Stand Up For Shapiro
Interview with organiser Julie Lawless

Shapiro

Here's the deal: legendary US comic Rick Shapiro has been ill. Awesome Aussie comedy wrangler Julie Lawless has organised a fundraiser for Tuesday 21 August 2012. Hilarious Aussie (and unnameable internationals) are performing. Here's the gig. Story follows. Read and come along.

 

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Julie Lawless – venue booker and tour organiser of both hip young talent and established legendary performers – is virtually ‘fresh off the plane’ when I catch up with her for a chat. She’s just been to Montreal’s ‘Just For Laughs’ comedy festival, returning via New York in order to check out new talent and old friends. Which is a good thing for everyone. It’s via Julie, when she was managing Sydney’s Laugh Garage, that we were treated to the likes of Lee Camp, Sam Tripoli, Thai Rivera, Nikki Lynn Katt and the very legendary Rick Shapiro.

I was first aware of Julie as the maker of hilarious and insightful comments on mutual friends’ Facebook pages. One of those mutual friends, comic Julia Wilson [whom fellow comic Danny McGinlay has noted, serves as my ‘good people police’] assured me Lawless was a cool chick worth knowing.

“Bless her,” Julie says. “I love Julia Wilson”. And so say all of us!

Although Lawless had been into comedy prior, she started interacting in the industry in the ‘early noughties’ – “around 2000, I’m guessing”. Reading street publication The Brag one day, she came across “a tiny little paragraph about Chris Wainhouse, who was playing the Fringe Bar. The piece ended, ‘…make friends with Chris on MySpace…’” Having just joined MySpace, Chris Wainhouse ended up being Julie’s first social networking virtual friend whom she didn’t know in real life. Although real life friendship ensued:

“We started hanging out. And that’s what I pinpoint as the beginning. I’d been to see live comedy before, but after having made friends with him and joking around on MySpace and then becoming friends with other comics and going to shows, I got to know people that way.”

It was through another such friend, comic Sally Kimpton – who, for a time, shared a house with comics Wainhouse and Paul Brasch – that Julie started working at the Laugh Garage. “Do you feel like bossing comics around?” Sally asked Julie, handing over an ad the Laugh Garage taken out for the position of manager. “I applied and got the job,” Julie says. “That was my first professional involvement. Via MySpace!”

Part of me thinks the early noughties are a bit early for MySpace. But if Lawless and Wainhouse really did strike up a cyber friendship that early, I may have had a hand in it. I wrote most of The Brag’s comedy copy from 1998 (when it was still Revolver) to 2003  . “That’s just awesome!” Julie says. “I’d like to think it was courtesy of Dom Romeo – that would add one more cog to my tale of how I got into comedy. And Chris is still one of my favourite comics to this day.”

 

Lawless Entertainment

Julie no longer manages the Laugh Garage. Now she runs Lawless Entertainment, and in this capacity looks after a number of venues. By ‘look after’, I do mean ‘book’, but it’s often more than that. Julie curates nights of comedy. It started with her simply helping organise gigs for overseas comedian friends visiting Australia. It started as simply as booking them for the Laugh Garage and ensuring there were other opportunities for them once they got here. “I’ve sort of made everything up as I’ve gone along, because nobody’s ever really taught me how to do this stuff,” Julie says. She learnt on her feet. Very quickly. Consider her involvement in the World’s Funniest Island comedy festival, taking place on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. For the second year, she was programming the coolest stage.

“I totally was!” Julie laughs, appreciating the complement without taking herself too seriously. And then rightfully correcting me: “The two coolest stages, actually”.

Because Julie was in charge of ‘¡Satiristas!’ – Julian Morrow, chairing a discussion on satire that was to feature the likes of Paul Provenza (who wrote the book ¡Satiristas!), Lee Camp, Will Durst and Rod Quantock. “That talk panel was going to be amazing,” she says.

As was her other baby, ‘The United States of Funny’: “A bunch of young comics from the US, who were going to come and do half an hour each and kill.” The comics included Julia Lillis, Maggie MacDonald, Danielle Stewart, Lee Camp, Owen Benjamin and Thai Rivera.

Unfortunately, that second World’s Funniest Island festival never came to be. “When the rug got pulled out from under us, it was pretty heartbreaking for everyone involved, of course,” Julie says. However, she was instrumental The World’s Funniest Wreckage – a showcase of many of the comics who would have performed on Cockatoo Island – which proved a roaring success, as were the various other comedy spots around town, to accommodate the comics who had come over.

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Rick Shapiro

Of course, it was a year earlier, at the initial World’s Funniest Island, that I first encountered the comic, actor, poet and legend that is Rick Shapiro – one of a number of great international, and yet criminally locally unknown – comics featured that year by the Laugh Garage. The Laugh Garage’s – and thus, Julie’s – involvement with Shapiro began with “Superfans in Perth and Melbourne contacting me and getting the ball rolling”.

“I got a Facebook message from a comic I didn’t know called Evan McHugh McAwesome, saying ‘Would you put Shapiro on if we got him out here?’” Julie recounts. “McAwesome and a couple of guys from Perth were obsessed with Shapiro: they’d made a mini-documentary about looking for him in New York and got the ball rolling. We took it from there.” (It's worth noting that some Perth people are, comparatively, obsessed – after all, Tuesday night at Perth comedy venue Lazy Susan's is 'Shapiro Tuesday'!)

For the uninitiated, Rick Shapiro might be considered a kind of be-bop version of Woody Allen: a hip take on the observations of a New York Jewish upbringing. Rather than playing the chords, be-bop is about implying the chords by playing the harmonies. Likewise, Shapiro doesn't do the traditional lead line/feed line/punch line joke structure - he implies jokes by telling stories that talk around the topic and rarely end on pat punch lines, adopting  characters and setting up situations that leave room for the audience to interpret and engage without the need to make it obvious. They are organic – albeit hyperactive and highly energised – routines that skitter and dodge and weave much like, you begin to imagine, the comic has been forced to, throughout life.

Watching Shapiro at the World’s Funniest Island was a supreme pleasure, but it meant that other great comics who immediately followed were difficult to watch because it took time to acclimatise to their more linear approach to comedy. “It’s hard to follow a high-energy act like that,” Julie concurs.

Julie knows – she was essentially Rick’s tour manager in Sydney. Having had the pleasure of hanging out with them for an awesome afternoon barbecue (that ended well after midnight) I can say it’s an adventure full of engaging diversions following Rick down the streets to the shops, let alone following him on stage.

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Harold Park Hotel

With Julie's gig- and comic-wrangling history, Lawless Entertainment made perfect sense. Management company A-List Entertainment – who look after a number of big names – used to book two rooms that continue to offer the two longest-running comedy nights in Australia: the Old Manly Boatshed (Monday nights) and the Oatley Hotel (Wednesday nights). When A-List divested themselves of the rooms, they sought someone “appropriate” to run them. Someone who “wasn’t a manager, agent or comic, and so would have no conflict of interest”. That person? Julie Lawless.

“They very kindly thought of me. I’ve been running those rooms for about a year and a quarter.”

More recently, Julie is involved in the renaissance of the Harold Park Hotel. This is a major gain – for Lawless Entertainment, for Sydney Comedy, and for the Harold Park. ‘Back in the day’ (from the early ’80s to the turn of the millennium), the Harold Park Hotel was one of two definitive Sydney comedy venues (the other being Sydney’s Original Comedy Store). The Harold Park was a place where you got to see so many amazing talents in their formative years – as well as the cream of the international crop. Robin Williams played there whenever visiting to flog a film.

Sold to developers towards the end of the ’90s, the Harold Park Hotel always promised to retain a ‘wine bar’-type comedy venue, yet its couple of stabs at comedy since have never quite cut it. Its current incarnation is its most promising yet.

“I’ve been booking the Harold Park for about a month and it’s fantastic,” Julie says. “It’s alike a little custom-built theatre created with comedy in mind.” She elaborates: this time round, the comedy takes place upstairs, “right away from the main bar this time”. Which is how they first launched the new Harold Park some years back – before throwing up open mic comics to an indifferent bar.

Sounds good. And according to Julie, it is: “Everyone’s enjoyed all the shows there. We had Dicko there last week, watching Chris Franklin!” On the whole, she says, “they seem to be a pretty smart crowd around there, so I’m trying to give them some clever comedy.”

Stand Up For Shapiro

The Stant Up Shapiro Fundraiser Gala promises to be clever – and very special. While Rick Shapiro continues to play Edinburgh Fringe with his show Rebirth, it is in the wake of what is now being referred to a ‘minor heart incident’ that he had a few months ago. “He was actually hospitalised and wheelchair-bound for about 45 days,” Julie says. A month-and-a-half of incapacitation when your income is stand-up comedy, in addition to the USA’s arcane and downright medieval approach to health care, means no ability to meet what must be astronomical health bills. “I don’t know exactly what they are,” Julie says, “but I got billed $3,000 for a broken finger that I didn’t even get treated, so you can imagine what 45 days is going to add up to.”

There have been a number of fundraisers of Shapiro in the United States. Now, says, Julie, “we’ve decided to show Rick our love over here. Everyone’s working for free on this: absolutely every cent that we raise is going directly to Shapiro, not just to help him with his bills but also to show him that we love him.”

Of course, you want to know who’s on: mostly, comics who relate to Rick and are friends with him. This includes some international acts that I’m not at liberty to divulge but I am able to list Damian Smith, Sally Kimpton, Ben Ellwood, Darren Sanders and Simon Palomares.

Fine Print:

Tue 21st Auguest 2012

Show starts at 8pm, with doors open at 7pm.

Cost is $15 (or $10 if you’ve got student or backpackers id).

“I’m going to ask any comics who turn up and don’t want to pay to put money in the bucket at the door.”


Best Wedding Video Ever

 

Wedding compilation photoI have expounded upon weddings before, from the art of small-talk to the quality of bomboniere and all points between. Okay, some points between. Actually, just aspects of the hens’ night, really.

Point is, a good wedding is judged by the quality of these things along with that of the grog, food, wedding party outfits and speeches.

