of me a couple of years and several kilos ago; nowadays I use my mate Tony’s photos…)
Danny swears by Penlidis. And in addition to wielding props, Danny also has the good sense to get his images done a little later, always asking what colours everyone else has been using in order to ensure he stands out.
“Penlidis always makes you feel like a rock star when you use him,” Danny says. “He makes you look good. You go to his studio and it’s just awesome: you go through his books and see every celebrity you’ve ever heard of; he’s taken photos of them.”
And, for the comedy nerd in me, Danny adds a further factoid: Penlidis was the body in publicity photos of chart-topping prank-caller Guido Hatzis. “He’s got two kids now but he still looks good. If I was drunk he could… maybe… turn me. Because he’s so lovely… And buff… And Greek… Reminds me of school…”
As it happens, having devised food shows and posters to stand out from the crowd, and systemic methods to get around technical difficulties of those food shows, Danny’s decided to get away from food shows altogether this year.
“I didn’t want to do any props or gimmicks or anything this time around,” Danny explains. “I just wanted to do stand-up. But of course, a gimmick show has organically formed.”
The show is called Danny McGinlay Learns Ukrainian – instead of cooking utensils, on this poster he carries a massive Ukrainian flag. The show is all about his relationship with the girl he chased to England. “I’m still with her,” he says. “We will be ten yeas together in January. We’re getting married June 9.”
The initial idea was a stand-up show loosely based around the story of Danny taking Ukranian lessons. However, Danny says, working with script consultant – and former Rove writer – Declan Fay led somehow to the greater development of “the actual… ‘gimmickry’, I suppose…” of learning Ukrainian. Between the two, they’ve fleshed out a show that’s 90 percent about the learning Ukrainian with only a few side forays into other stand-up. “So it’s become another personal story, with a flip chart showing Ukrainian words,” Danny says. He didn’t want to end up using a flip chart, but he knows full well that “not doing something for the sake of not doing it is just as bad as doing it for the sake of doing it!”
And rest assured, hints of Danny’s erstwhile Food Dudery persists, particularly on the poster, which bears the line, “How far would you go for a chick in Kiev?” That great pun is the work of Taswegian comic Gavin Baskerville – who, it turns out, came up with the title of Danny’s 2011 show, Recipes for Disaster. In fact, Gavin came up with the goods for Monumental Cook-Up as well, delivering the line “Jamie Oliver with be turning in his gravy!” And of course, good guy that Danny is, he’ll express his gratitude with a slab for Gav the next time he plays a gig in Hobart.
Soccer to 'em
When Danny procrastinates, he doesn’t always just cook and come up with food-based festival shows. His procrastination has also given rise to a soccer blog, Danny's Football Bluff: “Because when I’m procrastinating, I also go into football forums and see what people have to say…”
I wanna see what Danny has to say about this: Is it ‘football’ or ‘soccer’? A fair question to put to an Australian lover of the round-ball sport.
“It’s both,” Danny insists. “And anyone who argues over it is a f*ckwit.”
He elaborates: “Why does it matter? I will say ‘soccer’ most of the time, because people don’t question it then. Whereas ‘football’ in Australia can mean rugby league, Aussie rules, soccer, rugby union…”
That’s a good point. But I’m a half-generation older than Danny. When I went to school, ‘football’, or ‘footy’, never ever meant ‘wogball’. The two were very different.
“Yeah, I don’t feel comfortable calling it that,” Danny says, not for reason of political correctness, rather because he’s setting up a well-placed gag: “I’d call it anything except ‘wogball’ – mostly because the Greeks aren’t very good at it!”
Back to the issue of the name, I’m proud to know the origins of ‘soccer’ and ‘football’ originate with the sport’s proper name: ‘association football’. Why we grabbed a syllable from the ‘association’ part to create the hypocorism ‘soccer’, while others chose to go with ‘football’ or the hypocorism ‘footy’ is a factoid that still eludes me. Danny has his own interesting factoid:
“Aussie Rules is older than soccer. Not really, but officially. The rules of Australian Rules football were written down first. People were playing soccer for longer than that, but it wasn’t official. So really, AFL is ‘football’, and soccer is ‘soccer’. But in my head, soccer is ‘football’ and AFL is ‘footy’.”
