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.

Orientalism

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.

Gen Fricker brekky

 

 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.”

 


In(terviewing) The
Paul Michael Ayre Tonight

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It’s 1989. Australia has a secret space mission that’ll put it up there with the world super powers who are leading the space race: to send a manned capsule further than any other country can. So they choose Pluto, the planet furthest from the sun. Two people are chosen for the mission, Jared, a ten-year-old genius, and 18-year-old called Xavier. They are about to embark on a 20-year journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system.

While state-of-the-art technology (for 1989) is provided for them, it is, as always implemented by humans who, even at their best, are subject to the human condition. So while the latest digital devices are at hand, the scientists working on the project are somewhat overstretched, the strain of the mission destroying their relationships. The result of bitter break-ups experienced by everyone is that the ‘favourite song’ each contributes to the mission ultimately amounts to ‘The Best of Phil Collins’.

Cut to 2006: Dylan and Penny, a pair of hackers, stumble onto information about this secret mission 17 years into it, when a symposium of astronomers have decided that Pluto is no longer the planet furthest from the sun in our solar system, because, they’ve decided, Pluto is no longer a planet at all. An embarrassed Australian government, wishing to avoid seeming “like a pack of idiots who went to the wrong planet”, therefore want nothing to do with this space mission. Worse than that, Jared and Xavier have been subjected to the Phil Collins back catalogue “approximately 117,000 times”.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is In The Air Tonight, a play currently enjoying a Sydney Comedy Festival run. Playwright Paul Michael Ayre, to whom I’m currently speaking, takes the role of Jared, while David Collins – more popularly known as the wavy-haired Umbilical Brother – plays Xavier.

 

In The Air Tonight came about because of two significant things that happened in my life,” Paul explains.

The first involves the CD player in Paul’s car, which broke in such away to ensure the CD within it could not be removed, nor could the setting be changed to radio, but the disc itself would continue to play. The CD was, of course, a collection of greatest hits by Phil Collins.

“I was stuck listening to Phil Collins on repeat for the better part of four months, until I got it fixed,” Paul says.

What can you say to that? Nothing. Except maybe, “Oh Lord!” And perhaps, furthermore, “Oh Lord!”

The second event involved Paul’s friend trying to write a play set in outer space.

“He asked me to come up with a couple of synopses. I came up with ten.”

The tenth one happened to be the remarkably true-to-life scenario – for Paul – of being stranded in outer space with your Phil Collins CD stuck on repeat for eternity. Realising it was too good an idea to give away, Paul asked if he could keep that synopsis for himself. Hence In The Air Tonight.

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This image (c) 2011 Alex Weltinger 


If you’re not familiar with Paul Michael Ayre and his work, you really must get acquainted. He’s an interesting, talented character. A couple of years ago, he started the website You Had To Be There, which documented live comedy.

“That came about, really as an example of ‘call my bluff’,” Paul says. For years, he reckoned, he could do something that would improve the local comedy scene or make it run better or at least make a major, positive contribution to it, if he put his mind to it. A core belief he kept in his head – and no doubt uttered out loud occasionally – while he pursued academia. Or “uni stuff”, as he calls it.

“I was doing ‘artificial intelligence’ for that, and it was absorbing my entire life, and then I finally decided to give it the old heave-ho and see if I actually can do something about comedy.”

He could. And so was born You Had To Be There, a repository of great comedy, which he set about helping film.

“That we did for about four months, free of charge, for the love of it. Then we joined with Ranko Markovic and Darrin Parker to do Rated Comedy”. Check out Rated Comedy – there is so much great talent producing clips for that site. (Sure, you have to keep sitting through the promo for Sacha Barron-Cohen’s new film at the beginning of every clip right now, but they have to pay for this awesome service somehow!)

After a year of dedicated work with Rated Comedy, which necessarily “took creative time away”, Paul stepped back in order to concentrate a little more on his own comedy pursuits, including sketch comedy.

One of the sketches just premiered in the LA Sketch Comedy Festival, and “killed it!” according to a mate who was in LA, attending. “We were stoked to be a part of that,” Paul says. “That was the most success we’ve had with a single sketch so far.”

While Paul’s intent on their compiling enough sketches to put a pitch together for a television show, currently, Paul is employed by A-List Entertainment, one of the big comedy management companies, to devise sitcoms for the comedians on their books. “I write a million different versions of a sitcom pilot until they’re happy with it, and then we get a crew together with Jeremy Brull…” – the director of In The Air Tonight and most of the sketches Paul appears in – “…and Craig Foster…” – another talented individual, who debuted his film at the recent Atheist Conference – “and shoot it and pitch it to the networks.”

