This is Sammy J that is

This interview was originally posted in the lead-up to Sammy J & Randy’s rather short run of Ricketts Lane at the Sydney Opera House, Thurs 18 - Sat 20, 2010.

Sammyj&randy

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.”

Nice.

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. 


Academic timeserver

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.”

Naked youth

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.


Long-running show

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.”

 

Warehouse Comedy

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.”

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A Ward Winner (A Brief History of Felicity Ward)

TWTYTWlposter


That Was The Week That Was, also known as ‘TW3’, was a weekly television show in England that was fronted by David Frost (a Cambridge graduate whose laconic speaking voice is said to be based on Peter Cook’s EL Wisty character), employed a small army of writers (some  of whom would be Pythons and Goodies), and though not actually responsible for launching the so-called 'satire boom' of the early 1960s, certainly provided evidence that it was truly underway. There was also an American version of the show. A clever singer-songwriter (who would give up writing clever satirical songs and touring the world performing them in order to return to lecturing mathematics at university) called Tom Lehrer used to write a clever song each week for the American edition and went on to release an album of the best bits, called That Was The Year That Was. It was much better than the single released as the 'theme' of the British version of the show.

For the second year in a row, the Sydney Opera House is home to a gala comedy event looking back satirically at the year that was, tipping its hat to the satire tradition from which it borrows its name: That Was The Year That Was. This year's line-up features Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Mikey Robins, Wendy Harmer, Flacco and the Sandman, Felicity Ward and Celia Pacquola, to name but several, and the poster suggests there are more, yet to be announced.

I'm taking the opportunity to present an interview with Felicity Ward, who appeared to come not quite out of nowhere and be brilliant in the shortest period of time. One minute she was producing Heath Franklin's Chopper shows, the next she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe.

This interview took place midway through 2009 after Wardy had enjoyed excellent festival seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney with Ugly as a Child, the show that had won her ‘Best Newcomer’ at Melbourne Fringe in 2008. At the time, wanting to try to develop my writing style, I decided to take on a proper in-depth profile – with a view to one day tackling a full-blown biography. Clearly,  I bit off more than I can chew;  it contains a heap of Wardy’s – and a certain period of Australian comedy's – history, but really should have culminated in more of a portrait of what it is she does. Or at least, what it was she was doing at the time. Rest assured, Felicty Ward is nothing short of brilliant. An hilarious comic, a worthy guest on your show and the perfect person to spend an afternoon chatting to in a café. She’s certainly less melodramatic and less highly strung than when first invited to guest on a live late night variety show at a comedy festival!

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“I was so nervous before I went on. I got so worked up that I honestly thought – and I say this without any exaggeration – ‘when I get off stage I will probably kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I do on stage’. I just hated myself. I thought, ‘This isn’t funny, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is just terrible’.”

Okay. Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s just gone 4pm and I’m sitting in a café – two doors up from a primary school – that specialises in hot chocolate. Sitting opposite me is Felicity Ward, a comic I was first aware of on the Channel Ten sketch show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, where she was responsible for characters like cute little Poppy, the girl who innocently explains away inadvertently dodgy photographs, and scarily angst-ridden existentialist Gretchen. Nowadays, Felicity’s a stand-up comic. A good one. She made her festival debut at Melbourne Fringe last year where her show Ugly as a Child earned her the ‘Melbourne Airport Best Newcomer Award’. At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the show played to mostly sold-out houses. Somewhere in between Ronnie Johns and Ugly as a Child, Felicity started appearing on Spicks and Specks and proved to be nothing short of bloody good on that, too. Not long after we caught up for this conversation, she made her debut appearance on Thank God You’re Here. And guess what? She absolutely blitzed it.