Still, he says, “it’s detrimental when you’re trying to have a discussion about the round-ball game and someone says…” – adopting a ‘spaz’ voice - ‘It’s football!’ Come on. We’ve got something in common here, and it’s a sport that a lot of people disdain – so let’s have a united front and not worry about the pathetic little things.”
With such a good attitude to the sport, I’m wondering why Danny isn’t more of a sporting jock comic.
“I am! Aren’t I? Yeah I am. I talk about sports…”
Danny explains that he cut his teeth in that arena, having started out at the Espy, playing Armidale, the Star & Garter and the like: “It was all bogan comics that I saw, so I started pretty bogan.”
Yeah, perhaps. But despite bogan origins, Danny was still the first person I saw making Harry Potter references early on – before it became de rigour particularly fro younger, more fey comics. Which was funny because Danny is, let’s face it, built like a jock. And he doesn’t deny it.
“I was a jock at school. I was in the popular group. I know it’s not cool to say that anymore – you’re supposed to say you were bullied. But I wasn’t – I was in the ‘cool people’ group, I went to the right parties, had a hot girlfriend, and did some bullying as well…”
No, hang on – Danny didn’t beat the shit out of wimps because he could – not that kind of ‘bullying’. He explains: “there were socially inept nerds and I had a pretty quick mind so I made fun of them. I never physically hurt anybody.” Pause. “But I probably scarred them a bit.”
So does being the jock-who-cooks and makes Harry Potter references make up for that? Is the career some kind of karmic penance?
“I don’t know. I’m not doing the Billy Madison thing where I phone them and they cross me off a list of people to kill. But I didn’t make anyone cry. As far as I know. I can’t guarantee that I made an impact on anyone’s life, but I know I got some pretty good zingers out there during little lunch. And that was my way into being in the cool group: I was on the footy team and I was funnier than most of the guys – and that put me in high esteem in high school.”
Again, let’s put this into perspective: Danny the Food Dude comic is still good mates with the captain of his high school football team. They still hang out. And go watch the footy. But – and this is a beauty – “he’s about to move to Munich to be a sculptor.”
This last bit results in an audible double-take on my part, because Danny adds, “it was a very odd school; you had the potheads, the Greeks, and me and him were a bit weird because we were artsy guys who played football.”
For a moment a rare throwback vaudeville gene takes control. “Are Greek potheads Grecian Urns? What’s a Grecian earn?” I can’t hold back from demanding. Danny doesn’t quite shake his head at me, instead donning the accent of a second generation Aussie for whom Greek is spoken at home. “I dunno, but it’s cash, mate; it’s cash…”
One of the comedy occupations Danny undertakes is that of warm-up: getting a live studio audience into the zone to be receptive and ready to laugh when the cameras of a live taping roll. I’ve always thought it was a particular kind of stand-up hell – though fact is, it’s audience hell, particularly when you’re in the audience of a Comedy Festival Gala, say, and all you want is for the show to start, but you have to sit through the same routines each time.
“When the alarm rings at 6:30am to get up and go into The Circle, it’s hell,” Danny says. “The whole reason I became a comedian was so that I could sleep in.”
Even though Danny first appeared as a guest on The Circle – in Food Dude mode – and he still appears as a guest from time to time, nowadays he, Harley Breen and Kynan Barker – “the go-to guy of warm-ups” – share warm-up duties. Danny has also warmed up Spicks & Specks, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, The Project and Adam Hills in Gordon Street Tonight audiences.
It was Ross Noble who proved warm-up can be a necessary evil that leads to good things, rather than hell: his ability to perpetually improvise, extemporising on random themes that he bring back to tie together at the end of two hours, having been developed in the stop-start nature of the studio taping, when you never know how long you’re going to have to talk to the audience.
