Bugging Maccas

Ice fly

Hard to tell, I know, but what you're looking at is a bug. Frozen in an ice cube. In the bottom of a cup. That I had just drained of Sprite. From a Maccas.

Now here's the thing: it's understandable that a bug might fall into the container full of ice. It happens. And it was tiny. I can understand how it was overlooked. And I'm sure it caused me no real damage - after all, we consume 6 insect legs a day in chocolate or whatever that stupid statistic is (an average of 8 legs per chocolate bar, in fact - apparently) and a bunch of spiders (more than 4 little ones).

In fact, nowadays, we're told we'll soon all be consuming insects for their protein. Although this isn't so new: a buddy told me about a trip to Thailand where a piece of corrugated metal, lit from above, was situated over a bucket of water; insects hit it all night and landed in the water; the following morning somebody sorted them into the different varieties in preparation for frying and vending.

Indeed, during one of my Melbourne Comedy Festival sojourns, the year I was producing Chris North's Bloke's Guide to Getting Married, I was in that Asian supermarket on Russell Street with Chris when we stumbled upon this:

Top of tin

Side of can

Open tin

Silkworm pupae. Yes, I have photographed it from various angles, not on the supermarket shelf. That's because it came home with me. I figured, maybe I should drain 'em, deep fry 'em - I once saw locusts cooked that way on a doco. Salted, they end up being ideal savoury snacks.

In my case, not so much.

I didn't drain them properly. I didn't use enough oil or wait until it was hot enough. They didn't taste of crisp, savoury snacks, I told Chris when asked, so much as mouldy old socks.

"I'm sorry," he said, as if he'd somehow coerced or dared me.

Anyway, point is: I wasn't really fazed by the bug on the ice. But I still wanted to kick up a stink. I'm good at that. I figured, maybe I'd get the Kramer's-lifetime-of-coffee soft drink deal out of them:

 

 

Again, not so much.

Got my money back. And a voucher for a complimentary EspressoPronto coffe or Sundae "in a size of your choice" when I visit next time. I still say there could have been a plastic card entitling the bearer to a free drink every meal forever after.

But at least the voucher was cool. Not the form letter part apologising for my "experience" not being "all it could have been today", thanking me for letting them know and assuring me they want to get it right.

It has this cool image.

Maccas logo

Long after the clown has stopped appearing in person at stores (those ads that used to end, "come to McDonald's, I'll be there/Listen carefully and we'll tell you where" were just too much of a directory for kiddy fiddlers, I'm guessing), this has to be the coolest trademark ever.

I was gonna say 'it pisses all over the Golden Arches'. But think about it: the top of that curvy yellow 'm' could be considered bum cleavage - in which case, these boots kick its arse! Or, if you live near the rural town of Yass, it's ass!

Yassaustrailia

 

 

 


Mighty cover for Zappa vinyl release

Yes, I did blog about some of this before: about how, while interviewing Noel Fielding over a decade ago now, he drew a Frank Zappa portrait for me.

The interview took place in the hotel room Noel and Julien Barrett - The Mighty Boosh - were sharing in Melbourne during the Comedy Festival. They were performing Autoboosh that year, and their walk-on music - which I recognised as soon as it began - was Frank Zappa's 'Help I'm A Rock' from the very first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out.

By the end of the interview, Noel presented me with the gorgeous hand-drawn portrait of Zappa that he'd executed, in pen, during our conversation.

Doms_Zappa_by_Noel_72dpi

Nearly a decade later, I got to interview Noel again, for an issue of FilmInk. Noel remembered our earlier interview:

NoelFielding Noel 09 06 17compressed by standanddeliver

 

What I didn't know, either time I interviewed Noel, was that the Mighty Boosh had once described their work as "comedy for people who grew up listening to Frank Zappa". In fact, as that interview went on to reveal, I also didn't recognise Zappa's youngest child, daughter Diva, in her cameo in the final episode of the Mighty Boosh.

"How did you not recognise her?" Noel demanded in disbelief. "She looks so much like her dad!"

The Mighty Boosh Band went on to appear in the Zappa Roundhouse Festival in 2010, celebrating what would have been Zappa's 70th birthday - albeit a couple of months early, give-or-take.

The latest Zappa/Boosh crossover is with the Zappa Family Trust release of a 12-inch single - on red vinyl - featuring the Mothers of Invention for Mothers Day. Well, the announcement of the release is in time for Mothers Day. 

The record features 'Help I'm A Rock' and 'It Can't Happen Here' in their original stereo 1966 mixes on side 1. Side 2 features the original mono release and the original basic tracks of 'Who Are The Brain Police?'

The record also features gorgeous cover art by Noel Fielding. Yep. Noel Fielding painting a portrait of Zappa for 'Help I'm A Rock'. Who'dathunkit? I love it when my nerd worlds collide. You can pre-order it here.


ZAPPA_HelpImARock




Jared Jekyll - Loony Bin

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Jared Jekyll is debuting at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year with his show Loony Bin. Here is a clip promoting his show, directed by Jeremy Belinfante. (If I were honest, I'd admit I thought they were the same guy to begin with. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced they're not.)

 

 

As it happens, I'm doing a Festival show too. Here is the poster frommy show, which I will tell you all about later.

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Comedy Young [g]’uns



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“I graduated on Thursday, so no more school forever!” Nina informs me, which comes as a surprise. Not for the reason you might think.

First time I saw Nina Oyama perform, she was in her school uniform, school bag in tow, evidently having come directly to the gig from school.

“Actually,” she says, “I’d come via work. It was a choice between the work uniform and the school uniform.” The work was Maccas, and Nina had already gigged in the Maccas uniform; clever and dedicated from the beginning, she was keen to see whether the same material got a different response with a different uniform…

Next thing I hear, Nina had dropped out of school. And was hanging out with that Phuklub crowd. Suddenly I’m acting even older than I am, since an old man rant build. Because – not that it was any of my business – to me, that’s clearly a mistake.

Not just ditching school for a life of comedy (cos that’s likely to be extremely lucrative!), but ditching it for a life of comedy where, as a newbie, you’re plunging headlong into the world of alternative-and-not-necessarily-funny comedy. (I’m not having a go; the Phuklub comedians are hilarious and what they’re doing is important – see my write-up.)

I’m just saying: breaking all the rules in comedy is all very well. It’s certainly better than breaking all the rules in school – more advantageous dropping out if that’s the case – but as in all art, in comedy, it’s better to have learnt the rules before you break them, because then you know what you’re doing. Even if you don’t quite know where you’re going, you can have the faith that you’ll come back safely, and the audience are aware of that even if they don’t realise it, so they go with you, and everybody has a fun adventure.

Consider, for example, the discordant notes that Mike Garson plays in David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’: they work as music despite being all over the place rhythmically, melodically and harmonically because there is form and technique to the mess. As opposed to someone just hitting random notes heavy-handedly. Those years of learning scales and technique pay off.

Aladdin sane excerpt

I’d say the same is essentially true in comedy.

Except, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps learning stagecraft while being polite and predictable is less valuable than learning how to fly blind, to jump and hope the net will appear.

But there’s no need to deploy the old man rant. Not just because Nina has been sensible enough to spend as much time in more traditional comedy rooms as she has in experimental variety, honing her craft to a great degree for such a short time at it. Also because, as she puts it, she “went back to school, tail between my legs, and completed Year 12 successfully”. Oh, she’s still got to sit the Higher School Certificate examinations, rest assured. Which means buckling down and studying almost immediately. But not before one spectacular ‘last hurrah’. Which is why we’re talking. Before she hits the books with a vengence, Nina’s performing in a show she put together for the Sydney Fringe Festival, featuring a bunch of fellow kid comedians.

“It’s called Barely Legal – The Best Young Comedians,” Nina says, and it consists of some of the NSW-based shining lights of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s Class Clowns program. (Class Clowns brings stand-up comedy to schools and some of the people it has unearthed include wunderkind Jack Druce, a Brisbane dancer-cum-comic called Sarah McCreanor, currently dancing around the world as a castmember of How To Train Your Dragon, and of course, everybody’s favourite comedian, Josh Thomas.)

“I wanted to do a Fringe show but I didn’t think I was able to do it by myself,” Nina reckons. Having made the Class Clowns final this year, she figured, “man, there is just so much talent and people who are young have so much cred,” so she put a show together around some of her Class Clown peers.

Well, I say ‘peers’; at the ripe old age of 19, Nina is the senior member of the group. They’re already being noticed by people who matter in the industry, but what’s most important is that they’re funny. I’ll let them speak for themselves through their own press bios.

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Neel Kolhatkar (18) – With titles under his belt such as Winner of Class Clowns 2009 and a performance at the Melbourne International Teen Gala 2011, Neel is definitely one to watch. A master of impressions, reviewers have described his stand up as warm, casual and current. Neel’s other passion is gangster rap, which he writes and performs. Neel has never been to jail but considers his tight knit Indian family a ‘gang’.

Jordan Sharp (16) – Student, skater and self-confessed serial masturbator, Jordan’s stand up encompasses what it truly means to be a teenager. Based in the Central Coast of NSW, Jordan’s laid back storytelling style lead him to become one of the youngest Class Clowns National Finalists in 2012.

Nina Oyama (19) – When she was seven, Nina ate bugs as a dare and secretly liked it. Ten years later, she tried stand up comedy as a dare and secretly liked that too. Finding it easier to make people laugh, Nina gave up her dream of becoming a professional bug eater. A Class Clowns State Finalist 2012, her act combines both music and traditional stand up. Nina has entertained both locally and interstate. She was recently selected to perform at The Sydney Comedy Store as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival Showcase. She also writes for the Australian comedy website BonVivant.com.au. (I'd link to this, but it defaults to the 'Gourmet Explorer' homepage - Dom)

Aaron Chen (17) – Breathing heavily and pacing nervously across the stage, Aaron doesn’t feel comfortable until he knows what toothpaste the audience uses. At the precocious young age of 16, Aaron became one of the youngest paid performers in Sydney. Aaron’s killer punch lines and savage wit have earned him the accolades of Class Clowns State Finalist 2011, Winner of Class Clowns 2012 and Quest for the Best Finalist 2011. Most recently Aaron was given the opportunity to perform at The Sydney Comedy Store in the Best in Live Comedy Winter Showcase.

Madeleine Stewart (18) – Despite growing up in the notoriously rough outer suburbs, Madeleine is one classy young lady, complete with a sharp dress sense and a penchant for opera singing. Her clean-cut one-liners and political stylings have had her talked about everywhere, most notably on Wil Anderson’s podcast, TOFOP. Madeleine was a Class Clowns National Finalist in 2011 and State Finalist in 2012. She also only has one arm; her mother was forced to keep her because the hospital had a ‘you break it, you bought it’ policy.

 

  Large_Nina_Poster


Fine print:

Barely Legal is playing Thurs 27 to Saturday 29 September from 18.30 to 19.30 at the Laugh Garage Comedy Club, Cnr of Park and Elizabeth Street Sydney 2000 (Ph 9264 1161).

Registration for Class Clowns 2013 opens October 5.

Sydney Hing Festival
or
The History of Everything that Ever Happened to Michael Hing. Ever.

Ray Gun

“Will this end with me beind date raped?” Michael Hing responds to my initial offer of an interview over a home-cooked meal. Instead, I make him the Mafia compromise: a meal he can’t refuse in a public place where neither of us has the clear advantage. Although I have slightly more, since it’s a pizza place in the shopping strip where I work. But as no firearm has, to our knowledge, been strapped behind the cistern, and neither of us comes out of the john with just our dick in our hand, it’s still clearly the right decision. (I’ll see your Gen Y ironic rape gag with a Gen X pop cultural reference, Hingers!)

“I’m a filthy vegetarian,” Michael warns, avoiding the option to share an entrée or split a family vegie supreme. “I don’t mind separate pizzas, whatever’s easiest for you. I don’t want to cause any trouble…” No trouble at all. Hing’s exquisite taste and tiny appetite means I get the best of both worlds. And our long conversation ensures I’ll need it.

Although it seems like he’s been around for a relatively short period of time, Michael Hing’s been involved in various modes of comedy for ages; he’s done just about everything, his disproportionate hunger for comedy seemingly outweighing any other need or desire in life. If there’s any interesting new movement or trend happening in comedy, chances are Michael will be somewhere close to the centre of it, since most if not all roads lead back to Hing. Particulary at this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival where Hingers seems to be producing or appearing in some 20-odd shows, making it very much a Sydney Hing Festival.

Stand-out elements of Michael’s comedy include his need to outline an informed socio-political position. He’ll rant, but the rant will be backed up by facts. On a personal level, however, he specialises in a line of self-conscious, nerdy absurdist self-deprecation – but the self-deprecation is never racially based. That, he eschews with an almost Richard Dawkins-like fervour. Which is where I most often want to take issue, because even if the so-called ‘wog comedy’ and Asian permutations thereof are unsophisticated, they still serve a purpose. Unsophisticated people deserve to enjoy a laugh, too. But we’ll get to that, and just about everything else, in good time.

  Hinger's Dreads

 

Raw Comedy

My first memory of Michael Hing was of that self-conscious Sydney Uni kid with the dreadlocks, giving Raw Comedy a go. Twice. Within weeks of each other. First as a solo stand-up, then as part of a kind-of-‘sketch’ double act with another Sydney Uni kid called Neal Downward. The double act was more memorable than the solo stand-up since it cleverly – perhaps too cleverly – deconstructed performance itself. Metacomedy. Earning Hing and his partner, Neal Downward, a bit of coverage in MX when they made the state semis. Next thing I know, Hing and Downward are producing a sketch troupe consisting of a whole mess of Sydney Uni kids, called ‘The Delusionists’, in their self-titled show for Sydney’s Big Laugh Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

 

The Delusionists, (l-r when they first appear): Ben Jenkins, Alex Lee, Steen Raskopoulos, Benita de Wit, Paul Michael Ayre

 

“That was all within the same six month period,” Michael acknowledges: “a pretty quick turn-around!”

What happened was, a year earlier Ben Jenkins – who would become one of the Delusionists – made it through to the Raw Comedy National Finals. Hing’s housemate, a high school buddy, was friends with Ben, so Hingers ended up seeing Jenkins in action and thought “I could probably do that” and gave it a go.

“I didn’t have the drive, performance ability, talent and experience Ben had,” Michael recalls. “And I was really, really new and Raw might have been the second time I’d done comedy.”

The result?

“I forgot most of my set that night, and stood in silence in the light.”

What was interesting was the night’s feature act – the professional comic who entertains the loyal audience as a kind of reward for having sat through a dozen newbie amateurs – was Nick Sun. And he more-or-less “did exactly the same thing, which is, come on into the light and be silent and not know his jokes.”

The difference?

“When Nick Sun did it, it was hilarious because it seemed like it was deliberate. When I did it, it was like, ‘what are you doing…?’”

 

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Delusionists

The rise and rise of Michael Hing began with a couple of improv classes towards the end of 2005 – which makes complete sense since Theatresports and the tradition of improvised comedy have been strong at Sydney Uni just about forever. Peripheral involvement with that year’s Arts Faculty Revue whetted his appetite; Hing directed the Architecture Revue the following year. “I didn’t perform, but I wrote a lot for it,” he says, admitting that his early attempts at comedy are a little embarrassing now. “It was terrible. I was consciously trying to do stuff that was different to everybody else, but it was a case of ‘you have to learn all the rules before you can break them’.”

Hingers did try to be different: whereas the first commandment of University Revue seems to be ‘Thou Shalt Taketh the Piss Out of Other Faculties’, under Michael’s watch, rather than take on Engineering, Education, Science and Arts, the Architecture Revue sought to be “‘different’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘out there’ and ‘whoooooaaaah!’” Without sufficient experience the result, according to Michael, was “this weird mess of ideas” where, of the 90-minute show, “maybe 40 jokes were funny and 50 million jokes were terrible”.

To be fair, every sketch show is hit-and-miss unless it’s put together some five years into the participants’ careers, where they can draw from the best of everything they’ve done thus far. And even then, the best sketch shows are the British ones where there’ve been several series on Radio 4 before the best bits thus far are chosen for the debut television series. You don’t know that when you see that television series; it just looks like someone amazing has come out of nowhere to work comedy magic.

Be that as it may, John Pinder – Aussie comedy pioneer who’d helped found the Melbourne International Comedy Festival way back when and was still consulting for television producers and heading up one of Sydney’s numerous and disparate festivals (The Big Laugh Festival at the time) – happened to see the show.

“I don’t really understand what was going on,” Hingers says, “but for some reason, he liked it and gave me a bit of money to put together a sketch crew to be a part of that year’s Big Laugh Festival, and from that, do the Melbourne Comedy Festival’.”

Thus, The Delusionists came into being.

Remember, by this time Pinder and producer Chris McDonald had created a ‘best of the university revues’ live show called The Third Degree, which eventually became the Ronnie Johns television show.

The Third Degree already had a format, so we came in at a time when the exact theatre that they were in – the Kaleide Theatre at RMIT – was free, and there was what John described as ‘a gap in the market’, which we filled,” Hing recalls. “People had heard of The Third Degree and wanted to be a part of that experience in terms of sketch and discovering new comedy, so in our first year, we had a lot of ticket sales that we didn’t really deserve.”

Undeserved perhaps, but definitely earned. When you go down to Melbourne with a sketch show, you have a mass of performers as well as crew – a small army that can cover all the bases when flyering  punters on the street in the hope they’ll come see your show. And it did seem they knew what they were doing, even if it was mostly front and bluster. But Hingers comes clean:

“That was mostly copied from the model these guys were running. They had all these rules and tips that they gave us, so we weren’t going down completely ‘fresh faced’, although, to all the people who didn’t know us, it was like, ‘who are these kids who have come down and sold 200 tickets?!’”

It’s not like they hadn’t done it before, really. They’d flyered strangers for their uni revue, and the had the likes of Dan Ilic and Jordan Raskopoulos – Third Degree and Ronnie Johns veterans – teaching them stuff. The result? A good first show that earned a three-and-a-half star review in The Age. They were overjoyed. “The Age! The paper! It came and saw our show!” Michael recalls.

At this stage of his not-quite-career, despite an initial foray into Raw Comedy, Michael Hing is sticking to writing and directing rather than performing. And having cool dreadlocks, I suggest. “Yeah, and just being a real weird dude,” he adds.

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Return Season

The following year, of course, the Delusionists return to Melbourne with The History of Everything that Ever Happened. Ever and sell out some 23 of their 25 shows, despite being on at a ridiculously early timeslot. There are suggestions that TV is interested, though nothing immediately comes of it. Although, the major difference this time is “we get a two-star review from The Age, and they call us homophobic and racist and the rest.” According to Hing, “that really hurt” because they were all “crazy, left-wing, politically correct people” with “totally innocuous jokes” that “weren’t even about race or gender”. Indeed, Michael stresses, indignant, “it really hurt to be called homophobic when we’re the type of people who go on marches for this kind of stuff. We’re Sydney Uni students. Don’t you understand? We vote for the Greens!”

Ah yes. A half-decade or so earlier, they’d be rich kids who could afford, in time, to be ‘chardonnay socialists’. Understood loud and clear. But that doesn’t make them any less funny. Or politically incorrect necessarily (although, I resist pointing out, this interview did begin with a date rape gag, ‘ironic’ and/or ‘absurd’ as it may be). If the Delusionists were guilty of anything, it was of being a bit too clever-clever.

Still, it served as a lesson to Michael Hing in his formative years.

 “That’s when I first started thinking about how careful you have to be with your comedy in terms of what you’re saying and what you’re doing. The onus isn’t on the audience to interpret it. The onus is on you to give them a message that they couldn’t possibly misinterpret. You dictate how they interpret you. It’s all on you.”

After that year, Hing quit the group to concentrate on solo comedy.

“I was too insecure to work in a group,” he says. “I’m not performing, so I’m thinking, I’m not the funny one; they’re getting all the laughs, I’m just writing jokes.” By this stage, the Delusionists were a strong troupe of performers, and as such, pretty much directed themselves. “I’m like, ‘you know what, I really want to do my own thing now. I want to go back to Uni and do drama and some other stuff, maybe finish my degree, I don’t know.’”

 

 

 

Back to Uni

That’s an interesting diversion at this point. What exactly was Michael studying? The plan out of high school was to follow Mama and Papa Hing into medicine, because Michael was a pretty smart kid.

“But then it turns out I’m not smart enough to do that,” Michael says, “so after six months of that I move to teaching for about three years.”

After teaching, Hingers tried his hand at counselling. “I go on a school counselling prac and I expect it to be ‘oh like, hey, talk about your feelings and stuff’ and on the first day it was, ‘my mum’s an alcoholic, my dad’s a heroin addict, what have you got for me?’ I was like, ‘this is out of my league!’ so I ditched that because there was no way that I could really help these kids.”

Six months of architecture ensued. And then an attempt at a philosophy degree.

“The point is,” Hing says, “I never graduated.”

Hang on, Hingers. You’re an Asian kid. You have an intellect. Both your folks are high achieving doctors. How do they feel that you need to be a clown?

“They are amazingly supportive of this unmitigated bullshit,” Michael says. Although his routine is littered with jokes about his parents disapproving of his life choices, “in reality,” he insists, “they are just amazing. For example…”

Before he launches into his example, Hingers falters and has a second thought.But then says, “Yeah, I’ll talk about this,” and carries on.

“I had an opportunity two years ago to audition for a television show which never got made. It was a sitcom. I got asked to audition for the part of this Asian character who spoke in a weird accent and did a lot of Asian jokes…”

If you know Michael Hing at all, or have seen him on stage, you will almost certainly know that this is anathema to him – playing the self-deprecating, comic-relief, cheap-laugh Asian. And yet – sitcom. Television work. Income. Perhaps fame.

“I was kind of not sure about what I wanted to do or whether I should do it, and my dad was like, ‘Michael, you didn’t do uni because you don’t want to have a real job; if you start doing stuff like this that you’re not passionate about and don’t believe in, that’s like having a real job. You need to do what you want in the way you want to do it.’”

Cool dad, huh!

“That is one of the biggest influences on what I am trying to do,” Hingers acknowledges. “My parents are super, super supportive. Ridiculously so. To the point where it is almost irresponsible. Now I’m doing fine and don’t need support, but if I ever did, I think they would help me out.”

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Project 52

Moving on from The Delusionists while remaining friends with the cast and crew, Michael began to concentrate on his own comedy. He took another stab at Raw, making it to the state final. “That was when I realised stand-up was the thing I’m not terrible at,” he says. Still, his career trajectory was somewhat bound to the sketch comedy troupe.

“All the shows we’d done down in Melbourne, they were partially funded by the University of Sydney Union,” Hingers explains. For the uninitiated, the Union is the body that administers much of the cultural life of the student body, and one way in which it does so is by funding cultural undertakings. However, Michael says, after two years of financing a small army’s interstate incursion, the Union woke up to itself.

“They were kind of like, ‘Hey, you’re going down to Melbourne with thousands of our dollars and we’re not getting anything out of that’. So for 2009 when we wanted to do it, we said, ‘You know what, to prove to you that we’re doing something for culture on campus, we’ll start a comedy room on campus that’ll do a show every week and we’ll mix between doing stand-up and sketch and improv and story telling and musical comedy and plays and everything and we’ll literally do a different show every week’.”

And so, out of the need to fund a final Festival foray in 2009, Project 52 was born. “We didn’t realise that what would become Project 52 would be the greatest thing we’ve ever done and one of the coolest things that we’ve ever been involved in,” Michael says, quickly pointing out that he’s “not the only person” behind it. “I do a lot of the boring admin work for it, but it certainly is a five-way group who run it.” The team includes Ben Jenkins, Carlo Ritchie, Steen Raskopolous and Tom Walker. “Carlo and Tom are the people who probably make me laugh more than anyone else in the world. I understand their minds, and they still make me laugh all the time.”

It wasn’t an instant success, of course: some nights were packed out. Other nights the comics outnumbered the audience. “There were some grim times for us,” Hing acknowledges. “There’d be eleven people in the room, and ten comics, and it’s going to go forever and it’s gonna be terrible and I’ve got to tell some first year I’m really sorry, he can’t go on because there are too many comics. But by the end of the first year, a small crowd for us became 60 people.”

It certainly helped Michael develop as a comic, having to front up each week, often in front of largely the same group of punters. He had to have new material each time.

“It’s perfect when you’re young and you have a million ideas and you have to write them all down,” Michael reckons. “I say like I’m some old guy now…”

I am some old guy now, and I can say the one night I got to perform there, it was chockers. Admittedly, everyone apart from Hing – and me – was some undergraduate doing material about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but it was a great night. And then I couldn’t get another go, because word got out that it was the coolest room in Sydney and visiting international acts were climbing over each other to get some stage time. Although Michael has a far more touching story about Project 52’s growth in prominence.

 

In Memoriam, Jordan McClellan

Some time into the room’s second year, on the night of Sydney University’s Theathresports Grand Final, a student called Jordan McClellan, who “did a lot of improv stuff” with Hing and co, was tragically hit  and killed by a taxi on his way home. “It was really serious and really, really sad,” Michael recalls. “That affected a lot of people and changed the way we did comedy. It really changed a lot of stuff.”

One change was the renaming of the Theatsports Trophy. Steen Raskopoulos and Tom Walker, who run the Theatresports program, renamed it The Jordan McClellan Cup. But one of the “more offbeat things” to come out of it, according to Michael, occurred as a result of them googling Jordan McClellan’s name, to see how his death had been reported.

“We found this blog by someone called Sidney Critic who had been writing about us for 18 months. We had no idea. He reviewed all our shows. So there was this great memory of our friend who had passed away. That was really cool.”

Sidney Critic went on to name Project 52 the best comedy room in Sydney. “I think other comics must have read that blog or something, because when we started up in the second year, the people who wanted to get on weren’t just open mikers and friends, it was proper comedian people.”

But that’s just the stand-up night; there is far more to Project 52 than stand-up, which takes place on night a month. Steen Raskopoulos runs ‘The Impro Den’. “It is – and I say this  having watched a lot of impro – by several standard deviations the best improvised comedy you’ll see in Australia” – Michael insists.

‘Story Club’ is the story-telling night run by Ben Jenkins. “It’s part of a new trend that’s been happening for a couple of years,” Michael says, acknowledging story-telling rooms run by the likes of Kathryn Bendall (‘Tell Me A Story’) and Michael Brown (‘Campfire Collective’). The point of difference for Story Club, Hingers explains, is that people literally type a story and read it out of a giant book. “So there’s no performance element to it the way you would tell a stand-up story. It’s more of a writing and performing process, and they’re on a theme. It’s as really good way to break in, when people don’t feel confident in performing, they can just read.”

And, finally, there is a sketch night called Make Way For Ducklings. “It’s probably the funnest thing to ever do,” Michael insists.

In addition, Project 52 runs other themed nights where the comedy is about a specific – often nerdy – thing. “Like our Game of Thrones night. Recently we did a ‘would you rather’ discussion. It’s license to do whatever we want. We’re not locked into doing stand-up every week, like other rooms are.”

Makes me want to run away and join Michael Hing’s circus. They have the most supportive milieu. “It’s not even just students,” Michael insists. “It’s a specific kind of student.” The room has a capacity of 130-odd. “We don’t like turning people away,” he says, “but there are nights when we say, ‘There are people who shouldn’t be here, could they leave…’.” Such people, according to Michael, aren’t going to “get into the spirit” of the room’s comedy. He reckons they’re people “who want rape jokes and ‘edgy’ comedy” (said the man who suggested dinner-and-interview might serve as the prelude to unwanted foreplay. And afterplay).

MICF Poster


Going Solo

 2012 was the first year Michael Hing took his own hour-long show, An Open Letter to Rich White People Concerning Their Role in the Downfall of Civilisation, to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival “because that’s how the Australian comedy industry works,” he acknowledges. Whereas in America you develop five minutes of material, building it to 10 and then 15 and then twenty, on your way to an hour, in Australia you “do comedy for a bit and then you do an hour-long show at a Festival”. Though not necessarily ‘ready’ to take on the solo show, there were indications that it was time – “a bunch of weird things” starting to happen from the beginning of the year.

“I broke up with a girl who I had been dating for years. I started working at a university as an adult instead of as a student lay-about.” It was, he says, part of that coupla-year cycle where h panics a little and thinks he has to decide whether he should persevere with comedy or pack it all in and try to get a real job.

“I gave myself to the end of the year to decide,” he explains: “If I’m just doing one or two spots a week and only a couple of gigs a month are paid, then I’m going to focus on my career and do stand-up as a hobby. But if by the end of the year I’m doing stuff that I really like and I’m really proud of what I’m doing, then comedy is the thing I’m going to do.”

Focus on your ‘career’, Hingers? What, pray, tell, was the ‘career’ if it wasn’t comedy, midway through 2011?