But according to Felicity, her very first stand-up gig was going to be her last. While many a comic may fear ‘dying’, metaphorically, on stage, she wasn’t fussed; she reckons she was happy to do so literally, after she got off stage. What’s more, she’s dead serious. But school has knocked off for the day and we’re surrounded by a multitude of kiddies peaking on a sugar rush, their mums seemingly indifferent to the chocolate stains that will have to be removed from uniforms later on, so now’s not quite the right time to chase down the suicide story – lest a multitude of ‘Poppies’ repeat it for ‘show and tell’ tomorrow morning.

So. First things first: Ronnie Johns. “That was a big accident,” Felicity insists. “I had never done comedy in any sort of form.”

Oh. Okay. Looks like we need to backtrack even further.


Wardy portrait


Giving Wardy The Third Degree

It was 2004. Having attended performing arts schools growing up, Felicity Ward was momentarily distracted with an interlude of Music Business Skills at Wyong TAFE – (“I was gonna be a band manager or event manager because in some part of my history, that’s what I wanted to do...”) – before acting won out. Wardy moved to Sydney to be an actor, getting involved with ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), an entity run as a professional theatre company –with set and costume designers, actors and directors – by the Sydney Theatre Company. “They put on really great plays, specifically for young people. The people you were working with were really professional so you treated it like a job.”

Felicity appeared in an ATYP production of The Musicians, directed by Tim Jones for that year’s Sydney Festival. One of Felicity’s fellow cast members, Benedict Hardie, was directing the University of Sydney’s Arts Faculty Revue soon after and asked Wardy if she’d be in it. The fact that Felicity didn’t actually go to Sydney Uni wasn’t a problem. “There were twenty people in the cast,” Felicity says with typical modesty. “Not that it wasn’t a big deal, but lots of people got into that.”

The previous year, a couple of clever people from Macquarie University had acknowledged that university revues mostly follow the same pattern: a handful of awesome sketches appear in a show surrounded by the same old stuff. These guys – Chris McDonald and Heath Franklin – decided it’d be really cool to take just the awesome sketches from a handful of different university revues and combine them into really good show. The cast of the show would similarly consist of some of the best performers from those various revues. That show was called The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS, the ‘3rd Degree’ nicely referring to comedy derived from university revue (not unlike The D-Generation, from two decades earlier) as well as offering a pun on intense interrogation, the final stage of initiation and the most severe type of burn (they’re all known as ‘third degree’).

Successful enough to warrant a second year on the festival circuit, The 3rd Degree came together for the show Eskimos with Polaroids at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Having appeared in the 2004 University of Sydney Arts Faculty Revue, Felicity auditioned for that 3rd Degree show and “got in, somehow”. That second incarnation proved successful at Sydney’s Big Laugh Comedy Festival as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.


On to the next stage

Someone who had noticed The 3rd Degree in Melbourne was comedian Glenn Robbins. He’d had a history of fostering up-and-coming talent with Headliners, a live stand-up show devised and taped for the Comedy Channel. He also had a history of sketch comedy, with Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Big Girl’s Blouse. When, he says, Channel Ten approached him enquiring if he “knew of anyone” worth developing, he pointed the network towards The 3rd Degree. Channel Ten liked the idea. Powers that be suggested Robbins ought to mentor the young comedians, and though initially reluctant – there was plenty of work coming through with the likes of The Panel, Russel Coight’s All Aussie Adventures and  Kath & Kim – he realised “it’d be unfair to block that opportunity” for the up-and-comers.

The ‘up-and-comers’ were selected by Chris McDonald from the cast of both shows: Dan Ilic, James Pender, Becci Gage and Caz Fitzgerald, who’d been in the show’s first incarnation; Jordan Raskopoulos and Felicity, who had been in the second; Heath Franklin, who’d helped create the show with Chris, had been in both. (In fact, prior to The 3rd Degree, Pender, Franklin, Gage and Ilic had appeared in a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called The Beatification of Newt Berton and the Great Viagra Robbery, written and directed by McDonald.) But according to Felicity, news of Channel Ten’s interest came as a surprise:

“About three weeks after the Melbourne Comedy Festival had finished, we get this call: ‘Channel Ten want to give you a writing workshop’. It was unheard of; it meant we would be employed as writers. I was a waitress; Heath was a labourer; I think Dan was working in a computer shop; Jordan was working at his dad’s dry cleaners; Becci was becoming a teacher; Caz and James Pender were studying to become lawyers. This was none of our professions so that was really, really cool.”

For two months, the team just wrote. “‘Let’s see what the funniest shit we can come up with is’ – that was our job description,” says Felicity. “No promise of anything at the end: no promise of even an episode; of employment with Channel Ten; nothing. It was just, ‘let’s see what you can do’, which was so cool, now that I think back to it.” During this period, Robbins would spend a day each week workshopping their material. “We’d talk about how we could hone the characters and improve it. Because none of us had any idea about TV, or that there would be any kind of transition to make from the page to screen.”

Glenn says it was as much of a learning experience for him. “I don’t actually know how I do most of my stuff – I just write it and do it. Putting into words the reason why they should be editing something or doing something a different way was hard.”

After two months of writing, the day came to pitch to Channel Ten. “We just went in and said, ‘this is what we do’ and had all these different scene ideas and recurring character ideas,” Felicity recalls. “About a month later they were sort of saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do something, yeah, we’re gonna do something’, and I thought, ‘It’s not gonna happen, but that’s okay, I had a really cool time’.”

A month after that, Channel Ten offered the team a pilot, which they spent a fortnight filming. “We handed the pilot in on the Friday and on the Monday, got a call saying we had six episodes of a TV show. And then got a call on the Tuesday saying, ‘Actually, you’re going to have 13 episodes’.” And so, The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – to give it its full title – was underway. All told, Felicity calculates about “thirteen months in total” from her first performance, as a Sydney Uni Arts Revue ring-in, to her first day of proper work on a TV show. “It was… kind of inexplicable, really,” She says, and then corrects herself: “Not even ‘kind of’; it was inexplicable. Wonderful. All the superlatives. Because I’d tried for a really long time to be an actor and just couldn’t get parts in anything. But as soon as I started comedy, it was easier. Not ‘easier’ – Ronnie Johns was really, really hard work. But it just seemed to progress quicker.”

True enough. All the character roles Felicity failed to land while slogging away as an actor suddenly appeared more-or-less at once on Ronnie Johns. Some were her own. Some were devised by others, but brought to life by Felicity. Others still were people she just happened to notice.


Poppy

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There was the deceptively innocent little girl, Poppy, with the photo album, whose explanations were a little bit disturbing. It turns out Poppy grew out of the first week of writing workshops. The rule was, everyone had to arrive each morning with five things: “They could be a funny line, a joke, a sketch, a funny character, a concept, a clipping from a newspaper that you wanted to satirise, anything, but you just had to come up with five of them. Often, four of them were absolute rubbish.” Felicity, having trouble coming up with stuff, noticed her dictionary.

“I started flicking through. It fell open on the page with the word ‘macabre’ and I thought, ‘It’d be kind of cool if there was a little girl who read out really dark definitions from the dictionary.’ Messing around with voices and characters, she realised the definitions themselves weren’t so funny. But what if she had pictures… say, of animals… that she could define…? Then there’d be room for humour. “I showed it to a network executive and he went, ‘A six-year-old showing pictures of animals is cute, but it’s not really that funny; it needs a spin.’” So Felicity came up with the spin. In the pilot episode, Poppy shows us a picture of a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a mirror, and explains, in her cutest little girl voice: “This woman likes to look at herself through a straw in a mirror and she does that sometimes for money but she won’t kiss a boy on the lips because it means something.”

“I remember writing that and thinking, ‘That’s rather dark, Felicity; we’ll see how that goes.’ That ended up being a flagship character for me.” Poppy would go on to offer innocent explanations for photos of Ku Klux Klan members and prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.


