I grabbed the opportunity to interview Andrew O'Keefe, a brilliant improviser I first met as an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. At the time, fronting the big band Straight No Chaser as vocalist and trumpeter was just one of many strings to the man's bow. Best to pick it up from there, pretty much.
Dom Romeo: As an undergrad, majoring in extra curricular activities in addition do your Arts/Law degree, you led bands, acted, the usual stuff. Then you set out on the law career. Suddenly you're on the telly doing sketches in The Big Bite. Now you've been hosting Deal or No Deal for a decade. What was the initial plan? Were you aiming for television in particular?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: To tell you the truth, ‘Game Show Host’ didn’t make the top 50 as far as career was concerned, and I say that with the greatest respect for Larry Emdur and Baby John Burgess. In fact, a career in any form of entertainment never really struck me as a viable option. It seemed to me you needed talent for that. The plan was to be a lawyer who passionately enjoyed the life part of the ‘work-life balance’ equation. I kinda tripped over the TV thing, and it just so happened that all that extra-curricular activity at uni was the perfect training.
Dom Romeo: I can't help feeling, if you'd come through even a half generation earlier before media and television changed so radically, you'd have been a perfect fit for Packer's Nine Network, in the traditional mould of the golden age of 'triple threat' television hosts (Bert Newton, Don Lane, Graham Kennedy, Daryl Somers etc). I still hear, from time to time, of 'tonight-show' style pilots, or the impro-driven Whose Line is it Anyway?-type shows that you've fronted. Any plans/schemes/(dare I say it) deals in the pipeline?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: No deals (and I use that phrase under licence), but plenty of ideas and pitches. The trick for me with TV is to come up with concepts that will be smart and idiosyncratic enough to satisfy my mind and my creative urge, but also broadly appealing enough to satisfy my accountant. That’s quite a difficult balancing act. I often pitch ideas that I think are fascinating, or bitingly amusing, only to be turned down for not ‘smelling like roast chicken’. And yes, that’s a real TV term.
Dom Romeo: You have the additional 'fourth threat' of being able to deliver straight journalism. Are you ever torn between the two?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Well luckily I don’t have to rend myself asunder over that, because my weekend job allows me to turn the dial between vaudeville, editorial, interview and inquiry, journalistic story-telling, and simple conversation, for six hours of live telly each week. Having said that, I do often feel that the constraints of commercial television journalism demand that the brushstrokes are very broad, and the paints are mostly primary colours. So the trick becomes to illuminate issues with simplicity and genuine curiosity, rather than to dictate the answers. It can be a very slow process, but you have to trust in the marketplace of ideas, and in your own ability to present compelling perspectives in an accessible way.
Dom Romeo: So are you an entertainer who does journalism or a journalist who entertains?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Well, I’m certainly not a journalist, and I don’t have the degree to prove it. But I reject the desire to pidgeonhole anyway. Every single person has a right and a capacity to speak on matters that affect us all. Now, whether their views and opinions are of any worth doesn’t depend on their background or job title, but rather on their conscientious learning and their genuine desire to find the truth by engaging in debate with an open mind. Having said all that, I think the best journalism is always entertaining, bearing in mind that there are a thousand ways to entertain!
Dom Romeo: It was a pleasure to see you as Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar - a role that seems purpose built for you to parody your other job (even though the change of Herod's characterisation, from smug know-it-all skeptic in the Jewish tradition, to smarmy game show host, via old-school high class gangster, happened in earlier UK productions). How did your involvement come about?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Dom, it was simply a call from the blue. Sir Andrew’s people (I just like saying that) were looking for someone who could sing and dance and act and who preferably had some TV game-show experience. By a process of elimination, they found me. My natural smugness and smarminess was just an added bonus for them.
Dom Romeo: Is it the case you weren't in the Melbourne run?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Sadly yes. I suffered a theatre injury dear boy and had to withdraw from the show. It was during the Brisbane leg. In an odd Jewish variant of karma, I ruptured a disc in my neck as I was belittling and humiliating Christ, and had to undergo an emergency disc replacement. Yahweh smote me! Now, I would have thought that Jesus, being merciful and all, could have healed me on the spot, especially given that cripples are supposedly a specialty of his. But apparently not. Anyway, I’ve been taking the Third Commandment a lot more seriously ever since.
Dom Romeo: Does that mean you didn't get to keep the cool suit?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: That’s exactly what it means. My understudy, a charming and very talented young Brit named Leon, has the suit. I mean, I did fourteen performances in that thing, he did four, and HE keeps the suit? Oi vey! (Mind you, the suit was not cool… have you ever worn thick velveteen under arena lighting? It’s hotter than Wasim Akram’s jock strap as he pounds down for his 30th over against India in Karachi.)
Dom Romeo: Occasionally someone makes reference to the fact that you're the nephew of Johnny O'Keefe, the 'Wild One', Australia's king of rock'n'roll. Were there ever times in your life where you were unruly and your family acknowledged you take after him?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Every time I make an unexpected appearance on YouTube.
Dom Romeo: The JOK connection is not something you've traded on. Is there a kind of performance legacy that affects you?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Only in a good way. Most of the kids don’t really know much about JOK these days, but I still get a lot of love and reminiscence from the oldies I meet. I mean, my uncle was absolutely incendiary and mad as a hatter at times, but his meteoric energy and his huge warm heart were irresistible. I guess those are the qualities that draw me to him even so long after his death.
Dom Romeo: Do you ever have to make a conscious effort to not acknowledge/partake? For example, a few years back there was a reissue campaign involving excellent remastered recordings - did people try to interview you about it? (The thought did cross my mind. I'm doing it now instead.)
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Oh yes, of course. And there’s always the danger, when you have a famous family, of feeling that you’re living in their shadow. But I don’t mind that at all. The truth is that he was a pioneer, that he is a legend, and that he is a part of my own story. I feel lucky to have known him, and it gladdens me to be able to honour his achievements and honour the memories of all the people who loved him.
Dom Romeo: I see your impro skills in action on Deal or No Deal where you can take an idea and run with it (singing Mustang Sally to a contestant called Sally, that sort of thing). How important is it/how has it served you throughout in law/entertainment/job interviews etc?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: Improvisation is really the only skill required for Deal or No Deal, because you never know who your contestant will be, what they want out of life, or what they’ll do in the glare of the spotlight. So whether I find myself dancing around the stage in imaginary lederhosen crying “Mutter! Mutter! The pretzel van is coming!”, or making up a rap on the spot using as many rhymes as possible for ‘schnitzel’ (e.g. “I just run for dem crumbs, all those tiny little bits y’all..”), or miming the eating of a frozen boa constrictor down the camera barrel (note to our hearing impaired viewers, it’s not what you think… I’m eating a snake), or trying to distill the history of the Tartar invasions of Russia into a twenty-second fable, it’s all about improvisation. And just like Theatresports, that involves two key approaches: listening hard, and saying yes to everything. Kinda like being in the bathrooms at the Logies.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about the nickname 'Beef'. Who bestowed it? When and how? Do people still use it?
ANDREW O'KEEFE: I always know when I’ve met someone by what they call me. My family calls me Drew, my legal chums call me Andrew, my TV pals call me AOK, my old colleagues from Thunder Down Under call me… um, don’t worry about that one… but my old school and uni friends all call me Beef. Beef O’Keefe. It’s not what you’re thinking, unfortunately. It was bestowed upon me in first class by my dear mate Jules Delaney, or Schultz Delaney, depending on who you ask.
Image courtesy Impro Australia.
Other performers include: