Having heard a whisper that Fiona O’Loughlin will be up to something a little later this year, I post this as-yet unpublished interview in anticipation of hyperlinking back to it somewhere down the track. Though unpublished until now, an edit of this was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio late last year, in time for her Sydney Opera House Studio season. You can download an MP3 version of the interview here.
The beauty of Fiona’s comedy is that it is finely observed from her everyday experience, and communicated perfectly for everyone to understand and appreciate. At the moment my favourite Fiona O’Loughlin line is her truism, that ‘if your mother tells you that she doesn’t have a favourite child, then you aren’t her favourite child’. Great stuff.
It’s December and Fiona O’Loughlin is about to open with her show Me of the Never Never at the Sydney Opera House. “It’s exhausting to think I’m forty now,” she says, when I catch up with her for an interview. “Most people at my age would be winding up. I don’t know how much longer I have to keep it up.”
Fiona O’Loughlin is a strange case study of comedy. She’s only really been around for a few years, yet amongst the rookie comics who ‘graduated’ in 2000, Fiona O’Loughlin was the annoying mature-age student who topped the class. Despite (or perhaps, because of) her being a half-generation older than most of her peers, and a mother-of-five to boot, she seemed to have a fully-formed comedic persona when for all intents and purposes she should have been sounding like everyone she’d listened to so far. More importantly, she was very funny. According to Fiona, there’s a reason why. “I’ve had two starts at this,” she confesses. “I started fifteen years ago and I gave it away. This is ‘take two’, really.”
Growing up in a “really small” country town in South Australia, Fiona relocated to Alice Springs as a newlywed. Her “hobby”, she says, was “working in town as a local MC.” It was here that she inadvertently developed her skills. “Someone said to me, ‘you’re actually doing stand-up.’ I was like, ‘oh, really?’”
There were no comedy venues in Alice Springs, so someone suggested to Fiona that she apply for an arts grant in order to go to Melbourne to see some stand-up comedians. She did. “I got a six hundred dollar grant and I caught a McCaffertys bus to Melbourne. When I first saw a stand-up I thought, ‘that’s it! That’s what I want to do’”. Then “housework and having babies” ensued. “I really didn’t understand the industry. I didn’t understand how it worked. I was busy with kids so I’d just kind of nick down to Melbourne and play clubs if I could manage it. I was sometimes only working three times a year.” Ultimately, Fiona “let everything go” in order to get on with life.
However, in 2000 she decided to give stand-up one last shot. Rather than cobbling five minutes together and slowly trying to build it through endless open mic nights, Fiona decided to recruit her actress sister Emily for a full-length show. Combining forty minutes of stand-up with twenty minutes of sketch comedy, Fiona O’Loughlin made her debut at the Adelaide Fringe Festival with a show entitled Fiona And Her Sister (And Some Weird Guy). Although the safety net afforded by the presence of sister Emily allowed Fiona “a really easy way” to ease herself into comedy, her early success is still impressive. When she took the show to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the following year, it earned her a Barry Award as ‘Best Newcomer’.
“I’ve whinged about it in the past,” Fiona reflects, “Alice Springs being so isolated from Melbourne, where all the action of comedy is. But I think I was luckier, in a way. Not being amongst it, I developed a style that was all my own. I think that that can be really tricky for young, urban comics. If they’re watching too much of one person, they inadvertently start to sound like that person.” Despite being isolated from comedy-rich towns, Fiona exercised her humour muscles with activities like Theatresports. “I call stuff like that ‘netball practice’ for comedy,” she says.
Although Fiona no longer shares a stage with her sister, her comedy is still a family affair: most of her children appear in her material. “They don’t mind because some of the stories are quite appealing,” she says, “quite cute”. However, her eldest son has “drawn a line in the sand” and said enough’s enough. “He’s seventeen and won’t be spoken of on stage. He’s told me that, in no uncertain terms.” And there’s no chance of Fiona cutting a deal with him that makes it worth her while not talking about him. “Go clean up your room or I’ll tell everyone at the Melbourne Comedy Festival” just doesn’t strike fear into the heart of teenagers; if it did, everyone’s mum would be a stand-up comic.
Apart from the O’Loughlins’ living room, there still aren’t many comedy venues in Alice Springs. Even if there were, you’d be lucky to catch Fiona performing in one. “I’m terrified of working locally,” she confesses. “With stand-up, you’re taking a hell of a risk every time you walk onto a stage. I only do a couple of gigs here a year and I’m in a foetal position ten minutes before I begin. What if I stuff it up? My kids’ teachers are in the audience; so is the lady from the shop…”
Such performance anxiety in front of the home crowd is a hurdle all successful comics leap. Fiona has another performance-related problem, however. She is forever running out of time. “I’m not telling jokes, I’m telling stories,” she explains. “It’s like being at a dinner party with the audience. I think, ‘oh, I really want to tell you this one.’ But I usually have an hour on stage, so I’ve got to delete as I go.” It’s difficult to know when the material’s been truncated: you’re usually laughing too hard to be aware that something may be missing. Fiona’s long-term solution is to commit her best stories, in their glorious entirety, to posterity, in the form of a book. “It’s just a memoir,” she says, “but what I’m loving about it is that I have all the time in the world. I can tell every story that I want to tell.” As the kids are all at school, Fiona spends her mornings “typing away” at her leisure.
As for her stage work, each show consists of bits of paper upon which she’s scribbled down ideas during the preceding year. “This sounds so shocking,” she admits, “or lazy! But I can’t work without the pressure of it being last minute. I get all those bits of paper, generally the night before I open, and string it all together.” A strange way to work, but, surprisingly, not a lot of restructuring has to take place after opening night. Mostly, Fiona just has to “tweak it a little bit”, because her stories have already been road-tested on friends and family. “They don’t know that I’m trying stuff out,” she says, “it’s just me telling stories over a beer.”
That Fiona goes out knowing everything works is a good thing, particularly in December in Sydney, when most shows are a dry run for the Adelaide Fringe Festival, where everything is gotten absolutely right in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. However, Fiona insists that we’ve nothing to fear – she’s doing it “the opposite way around” this time. “I wrote this show for the last Melbourne Comedy Festival, even though it’s got a different title. This is putting it to bed, really; it’s its last hurrah. Then I’ve got to write another one for the Adelaide Fringe next year.”