Underground Girl

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Justin Heazlewood – also known to comedy fans as ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’ (and more recently, for playing the role of young John Safran in Race Relations) – served as one of the show’s ‘non-performing writers’ and he came up with ‘Underground Girl and Underground Guy’. These were a pair of emo kids who essentially talked about “how ‘underground’ they were”. Felicity played Underground Girl while Jordan was Underground Boy. The quality of Justin’s writing was such that, when she read it, Felicity reckoned – adopting the emotionless emo tone ¬– she “could, like, tell they were, you know, like, not really into each other”. Adopting, along with Jordan, the appropriate nonchalant tone, they “tried to out-nonchalant each other”. The sketch came at the end of the first season and proved extremely popular on YouTube – so much so that Underground Girl and Underground Guy became recurring characters in the second season.


Gretchen the Nihilist

Gretchen

Felicity’s favourite character was the Nihilist, Gretchen. Dressed in black and flanked by similarly clad Simon (Heath Franklin) und Sigmund (James Pender), they were a trio of emotionless existentialists who somehow end up where colourful, exuberant, larger-than-life characters ought to be: hosting kids’ shows, exercise shows, playing Santa Clause in department stores…. Although the Gretchen character wasn’t devised by Felicity – the Nihilists originated in the Macquarie University Revue that Heath, James, Dan and Chris were involved in – she took to it immediately. “For some reason, it was one of those characters that, as soon as I read it, I knew exactly what to do and where to pitch it. Sometimes you just read stuff and it’s like a present: ‘There you go!’”

The initial gift was a sketch in which the Nihilists host the equivalent Playschool. It appeared in the live 3rd Degree show as well as Ronnie Johns. Felicity loved the way they “got darker and darker” as the love story developed between Gretchen and Simon in subsequent sketches. “Well,” she corrects herself, “not between Gretchen and Simon; Gretchen was in love with Simon.” Her affections were not reciprocated. In fact, the sketches “turned into a big ‘shitting on Gretchen’ competition” as Simon and Sigmund set up Gretchen in order to cut her down. “It was so much fun to do,” says Felicity. “It was great.”


The Inbreds

Some characters didn’t make it from stage to screen, like ‘The Inbreds’ – hillbilly characters who were brother and sister as well as boyfriend and girlfriend. “I didn’t really understand the concept of things being ‘too big’ for TV,” Felicity says. “I had no idea it could be an issue. They were really funny and good on stage, but they were just too big for television.”


Judy de Groot

Another character who never made it to air was Judy de Groot, a school counsellor. “I’d written heaps of sketches for her. We would read them around the table and everyone was laughing and I was laughing. We’d do the scene, and that was fine as well. And then we’d put it in front of a live audience and it didn’t breathe – for some reason, in a studio it was just weird. So we thought, we’ll pre-record it on location somewhere. We did that, and then played that back to the audience in between the live sketches, and again it just didn’t work, and we didn’t know why. That’s something we really had to learn: we had characters that were hilarious in the room, but – I don’t know what happened between the room and filming – some just didn’t make it.”


Heidi

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One character who did come to life – and continues to live on for fans – was lawn bowls instructor with the serious speech impediment, Heidi. “She’s not a character,” Felicity insists. “I met her in real life. She was just ‘ready to go’.”

At a bowling club for a friend’s party, Wardy confessed utter ignorance of the ways of lawn bowls. “This bowling instructor stepped up – she was so awkward: about my age, and had that strange dichotomy of being very womanly while living just for sports – and said:

“‘Okay, we have four teamsh – you have to take a shilver band, or an oranshe band, or a…’.

“I was just looking at this woman, going ‘are you for real…?’

“She was wearing zinc, Steve Waugh sunglasses, blue knee-length shorts, and a blue polo t-shirt that said ‘rock’n’bowl’ – it’s all in the show. I just… it was… just incredible. There was nothing about the character that I made up physically.

“She went through and explained the rules about how this hilarious lawn bowls competition was gonna go for about five minutes, and then at the end, she goes, ‘of the two teamsh, the winner getsh the ashesh…’ – she had this little trophy of ‘the ashes’ – ‘… and the losher getsh the donkeysh arshe…’ – and there was this little picture of the donkey’s arse. And she lost it – she just thought it was the funniest thing.