You'll see this in action particularly at a 'wog-wedding', where older relatives (ie people like me) will recall the 'good old days' when the menu was still stuck in the 1950s: the billions of courses always included a massive platter of prawns at around 11pm; the coffee always came with stuff profiteroles and cannoli, and the pasta course was mostly traditional (ie NOT vegetarian) lasagna, with a massive bowl of more regular 'big spaghetti' carted from table to table for i nonni who don't go in for the fancy shmancy stuff. There also had to be fresh and powdered chili on hand for that generation of Italian patriarch. This attitude pervades, despite the fact you'll be fed your body-weight, irrespective of how nouveau the Italian cuisine is.

But beyond menus, frocks and knick-knacks, there are other ways to make your wedding stand out from all the others.

Clearly, comedian Danny McGinlay and his missus Lesya Bryndzia have raised the bar rather impressively with The Story, directed by Hayden Bevis and Jarrod Factor. (Perhaps give 'em a job doing such parodies for telly after the honeymoon…)


Danny McGinlay a la carte

Danny McGinlay

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

Early Starter

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.

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London then

“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.”

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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…

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Making waves

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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 McGinlay

Food dudery

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…”

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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…”

Danny McGinlay

Bird wordery

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.

Temp


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…”

Danny McGinlay

Getting warmer

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.”

Nice.

On that note, we both have a big glass of water head off to the gig.

Fine Print

Danny McGinlay Learns Ukrainian 7:45pm Upstairs @ Hairy Little Sista until the end of the 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

A nifty conversation with
John Robertson

  John Robertson

“You know what I looked up today?” John Robertson asks down the phone line, joy in his voice as he adds, “this is fun!” What he’s looked up today – and I’m not sure whether he knew what he was looking for, or if he stumbled upon it – is a Wikipedia article about a serial killer. “It’s a guy called ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’, which is now my favourite serial killer name ever.”

Okay, don’t get the wrong idea. John does appear a little too happy to discover the existence of The Servant Girl Annihilator, revelling in the description of America’s first documented serial killer who slightly predates Jack the Ripper and whom some believe was in fact one and the same homicidal maniac as Jack. But John Robertson, a fine comic who has been doing stand-up some seven years, is currently touring a show that happens to be called A Nifty History of Evil – which one promoter has astutely summed up as “the comedy of your nightmares; a manic journey through history’s biggest  bastards, with the icky bits left in!’ With that kind of description, you not only already know you’re gonna like the show, you also know that ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’ is likely to inspire more material. And if you do like the show already, you should also know that you’re in good company: A Nifty History of Evil recently won ‘Artists’ Choice’ and ‘Critics’ Choice’ awards at Perth’s recent Wild West Comedy Festival. So you can understand the comic’s joy at discovering that such a thing as ‘The Servant Girl Annihilator’ exists.

“My favourite element,” John says of the Wikipedia entry, “is that centuries later, some anonymous dickhead is attempting to claim, for the glory of America, that they had serial killers before Britain; there’s a more obscure and less lauded serial killer more worthy of attention.” John likens it to the story of Jim Shepherd, publisher of superhero comic book The Phantom, having once written to Bob Kane, creator of Batman, and accuse him of being a hack for stealing Lee Falk’s work and Ray Moore’s character design – since the Dark Knight is clearly the Ghost Who Walks, Man Who Cannot Die with ears and a cape…

The reference is a little obscure, even for me, but it sums up the essence of John Robertson: extreme knowledge of precise minutiae, delivered entertainingly. It’s part of what makes this Perth comic such an interesting proposition.


Acting funny

On first blush, John’s clearly an actor turned comic. Not because, like most actors-turned-comic, he declaims his routine on stage like a well-rehearsed script; no, he’s one of the good ones. But you guess he’s an actor because everything John says off stage could well be dialogue perfectly scripted for the character he happens to be in real life. Or, to be more accurate, the character he happens to be, in larger-than-real-life.

As a comic – and indeed, as a frequent host of sci-fi conventions – he keeps an audience equally spell-bound with hand puppets and ukulele-accompanied songs as he does purely with words. But before you even get to that point of the on-stage – or off-stage – performance, you might be struck, as others have, by John’s resemblance to other people. Like Melbourne comic Danny McGinlay, for example.

“Oh, that’s nice,” John says. “You can mistake me for Danny McGinlay if I was a foot-and-a-half taller, and his voice was three feet deeper…”

Actually, if you knew either of them well, you wouldn’t mistake one for the other… unless you were dealing with them over the phone – since John’s voice isn’t three feet deeper than Danny’s. There’s probably only a couple of inches difference and it’s hard to call who’s actually ahead. However, if Danny’s sideburns were a couple of feet broader, you would have trouble telling them apart. John’s sideburns are, after all, part of the source of the other comparison he frequently receives, to Wolverine of the Uncanny X-Men. “Yeah, if Danny had sideburns that stretched from here to the Tasman Sea… although our shoulders are reasonably the same breadth…”

It’s hard to tell if John is merely doing the comedian’s thing – taking an idea that’s been offered and running with it, turning it around to look at it from various angles, to see which bits of it catch the light and so can reflect a new twist leading to new humour – or merely running through thoughts that he’s toyed with previously.