“You can’t really do stand-up,” Danny explains. “It’s all just stuff about the show. I just chat to people.” This means his ‘crowd work’ has gotten much better.” While he is sometimes able to take them on weird flights of fancy, it all depends on the audience. On The Circle, for example, where he and the audience sit through the live advertorials before he takes over during the ad breaks, Danny has “set routines for the Genie Bra ad, the Ab Circle Pro ad, the Pet Insurance ad”. And since The Circle’s audience is often “old dears”, as long as he’s “a nice boy”, they like him. “Occasionally you get crowds who aren’t into it. And that’s where you get blamed – there isn’t much you can do about it.”
On the other hand, shooting Who Wants To Be A Millionaire can take some six hours. “By the last episode, you’ve chatted to them all, you know where they’re from, they’re tired, you’re tired. We just talk cr*p.” Danny’s got “two magic tricks” he saves for the very end, when all else has failed. “That’s how desperate you get.”
One of Danny’s best Millionaire stories involves a particularly stupid contestant indeed. During the warm up, while explaining to the audience how they have to be utterly silent until Eddy says ‘correct’, he used a pretend question with someone in the crowd, so they could practice.
“I just asked a question about something that was in the news that day – about Harry Kewl coming to Melbourne Victory. I said, ‘Which Socceroo has just signed to Melbourne Victory? Is it a) Kewl; b) David Beckham; c) Pelle; or d) Pinocchio.”
Later during the taping, a contestant was asked that question.
“And you know what’s even better?” Danny says. “He still got it wrong!”
Thankfully the audience did as it has been instructed, and kept quiet until the contestant had answered, and then reacted appropriately to the game, rather than the contestant’s stupidity.
“They didn’t laugh,” Danny says, “but they were all just looking at me as if to say, ‘you’re gonna get in trouble!’” But of course, Danny didn’t get into trouble. “No-one’s listening to what I’m doing during the warm-up; the producers are talking about camera angles; Ed’s in his dressing room.”
Later, while killing time between episodes, someone in the audience asked Danny if he’d done it deliberately. “I was like, ‘F*cken no! Thank you for not reacting!’”
The important point Danny has learnt is to unify the audience as a team; they get through the boring bits better, knowing they’re all in this together. And the ‘team game’ mentality helps with all aspects of comedy, especially MCing. It’s something you’ll notice Adam Hills do if you watch him carefully during a performance: he’ll do a lot of crowd work, ultimately to get them onside and ready to laugh.
“Hillsy’s great,” Danny concurs, having recently been reminded of this once again, at a gig at the Melbourne comedy room Softbelly. “I was MCing and feeling pretty good,” Danny says. “To best explain it, I was feeling like Harry Potter: creating magic out of the things the audience was giving me. Hillsy came on, spoke to the exact same members of the crowd, didn’t do any ‘material’ and got so much more out of them. It showed why he is Dumbledore. It was quite humbling, but at same time very inspiring.”
Talk turns to other aspects of performance: one of Danny’s points early on was that “nerves are your friend”, so it’s better to have them, before a gig, than dull them with alcohol. He reiterates now with some advice someone else gave him recently:
“Take the stage with equal parts fear and confidence; too much nerves will get in the way of the performance; too much confidence will alienate the audience. Too much of one or the other and the gig will go badly. Have it exactly equal and it’s perfect.”
One last little factoid, Danny attributes to Billy Connolly. “I think he’s said that if he’s not nervous before a gig, he’ll scull a litre of water so he’ll suddenly get jumpy and worried he’ll need to pee during the show. That gets him nervous.”
On that note, we both have a big glass of water head off to the gig.
Fine PrintDanny McGinlay Learns Ukrainian 7:45pm Upstairs @ Hairy Little Sista until the end of the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
“Sorry I was a bit late,” the founding – ahem – member of Puppetry of the Penis, Simon Morley, apologises from his end of the phone line. “I’ve been baby wrangling.” And unless Simon’s added ‘cot’ or ‘cradle’ to the impressive list of items he can imitate with his wedding tackle, there are no dick tricks involved in that. “Absolutely none,” Simon confirms. “Apart from the conception, maybe.”