“I didn’t think, ‘I’m gonna make a character out of her!’ I just went to work the next week and went, ‘My god, it was so funny – there was this chick… blah, blah, blah…’ and Chris said, ‘You should write a sketch about it’. ‘Oh… okay!’ We ended up writing about five or six more of those in the second season.”

I let Felicity know how much this reminds me of that story Garry McDonald occasionally tells of the airline stewardess with the ‘shot jaw’ and bogan accent who gave him and David Frost some grief. Her name was Norma Gunston…

“There are moments like those where my eyes just sparkle now,” Felicity says, “because I had no experience writing comedy or doing comedy before Ronnie Johns. It didn’t occur to me that everything that I see every single day is a possibility.”


On-Air Outrage

Like all successful television sketch comedies, some items were outstanding; a few were painful; many were somewhere in between. But like all successful television sketch comedies, few agree on which sketches fall into which categories. I recall 2GB talkback radio host Ray Hadley, who trades professionally in perpetual outrage, being particularly gobsmacked by a Ronnie Johns sketch. Specifically, he was flabbergasted that Channel Ten would put to air a sketch that involved the cast spitting food onto one another. Essentially, it’s a dinner party that falls to pieces with a food fight.

“That’s what he got worked up about?” Felicity demands incredulous. I take her point. When I saw it on DVD I found it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Australia You’re Standing In It ‘Chunky Custard’ sketch, and more importantly, utterly hilarious.

“This sounds sentimental and daggy, but that was the last scene that we filmed for the last episode of the first season, and at the end of that sketch was the moment where I looked around and went, ‘Oh my god, I get paid for this’. It was really one of the best moments of my whole life: just sitting there, spitting food at my mates.”

She elaborates: one of the team’s policies, established early on, was to avoid ‘corpsing’ – the breaking of character by laughing, or causing other cast members to laugh. “We didn’t like it. We wouldn’t film it; it wouldn’t go to air. Not to say that we never broke character and never laughed, but in the beginning, we were quite hard on that. We didn’t want the audience to think that we were having more fun than they were.”

According to Felicity, that was one of only two scenes ever retained featuring the team corpsing, and the DVD contains an extra thirty seconds of them losing it. “There was supposed to be this carry-on effect where someone said something offensive and Jordan spat onto James, James spat onto Heath, Heath spat onto me, I spat onto Dan and Dan spat onto Caz. There were so many disgusting bits – it was one of my favourite sketches that we did. There’s a bit where ham lands in Pender’s mouth – it’s so disgusting. It’s gross. So much fun.”

That was a gross moment in a sketch from the final episode. There’s a similarly golden ‘gross’ moment for Felicity in a sketch in the first episode, in which she ‘hosts’ a kids’ show with a puppet frog and they ‘get to know’ each other very well in the process. “I don’t know if I would do that again,” Felicity admits. “There was a lot of stuff that, if it made us laugh, we just did it. We didn’t really think of the consequences. I was a pretty big attention-seeker and I was like, ‘that’ll make 200 pople laugh in a sudio audience’, forgetting that everyone would see it.” Forgetting, perhaps, that ‘everyone’ included people she also knew. That first episode went to air with Felicity’s family watching proudly.

“My sister rang me the next day and went, ‘Grandma and Grandpa came over to watch the show last night, and I had to sit there while you received cunnilingus from a frog. I am gonna kill you!’” Understandably, Felicity avoided visiting her family for a while. “Poor Grandma! All she wants is to be proud of me. She wants to tell all her friends, but usually I’m doing things that she can’t brag about. Grandma’s not any less proud of me but she couldn’t go to a CWA meeting and go ‘my granddaughter’s on a lovely program called The Ronnie John’s Half Hour…’.”