“I’ve only met Danny once, actually,” John continues. “It was like, ‘Aha…! Two years ago someone told me I was a little like you, and now that I’ve met you, I wish I were. Because you’re quite handsome, you devil-may-care devil…’”

I doubt they were John’s exact words to Danny, even if they had actually met. But Robertson insists they’re certainly his sentiments. “With his well-developed chest, and me at five-foot-eight and slightly overweight, I’m so glad people think I look like him!”

John also accepts the allegation that he “can’t not have been an actor before he was a comic”, adding the proviso that “it doesn’t mean I was a good actor”. Rather, he says, as a stage actor he found the “artifice” of live performance to be “absolutely ridiculous”:

“A comedian will walk out onto a stage – which is an area purpose-built so that a large group of people can look at you – and will look back at the crowd and talk directly to them. Whereas an actor has to go through this ridiculous contrivance of pretending that somehow the audience isn’t there, while at the same time talking to someone who’s next to them in a highly intimate manner – and by ‘highly intimate’, I mean, they’re standing at an angle and in fact yelling at the top of their voice, so all the people that they can’t see because they aren’t there, can actually hear them.”

Clearly, stage acting had to be jettisoned for comedy – John’s ability to see the absurdity in life wouldn’t allow him to actually live that absurdity daily without being able to call it, as a way of life. “I’m too logical to be an actor. I like the idea of, I walk out, I look directly at you, and I communicate directly to you. And if you like what you hear, you let me know immediately.” That arrangement works best for John, he insists, because he’s “an impatient, ‘only child’ sort of a chap” who likes his feedback directly.


Playing himself

John doesn’t quite engage with the suggestion that he’s ‘playing himself’ larger than life off-stage, although he agrees that he does “adapt” who he’s going to be, depending on what he thinks of the crowd. I reckon it’s as true of the people he’s with off stage, but I know he’s speaking particularly of audiences. “You can tell how high I think a crowd’s IQ is – or to be fairer, how drunk I think a crowd is – by whether or not I roll up my sleeves before I go on stage”. 

According to John, rolled up sleeves means “g’day, I’m your everyman! I’ve just finished doing some heavy physical labour, and here I am now, to communicate to you”. With his sleeves down, John just looks like “a reasonably well-dressed boy”. It’s the difference, he says, between giving a ‘happy-and-fun’ audience happiness and fun, and a rowdy, aggressive audience, some aggression. As we’re discussing this over the phone, I can’t tell if I’m chatting to the reasonably well-dressed boy or the physical everyman, but I remind John of one such gig where he had to roll the sleeves up; he talks about it on stage: a horror gig before an audience of pissed-up Yorkshiremen.

“There’s a whole subset of comedians from my town who were there that night,” John recalls. He relates the story in a tone that almost sounds like warm nostalgia – and it may well be, now that time has passed. “Everyone has a war story from that evening.”

The story goes, a “lovely” Perth promoter – a luv-er-ly cockney lad who used to book the comics for club gigs and corporate gigs, and whom John ‘does’ in character when telling the story, phone the comic up with the offer of a “lovely, lovely” gig to a “lovely, lovely young crowd”, replacing the original MC who had dropped out. The ‘young crowd’ happened to be an audience of 80-year-olds at a golf club.

“They were all old Yorkshiremen and women who had been members of the club since they emigrated to Australia 20 years before. Every comedian on the bill was 40 to 60 years younger than them and they hated us.” 

Rest assured, the gig commenced as normal, with both sides trying to make the most of a bad situation. They respectfully sat through John’s opening slot, despite not really ‘getting’ him; they tolerated the first act. But the second act was an American, at which point, John says, “they lost their shit”. A guy up the back yelled out, “Ah don’t lahk yanks!” It was followed by 20 minutes of “deathly silence and Yorkshire grumbling”.

Another comic – whom John describes as “basically like an Umbilical Brother” – got up and did sound effects, and while the agéd Yorkshirefolk didn’t like him either, they eventually applauded him out of respect “for the sweat he produced”. 

It was during the interval, while John was taking a leak, that revelation came. “I heard a large voice behind me say, ‘Oh, aye, a comedian. Ah lahk you. Some of your jokes are funny. You know who Ah lahk? Ah lahk that Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown.’” It was at that moment, John says, that he realised they’d been booked for the wrong gig. “At the time, none of us were punchline merchants. We are now. That’s what we learnt that evening: ‘Whattaya know? We should write some jokes. People like those!’”

True enough, although the extent of damage wrought by lack of punchlines was yet to be unveiled. Somewhere during the night an old-school open mic-er got up and delivered sub-book gag routines like “…She asked me to kiss her somewhere dirty, so I took her to Battersea Power Station…” which went down a treat. So when the headliner, who was meant to do a fifty minute set, told an internet joke, which the agéd Yorkshirefolk loved, followed by another internet joke, which they also loved, and then promptly ran out of material agéd Yorkshirefolk like, things were bound to come unstuck.

“I can’t tell you his name,” John says of the headline act that night, “because I’m certain he doesn’t want to remember this. But he said, ‘I’m out of internet jokes; wouldn’t you people rather be asleep? Or dead?’”