“At the time I was booking bands and the Roundhouse, at the University of New South Wales,” Michael says. “I was like, ‘I can be a booker. And do comedy as a hobby’.” Of course, Michael gave that all away, and his non-comedy employment nowadays consists of teaching digital marketing and media at said university part time, “even thought I don’t have a degree and I’m not qualified at all”.

Aiding the transition from part time amateur comic to full time professional were the collaborative shows Michael had been creating for earlier Sydney Comedy Festivals with Patrick Magee. A founding member and stalwart of Comicide, the other sketch comedy troupe operating around the same time as The Delusionists, Magee was in many ways Hing’s perfect foil.

Their first show, 2010’s Illustrious Physicians of Romance, set out “to teach you everything you need to know about love in an hour”. A sample routine involved grabbing a punter from the audience and calling up their ex-girlfriend in order to try and win them back over the phone. The show arose out of Hing and Magee’s respective obsessions with women at the time. (What? And your long term relationship faltered, Michael? How? Why?)

Their second show, the following year’s Orientalism was a sustained “rallying cry against ethnic comedy” – one of Hing’s bugbears. Although Michael is still adamantly opposed to ethnic comedy, he can at least acknowledge that “60 minutes is a long time to be preachy about something”.

These shows weren’t necessarily good prep for Hing’s one-man show. “They were mostly improvised and they were more sketch than stand-up,” Michael explains. “They changed every night because Pat Magee has an inability to maintain focus on stuff, which is what makes him super funny a lot of the time. It also makes him highly emotionally volatile a lot of the time, as well. He is seriously one of the smartest, funniest, cleverest people I’ve ever met and worked with. If he ever bothered to commit to doing comedy forever, he’d be great.”

Given that Patrick’s currently in the UK pursuing comedy, chances are he’s well on his way to achieving that greatness. As for Michael, the process made him realise he had a number of stories he wanted to tell, and so it was time to do his own show. Its first incarnation was I’m Only Doing This Because They Won’t Let Me Be A Rapper at the 2011 Sydney Fringe Festival.

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Sydney Fringe

 

Unqualified Success

Half a year on from the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Michael’s attitude to his season is telling.

“I came back from Melbourne with a good amount of money from doing comedy,” he says, “which felt really, really cool.”

So comedy as career instead of hobby, then. No need to get qualified to teach digital media and marketing after all.

“At the same time, there was stuff in my comedy that I didn’t feel very proud of. I was doing some jokes that I thought were lazy, and some easy gags. I felt a little bit guilty because I was using easy tricks – in about three or four parts of my show – to get laughs.”

Oh, Hingers, ever the purist. He sometimes got laughs not by telling a joke, but by using “just the rhythm of a joke, and the word ‘f*ck’.” What comic has never been guilty of that? Your job is to make them laugh. Did you make them laugh? Good. No problem. Unless you’re competing in a [Raw] comedy competition, in which case, be concerned that the jokes are below your judges’ standards, rather than your audiences’. But even then, it doesn’t matter: the point of doing comedy is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions. And the point of doing comedy competitions is to make the audience laugh, not to win competitions.

Still, Michael makes a convincing argument:

“For the first three weeks, where I’m selling out some nights and getting great reviews, it feels great.”

Why wouldn’t it? That’s every Melbourne Comedy Festival debutante – and veteran – comic’s dream.

“And then Chortle comes to see my show.”

Uh-oh. Chortle is the über-comedy critic, the comedy critic sine qua non. And Hing confirms that Chortle essentially said, “‘Hey, dickhead, you’re a mad, lazy writer who should be trying harder, cos you’re cheap’.” Hing’s paraphrasing, of course; Chortle is far more articulate than that.

“I read that and I think, ‘He sees through everything, and it’s true’. And the reality is, any other achievement that I feel proud of, is meaningless. So I come back from Melbourne with money that I’m not uncomfortable to have, but think I should put it towards something cool.”

 Good man, Hingers. I think I speak for almost everyone when I say I’m never uncomfortable to have money, and I always think I should put it towards something cool. But I’m never as cool as Michael, who has put his money to the best possible use, producing fringe festival shows of several of his comedy peers.

But that’s the obvious, immediate penance – putting potentially ‘ill-gotten gains’ toward a greater good. Michael’s taking other initiatives as well:

“I don’t have a lot of strengths, but one thing I’m quite good at is learning. I flatter myself to think I can learn quite well, so if someone I respect, whose reviews I’ve read, says to me ‘this is a two-star show and you need to work harder and not be lazy’, then I can click onto that being a real thing.”

And so for Hingers, it’s once more into the fray: among the multitude of shows he’s involved with is the new hour of material, in development for the 2013 festival season.

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 All roads lead to Hingers

While ‘coasting comedian’s guilt’ goes some way to explaining why so many roads lead to Hing – the ‘Sydney Hing Festival’ part of it, anyway – there are still all the other undertakings he is and has been involved in.

For example, a couple of years ago one of the new hot young things of comedy was a svelte Sydney chanteuse called Gen Fricker whose sinister world view with conveyed via punk ballads sugar coated with a thin veneer of faux-naivete  bookended with some of the most hilarious off-the-cuff banter you’ll ever have served up at you. Another one of the many to arise out of the Sydney Uni milieu, Gen is clearly a world-class talent in her formative years. Suddenly, Hingers was hosting the breakfast shift with her on Radio FBi.

A couple of years previous, Jack Druce was the youngest Raw finalist ever (dubbed ‘an embryo’ at the time by one slightly older – and possibly slightly jealous comic). Now Hing is co-hosting one of the better comedian-fronted podcasts with him.

Cale Bain hosts an brilliant impro night on Tuesdays at the Roxbury Hotel (the second best in the known universe, according to Hingers – but he has a vested interest in the Impro Den, so it’s hard to call) and Hing is one of the regulars.

A bunch of brash alternate comics have a weekly package of performance anarchy called Phuklub – of which I’ve written at length. Guess who’s now a regular there, too…

And virtually any cool newbie you see who is or was at one time a student at Sydney University, rest assured, is a friend, was groomed by, appeared in a revue with, or let’s face it, will one day regret never having embarked upon a meaningful physical relationship with, Michael Hing.

There’s a reason why this is.

“If I want this to be my job,” Hing explains, “if I talk to my friends, most of whom are comics, and they’re doing a cool thing, I want to be a part of it. And I feel like I have a disparate amount of experience now that I can go into any place and try and fit in with what they’re doing.”

And, more than wanting the constant challenge of trying to apply his worldview and talents to each new comedic undertaking, there’s a far more fundamental and obvious reason.

“There’s no shortage of talented people in any comedy scene,” Hing says. “All that separates me or anyone from anyone else is the amount of work that you do. If I think I’m good and I’m gonna coast this out, there are any number of more naturally talented people who can take my place.”

One of the forces guiding Michael, particularly in the way he helps administer comedy to university campuses and beyond, taking newbies under his wing as he investigates new avenues for himself and others, is to provide the means of access that didn’t exist when he first hit the scene.

“When I was at uni and had a dream of doing stand-up, there was no way that I knew how to go to the Mic in Hand on a Thursday night. If you’re a student studying a science degree or whatever, you go, ‘oh, there are people at my uni putting a show on every Wednesday night, and they’ve done shows in Melbourne, and they’re doing gigs at the Comedy Store. If I hang around with them maybe I can learn how to do this – how to get it done’. That’s a really attractive thing to be able to offer young people. When I was in high school and at university I didn’t know how to be a comedian. Now, if I can offer anyone anything, it’s this: here is a night where you can get on and you can do comedy, and if you like comedy, I can tell you who to talk to and who can help you out. And now we get the people who run the Comedy Store coming by and checking out our night. That’s really cool for me.”

Thus, Michael is producing 20-odd shows at this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival because when he was at Uni he didn’t know how to do comedy, and now he has a bit of an idea. Not just of how to approach it, but of the different approaches you might choose to take. Indeed, Michael has several approaches of his own that he’s putting into practice all at once –  in a handful of shows.

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One of them is a sketch show with Ben Jenkins, called Ben and Hing Do Sketches At You for the Better Part of an Hour. But don’t think, for an instant, that it’s another ‘Michael Hing and Patrick Magee’ show with Jenkins playing the role of Magee, even though Hing works as well with Ben as he does with Pat.

“Ben and I have been writing together for six years now, so we have a catalogue of 100 sketches. We’re gonna pick out 10 or 15 of them to call them a show.”

And of course, there’s the solo show, Occupy White People, that’ll be the prototype of his 2013 festival show.

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But the most political and personal one, by far, is A Series of Young Asian Comedians not doing Asian Jokes, which features Jen Wong, Ronny Chieng (joint Best Newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year), Alex Lee, Jonathan Lee and Aaron Chen along with Hingers. “We all do 10 minutes each and no one mention race, no one mentions racism, no one mentions immigration, no one mentions being Asian, no one mentions stereotypes… nothing. It’s us doing jokes that have nothing to do with that.”

 

The stereotyped kid

Michael and I don’t quite agree on the ‘wog comedy’ issue. Being slightly older, and remembering what an amazing phenomenon Wogs Out Of Work was, I appreciate that self-deprecating humour was the first opportunity certain audiences – consisting of huge cross-sections of Australian society – got to see characters they could identify with on stage. Performers were talking to them about their particular experiences in ways that Ango Austalian comics and other stage and screen characters couldn’t. Furthermore, these non-Anglo Australian stereotypes weren’t merely the ‘low’ characters, the comic relief, the butt of the Anglo Australians’ jokes. They played the gamut of characters, and where they were the butt of the jokes, they were the butt of their own jokes: the humour was self-deprecating, so it wasn’t hurtful. Decades on, yes, that kind of humour is clearly less sophisticated; society has changed enough (we hope) that it’s unnecessary. We see non-Anglo Australians in the media representing more than the mere fact that they happen to be people of foreign extraction. But in less enlightened times, self-deprecating wog comedy was empowering.

