Dom Romeo: I’m sitting on a bench outside of Melbourne’s Town Hall the day after the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival has ended, with Michael Workman, one of my favourite up-and-coming comics – indeed, one of my favourite comics. I first saw him contesting the Raw Comedy National Final last year, which he won. This year he featured – as the Raw winner does – in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together of the best up-and-comers. He’s about to head to Sydney to perform his one-man show The Ogre as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival.
Michael, where do you want to begin?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Hm. Let’s begin at the beginning: Comedy, as an art form. Why would anybody do it?
Dom Romeo: Why do you do it?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Why would anybody do it? I don’t know. People are disturbed, I think. And I’m certainly one of those people, and so the constant need for attention and approval of complete strangers leads me to comedy. Which is working quite well, I think, at the moment.
Dom Romeo: How did you start? Why did you start?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well I was very drunk, to be fair, and alcohol sort of influences a lot of decisions you make through your life. I was a musician before this and my instruments got stolen. I was left with no means of connecting with people and entertaining, so I had to find something I could do without a musical instrument and that’s how I got into this, basically.
Dom Romeo: That’s an awesome story, but part of me says you could have made that up on the spot.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: No, it’s quite true. My house was broken into and I lost everything I used to make music.
Dom Romeo: What was ‘everything’? Were they traditional amplified instruments, or electronic stuff?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: They were electronic keyboards and a small recording device, so yeah: that was it. It was gone, Dom. Gone.
Dom Romeo: I actually thought you said, ‘it was God, Dom’ the first time, which could also be true.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s exactly the kind of thing He would pull. He has a long history of doing things like that to me. So, I don’t know.
Dom Romeo: Is there a lost, not-quite-completed first album? Had you uploaded any tracks to MySpace or elsewhere? Is there something that’s going to come back to bite you when you’re a world-famous, notorious comic – like the Bill Hicks recordings with his band Marble Head Johnson?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: No, probably not. You see, I’m quite lazy and not very technologically savvy. So I doubt that most of that would have made it onto the Internet or anything like that. I don’t think there’s even recordings of it, to be fair.
Dom Romeo: The instruments were gone; what made you go, ‘I’m going to get up on stage and talk about stuff.’
MICHAEL WORKMAN: I was incredibly depressed, I think, and not really doing a lot with my life. I was living in this horrible place surrounded by meth addicts, in a share house that I was very frustrated with. I just needed some reason to get out of there and go and meet new people and do things that were exciting.
Dom Romeo: Now this was in Perth, which has a very strong, close-knit comedy community, many of who were actors before they were comics. They are very impro-driven and are very good at clowning and playing to kids… you don’t seem to fit any of the crass stereotypes I’ve created to sum up an entire city’s very strong comedy culture.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well, perhaps not, but I think there is a strong movement of surrealist comics in Perth. You’re certainly right about the theatre background and the improvisation background. There’s a lot of that going around. But I think with the isolation in the city, the art seems to be kind of bizarre and kind of from a place of sensory deprivation. There’s not a whole lot for creative people to do in Perth so there’s this bizarre outburst that happens in all of our arts culture. That’s this very surreal movement that comes out of there.
Dom Romeo: You are very surreal. If I had to describe you, to me… The accent I find a bit interesting. It’s kind of early period David Bowie crossed with A Clockwork Orange… you’ve got the whole thing going as a Goth. You have great routine about the difference between Goths and Emos… You paint your nails black, you dress mostly in black, you seem like the real thing to me.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, I am the real thing, I must say. I have glitter nail polish that’s just chipping off. That’s all right, I like it when it chips off… I was in a Goth band for five years, I was in the Goth scene for a long time. I don’t really actively participate in that anymore but I still enjoy the aesthetic. I’m still very committed to that ideal. Why not?
Dom Romeo: I also notice some awesome tattoos. For example, on your left arm, there’s a 2+2=5, which could be a reference to a Radiohead song, but I think is more likely to be a reference to the novel 1984, which the Radiohead song also references. Tell me about that, and the tattoo under it, which I assume is in Jewish.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, that’s Hebrew…
Dom Romeo: Hebrew! Sorry. ‘In Jewish…!’ How uncultured am I!
MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s okay.
‘2+2=5’ is from 1984. That is a great Radiohead song as well, off Hail to the Thief, which is all about how Bush stole that election and that kind of thing, so it’s a good parallel to draw. But yeah, at the end of the book, they torture the main character until he admits that two plus two equals five. I guess I got this tattoo as a reminder to constantly be critical about the things that happen around me. That’s a very good thing to take into your comedy as well, because it’s your job as a comedian in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, to criticise society and make people aware of things that are going on.
As for the other one, this Hebrew tattoo, this is the Hebrew word ‘EMET’ which means ‘truth’.
Dom Romeo: And if you rub the ‘E’ out, it says ‘death’.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s right. If you rub out the Alef, it says ‘MET’ which means ‘death’. It’s what they wrote on the Golem of Prague to bring him to life.
Dom Romeo: I know that from a comic book, that’s how cultured I am. I probably couldn’t tell you which one – although it may have been a Howard the Duck comic from the 70s.
Are you in fact Jewish?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: No I’m not. I’ve studied a lot of ritual magic and stuff. That’s where it all comes from.
Dom Romeo: And on your chest you have another tattoo – a ‘talisman’ is what you might have called it.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: It’s a talisman from my sort of occult days, that I use for a general kind of protection. It has a symbol of a demigod in the middle of it who’s kind of my ‘patron’, if you like.
[Michael also has a symbol on the wrist of his right arm; it represents the Archangel Michael - Dom]
Dom Romeo: When you say your ‘occult days’, a) are you allowed to talk about that stuff, and b) what did it entail? And if the answer to a) is ‘no’, forget b), obviously.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Of course you can talk about things. If there’s anything you can’t talk about in that circle, it’s not because people want to keep it a secret, it’s more because these things have to be experienced to be understood, so there’s really no point in explaining them verbally.