And that’s when the crowd – on the verge of hostility all night – finally cracked: four minutes into a 50-minute set. He said, ‘Are we all tired of stand-up?’ and they said ‘Yes!’ and started booing.” The audience booed the headline act offstage, and then started chanting for the old-school open mic-er to return. So John got back up, thanked everyone for coming while the booing and the chanting continued, and then all the comedians fled from the venue, fearing for their lives. “And three of us pissed on the side of the building,” John adds. “That’s how aggrieved we were. And off we went.”

John recalls that he happened to be sitting next to the promoter’s daughter while the headline comic was busy asking the audience whether they wouldn’t “rather be watching Gardening Australia? Or Matlock? Or just rotting in the ground?”, and she turned to John, demanding, “What is wrong with him?” According to John, “there was nothing to say. It was an age war. And we lost. We were the Germans in this encounter. It was Perth comedy’s Gallipoli: an Englishman sent us to the wrong beach.”


Close-knit fraternity community

The metaphor of warfare – a battle waged between the comics on one side and… well, and everyone else on the other – is telling. Perth comics are a closely bonded tribe, particularly evident when they’re interstate.

“This was one of the incidents that cemented the brotherhood,” John insists, before getting sidetracked by trying to correct ‘brotherhood’ with ‘fraternity’ and realising that ‘fraternity’, like ‘brotherhood’, appears to overlook the female Perth comics. “This is one of the problems with the English language”, he says, hoping to opt for ‘community’ but deciding against it since ‘fraternity’ at least implies ‘family’ whereas ‘community’, he argues, “could be anything”.

“Yes, you are a close-knit family,” I agree, “but don’t change the subject. I want you to talk about it.”

“Yeah, let’s do it!” John insists. What I want is the story of how the Perth comedy circuit built itself up from nothing; how it is comedian-based, since they set up and run the rooms as a collective and – Shock! Horror! – everyone gets paid. Instead, John wants to concentrate on “that incident” that took place a few years ago at the Yorkshirefolk golf club. “We were all younger then,” he reminisces – as though he’s the one who’s hit the other side of 80 having died in two World Wars. When I point this out, he cites his own old age and physical decrepitude: “I’m 25 now, and my thighs are going”; having just hosted a scifi convention in Sydney, his body is “absolutely covered” in bruises, the provenance of which he cannot trace; his legs ache. “I’ve no idea what I did,” he says.

“You need to regenerate,” I offer. Lame as the Dr Who reference is, it’s the best I can offer. Like a properly trained out-of-work actor who plays a lot of theatresports, John knows better than to turn down the ‘offer’: “I think I will,” he says, “but the adamantium in my system is corrupting my body.”

Ah, a Wolverine reference. How apt.

“I was so delighted to find that out: the only reason Wolverine is not immortal is because of the adamantium in his body. There you go. There’s a fact.”

John receives comparisons to Wolverine far more than he does to Danny McGinlay. But, I point out, it is Wolverine whom Robertson resembles; not Hugh Jackman, who played the character on the big screen.

“Hugh Jackman is from my town,” John says. “We’d all like to look a little more like Hugh Jackman.” At this point, he realises the interview has mostly made him sound “particularly ugly”. But that’s down to John; it’s come out in his answers, not in my questions.

 “Ah well, you see, that’s humility,” John replies. “If I were to be fair to my own self-image, I’d have to say that Hugh Jackman styled that look on me. I am a tremendously attractive deep-voiced soul, all 5-foot-8 of me. I have the build of a rugby player who doesn’t play rugby anymore.”

“Yes,” I add, in a downright un-Australian and cheeky manner, “but you just haven’t had your ‘alleged’ marriage of convenience yet.”

I regret the cheap and nasty Perez-Hiltonesque remark before it’s even finished coming out of my mouth, but John – ever the gracious professional – keeps moving in a different direction. “I can’t imagine a convenient marriage,” he counters. “I had a look at the two men from whom we get the term ‘sado-masochism’, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade, and both of them had some good ideas, just that they were really shit at using them.”

According to John, “all Leopold wanted” was for his girlfriend to sleep with other people, but she was reluctant. “It was illegal at the time, and she would probably be shot, so he had a nervous breakdown”. Meanwhile, all the Marquis de Sade wanted, apparently, was to have orgies, but “he was such a dickhead about it that he kept telling everyone that he was doing it, which was unheard of at the time, so he kept going to prison”. John’s conclusion? “I should find some nice bohemian combination of the two, and then never mention it to anyone, ever.”

I know it looks as though John’s taken the opportunity to chase down another tangent in order to side-step discussing the nature of Perth comedy, but what he’s actually done is deftly led us back to the topic of show he’s doing, A Nifty History of Evil. Still, in the process, it does look as though he’s having a much better conversation with himself than with me.

“That’s what comes of being an only child,” John counters: “a need to respond to a simple question with a nine-part answer, none of which parts are inter-connected”. Indeed, he concludes, “I’m the Old Testament version of my own life story”. 