“Yeah,” Hing replies, “but if the only way ethnic people can identify with a character on television in the 1980s is through Con the Fruiterer, that’s a damning indictment of television. It’s so rare, for example, to see a Chinese person on TV where their defining role isn’t merely being Chinese. It’s only now that you’re seeing hot Asian girls who are actually just ‘hot girls’, rather than ‘hot Asian girls’.”

Somewhere, a Gen X woman – who probably reviews for The Age – is reading this and being annoyed at the objectification of ‘hot’ and ‘girls’ when Hing clearly meant ‘women’; is it a bigger faux pas when special attention is being paid to the avoidance of racial generalisations? His point stands, however: if the person of a certain race appears in popular culture merely as a stereotypical representation of that race, there is a tendency for kids engaging with that culture to define themselves and others primarily by ethnicity. “And it is divisive,” Hing insists, “because, growing up, you are no longer the kid who happens to be Chinese or the kid who happens to be Italian. You are ‘the Chinese kid’. Or ‘the Italian kid’. And for some people that’s a really positive point of difference, but there is no reason that they have to be that. Why not ‘you are the smart kid’ or ‘you are the fast kid’?”

So then what happens, it seems, is ‘the Ethnic kid’ (feel free to insert the ethnicity you are most familiar with) who is funny and talented enough to take to the stage, becomes ‘the Ethnic comic’ and has to roll out all of the Ethnic clichés. If you’ve heard them all before, they stop being funny. For Hing, they can be downright offensive. Like when a comedian makes fun of his or her parents’ accents.

“A lot of Asian comedians do it: ‘My dad gets his Ls and his Rs mixed up. What’s up with that?’” Hing says, outlining why this line of humour fails.

“You’re making fun of your dad’s accent. Number one: it’s very well-trodden ground. You should be above that. If you’re holding a microphone, you should hold yourself to be above that. Number two: if your parents have a thick accent, chances are, they’re first generation emigrants. They probably made huge sacrifices to bring you here and bring you up in a country with opportunities where they can give you the best life possible. And you’re gonna get on stage and make fun of them because they don’t speak English properly and they have a funny accent? Go f*ck yourself. That f*cken annoys me. It enrages me.”

The rage has its origins during Hing’s own childhood.

“Growing up in the mid-90s in Australia, watching a comedian on television who looks like me,” he recalls, “I get excited, and then he says, ‘spring rolls… boogadah boogadah boogadah, what’s up with that…?” (The ‘boogadah boogadah boogadah’ is shorthand not unlike the Yiddish ‘yaddah yaddah yaddah’, serving here to dismiss facile observations.) “Everyone goes, ‘That’s amazing’ and they grow up thinking that’s okay to do, and you think that’s what you have to do as a Chinese guy doing comedy. I just want to prove to people that you don’t have to do that.”

What it feels like, I offer, is that Michael saw Hung Le on television, and irrespective of how funny or clever Hung’s observations were, later on at school narrow minded people repeated them, seeking to tease Hing. “Definitely,” he admits. “But this is what I’m talking about. People take away the message they want. It’s your job as a comedian to ensure that nobody leaves your show going, ‘I’m going to find the guy who that applies to and make him feel like sh*t’. You start a ripple effect where you’ve hurt some guy you don’t even know.”

I’m not sold on the argument. Part of me feels that Hing’s ‘bunging it on’ more than he actually feels it, in order to create the context for his particular brand of intellectually outraged stand-up to work. And mostly, it seems, it’s for the edification of less privileged ‘outsiders’. I mean, the open letter to rich white people has a different meaning coming from a rich non-white person, than it does from a poor non-white person. There’s nothing wrong with taking that position, it just takes more effort and more experience to make it feel less ‘bunged on’ and more relevant and sincere.

“I don’t feel disenfranchised,” Hing confirms. “I’m the Asian son of two doctors who grew up fine. I was bullied a little bit at school, but there are people who cop it much worse. But racial injustice angers me. And when I talk about racist stuff in my comedy, it’s because I genuinely think there is something funny to be said about it.”

But, Michael continues, the reason he finds “the vast majority of ethnic comedy” loathsome is because “when you’re in a position of power – and I think we can agree that having the microphone is being in that position of power” your target – the butt of the joke, and the level at which you pitch your jokes – has to be above your own level. This because, if you don’t, “if you’ve got a microphone and you’re screaming about someone who has less power than you and you’re aiming your anger and ridicule downwards, you’re just bullying someone. Whereas if you’re aiming it upwards –taking on the prime minister or people who are muscular and rascist or people who are smart and rich – they can defend themselves; they have a right of reply in a cultural capital.”

I agree with this philosophy. And I can see why it is such an interesting comedic path that Michael Hing treads. Coming from that privileged background, there aren’t many targets above him. And the bullying can’t have been so full-on from fellow privileged lads.

“I went to the local public primary school, but because it was in a reasonable area –Illawong, in the Shire – it wasn’t a rough school,” Michael confirms. “I was ‘the Chinese kid’. It totally influences my position. I hated being defined as ‘the Chinese kid’ because everyone else is pointing and laughing.” Perhaps, Michael considers, that’s where the comedy-as-defence-mechanism began because, he says, “I grabbed the mic at talent quests and stuff.”

 

Talking out of school

After primary school, Hingers wasn’t so keen to attend the local selective public high school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so my parents sent me to Trinity Grammar. I got involved in some dicey stuff. I joined a gang.”

Dicey gang stuff at Trinity…? Apple in the chapel, I enquire, getting my posh private school scandals muddled.

“No, Trinity was ‘The Anaconda’,” Hingers reminds me, adding, “and no, a proper gang”.

This was the key story of Hing’s Open Letter and since he’s performed it on stage, he doesn’t mind relating it to me now. “Through a series of events,” says Michael, he “ended up being friends with this guy whose older brother was in a gang at Cabramatta.” Lonely and in need of friends – often a characteristic looming early in a comedian’s life – Hingers ended up “doing jobs” for these people that included picking up packages from the guy’s place and delivering them to addresses in China Town.

“It’s hundreds of dollars every time that I do it, and I pretend I don’t know what’s going on, but I know: it’s drugs and weapons and stolen goods in my school bag.”

Dressing like the über-nerd he is – “top button done up, tie done up, socks pulled up even though I’m wearing long pants” – Michael is the perfect mule.

“I do this for between 12 and 18 months. Eventually my friend gets moved to Hong Kong, to live with a disciplinarian uncle. I eventually quit, and because I’m a nerd and they know I’m a coward, they don’t hurt me. They let me go.”

This is around 2000 when the ‘anaconda’ sex scandal took place, and suddenly the school’s systematically searching every student’s locker. “A lot of people I’m associated with are called to the principal’s office,” Hing reports. “Eventually, I’m called. I’m sitting there, crying and stuff. They tell me I’m not going to go to that school next year, and I think, ‘I’m f*cked!’ but it turns out that the reason I’m at the principal’s office isn’t because of that stuff; it’s because about 6 months earlier, being a super nerd, I made a website about my friend David calling him ‘gay’ because I was 14 and that’s what I found funny. They were like, ‘that’s unacceptible’ and I was like, ‘you’re right, it is, I need to leave the school; goodbye’.”

Hing ended up at Carringbah High, the selective high school he had been trying to avoid, where he met all his nerdy friends, was mocked, got angry, got to uni got into comedy and eventually ended up opposite me in a pizza place in Manly Vale, where I ate most of his vegie selection after finishing my own marinara, and after I swallow his last piece, I have to know: how the hell were the doctors Mama and Papa Hing about all this?

Again, just stupidly supportive of everything,” Michael says. “That also contextualises what I’m doing now: sure, I’m not finishing my degree or getting a job, but I’m also not in a gang, which is a thing I came very close to doing for the rest of my life. It makes the choice of being a stand-up comic much, much easier.”

 


Smart Casual - If it ain't broke, don't dream it

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“Ack hghr lkjg alkhg,” offers Ben Mattick, the clean-shaven guitarist of the group.

I’ve phoned him at the appointed time on a Thursday afternoon, on the appointed number, in the hope of getting a quick interview with him. But Ben’s currently in the Seymour Centre Sound Lounge, below street level, so the mobile signal keeps breaking up.

When he moves closer to the door (I assume), he explains that he and brother Nick – aka Roger David and Fletcher Jones aka Smart Casual – are going through the tech run for their show Broken Dreams, the Sydney Comedy Festival run of which will be opening later that evening.

“I can call back later,” I suggest. “When’s the best time…?”

“Actually, now would be best,” says Ben. He hands the phone over to brother Nick, the hairy vocalist, who pops upstairs where reception is much better, and we’re off.

This year’s show, Broken Dreams, is about just that: Nick and Ben’s broken dreams in showbiz. “It’s about us selling out,” Nick confesses, “and wanting to move to Poland to start afresh.”

Poland? Why Poland? Is it because it sounds exotic, or do Nick and Ben actually have some links to that country?

“We’re under the illusion that musical comedy is getting really big there,” Nick says. “It’s very important to us, in the course of the show.”

Given Nick’s failure to elaborate further, I can only assume all will be revealed in the course of the show. But, I’m wondering, is ‘Mattick’ – the boys’ surname – of Polish origin?

“It can be…” Nick offers.

It can be! I love it. As ever, the world Nick and Ben offer is fluid with possibilities.

 

One of the things I’ve always liked about Smart Casual – and it may be the secret to their success – is their ability to ensure the song lasts as long as the joke. It’s one of the things that sets good musical comics apart from other comics who bung a song in. According to Nick, however, it’s common sense:

“We thought that’s important because if we're bored of something then the audience is probably very bored of it!”

Fair call. But – after five-odd years of success as a musical comedy duo – is it still important? Does a long-term audience, or the fact that you’ve been at it so long somehow meanyou can maintain interest in other ways and it isn’t so imperative to crack the gag and get out, as it were?