‘Everyone’ also included people Felicity didn’t know. “About six months after we’d filmed it, this guy leaned over to me in a pub – it’s so clear in my mind; I don’t get recognised very often, which is good and fine and appropriate – but this guy leaned over to me and went, ‘Hey, hey, are you from Ronnie Johns Half Hour?’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah!’ He goes, ‘I loved the frog sketch’. I’m like ‘Oooooooh… Yuck, yuck, yuck.’”


Wardy on board

Ronnie Johns came to an end with the clearest path appearing almost immediately before Heath Franklin: his ‘Chopper’ character clearly had a life on stage beyond the show. And despite initially sussing Wardy out as a bit of a trouble-maker – (“I am a bit of a trouble-maker; he wasn’t too far off the mark!”) – Heath hit it off very well with Felicity, so Chris McDonald, as producer of Franklin’s Chopper tour. made Wardy an offer.

“I didn’t really have a job,” Felicity recalls. “Well, none of us had jobs – but Chris said, ‘You wanna be tour manager?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ He went, ‘You wanna be stage manager?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, all right!’”

Despite utter inexperience, Felicity helped Heath and Chris organise a 90-city national tour. “It meant four months of living in each other’s pockets. And it was the first tour, so we didn’t know if it was going to be successful or anything, so often it would be me and the two boys sharing a hotel room. Not like a hotel apartment, where we’d each have our own room – we would literally be sharing a room. I was going through a tough period of my life and it was really, really hard work and we just knew each other inside-out.” The following year, Felicity served as production manager for Heath’s comedy festival Chopper shows.

That still doesn’t explain how she got back on stage. As a stand-up comic in her own right. In fact, initially, Wardy considered cobbling together a character-based show. But she gave up on it. “I’d started writing one but I just couldn’t get it together in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it would have been me producing, writing, directing, all of that stuff, and it was just too much for me.”


Enter. Stage right.

What happened next, Wardy explains, is that following the first Chopper tour, she travelled overseas and ended up in Edinburgh the year Phil Nichol was directing a production of Breaker Morant for the Fringe Festival (that is, 2007). In addition to Heath Franklin, the cast included the likes of Brendon Burns, Sammy J and Adam Hills. Hanging out with Heath meant, at times, hanging out with Hillsy. So Wardy got to know Hillsy well enough to be hanging out with him while he toured Australia subsequently with the live Spicks and Specktacular.

“We were out and at a pub with Adam and he said, ‘Do you want a drink?’,” Wardy relates. “I said, ‘No, I’m fine’. He said, ‘It’s on me’. I said, ‘No, I don’t drink’. He said, ‘Really? If you’re like this when you’re sober, we’re gonna get you on Spicks and Specks; If you can be half as funny as this…’.”

Hearing the words coming out of her mouth, Wardy checks herself with her customary modesty: “I sound like a real dickhead saying this. Sorry, I’m not trying to say I’m funny or anything like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure Adam, nicest guy in the world, that’s a really nice thing to say’.” In Felicity’s head, Adam was paying her a nice compliment; she never expected to be invited onto the show. But she was:

“I get a call two weeks later saying, ‘Hi, I’m calling from Spicks and Specks, Adam’s recommended you, I’m just wondering if you’d be interested in coming on the show…’.”

Felicity finds it a bit hard to believe that she was asked onto the show for – she says – “no better reason” than she’s “a friend of Adam’s friend”. Sure, she’d appeared on Ronnie Johns, but she herself is the first to acknowledge that since it was “quite ‘culty’”, nobody really watched it (except Ray Hadley, during a slow week, when sport was rightfully getting more press than the arts, and for the right reasons). And furthermore, even if she was “a funny sketch comedian” (which she is), it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’d be “funny in real life” or “ enjoyable to watch” or “affable” or, she concludes, “any of those things”. (Felicity Ward is in fact all those things.) “So it was a pretty big risk.” (Actually, it wasn’t – not as far as Hillsy was concerned, clearly.)

