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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Scary? Fleety!

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I’ve interviewed Greg Fleet – Oz comedy legend for comics and comedy lovers alike – a number of times and each occasion has been fun. The first time, dating back about a decade ago to the days of the original Harold Park Hotel, was in support of his show Scary – which would culminate in the courtyard where the audience, led there by Fleety, would watch him attempt to boot a roast chicken over the fence  (successfully, more often than not). I can’t for the life of me remember why; like so many other details of the show, the reason has faded into the abyss. Although I do remember Fleety was selling t-shirts after the performance, and I tried to score a freeby from him – being the keenbean comedy nerd who had interviewed him, and all – though sadly to no avail. I duly purchased one, and although I have’t seen it for the better part of the intervening decade, I recall it bore the caption “‘Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the nailgun,” attributed, mock Biblically, to ‘The Book of Ian’ (although I can’t recall the chapter or verse ).

I present this first interview in anticipation of Fleety’s up-coming appearances at Local Laughs (Darlinghurst), BBs (Bondi Beach), Cabana Bar (St Leonards) and Mic in Hand (Glebe). Although, as he won’t be performing Scary at these venues, don’t expect roast chook bootage.


Greg Fleet in is Scary

“My ultimate horror is to fall out of a 40-storey building – to my death, obviously – but to land teeth-first on a drinking fountain. Before I die I’d have a half-second to go ‘ow, my teeth!’ Thinking about things that can happen to teeth is a spin-out. Putting a fork or something between them and bending it really quickly…”

The man talking to me on the other end of the line is Greg Fleet, and the fact that he is discussing horrific, spin-out topics is fitting, for the next show he is to embark upon in Sydney is Scary. Five seconds on the phone with him and you know that he is the man for the job. For example, the first thing he does when he picks up the receiver is to make me jump by emitting a loud and unexpected squawk down the line. I cannot reproduce it here in words, but imagine a chook that has been impinged upon unbearably, taken within inches of its life without actually being allowed to die. The sound it would make is the noise Fleet assaults me with. After I introduce myself, he makes it again before clearing his throat and announcing that he’s “just eating a bowl of cereal”. Interesting news, considering it is 6:30pm.

When I call again later, having given him sufficient time to complete his breakfast, Fleet explains that the squawk is his “favourite noise at the moment,” something he and a friend in England made up as their contribution to the English language:

“If something is really sh*t — you know, I went into this rap one day, sitting around the house, and it was SO SH*T that it was embarrassing, not only for me but for those having heard it, just hearing someone be so sh*t. So we came up with this thing where, if something was bad, we said it was ‘loggy’. You know, we say, ‘oh man, that was so... loggy.’” Fleet luxuriates in the syllables, lingering on the double-g without actually pronouncing them properly. “We’re trying to say it in the most humiliating, embarrassing, fey way. And then ‘extra loggy’ becomes ‘cloggy’. It’s ‘log’, ‘loggy’, ‘cloggy’, ‘clowky’, ‘clowl…’” By this stage it’s the now-familiar squawk of the tortured chook that first answered the phone. See, Fleety’s English friends phone from overseas just to announce to him that he is “so clowky”, followed by the squawk. So when I phoned him out of the blue, he assumed it was an international – rather than merely interstate – call, and just wanted to get in first.

Glad we sorted that out.

Onto more important topics. Like his dinner of breakfast cereal. Having seen earlier Greg Fleet shows in which the comic makes full admission of his drug use, and knowing him as a veteran of many an Edinburgh Festival, I wonder if while in Scotland he might have become acquainted with that country’s most vile and addictive substance: porridge. Fleet clucks at me some more before breaking into a foreign accent:

“Oh, no, no, no. Porridge for bad man; porridge make kill; porridge make murder. Me so sorry for kill stranger. Eat porridge make me kill again. Now me feel clean. Me have blood of stranger in mouth so deep.”

I laugh with insecure trepidation. Fleet joins in, cackling dementedly. “I reckon murder is hilarious,” he says. He outlines a new method that he recently devised, which he calls “mystery-bagging” or “carpet-bagging”. What you do is “kill someone or knock them unconscious and make a small incision in their back – about four inches across – and then just poke natural oysters in there. Fill them up with oysters. So the police find them and they’ve got two dozen oysters inside them, like a carpetbagger steak. THE SEAFOOD KILLER STRIKES AGAIN! It’s something pointless. Really time-consuming and indulgent.”

Will this stuff feature in Scary, I wonder.

“Maybe," Fleety says. "I don’t know. I’ll mention it the night you come. And I’ll give you a bit of ‘clowk’ as well.” I can hardly wait. Meanwhile, Fleet’s strange mind elaborates on his ‘clowky’ movement. “We drew these drawings. You know how sometimes you can curl your feet up when you’re in a car accident or whatever? You curl your feet?”

“Like when the house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz?”, I suggest. When the ruby slippers are removed, her feet, protruding from beneath the farm house, wither and roll up.

“Yeah, that sort of thing. If you see anything clowky it makes your feet curl. We ended up curling our feet and creating a character who went with Loggy. Loggy was a rapper, but he had this DJ called Curve Foot. ‘Curve Foot appears courtesy of WEA records.’ Then we came up with ‘loop foot’, which is when you get curve foot so badly that your toenails grow into your heels, and you’ve got a circular foot. So there’s Loggy, Curve Foot, Loop Foot and then... what else?” Greg loses his train of thought as he tries to complete the list of characters, and before I can offer ‘Fleet Foot’ – (as in the Dylan lyric: ‘Maggie comes Fleet Foot/Face full of black soot…’) – he gives me a despairing ‘clowk’.

“Oh I don’t know,” he says, answering his own question. “Something about eating human poo? No, that’s not true, I just made it up! Oh, I so want to stab a prostitute to death and try and get away with it. Ah fuck! I shouldn’t’ve told you, now I’m gonna get done.”