Actually, it does – because you learn ways to maintain interest. But Smart Casual have always known how to do that. They have a few “builders”, according to Nick, referring to devices that enable a song to last longer because they continue to add something that ‘buids’ upon the initial idea. “Something has to happen, if you know what I mean: there has to be a twist or a change-up,” Nick says.

A perfect example is Smart Casual’s first big hit, ‘The Hawk’: each verse develops the idea. Someone has to push The Hawk. On the catwalk. And, even after the verses have ended, things continue to happen: Nick keeps building with his shrieky 'CAW!' noise – the cry of a hawk – while he flaps his wings.

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The 'origin story' of Smart Casual is simple enough. Brothers Nick and Ben wanted to do acting and music, respectively, but having set out on their chosen vocations, neither seemed to be doing particularly well just yet. According to Nick, “we met in the middle, I guess, and it just seemed to work.”

‘Just seemed to work’ is an understatement. As a comedy duo, the brothers complemented each other perfectly, each bringing something the other lacked to form a classic gestalt, where the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.

They competed in the Triple J/Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy competition of 2008 where, making it to the national final, they proved a crowd favourite. They were subsequently selected for 2009’s Comedy Zone, the show the Melbourne Comedy Festival puts together from the best up-and-comers.

“Raw Comedy opened a lot of doors, especially in Melbourne,” Nick recalls. “We got success really early and we thought it was easy, easy, easy. Then we hit a wall with our first full-length show.”

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I’m not sure what exactly Nick means. Their first full-length show, technically, was Art vs Smart Casual, which took place at the Melbourne Fringe Festival of 2009. The show saw the pair line up the multitude of art forms – acting, dancing, painting, et cetera – against musical comedy to see which held more merit (“it was a draw”). Among the reviews garnered was a particular favourite, the verbal feedback of a punter: “you guys are shit-hot”. The Age considered them “immediately likeable”, opining that “Aussie laconic humour is alive and well”, while Buzzcuts recognised their work as “exceptionally clever and well executed”, predicting the duo to be “destined for big things”.

2010 saw them deliver the show Same Mother, Different Fathers at festivals around Australia.

“Is that true?” I ask, a little sheepishly, about the title. After all, Nick and Ben do look quite different. “Esau is an hairy man, while Jacob is a smooth man,” to borrow from Alan Bennett’s paraphrasing of Genesis 27:11. If I hadn’t been told they’re brothers, they look different enough that I wouldn’t have guessed it.

“No, that’s bullshit,” Nick says. “It’s just that I’m ‘Fletcher Jones’ and he’s ‘Roger David’ and we’re brothers; that’s the way we worked that out. In our shows, if it helps us being full brothers, we’re full brothers; if it helps us being halvies, we’re halvies. The truth doesn’t matter!”

Well, that’s one bit of the folklore dealt with. There was another story that did the rounds a little while ago, that both brothers were working as teachers’ aids until some of their material was deemed perhaps a little unsuitable. Maybe, at some level, there was a conflict of interest having both careers running concurrently.

“Ben still is a teacher’s aid,” Nick reports, but sets me straight on the story: Smart Casual have a song about autism. Nick worked in a class with autistic kids. One of the kids’ parents went to see the show.

“I didn’t know she was coming, but she loved it, so it was okay,” Nick says. “They seemed to not mind it. But then it got out that we did that…”

So that’s the story: a non-offensive song that didn’t cause offense, that through a process of ‘Chinese whispers’ enraged someone at a distance who probably neither saw the show nor is attached to a child with autism, who got offended on the behalf of others. Isn’t that always the way!

“I think it’s important to note that the joke is about the misconceptions of autism,” Nick says, “rather than having a laugh at someone’s expense. I think that if the joke’s good enough, and in the right place, you can laugh at almost anything.”

Definitely. Given the right context and enough talent (the greater the talent, the less necessary the context) than anything can be funny. The comedian’s job, always, is to say the unsayable. But that’s not what’ll turn an audience, necessarily.

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2011’s The Story of Captain Entrée marked a departure from the duo’s earlier work. “It was narrative, which I liked, but if we didn’t get the audience early, they were gone,” Nick explains.

It would be disingenuous – or just plain wrong – to think Smart Casual’s audience prefers a program of funny songs with no linking story over a program of less funny songs; or that Smart Casual have done away with the narrative form. If you had trouble lasting the entire voyage of Captain Entrée without threatening mutiny, rest assured, Broken Dreams will satisfy you. But it still contains a connecting narrative. Still, Nick advises, “it’s more of a variety hour. It’s got everything: dance, song, a bit of art, film…”

My immediate thought is that it thus also harks back to Art vs Smart Casual, the difference being intervening years of experience and development, and a lot more sophistication in its execution. And rather than merely talking about those other artforms, Smart Casual are actually physically executing them and incorporating them in the show. Hence the need to complete a tech run before opening night in Sydney, despite having spent a month doing the show in Melbourne.

And then my subsequent thought is that, if Smart Casual are presenting a multimedia variety show on stage, surely their own television show or Smart Casual: The Movie can’t be too far away.

However, what’s actually happening is that, having performed Broken Dreams some 50 times this year already, they’re able to pull it off every night, and spend their days writing their next show.

“But we’re definitely looking toward the future,” Nick assures me. “We’ve done a lot of filmed stuff that we’ll throw onto YouTube after this run finishes, and we’re gonna do more of that kind of stuff. It’s really fun to do that.”

Which begs the question: does Smart Casual have a DVD out yet?

“No, we don’t have a DVD,” Nick says. “We have a very old CD. We probably need to get a new one of those, as well.”

All in good time. Right now, it’s all about the Sydney Comedy Festival run of Broken Dreams.

“This is the best thing we’ve done, this show,” Nick says. “It has taken us four or five years to get here, so it’s a solid hour. It’s very fun to do and it’s very fun to watch.”

Smartcasual

Fine Print:

See Smart Casual’s Broken Dreams Sydney Comedy Festival run at Seymour Centre Sound Lounge at 9:30pm until Sat 28 April.


Joel Creasey's dramatic feet

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“I really want to be in musical theatre, but I can’t sing,” insists stand-up comic Joel Creasey. “But I only want the leading lady roles, because they’re better roles. So even if I could sing, I still wouldn’t be able to play the roles I wanted. I want to be Miss Saigon; I want to be Elphaba in Wicked. Unless I have a sex change, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

I’m talking to Joel not long after his touching down in Sydney on a Tuesday afternoon, in that brief respite between the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which has just ended, and the Sydney Comedy Festival, whose opening gala will be taking place in a matter of hours. Joel’s show Naked is featuring at both festivals this year. According to Joel, the Melbourne run was “definitely my favourite season so far”.

“I really like the show,” he says. “Normally, by this stage, I’d be sick of it. But I’m not – I’m still enjoying it.”

At the ripe old age of 21, Joel Creasey is a veteran of two Raw Comedy competitions – “I made the State Final two years in a row in Perth but then lost two years in a row” – and three festival shows, with Naked marking a clear progression in the comic’s development.

“It’s definitely a better show and a better structured show,” he insists. “And it has more to it than my other shows have had.” Part of what gives it more substance is the fact that Naked is all about Joel, whereas his first show, Joel Creasey’s Slumber Party – earning him a nomination for ‘Best Newcomer’ at the 2010 Melbourne Comedy Festival – dealt with celebrities. And the subsequent year’s Party Animals was about politics.

The reason the focus of his scathing wit has been turned inwards, Joel says, is because “I’ve bagged out a lot of other people and I figured it was my turn.”

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Joel’s first forays into self-expressive arts were theatrical, tinged with comedy. Over time, the theatricality has fallen away to the point where it’s the pure stand-up of a comic not even making observations about the stuff around him, but about his own life experiences. And it may seem a bit premature to be doing that at age 21, but you have to remember, Joel’s been doing this since he was 17. Though comedy wasn’t the grand plan, so much as it was an escape route:

“I couldn’t be bothered studying and realised you don’t have to study for comedy, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do that!’”

But it’s not as clear-cut as that. Because after finishing high school, there was a cursory attempt at tertiary education – a good three months pursuing a degree in political science. “I pulled out because I was hating that and loving comedy,” Joel insists.

At school, Joel’s major passion – and strongest subject – was drama. Indeed, having gone to drama school, Joel reckons he would have stayed in theatre had comedy not “come along”. But I doubt that, because even when he was doing theatre, he could never stay in it without turning to comedy.

Consider Joel’s final Grade 12 drama piece: he was one of the few Year 12 drama students in his state – or perhaps the country – who opted to deliver a comedic piece. “Grade 12 kids aren’t funny,” he argues. “Their pieces are always serious – about suicide or something heavy like that.” Not Joel’s. He chose to write a funny piece about a character of his own invention – flight attendant Glen Suavé, “hell-bent on taking over the world”.

The character was disgusting, racist, offensive, and – according to Joel – “based on many Qantas flight attendants I’ve had the joy of meeting”. Naturally, Joel’s peers failed to understand what Joel was doing. Thankfully, his examiners did.

I got amazing marks!” says Joel. “That was the thing that got me through Grade 12; it evened out my bad marks in maths and science and every other subject.”

It was also the thing that got Joel into stand-up comedy – since that monologue formed the basis of his first routine. “I was actually doing character comedy when I started,” Joel admits. “Now, obviously, I wouldn’t touch that, but I spent my first six months doing characters.”

Character comedy isn’t for everyone. As with all the various comedic subgenres, there are the truly talented who do characters very well. And chances are, had he stuck with it, Joel would have become such a comic. Instead, he found himself jealous of other comics who could “just get up and chat about their lives”. Realising that was the sort of comedy he wanted to be able to do, he soon realised he had to “drop the character”.