I’m sorry, what was the second part of your question again?
Dom Romeo: What did it entail? Because you say ‘occult’, I immediately think of sacrificing virgins and goats on a pentagram to comic-book demons.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well that is fun, but it very rarely happens. It’s more about enacting your will on earth. Lots of very mundane things are actually magical rites. If you go to a church service, that’s a magical rite. If somebody’s doing some public speaking, that’s a form of magic. It’s all about dominating the physical world with the power of your mind or your being.
Dom Romeo: So, Michael Workman, I’ve seen you perform magic several times on a stage, creating something out of words, that make people react uncontrollably, beyond their ability, laughing uproariously. That’s magic.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, that’s magic. One of the first things that you learn is that words are incredibly powerful. Everything is made out of words so if you can learn to control words then you can basically do anything.
Dom Romeo: Wow, that’s awesome! And, beautifully, it’s taken us to your comedy.
What I love about your stuff, your on-stage magic, is that a lot of comics when they start out, do self-deprecating autobiography. They talk about what they know: life experiences that they’ve got enough distance from to turn around to be funny with (otherwise it’s not comedy, it’s just confessional, which isn’t entertaining, necessarily).
But your comedy is a level removed from that. There’s stuff that happens, but you don’t just talk about it literally with twists that are jokes; it’s like you’ve already moved beyond. It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a metaphorical move… Your reaction to real life is a step removed.
Like your example of being abused by random people in a car, where you repeat the abuse and point out that it took the form of haiku. Another comic would have just told us their perfect comeback, perhaps tagging it with the admission that they never delivered the perfect comeback – because they thought it up much later. You’re delivering an extra level of intelligence upon the process.
I’m gushing in a boring way here, so just acknowledge and correct me where necessary.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: You’ve got to get to the core of any issue. Finding the thing that makes something frustrating is very, very important and putting it in a succinct way, that’s your challenge as a comic.
With that particular joke, I could have been incredibly mean to that person. But what I did was point out something that he wouldn’t have realised, which in a way is an insult to him,a very shrouded insult to him that only others would understand. So he appears as quite an idiot, this hypothetical person, at the end of the joke. But I’d like to steer away from being mean to people or being insulting in my comedy because I don’t think that’s a very likeable quality and I wouldn’t like my jokes if that’s the form they all took.
Dom Romeo: The other one I like, an early joke from your Raw routine, is when you’re doing an impression by standing on the spot, waving your arm, but the impression isn’t about the arm, it’s about you standing on the spot doing an impression by waving your arm. So once again, you’ve moved the frame of reference and the joke is one step removed from the event that inspired it. It’s not about ‘that’ anymore, it’s about all of ‘this’, instead.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: To this day I still don’t know why that joke is funny. I’ve tried to deconstruct it many times, but I don’t get it. I think it’s the fact that there’s this really unexpected intense insight into me that shouldn’t be there. It’s completely inappropriate and done in such a flippant way that maybe that’s why it’s funny. I don’t know.
Dom Romeo: Maybe we shouldn’t analyse; we should just leave it to be funny.
You’re about to do a show that is far more personal. It’s certainly not self-deprecating, but it is autobiographical and heartfelt. It’s called The Ogre. I didn’t see the first Sydney test run of the show, but everyone who did told me how good it was, so kudos to you; I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Tell me a bit about the show.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: The show is about a period where I lived with my father. He was very ill at the time. It’s about working through the issues I had with him and his apparent alcoholism, and his frustrations and his hatred towards the world – his misanthropy – and seeing those things reflected in me and trying to overcome them. So basically I’m using my father as an example of how wrong you can go in life, and how hate-filled you can become. And how to avoid that.
Dom Romeo: Not having seen the show, I think the major difference between you and your dad is you discovered the occult and learnt magic and did comedy and can devise jokes that aren’t hate-filled, and are clever and positive; your dad never got the chance.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s one of the points that I make in the show: it’s very easy to say these things about him and I didn’t want it to be judgemental of him. I had way more opportunities than he did, and perhaps he missed out on some of the tools you need in life that you need to overcome those problems, that I fortunately had. So I guess it’s about being thankful that things went better for me than they did for him.
Dom Romeo: Excellent! I could try to pick apart or guess what’s going on in Ogre, but really, if anyone’s seen you do the Raw final, or Comedy Zone this year, they should come and see your show. Clearly, you’re someone who is going to get somewhere interesting comedically much faster than a lot of other people. So now’s the time to get in at the ground level, while tickets are affordable.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Thank you very much, Dom.
Dom Romeo: Now, before I let you go, I want you to tell me about the Fred Schneider game.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: There’s a game that we play in Perth called ‘Hey, Fred Schneider!’ For those of you who don’t know, Fred Schneider was the male lead singer of the B-52’s who has a very distinct voice and he always sings that don’t make a whole lot of sense so we have a little improv game that we play, where we sing, ‘Hey, Fred Schneider, what are you doing?’, and we do his voice, and then somebody’s gotta come up with some bizarre B-52’s parody lyric in his voice, like ‘I’m putting some batteries in a brick I found in the yard…’. You’ve got to keep it going. Whoever drops the ball, that’s the end of the game.
Dom Romeo: What happens to them?
MICHAEL WORKMAN: Um…
Dom Romeo: Do they go ‘down… down… down…’? Sorry. I was just trying to find a suitable B-52's reference to end on.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: I think you’ve done very well. Let’s go with that.
Dom Romeo: Thank you, Michael.
MICHAEL WORKMAN: It’s been a pleasure.