 

Raymond and Cat Cat

There is the tinge of the Old Testament to John’s life just at the moment, an example of the Good Lord who giveth, taking away. A key point of his performances has been the appearance of two adorable puppets – a sad guinea pig and a hideous cat. “I don’t know what it is about them,” he says, “but audiences find Raymond the Manic-Depressive Guinea Pig and Cat Cat the Munt-Faced Cat utterly enchanting.” 

Turns out John found Raymond on the floor of the children’s entertainment centre where he used to work. “He just looked so miserable and so desperately sad that I took him home. I literally stole him.” John used to walk around the place with the guinea pig on his hand, speaking with in its voice all day. “I absolutely loved the idea of a sad hamster. It was just so much fun. You could make it look like he was cutting his wrists; he could cover his eyes; it was just this great moment of pathos. It could make an audience so sad.…”

How sad? The way Raymond was first incorporated into the act was, John says, in the middle of a stand-up performance where all of the various lines, jokes and act-outs worked, and everyone was having so much of a “generally crazy time” that he decided to take the gamble and ask the audience if they’d like to see the puppets. The drunken audience loved the idea. So John pulled out Raymond the Manic-Depressive Guinea Pig and made him start talking and covering his eyes. The crowd was utterly hushed, until a man broke the silence by shouting, with tears in his voice, “Make us laugh! Make us laugh!”

“It was a nice moment,” John says. “That was Raymond sealing his part of the deal: girls would squeal in delight when Raymond came out, and then they would be moved with intense sadness. This is something I think we could do more of.”

You don’t need to do more of it if you can do it well. The moment of sadness in a comedy show – if done properly by someone who knows what he’s doing, is magical. It makes the release of the funny, when it returns, even funnier, because there’s been some patently ‘not funny’ (but no less powerful) to compare it to. After all, if everything was uniformly hilarious, how would you know? And it’s worth noting, Aussie comics do pathos very, very well. Consider Grahame Bond and Rory O’Donohue’s ‘singing tramp’ characters Neil and Errol on Aunty Jack, or Paul Hogan’s wino…

“It’s true,” John agrees, “and we handle it well, too. But we treat it like a foreign concept whenever it appears.” So much so, that it only works if the performer is totally committed to it. In fact, he adds, the lesson he’s learnt is that, with everything you do, “you have to really commit to it, or it doesn’t work. That seems to be the secret to the universe.”

Having reached the point where Raymond had more-or-less reduced an audience to tears, he’d pull out Cat Cat the Munt-Faced Cat, another item purloined from that place of work. “He’d been touched and played with by some 40,000 school children, so this once beautiful cat had been rendered almost black with dirt; his face was pushed in; his eyes were just blazing and sinister.”

Before an audience wracked by sadness, the repulsive cat did the business. “Cat Cat could scrunch his upper lip into his lower lip and then flap out his mouth, whereupon he would speak like Jabba the Hutt: ‘Waka jawaka, Solo. Bring the Wookie to me. Waka jawaka jawaka.’ The release in the room would be amazing every time.”

I have experienced this firsthand, but what didn’t quite twig that time – and I’ve no idea how or why I missed it – is that Cat Cat spoke like Jabba the Hutt. The Han Solo reference should have been a give-away.

“I don’t think anyone remembers it. That’s the nice thing about puppets: they get a biological response. Who gives a crap what the puppet is saying, providing it’s moving, and looks funny?”

John has used these puppets, he says, in places where it should almost be unreasonable to use them. There’s a YouTube clip of him entertaining a 1,200-strong anime convention with a kid’s story featuring Raymond and Cat Cat in prominent roles. “They lose their shit,” John says. “A little girl yells out, ‘everybody loves Raymond…’ They love it.” He also pulled Raymond and Cat Cat out while doing the support slot for Wayne Brady. “That was 2,500 people. And I learnt something that day – visual jokes don’t carry to the back of the room!” Three tiers of people laughed while the fourth tier – who had been making a lot of noise up to that point – fell silent. John knew it was time to put the puppets away and pull out the ukulele.

Unfortunately, John lost Raymond and Cat Cat during the most recent Melbourne International Comedy Festival, on the way to a sci-fi convention. “I hadn’t pulled them out for the whole festival because they’re not part of this year’s show,” he says. “I was taking them to the sci-fi convention I was hosting. I got off the tram and realised I’d left them on it.” John ran through traffic to catch up to the tram, but couldn’t reach it. He jumped onto the next tram, and had that diver contact the driver ahead, but to no avail. “By the time the driver on the first tram looked, they were gone. I rang my girlfriend and we wept. It was like losing some kids. Except that now, it’s months later, and it’s like losing some kids we didn’t really care about. I loved those guys, but I don’t burst out crying. Anymore.”

Well-meaning friends have sent John replacement puppets, but they know they’re not the same. The new kitten puppet is far too adorable. Even though it can be very funny when you “make it a Nazi and give it the voice of Christoph Waltz, from Inglorious Basterds”. Indeed, John says, it’s amazing how many puppets can do the Nazi salute. “It’s one of the first things people do when they grab them. ‘Can I make it touch its dick? Can I make it do a Nazi salute?’” Those things are hilariously funny, clearly, but it’s the pathos that the other puppets presented, that made John’s onstage shtick what it was. “I like my pathos,” he explains. “I like my animals weird and munted.”