Which is why Naked serves as a marker in Joel’s career trajectory: he’s gone from being a character to being himself talking about other people, to being himself talking about himself. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Particularly in the first year after Joel jettisoned the character, there was the fear that nobody particularly wants to hear about his life. “And still, sometimes I’ll get halfway through a story and think, ‘oh god, do people really want to know about me?’”

Clearly, they do. Particularly when Joel can make it sound so funny. But right now, I mostly want to know about his relationship with his parents. Clearly, they’re cool about his career choice in showbiz, if they had sent him to drama school!

“My parents are actors themselves, so they’re cool,” Joel confirms. Now that he’s based in Melbourne, Joel’s folks travel from Perth every year to check out the show. “They’re pretty into it. They’ve never tried to dissuade me in any way.” How could they? As Joel points out, having started at age 17, he actually needed his parents to attend all of his performances as they took place in pubs.

“I had to go with them to get in. That was fun! I’m sure that that’s how all the big-name comics do it…”

So Joel didn’t have the usual comedian’s story of “my parents disowned me when I started doing comedy”; perhaps he might have has a “my parents disowned me when I started doing musical theatre taking on the leading lady roles” but that’s just as unlikely. However, he still has the basic tale of overcoming adversity that so many comics have. The disbelievers, against whom every one of Joel’s successes is a victory, are “everyone I went to school with!”

“They were horrible to me because I was the Drama Captain – Surprise! There were just so many arseholes I went to school with. I just want to stick it in their face.”

Consider it stuck. One of my fonder moments in Melbourne took place in the shopping centre, Melbourne Central. On one level, every pillar is a poster board, meaning that on that level, literally hundreds of posters are Blu-Tacked to be viewed by the multitude of passing shoppers. I regret not having taken a photograph of the poster for Joel’s Naked, in which he’s depicted pretty much as the title suggests. Because someone had gone to the trouble of fashioning a cock-and-balls and adorning his poster with it.

“I’m hoping they used a lot of Blu-Tack,” Joel says.

I’m not in a position to confirm the anatomical accuracy of it, but anyone can graffiti a poster with texta, and Joel concurs that it is “a very impressive effort” that someone has gone to. “I’m very proud of that,” he says. “That took time and effort. I’m flattered. I hope they bought a ticket to the show as well…”

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Speaking of the show, it’s worth chasing down what it is actually about.

“People say Naked is a ‘gay show’,” Joel says, “but it’s not. It’s relatable to everyone. It’s just that I’m so camp, people are always going to assume that. Which sometimes annoys me, because reviewers come to my show and call me ‘really gay’, and I don’t think they would go and see a woman comic and call her ‘really feminine’.”

That Joel’s camp persona is larger than life should come as no surprise. That’s what a camp persona essentially is. And while it will always be part of Joel’s comedic style – “I have very limp wrists throughout the entire performance, and my gay nasal twang is out in full force” – it doesn’t dictate the substance of the material. Party Animal, for example, was more ‘gay’, insofar as, since it was dealing with politics, it had to address the issue of single-sex marriage.

Naked – a title devised “years ago” – is all about Joel. It consists of stories stretching from primary school to high school and involves “getting drunk and things that everyone does, not just gay guys.” Although, he adds, “we probably do get drunk more than most people…”

Furthermore, in the more pat description, Naked is “all about fears, secrets, nudity and Xena the Warrior Princess”. Since one of the secrets is that Joel’s “a mad fan of Xena the Warrior Princess – and not ashamed!” it’s easy to see why some reviewers will consider the show a bit ‘gay’.

Thing is, as with many gay comics, the audience, paradoxically, will consist mostly of ‘straights’. Forgive the generalisation – or at least, hear me out first – but it seems that gay men usually have such a biting sense of humour that, usually, nobody else can be as funny as them and their mates, or at least, systematically amuse them as much as their mates. So they don’t go out and see comedy as readily as ‘straight’ audiences. And it’s the straight audiences who dig the gay comics most, because they’re getting access to insights and observations they wouldn’t usually hear.

Don’t freak out at the last paragraph. Particularly, don’t freak out just because it contains the adjectives ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. It’s just a more specific example of the greater truism, that comics are like prophets: appreciated less in their own land, they have to go off and preach to other people who have not been brought up in the same environment/class/belief system.

“We are very good at taking people apart, piece-by-piece,” says Joel, agreeing initially that he doesn’t have “a massively gay audience”. Then he corrects himself:

“I do: I would have more of a gay audience than, say, Dave Hughes.”

However, he says, his “dream audience” are the ones found in regional towns and “rough clubs” because of the challenge they pose: “you can win them over; they’re easier to shock. Whereas, while gay guys generally seem to have a great sense of humour, they’re very hard to shock. There’s always that weird element of competition there.”

But there are a lot of gay people in his audience, Joel realises, because when he was playing in Melbourne, the women playing in the venue before him noticed how fabulously attired his audience was. “They said they loved walking out and seeing my crowd queuing to come in because they’d all be so well dressed. They’d see what sort of looks were in season and take notes!”

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The major demographic a good looking, young gay guy naturally plays to is present and accounted for in significant numbers in Joel’s audiences: teeny-bopper girls.

“I love them because they are great laughers,” Joel says. “But sometimes they bring their parents, and I think, ‘Oh god, you don’t know what you’re in for…’” Not that there are awkward moments during the show, so much. More likely, there are “many awkward car rides home”.

This is particularly true given some of the fears Joel addresses in Naked. One of them is, indeed, of being naked. Hence the show’s title. And poster.

 “The show’s about me getting my kit of metaphorically,” Joel says. “And physically…”

There is a point in the show when the comic strips.

“So, yeah, when the young girls bring their parents it’s like, ‘oh god… I’ve got to take my clothes off at some point…”

In addition to his fear of being naked, Joel also has podophobia: “a weird fear of feet”.

“I’ve never liked them,” he says. “I hate them. They freak me out…”

Although he can deal with his own, Joel loathes other people’s. “I just don’t want to see feet. I hate thongs and sandals and crocs and things like that.”

Initially, Joel’s foot fear was not part of this show. Not until he happened to mention it to fellow comic Adam Richard while at a dinner party.

Adam’s immediate reaction?

“He put his feet in my potato salad, of course!”

The following day, Adam told his multitude of Twitter followers that Joel Creasey has a foot fetish, asking people to send Joel pictures of their feet.

“It was awful!” Joel says. “He’s got ten thousand followers, so I got a lot of pictures of feet.” And, being “very OCD”, Joel was forced to open every single attachment, “just in case one of them was a gift voucher for a million dollars.”

Oh, that reminds me of a horrible photo I saw online, of someone who had been shot in the foot.

“If I can find the image, I’ll send it to you,” I promise.

“Please don’t,” Joel says. “That’ll haunt me!”

 

 

Fine print:

See Joel Creasey's Naked at the Sydney Comedy Festival at Seymour Centre Sound Lounge at 7:30pm, Thurs 26 April to Sat 28 April.


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…”

Another temp

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.

Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D

POTPCROPPED_72dpi

“Sorry I was a bit late,” the founding – ahem – member of Puppetry of the Penis, Simon Morley, apologises from his end of the phone line. “I’ve been baby wrangling.” And unless Simon’s added ‘cot’ or ‘cradle’ to the impressive list of items he can imitate with his wedding tackle, there are no dick tricks involved in that. “Absolutely none,” Simon confirms. “Apart from the conception, maybe.”

 

Two dicks come out at a bar

Simon and his mate Friendy (David Friend; neither of whom are pictured above) were the two who originally took to the stage clad only in capes in order to present the art of genital origami: in which they’d manipulate their manhood into various shapes. Like ‘The Pelican’ (in which the penis and scrotum are impressively stretched out to resemble the animal’s long upper beak, and long and deep lower beak). And ‘The Skateboard’ (in which the penis is lain across the scrotum so that the balls become wheels). And ‘The Propeller’ (I’m not going to ruin all of them for you).

That was back in 1998, and it occurred with much furor, initially, all of it unwarranted. Because, after about the first fifteen minutes, you’d pretty much acclimatise to the fact that there are two nude dudes pulling at their respective (not each other’s!) cock-and-balls on stage, and as it wasn’t in the more traditionally prurient manner of tugging yer tackle, you may as well have been looking at their elbows.

In time they were playing the West End and Broadway, getting written up in the likes of The Guardian and The New Yorker. And after taking dick tricks around the world, and taking the world by storm, they started producing shows in which other dick tricksters took the stage all over the world, manipulating their respective manhood. Now, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, they’re launching a live 3-D version of the show. In which neither Simon, nor his penis, will be appearing, because, he says, penis puppetry is “a young man's game”.

“I’m 45 now. I’ve got myself a bit of a belly. I haven’t seen my penis in about three years.”

Instead, Simon’s been working on pulling the 3-D technology together. The show is “technically a lot more advanced” than any of the previous Puppetry of the Penis endeavors. He developed it in the UK, and is presenting it here in Australia, premiering in the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Thus, in his own words, Simon’s role is “directing. And pimping. I’m the ‘global pimp’.”

  267636_227234150644828_206638536037723_711087_1046431_n

Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D


Zen and the art of dick tricks

If you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live (or on DVD) before, it essentially works as follows: the two 'puppeteers' make shapes out of their nether regions, accompanied by banter. A camera presents close-ups on a screen. So the new 3-D show, you can easily imagine, would be that, but with the technology (and glasses!) to ensure what you see is coming at you (so to speak) out of the screen. However, there’s still more to it than that.

“We’re using CGI” - computer generated imagery - “so that when the guys perform, say, ‘The Pelican’ on stage, the camera is 3-D, the screen is 3-D, but all of a sudden, we’ll put ‘The Pelican’ into a pelican’s body.”

That’s really cool. And a little bit scary.