Two dicks come out at a bar
Simon and his mate Friendy (David Friend; neither of whom are pictured above) were the two who originally took to the stage clad only in capes in order to present the art of genital origami: in which they’d manipulate their manhood into various shapes. Like ‘The Pelican’ (in which the penis and scrotum are impressively stretched out to resemble the animal’s long upper beak, and long and deep lower beak). And ‘The Skateboard’ (in which the penis is lain across the scrotum so that the balls become wheels). And ‘The Propeller’ (I’m not going to ruin all of them for you).
That was back in 1998, and it occurred with much furor, initially, all of it unwarranted. Because, after about the first fifteen minutes, you’d pretty much acclimatise to the fact that there are two nude dudes pulling at their respective (not each other’s!) cock-and-balls on stage, and as it wasn’t in the more traditionally prurient manner of tugging yer tackle, you may as well have been looking at their elbows.
In time they were playing the West End and Broadway, getting written up in the likes of The Guardian and The New Yorker. And after taking dick tricks around the world, and taking the world by storm, they started producing shows in which other dick tricksters took the stage all over the world, manipulating their respective manhood. Now, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, they’re launching a live 3-D version of the show. In which neither Simon, nor his penis, will be appearing, because, he says, penis puppetry is “a young man's game”.
“I’m 45 now. I’ve got myself a bit of a belly. I haven’t seen my penis in about three years.”
Instead, Simon’s been working on pulling the 3-D technology together. The show is “technically a lot more advanced” than any of the previous Puppetry of the Penis endeavors. He developed it in the UK, and is presenting it here in Australia, premiering in the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Thus, in his own words, Simon’s role is “directing. And pimping. I’m the ‘global pimp’.”
Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D
Zen and the art of dick tricks
If you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live (or on DVD) before, it essentially works as follows: the two 'puppeteers' make shapes out of their nether regions, accompanied by banter. A camera presents close-ups on a screen. So the new 3-D show, you can easily imagine, would be that, but with the technology (and glasses!) to ensure what you see is coming at you (so to speak) out of the screen. However, there’s still more to it than that.
“We’re using CGI” - computer generated imagery - “so that when the guys perform, say, ‘The Pelican’ on stage, the camera is 3-D, the screen is 3-D, but all of a sudden, we’ll put ‘The Pelican’ into a pelican’s body.”
That’s really cool. And a little bit scary.
Another – far more elaborate – example of the CGI involves ‘The Propeller’. “In a tribute to North by Northwest, we put ‘The Propeller’ in a biplane that comes out at the audience. The guys have to leap off stage to avoid it…”
Excellent spectacle though dick tricks are, who’d have thought you could breath such new life into them? According to Simon, the constant question has always been, “What are you going to do with the show? Where are you going to take it next?” And the'd always answer – jokingly – that next it’d be in 3-D: the penises would jump off the screen.
“Then,” Simon says, “I began to realise that the technology was very soon going to be with us.” Thus the new show is groundbreaking and interesting as well as fun. “I just hope people enjoy it,” says Simon.
My conversation with Simon Morley happens to be taking place not too long after my own Melbourne Comedy Festival show, Stand-Up Sit-Down, has ended. Stand-Up Sit-Down consisted of interviews with comedy practitioners. In the final show, guest Andrew Denton spoke of his show David Tench Tonight, in which the main character David Tench was a CGI character animated in real time, interviewing celebrities. The drawbacks were that CGI technology was not quite up to the task at the time, and the animation was too human – an animal or some other object may have proven more disarming for interview subjects.
So the essential questions now are, is the CGI working for Puppetry of the Penis? And might there be a time when dick-based CGI creations (of which, it may be argued, David Tench was one) successfully interview celebrities?
“I’m sure it’s not gonna be too far off,” Simon insists. “I hadn’t thought about getting them to interview celebrities live, but they certainly could. I’ve got ’em singing songs!”
Denton and Dom discuss benefits of CGI interview technique
Historically, the rendering of dick tricks began in hotel rooms while on tour.