“Then I went on and it was great. I had lots of fun. They got me back a couple of times and every time I finished there I thought, ‘Maybe it’s all right that I’m just me; maybe I don’t need to do character stuff.’”


Variety - the spice of taking your own life

That is the plain truth of it: some people really are natural born entertainers whose best work is pretty much whatever they do when they’re being themselves – but learning how to just be yourself on stage is one of the most difficult things to do; often it is other people around you who recognise the natural talent people you have just being yourself.

Hillsy wasn’t the only person who recognised Wardy’s talent and sought to include her in his show. Ali McGregor, the operatic soprano and singer of burlesque who has been hosting a late night variety show on the festival circuit for the last few years, encountered Wardy at Adelaide Fringe in 2008 and, with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to follow shortly thereafter, asked her if she might “want to do something one night”.

“I’m like, ‘Um… yeah, okay, sure!’” Felicity relates, not having thought anything of it at the time. “Then I ran into Ali again in Melbourne and she’s like, ‘When do you want to come on?’ I’m like, ‘Um… oh… like… er… whenever?’ She said, ‘Well… just tell me when.’” A couple of weeks later, with the festival almost over, Ali saw Wardy in the street and said, “We’re running out of slots; do you want to do something?” Felicity had to agree, she says, “because I knew that if I didn’t, I would really hate myself”. So Wardy was locked in for the final night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

“I didn’t have to do comedy or anything like that,” Felicity says. “I could do anything, basically.” Jordan Raskopoulos, Felicity’s old Ronnie Johns colleague and himself a veteran of several subsequent festivals, both as a solo act and as one third of The Axis of Awesome, had some remote control toy tanks that, when ‘fired’, resulted in giving the user electric shocks. “I thought, what I should do, I should order these electrocuting toy tanks online and use them in the show,” Wardy decided. “I will pick someone from the audienc, ask them trivia questions, and if they get them wrong, I’ll zap them – and vice-versa. I don’t know where that idea came from but that was the idea.”

Electrocuting tanks were duly ordered and arrived on the Friday. Felicity’s gig, as a guest on Ali McGregor’s Late Night Variety Show, was on the Sunday. But Felicity happened to be on the phone when the postman buzzed her, and even though she instructed him to “just bring them up”, it was ages later that she finished her phone call and realised he hadn’t come up. “I was staying in this little apartment in Melbourne,” Wardy says. “They weren’t outside my door, they weren’t in the foyer, they weren’t outside… he must have just stolen them. I was like, ‘Oh no! Oh no! What am I gonna do now?’ I just started freaking out.”

With twelve minutes to fill on Ali’s show, never having done stand-up before, and not much more than two days to write something, Felicity began to have a breakdown. Or would have, had she not been keeping notebooks full of ideas since her Ronnie Johns days. “I just started writing furiously – anything I could think of. I ended putting together ten minutes.” It was at this point that Felicity Ward began planning her own demise, as outlined at the beginning of this piece. It was her coping mechanism: it didn’t matter how bad her performance would be – and she was certain it was going to be terrible – because she’d already formulated her exit strategy. She was going to take her own life. And then…

“It was amazing. It went really well. I thought, ‘Why have I been waiting so long to do this?’”

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Just like a Hollywood film

Two weeks later, Felicity decided to move to Melbourne, started doing stand-up and began creating her first festival show. Four months later she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe with her award-winning show Ugly As A Child.

“I figured out the other day, I did less than twenty stand-up gigs before the first show at Melbourne Fringe, which is not enough time to run-in a craft…” Wardy says.

Yeah, okay, Felicity. Shut up. Except that, being so humble, down-to-earth and modest, talk about it all you like. Wardy’s welcome to say whatever she wants about her comedy because she’s not only good, she’s also right: she did take less than twenty gigs before she was clearly being acknowledged as brilliant. And although it ‘should’ take more time to run-in a craft, it is a craft, not a science, so none of the laws or rules have to hold in every situation. You can know all there is to know about comedy before realising that irrespective of what you know, if you get in front of an audience and fail to make them laugh, in that moment, you know nothing…

Wardy, on the other hand, knows she’s onto something good. Or at least, she should. Ugly As A Child is hilarious, involving singing, characters, acting, absurdism, audience participation (with the trivia quiz-based electrocuting tanks) all based on an uncomfortable trawl through an awkward childhood. I can’t help wondering if I can detect autobiography done up as fiction.