Better acting as a musician

The puppets may be gone, but John still has his ukulele, which, like the puppets, doesn’t exist for what it is, so much, as for what it isn’t. “It’s not even there, necessarily, to be a musical thing,” John insists. “It’s just a point of difference. ‘Look, I’ve just done however minutes of high-energy stuff on stage, maybe we’ve gone a few places, maybe we’ve done some weird shit, maybe I’ve yelled a whole bunch of jokes at you; now let’s see what I can do with this happy instrument.’”

What John usually does with the ‘happy instrument’ is perform three songs, two of which “appear” to be “very happy” – although, when you listen, he points out, “neither of them are” – and the other one, really depressing. The ‘depressing song’ is mostly conveyed through John’s facial expressions. He finds the “face work” to be liberating. “Playing a slow, sad song where you don’t sing and all you do is look out into a large crowd as if you are dying on the inside is one of the most enjoyable things you can imagine,” he insists.

“But a lot of the time you can’t see the crowd,” I offer.

“I can,” John argues. And in a way, he can. Because “it isn’t about ‘seeing’ the crowd; it’s about ‘hearing’ them. If you’ve got a really large crowd and you walk across a stage looking incredibly sad and you’re singing a song that is amazingly pathetic, and you’re looking out at people, it’s amazing to hear a ripple of response go through them.” And, he reiterates, “having it carry through the entire room as you walk the length of the stage is a really gorgeous thing. It also makes you think ‘Christ I must look sad! I’m a better actor than I thought!’”


Nifty history of the show

We’re almost back to the point where we began: John Robertson, the actor-turned-comic – except that we actually began with John’s infatuation with serial killers and evil, which he’s turned into a live show, A Nifty History of Evil. I quite like the poster graphic – John as a cross between the Nosferatu vampire (from the film of the same name) and that character Ron Moody played – or rather, that character Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh plays, based on a Ron Moody character, that has ‘Polo mints for eyes’. It also reminds me of Screaming Lord Sutch, an English rock’n’roll character from the ’60s. But John reckons it’s accidental that he looks as though he might want to talk to me about eels; rather, the look grew out of the costume, first and foremost. “I just thought, ‘Hey, let’s put on all of our steampunk gear today and see how we look. Oh, I look a little like an aristocrat…’”

The ‘steam punk’ clobber comes from Gallery Serpentine, a ‘goth shop’ that sponsors John by slinging clothing in his direction “every once in a while”. So, he says, “I’m wearing one of their frock coats. I’ve got one of their corsets on, I’m wearing their shirt… the hat was mine.” As to the poster image for the show, John’s feeling was, “how good would it be if I were to have these really horrifying distended fingers?” His buddy Mel, “this tremendous graphic designer” that John insists is on par with Shaun Tan (Tan is “a more dream-like, less photo-realistic version” of Graeme Bass, according to John), ‘knocked it up’ for him with little effort.

“It’s the finest piece of graphic design I’ve ever been associated with,” John says. “Mel’s been my best friend for years and she really hates it. So much. Tim Ferguson wrote to me and told me that he likes it. I told Mel, and she was so embarrassed. She would have preferred if he’d seen any of her body of work that wasn’t that.”

The show A Nifty History of Evil itself, according to John, is about “marketing, blood and style”. It’s an historical journey through “obscure moments of evil mythology”. So it features “Philippino vampires, a puppet show about the Marquis de Sade, a happy song about Stalin’s Purges which is basically Goldilocks and the Three Bears retold from a soviet perspective…” – a little bit of everything, really. If it’s inspired by anything, it’s the facts gleaned as a kid from children’s encyclopedias.

“I really liked those entries you’d stumble across that would end, ‘and then he massacred all of them’,” John says. “When it’s been divorced from context by about 400 years and then phrased in a children’s encyclopedia, it usually tends to be great. I basically wanted to put together a horrible history of the world, and some of these things are just excruciatingly funny.”

What sort of things are excruciatingly funny? He offers the possible alternative endings to World War II as an example. Both the Russians and American were working on secret weapons that would finally bring the conflict to an end, once and for all. The Americans were developing the deadly ‘Bat Bomb’, essentially “a bat with dynamite strapped to it,” according to John.

“They were going to release these over Tokyo. They never did it because the first day they were experimenting with the bats in a secret army base, they flew up into the roof and, when they exploded, took out the base.” The historical consequence of this was the Americans developing the more cost effective nuclear fusion. “It was cheaper to develop the atom bomb.”

At the same time, John says, the Russians were developing the ‘dog bomb’ – a dog with a landmine strapped to it. Dogs were being trained – no doubt via Pavlov’s classical conditioning, to run under German tanks, by putting food under tanks. “But the Russians didn’t have any German tanks for the dogs to practice on,” John reports, “so the dogs would go out into battle, look at German tanks and freak out, then look at Russian tanks which they associated with food, run back to them, and explode.”

These ridiculous historical factoids are great, but better still, for John, are the moments in the show when people hear about stuff they already know, but weren’t aware others were into.