Simon initially managed pubs, running comedy nights in bars he managed. In time he started touring the comedians he initially booked, and in the early post-show hours on tour, when much alcohol had been consumed, the dick-trickery began. “At the end of the night, I’d be dropping my pants and amusing the comics,” Simon recalls. One such comic was Jimeoin, whom Morley toured after television success meant he was too big for the pub circuit. It’s whispered that Jimeoin has been known to turn a few tricks of a dickular nature himself. That’s right: Jimeoin is a secret dick-tricker.
“I wouldn’t even say ‘secret’,” Simon assures me. “He loves it! If we’re in Europe or the States, he regularly joins us on stage. He’s very proud!”
And he’s not the only comic who has the talent. Turns out Greg Fleet has a couple of tricks up his dacks.
“I saw Fleety once do a not very politically correct impression, shortly after the Space Shuttle disaster: he had a cigarette flying out of it, jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool. He was doing ‘The Space Shuttle Disaster’.”
Tim Smith is another comic who has indulged in pleasures of the flash. More or less. He may not have been demonstrating them to people, according to Simon, but “he was certainly work-shopping them for quite some time!”
Paul Hester, the original, and now sadly departed, drummer of Crowded House, was also adept at a dick trick. And although it never went to air, Simon and Friendy appeared as Puppetry of the Penis on Hester’s ABC variety show, Hessie’s Shed (some of the footage wound up on the Mick Molloy-produced cocumentary, Tackle Happy).
Jim Rose, of Circus fame, used to do them with Simon and Jimeoin in Edinburgh, in the Gilded Balloon toilets, back in 1992. Can’t get more Fringe than that, surely! “Jim Rose took the hamburger and ran with it! He still does it on stage, occasionally.”
David has a hamburger!
Amazing. Dick tricks, the way comedians amused each other late at night in 1992, became a stage act all their own in 1998, taking the world by storm shortly thereafter. But the origins lie further back. “My brothers and I came up with most of the tricks, as sibling rivalry, back in the 1980s,” Simon reports.
I guess the real question is, has Simon encountered Ron Jeremy in his travels and seen if Ron can do any of them, or indeed, has any tricks to add to the catalogue.
“I have met Ron Jeremy but I didn’t really want to have a ‘dick-off’ with him,” Simon confesses. I think I know what he means. “We met in a bar, and he’d heard of my work, and I’d certainly heard of his work, and there was a bit of mutual respect, but we were on very different sides of the fence, me and Ron! It was a bit like Van Gogh meeting Leunig…”
Not quite sure which one’s Van Gogh and which one’s Leunig, but the point is taken. And it has resonance. Say what you will about two blokes on stage manipulating their genitalia – serious publications approached the show seriously once it left Australian shores. Which Simon anticipated all along.
“I knew this was going to generate some serious debate. It was very confronting.” While it was “harmless fun” to Simon and Friendy – “It’s a piece of skin; get over it!” – for a lot of people, particularly in the media, it was challenging, even down to the basic debate of whether or not it could be shown on television. “Can we show male genitalia in a non-sexual light? What’s wrong with it, given we see so much female genitalia?” According to Simon, “it posed a lot of good questions, and I’m always happy when the debate starts around us. It’s important that we just stay focused; we just want to make shapes out of our dicks!”
Not wishing to enter any debate, my most pressing question right now is, given Simon’s not about to appear in this show, how does the Director and Global Pimp go about selecting his cast? How do you audition would-be dick tricksters?
“Basically, we get boys to come along, we talk them through and tell them what the job entails.Then we ask them all to kick their pants off. We do a little workshop, and then we get them to show us any tricks that they’ve got of their own, reproduce the ones we just taught them, and we look for them to be naturally funny. We say, ‘Right. Deliver your tricks!’”
What Simon’s looking for, essentially, in a would-be dick trickster is a special quality: “If there were couple of old ladies in the audience, we’d want them to have the most confronting and hilarious night of their lives, but we’d want them to turn to each other and go, ‘oh, but they’re such nice boys!’ So they’ve got to have a certain charm about them as well.”