“There’s nothing fictional about it! It’s just autobiography,” Felicity admits. And then qualifies her statement. There are a couple of elements that aren’t based on fact. Judy de Groot, the school counsellor character who never quite worked on Ronnie Johns, works a treat in Ugly As A Child. And in the first, Melbourne Fringe incarnation of the show, a segment called ‘Meat Dad’, that didn’t make it to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival version, isn’t real. Although it did grow out of a real element of Felicity’ life. “Basically, my dad used to go out west and sell vacuum cleaners for a living, so he’d be gone for weeks at a time,” Wardy explains. “I thought it would be funny if I had this puppet called ‘Meat Dad’ which was two steaks stuck to a ruler with a face on it, and I would talk to him while dad was away. That and the school counsellor were made-up, but apart from that, everything in the show is true.”

Felicity-jpg_w800_h600_fit

Ugly in Sydney

After a successful Melboure Comedy Festival season that saw Wardy make the shortlist for ‘Best Newcomer’ – the award she won at the Melbourne Fringe late last year – she brought Ugly as a Child to Sydney for Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. “I was really nervous,” she admits. “I said, ‘Look, Grandma, I really want you to see this, but I have to let you know there is some really full-on language in it and I don’t want you to be offended. Come if you’d like; I want you to be there. But…’

“After the show, I came out and I was so nervous. She just came up to me and said, ‘I am so proud of you. I thought it was wonderful’. It was like, ‘It’s okay, Gran’s proud of me. Good.’” Of course, Gran also enjoyed Wardy’s turn on Thank God You’re Here – it’s a family show, so there’s no swearing.

The question, at the time of our conversation, is: what next for Felicity? She already had her next show planned. It was to be about hedonism. But before doing a hedonism show, she was going to engage in some travelling to the UK for pleasure. Which meant she wouldn’t have time to work on a new show for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival and beyond. “I’m not comfortable having a half-baked show,” she says. Thankfully, ‘plan b’ made itself apparent instead.

“What happened,” Wardy eplains, “was I did this gig at a Bar Mitzvah. It was the worst gig I’ve ever done – excruciating from start to finish. The whole story of how it happened was a mess.” Despite going home from the Bar Mitzvah “devastated”, she decided to write about what happened. She ended up with a story, two pages long, which she delivered as stand-up. “And then I just started writing essays because I really like doing them,” she says. One of them was about the time she attended a poetry night. “That essay’s called, ‘I forgot to tell you, I hate poery!’” she says.

What’s amazing is that it took friend and producer Chris McDonald suggest “Why not just do an essay show?” After all, says Felicity, “ they’re crafted, well-written and humorous. I feel comfortable doing that. So that’s the next adventure.” That essay show was lovingly entitled Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron, and has served Wardy well: it was her 2009 Melbourne Fringe show, in preparation for the Aussie festival circuit of 2010. Meanwhile, the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe was impressed by Felicity Ward’s Edinburgh Season – the most recent incarnation of Ugly as a Child.

Meanwhile, that hedonist show may be developed down the track – which means Felicity can finally rest easy. Although she was once terrified that she’d “used up” all her “good stuff” early on, and now, unable to ever write another funny joke, it was time to “pack it up and retire undefeated,” she knows it’s not the case. “Things have been happening lately that I’ve been writing about and trying nervously, and they’ve been great. As in, the audience is responding very well. So that’s a relief I’m not ‘all out’ after thirteen months of stand-up.”

Indeed. Rest assured, even if she was one of the last people to realise it, Felicity Ward is here for the long haul.

Book of moron