Dear me. Where to from here? Fleet tells me of the Great God Clokus, a chicken figure whose fathers have been plucked entirely, except on the neck, by his mother. I start praying to the God of Interviewers for a crossover to a live feed of... well, just about anything else. Fleet obviously recognises the misgivings in my pause.

“Ask me anything, I don’t care,” he assures me.

I begin to discuss Scary with Fleety, realising that ‘Fleety’ and ‘scary’ are interchangeable concepts. “What is Scary about?” I ask.

“Nothing yet. That’s why it’s scary!”

Greg Fleet can tell me this much: the show will probably feature the Old Man character that was in Underwater World, his last Sydney show. Fleet has broken with his usual tradition of putting a show on for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, developing it in time for Edinburgh, wowing all and sundry in Scotland and then bringing the final version to Sydney. This time he has deemed his most recent Melbourne Festival show, Bridge Over the River Me, not good enough, and instead of going to Edinburgh with it, remained in Australia to appear as Feste in a Bell Shakespeare production of Twelfth Night.

“I like the discipline of doing Shakespeare,” Greg Fleet admits. “I’d love to do more; drama stretches me in a different direction”. Fleet is not unfamiliar with the straight theatre work. He has spent time at NIDA and claims his theatrical leanings stem from a desire to “know what it feels like in somebody else’s clothes”. That his comedy is becoming more character-based shows a development of both his comic and dramatic skills. Although he states the case a little differently: “The characters are usually people that I’ve killed. I’m the last person to see them and I want to keep their memory alive a little bit. Drop a few hints to the cops. But they’ll never catch me.”

“How long does it take you to come up with a show?” I politely change the subject.

“I’m gay,” he replies, also politely changing the subject. “Sorry, no, what was that? That’s not true. I just wanted to say something inappropriate. Uhm It’s kind of hard to say. From the time you come up with a title to the time you actually come up with the show, for me, can be anywhere from a year to a week. But I generally kind of fuck around with ideas a little bit, and then wait until about the last week and just panic and chuck it together.”

“Really?”

“Almost invariably.”

Fleet explains his arrival at a comedy festival as a matter of looking around the room to “see all the other comics who are there, work out that they’ve probably written their show two months before, but know that you’re probably three times better than them so it’s all right.” He cracks up. “What an arrogant f*cking c*nt!”

Perhaps the arrogance is justified. The man has been known to come away from Edinburgh with five-star reviews, his performances, in his words, “very non-clowky”. He considers himself vindicated, in a way, “because so many good Australian comics go to Edinburgh that the local comics go ‘fucken’ hell, when’s it gonna end?’” But of course, it won’t end, since “comics over here are having a hard time getting paid for a gig. They’re making a hundred and fifty bucks a year or something. And they would be making a minimum of a grand a week in the UK. And that’s pounds, too: it’s something like a million bucks Australian.”

This takes Fleet off on another tangent, this time about “the funniest person” he has ever heard, who in fact isn’t a comic earning a million dollars Australian, but “just a guy in England.”

“You know how I was saying that if something is sh*thouse, it’s loggy and clowky,” Fleet begins, “if someone offers him an extra mild cigarette instead of a strong one, he says, ‘Ah, no, I won’t accept an extra mild cigarette because I’m not actually gay’. He equates this whole ‘gay’ thing with softness and weakness. I know it’s really wrong and a cliché, but I’ve started doing it too and we can’t stop, and now I’ll go to cross the road and the lights will change and I’ll go ‘How gay! How faggotian’” (pronounced ‘fuhg-ocean’, but with more sibilance). He lists a couple of other adapted words in the clowky lexicon, like ‘huh-MOCK-shul’ (derived from ‘homsexual’), ‘huh-TROCK- shul’ (‘heterosexual’). And as for ‘buh-SOCK-shul’ (‘bisexual’), he’s used the term “in front of a few gay friends and got away with it. One of them thought it was really funny. The other one didn’t hear me. Thank god, because it was Sue-Ann Post and she probably would have picked me up and snapped my spine.”

Fleety’s not serious in his mocking attitude of the variously-sexualled – or ‘shuled’, in this case – nor in his fear of fellow comic, the six-foot-plus Sue-Ann Post. He and Postie are great mates. He describes her as “f*ckin’ great” and “so much fun” and “able to beat my head in, easy,” which sparks another memory: the time she was a topless sumo wrestler in  the Jim Rose Circus. According to Fleet, “Postie” rose to the challenge, “pissed one night at the Festival Club”. Vowing to “fucken smack” her soon-to-be opponents’ “heads in”, she approached Jim Rose with the words “yeah, I’m up for it.” Fleet puts on an American accent for Rose’s reply: “Yeah, wow, great, wow, yer big, that’s great.”

Sue-Ann Post actually had slides made of the event and used them in her subsequent show Sex and Sumo. Fleet sums up the bout:

“There’s nothing like the sound of four massive titties just THWAPPING together. It’s the funniest noise Postie’s ever heard, four tits, and each one of them’s about the size of me. A big THWAP!”

That’s also kind o scary.

Getting back to the topic briefly, Greg Fleet explains that a show can alter between conception and actual performance.

“Radically?” I ask.

“Oh, f*ck yeah," he replies. Then pauses before asking, “You said ‘radically’, didn’t you? Because I thought you said ‘radishly’. Does it resemble a salad vegetable? No, because it’s been changed so much. I keep telling you things that aren’t true. I hope that you’re managing to pick them.”

Greg Fleet: a bit silly, but still, quite a scary guy.


I have another Greg Fleet interview – from one of his (many) appearances in The Complete Works of Shakespeare  (Abridged).