And don’t think for an instant that you necessarily have to be hung like a Clydesdale to do these tricks: “I’ve actually said ‘no’ to a lot of guys who were too big,” Simon insists. “You’ve got to be able to manipulate it. You’ve got to be able to bend it. We’re looking for a certain proportion in the size of the penis to the testicles: the wheels on ‘The Skateboard’ can’t be too big. There’s also a lot of stretchiness of skin: you’ve got to be able to put a sail on your ‘Windsurfer’.”
Ultimately, says Simon, when it comes to dick tricks, “everyone can do some of them; not everyone can do all of them.”
Simon (seated) and Friendy, AKA Puppetry of the Penis
Coque du Soleil
I remember hearing – probably from the lads themselves – that the Umbilical Brothers were approached by Cirque du Soleil. However, joining the troupe would have meant giving up a lot of what they already had, and losing some identity. Has there been some sort of Coque du Soleil offer?
“Actually,” Simon says, “there has been…”
Turns out, in numerous trips to Montreal for the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Simon had encountered the Cirque du Soleil creators, who frequently used to joke that Puppetry of the Penis should become part of the show. And then it was no longer a joke: Cirque were “putting together an adult show for Vegas”.
It came to nothing, of course. For the same reason every attempt by Puppetry of the Penis to get to Vegas has also been stymied: a law that prohibits live sex acts. The wording applies to Puppetry of the Penis, even though it isn’t a sex act:
“There's an old licensing law that says you can be naked on stage, but you can’t touch your genitals. Unfortunately, we get caught up in this. Because all these shows are in billion dollar casinos, none of them are going to go, ‘well, that’s a stupid law…’. Nobody’s prepared to take that chance with a billion dollar license.”
But, Simon’s adamant: it’s only a matter of time. “We’ll play Vegas one day. We’ll get in there!”
Not so cocky
So here’s the thing. You’ve read this far. You’ve giggled at bits. But if you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live, would you? The point I made earlier – which was Simon’s point, back in 1998 – which I’ve found to be true, deserves reiteration: watching two naked guys do silly things with their cocks is unnerving. At first. But after the initial shock, it is just funny silliness. And you may as well be looking at their elbows.
Admittedly, the times I’ve seen it, I’ve felt the need to take female friends with me. And they all react the same way: ‘You’re taking me to see WHAT?’ (Or, as one quoted their mother to me, ‘He’s taking you to see… that PENIS show?!’) But by the end of it they’ve laughed so much that they’re talking about it at work the next day and organising a girls’ night out before the end of the season.
Simon likens it to jumping out of an aeroplane: “It defies all your natural instincts. You DON’T jump out of aeroplanes; it’s madness; it’s stupid. And as soon as you get out of the plane and you’ve let go of everything and you’re freefalling, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Okay, seeing Puppetry of the Penis may not be “the best feeling in the world” but Simon assures that “it’s quite harmless once you get over the initial shock of it all; you’ve just got to strap yourself in and hang on; it’ll be fine. You’re not gonna get hurt.”
Not gonna get hurt, indeed. Reminds me of the urban legend surrounding film pioneers, the Lumiere brothers, and their 50-second silent film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Apparently, the first audience to see it – never having seen film projection before – freaked out at the shot of the train coming towards them. You’ll have your 3-D glasses on; you’ll be watching live theatre with close-ups coming at you live, on screen. But rest assured: those three-dimensional dick tricks coming at you pose no danger, just silly fun.
Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D opens Tuesday 17 April at the Athaneum Theatre in Melbourne.
The Sydney season starts May 5 at the Enmore Theatre.
I had Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman of Fear of a Brown Planet in on Saturday, and DeAnne Smith on Sunday, as my Stand-Up Sit-Down guests.
I'm technically probably not allowed to tell you who I have in on Tuesday. But here's a clue: it's Sammy J. Find out more about the show (the wheres and whens, etc) and buy tickets at the door, or prebook.