“I’ve seen a large guy dressed in footy shorts cheer when I mention Countess Elizabeth Bathory,” John says. And why shouldn’t an apparent rugger bugger cheer at in recognition of the horrible Hungarian ruler who used to bathe in the blood of young virgin women – since beauty products containing the stem cells of discarded fetuses weren’t yet on the market – in order to remain youthful? 

Likewise, “troupes of young women high five each other” when John begins to discuss Lilith, the first woman. Well, she’s the first woman according to the Kabala and variations of the original myth from which the Adam and Eve story is reportedly derived. Apparently, Lilith was banished from the Garden of Eden by God because she refused to acquiesce to Adam as husband and boss. Depending on the version of the story, Lilith disappears, becomes a howling wind, or becomes a vampire who preys on children and pregnant women. No guesses which version of the story A Nifty History of Evil deals with…

This has been a long conversation, admittedly, John concludes, but it’s the last chance we’ll get to have one for a while. “The minute I finish the show in Sydney,” he says, “I’m flying home to Perth where I’ll spend four hours changing my bags over so that I can fly to Edinburgh and do 44 shows in 22 days. Then I’m doing club work in the UK until October.”


There you have it. If you want to see A Nifty History of Evil in Sydney, John’s doing it at the Comedy Store, Sunday July 25th. Until then, he’s featuring in the Store’s season of ‘Heavy Weights of Ha Ha’ featuring Bruce Griffiths, Chris Wainhouse, Smart Casual, Jackie Loeb, Joel Creasey, Amelia Jane Hunter, Rhys Nicholson, Umit Bali and Emma Markezic. Oh, but during August you can see A Nifty History of Evil in Edinburgh!


How to deal with telemarketers Pt 2

Telemarketer: Good afternoon, Sir, how are you?

Dom Romeo: It’s quite late at night, actually – probably too late for you to be cold calling me - but I’m fine. How are you?

Telemarketer: I’m calling from the  Television Ratings Panel, I don’t know if you remember, Sir, but you answered a questionnaire in February regarding how many televisions there are in the house.

Dom Romeo: I don’t remember that.

Telemarketer: That’s okay, some people don't remember. The reason I’m calling today…

Dom Romeo: Tonight.

Telemarketer: The reason I’m calling…

Dom Romeo: Tonight.

Telemarketer: …now is to offer you the opportunity to be on our television ratings panel. You will have the power to determine what goes on television and what gets taken off.

Dom Romeo: Really? Well I’d like my own television show.

Telemarketer: I don’t think I can help you with that, Sir.

Dom Romeo: But you just said you were going to give me the power of what goes on and gets taken off the television.

Telemarketer: Yes, but I don’t think your idea for a television show fits in with programming schedules.

Dom Romeo: You haven’t heard my idea yet.

Telemarketer: Sir, what I’m ringing for…

Dom Romeo: Is to waste my valuable time, evidently.

Telemarketer: Sir, we think you qualify to contribute to television ratings collection. Wouldn’t you be interested in that?

Dom Romeo (in Terry-Jones’s-falsetto-The-Virgin-Mandy-a-ratbag-from-Life-of-Brian-voice): Well why didn’t you say so? Come right in.

Telemarketer: What was that, Sir?

Dom Romeo: Nothing. Say I am interested in being on your ratings panel. What does it entail?

Telemarketer: We affix some hardware to your television, and give you a special remote control with a button you have to press every time you watch television. Do you think you could do that?

Dom Romeo: I probably could. How does the hardware come to me? Who installs it? How does it work?

Telemarketer: They’re all good questions, Sir. We would tell you when and who would come to install it; they would show you identification. You would be there when they installed it. They would show you how it works and answer all your questions.

Dom Romeo: Okay.

Telemarketer: Now we just need to determine if you qualify to be part of the ratings panel. Essentially, your viewing habits would be multiplied by 5000 to reflect your demographic.

Dom Romeo: Right.

Telemarketer: Would everyone else in your household be able to press the specific button on the remote control?

Dom Romeo: I believe so.

Telemarketer: Okay, so how many televisions do you have in your household?

Dom Romeo: Just the one. But I watch a lot of ABC iView online.

Telemarketer: Oh, Sir, good catch. You don’t really qualify to be part of our Ratings Panel.

Dom Romeo: Just what I thought. Because your company is owned and run by the three commercial networks, and I’ve known for quite some time that television ratings are a crock, particularly when I hear the likes of Ray Hadley and other AM talkback radio types blathering about figures – brought to us courtesy of some sponsor – in disbelief that the more interesting show outrates the same old boring crap during morning cab rides. That's why there's shit-all on television whenever I want to actually watch it, and why I mostly resort to ABC iView when I actually have some viewing time, late at night.

Telemarketer: Thank you for your time, Sir.

Dom Romeo: Just my time? Not my opinions? They aren’t as expensive as the time you’ve just wasted for me, but they’re worth noting. Jot them down and report back to your employers.

Telemarketer: I’m sorry to have bothered you.

Dom Romeo: Indeed. Go pedal your snake-oil elsewhere.


Of course, if I actually had the power to put something good on television, I’d start by producing Danny McGinlay’s cooking show. And if I had qualified for the ratings hardware, I’d be raising the figures of his next television appearance by 5000. Here’s a clip of him in action.