Another – far more elaborate – example of the CGI involves ‘The Propeller’. “In a tribute to North by Northwest, we put ‘The Propeller’ in a biplane that comes out at the audience. The guys have to leap off stage to avoid it…”

Excellent spectacle though dick tricks are, who’d have thought you could breath such new life into them? According to Simon, the constant question has always been, “What are you going to do with the show? Where are you going to take it next?” And the'd always answer – jokingly – that next it’d be in 3-D: the penises would jump off the screen.

“Then,” Simon says, “I began to realise that the technology was very soon going to be with us.” Thus the new show is groundbreaking and interesting as well as fun. “I just hope people enjoy it,” says Simon.

My conversation with Simon Morley happens to be taking place not too long after my own Melbourne Comedy Festival show, Stand-Up Sit-Down, has ended. Stand-Up Sit-Down consisted of interviews with comedy practitioners. In the final show, guest Andrew Denton spoke of his show David Tench Tonight, in which the main character David Tench was a CGI character animated in real time, interviewing celebrities. The drawbacks were that CGI technology was not quite up to the task at the time, and the animation was too human – an animal or some other object may have proven more disarming for interview subjects.

So the essential questions now are, is the CGI working for Puppetry of the Penis? And might there be a time when dick-based CGI creations (of which, it may be argued, David Tench was one) successfully interview celebrities?

“I’m sure it’s not gonna be too far off,” Simon insists. “I hadn’t thought about getting them to interview celebrities live, but they certainly could. I’ve got ’em singing songs!”

 

Denton n Dom

Denton and Dom discuss benefits of CGI interview technique


Penistory

Historically, the rendering of dick tricks began in hotel rooms while on tour.

Simon initially managed pubs, running comedy nights in bars he managed. In time he started touring the comedians he initially booked, and in the early post-show hours on tour, when much alcohol had been consumed, the dick-trickery began. “At the end of the night, I’d be dropping my pants and amusing the comics,” Simon recalls. One such comic was Jimeoin, whom Morley toured after television success meant he was too big for the pub circuit. It’s whispered that Jimeoin has been known to turn a few tricks of a dickular nature himself. That’s right: Jimeoin is a secret dick-tricker.

“I wouldn’t even say ‘secret’,” Simon assures me. “He loves it! If we’re in Europe or the States, he regularly joins us on stage. He’s very proud!”

And he’s not the only comic who has the talent. Turns out Greg Fleet has a couple of tricks up his dacks.

“I saw Fleety once do a not very politically correct impression, shortly after the Space Shuttle disaster: he had a cigarette flying out of it, jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool. He was doing ‘The Space Shuttle Disaster’.”

Tim Smith is another comic who has indulged in pleasures of the flash. More or less. He may not have been demonstrating them to people, according to Simon, but “he was certainly work-shopping them for quite some time!”

Paul Hester, the original, and now sadly departed, drummer of Crowded House, was also adept at a dick trick. And although it never went to air, Simon and Friendy appeared as Puppetry of the Penis on Hester’s ABC variety show, Hessie’s Shed (some of the footage wound up on the Mick Molloy-produced cocumentary, Tackle Happy).

Jim Rose, of Circus fame, used to do them with Simon and Jimeoin in Edinburgh, in the Gilded Balloon toilets, back in 1992. Can’t get more Fringe than that, surely! “Jim Rose took the hamburger and ran with it! He still does it on stage, occasionally.”

  David has a hamburger!

David has a hamburger!


Penartistry

Amazing. Dick tricks, the way comedians amused each other late at night in 1992, became a stage act all their own in 1998, taking the world by storm shortly thereafter. But the origins lie further back. “My brothers and I came up with most of the tricks, as sibling rivalry, back in the 1980s,” Simon reports.

I guess the real question is, has Simon encountered Ron Jeremy in his travels and seen if Ron can do any of them, or indeed, has any tricks to add to the catalogue.

“I have met Ron Jeremy but I didn’t really want to have a ‘dick-off’ with him,” Simon confesses. I think I know what he means. “We met in a bar, and he’d heard of my work, and I’d certainly heard of his work, and there was a bit of mutual respect, but we were on very different sides of the fence, me and Ron! It was a bit like Van Gogh meeting Leunig…”

Not quite sure which one’s Van Gogh and which one’s Leunig, but the point is taken. And it has resonance. Say what you will about two blokes on stage manipulating their genitalia – serious publications approached the show seriously once it left Australian shores. Which Simon anticipated all along.

“I knew this was going to generate some serious debate. It was very confronting.” While it was “harmless fun” to Simon and Friendy – “It’s a piece of skin; get over it!” – for a lot of people, particularly in the media, it was challenging, even down to the basic debate of whether or not it could be shown on television. “Can we show male genitalia in a non-sexual light? What’s wrong with it, given we see so much female genitalia?” According to Simon, “it posed a lot of good questions, and I’m always happy when the debate starts around us. It’s important that we just stay focused; we just want to make shapes out of our dicks!”

Not wishing to enter any debate, my most pressing question right now is, given Simon’s not about to appear in this show, how does the Director and Global Pimp go about selecting his cast? How do you audition would-be dick tricksters?

“Basically, we get boys to come along, we talk them through and tell them what the job entails.Then we ask them all to kick their pants off. We do a little workshop, and then we get them to show us any tricks that they’ve got of their own, reproduce the ones we just taught them, and we look for them to be naturally funny. We say, ‘Right. Deliver your tricks!’”

What Simon’s looking for, essentially, in a would-be dick trickster is a special quality: “If there were couple of old ladies in the audience, we’d want them to have the most confronting and hilarious night of their lives, but we’d want them to turn to each other and go, ‘oh, but they’re such nice boys!’ So they’ve got to have a certain charm about them as well.”

And don’t think for an instant that you necessarily have to be hung like a Clydesdale to do these tricks: “I’ve actually said ‘no’ to a lot of guys who were too big,” Simon insists. “You’ve got to be able to manipulate it. You’ve got to be able to bend it. We’re looking for a certain proportion in the size of the penis to the testicles: the wheels on ‘The Skateboard’ can’t be too big. There’s also a lot of stretchiness of skin: you’ve got to be able to put a sail on your ‘Windsurfer’.”

Ultimately, says Simon, when it comes to dick tricks, “everyone can do some of them; not everyone can do all of them.”

  Friendy_Simon

Simon (seated) and Friendy, AKA Puppetry of the Penis

 

Coque du Soleil

I remember hearing – probably from the lads themselves – that the Umbilical Brothers were approached by Cirque du Soleil. However, joining the troupe would have meant giving up a lot of what they already had, and losing some identity. Has there been some sort of Coque du Soleil offer?

“Actually,” Simon says, “there has been…”

Turns out, in numerous trips to Montreal for the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Simon had encountered the Cirque du Soleil creators, who frequently used to joke that Puppetry of the Penis should become part of the show. And then it was no longer a joke: Cirque were “putting together an adult show for Vegas”.

It came to nothing, of course. For the same reason every attempt by Puppetry of the Penis to get to Vegas has also been stymied: a law that prohibits live sex acts. The wording applies to Puppetry of the Penis, even though it isn’t a sex act:

“There's an old licensing law that says you can be naked on stage, but you can’t touch your genitals. Unfortunately, we get caught up in this. Because all these shows are in billion dollar casinos, none of them are going to go, ‘well, that’s a stupid law…’. Nobody’s prepared to take that chance with a billion dollar license.”

But, Simon’s adamant: it’s only a matter of time. “We’ll play Vegas one day. We’ll get in there!”

 

Not so cocky

So here’s the thing. You’ve read this far. You’ve giggled at bits. But if you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live, would you? The point I made earlier – which was Simon’s point, back in 1998 – which I’ve found to be true, deserves reiteration: watching two naked guys do silly things with their cocks is unnerving. At first. But after the initial shock, it is just funny silliness. And you may as well be looking at their elbows.

Admittedly, the times I’ve seen it, I’ve felt the need to take female friends with me. And they all react the same way: ‘You’re taking me to see WHAT?’ (Or, as one quoted their mother to me, ‘He’s taking you to see… that PENIS show?!’) But by the end of it they’ve laughed so much that they’re talking about it at work the next day and organising a girls’ night out before the end of the season.

Simon likens it to jumping out of an aeroplane: “It defies all your natural instincts. You DON’T jump out of aeroplanes; it’s madness; it’s stupid. And as soon as you get out of the plane and you’ve let go of everything and you’re freefalling, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Okay, seeing Puppetry of the Penis may not be “the best feeling in the world” but Simon assures that “it’s quite harmless once you get over the initial shock of it all; you’ve just got to strap yourself in and hang on; it’ll be fine. You’re not gonna get hurt.”

Not gonna get hurt, indeed. Reminds me of the urban legend surrounding film pioneers, the Lumiere brothers, and their 50-second silent film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Apparently, the first audience to see it – never having seen film projection before – freaked out at the shot of the train coming towards them. You’ll have your 3-D glasses on; you’ll be watching live theatre with close-ups coming at you live, on screen. But rest assured: those three-dimensional dick tricks coming at you pose no danger, just silly fun.

 

Freebies…

Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D opens Tuesday 17 April at the Athaneum Theatre in Melbourne.

Yoke Communications has freebies to the Wednesday 18 April performance. Be one of 20 lucky double pass recipients by emailing Nina at Yoke Communications now (nina@yokecommunications.com.au).

The Sydney season starts May 5 at the Enmore Theatre.


Who's been and about to be had…

Fear of a Brown Planet

I had Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman of Fear of a Brown Planet in on Saturday, and DeAnne Smith on Sunday, as my Stand-Up Sit-Down guests.

DeAnne Smith

I'm technically probably not allowed to tell you who I have in on Tuesday. But here's a clue: it's Sammy J. Find out more about the show (the wheres and whens, etc) and buy tickets at the door, or prebook.

Sammy-j