But you probably are familiar with Paul Michael Ayre, particularly if you are a dedicated fan of the Umbilical Brothers, in which case you’ll know his face and his voice. Paul is one of the people who appear in the elaborate menus of the Umbies’ Don’t Explain DVD.

Turns out the Umbies had spotted Paul earlier, and liked his work. He was part of The Delusionists, a sketch comedy troupe that grew, more-or-less, out of uni revue, and enjoyed a couple of years of popular success at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. (Their alumni included great talents like Steen Raskopoulos, Susie Youssef, Alex Lee, Ben Jenkins, Benita De Wit, Michael Hing, Neal Downward and, no doubt, others I’ve failed to list; my apologies.)

On the strength of seeing him in the Delusionists, the Umbies asked Paul to provide The Voice of God in their show Heaven By Storm. It was this association that led Paul to send Dave the completed script of In The Air Tonight, for a critique. Dave’s feedback: “I want to be in it!’”

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This current Sydney Comedy Festival season at the Sidetrack Theatre is its second. It premiered last year at the Old Fitzroy Hotel in Woolloomooloo. Through it all – the initial season, and those four months of CD player malfunction, Paul is – and remains – a fan of Phil Collins. After all, he did own a copy of the Greatest Hits CD in the first place. “It’s just that it gets tedious after a while,” he says. As anything repeated ad infinitem, would. Which means Phil’s not about to have a hissy fit about it, you’d suppose.

“We did try to get in touch with Phil Collins,” Paul assures me. “We got as far as his manager.”

See, what happened was, Daven Collins went on tour with Robin Williams; the tour manager of that jaunt happened to be close enough to Phil Collins to have attended his wedding. “He got as far as Phil Collins’ manager, but I think with all the hoopla of Phil Collins retiring this year, this was low on his priority list,” Paul explains. “So as far as he knows, it doesn’t exist.”

What? Phil doesn’t even know about it? I thought there was going to be some amazing ‘inside’ story about how Dave Collins is Phil’s distant cousin or something and said, ‘go for your life’, waiving the royalty fee and throwing in a couple of crates of Cadbury’s chocolate to boot…

“Not quite,” Paul laughs.

‘In The Air Tonight’ is clearly the perfect title for astronauts stuck in outer space. And in keeping with that theme, in addition to the music thematically underscoring the action, every single scene in the play is named after a Phil Collins song. Except one, Paul informs me. “The introduction is called ‘Genesis’.” Very cute. If Paul had also referenced The Artful Dodger or Oliver! – since Phil Collins the child actor appeared as the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! – he’d have pretty much sent me into orbit!

As stated, this is the second run of In The Air Tonight; the first one, Paul says, ended its season with sell-out performances, “which was excellent!” In the process, he discovered that a lot of the audience consisted of younger people coming in with the attitude, “I don’t know who Phil Collins is, but I like the idea of some old dude getting the piss taken out of him” and then realising not long after that they not only know who Phil Collins is, they also pretty much love his back catalogue.

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If you’ve been paying attention to the Sydney Comedy Festival, you’d notice not only that Dave Collins is appearing in Paul’s play, but also that Shane Dundas, the other Umbilical Brother, stepped out in his own first solo show, Believe. Has Paul inadvertently - ahem - cut the cord and broken up the group? Is he Dave and Shane’s Yoko?

“No,” Paul insists. “It’s more of a love triangle…”

What it is, he explains, is that the Umbies’ own show is so physical that they can’t be doing just that all the time – they need to be exercising other muscles – comedic and physical – and giving the ones they’d otherwise use constantly a bit of a break. So expect to continue to see David Collins and Shane Dundas in other shows and doing other things. But they’ve not split, and the proof of that is in the strange dates the season of In The Air Tonight appears to be playing: opening 1st May then no show for couple of nights and then a handful of dates and then more gaps… Part of the reason for that is because Dave has some corporate gigs to play with Shane, as the Umbilical Brothers, on those other nights.

“The downside of having people from internationally successful acts in your show is that if they’re offered other work, they have to go do it,” Paul acknowledges. It may mean that people erroneously turn up hoping to buy tickets at the door for a show that’s just not running that night. “I’m probably going to go to the theatre every night, just in case someone does turn up expecting a show on a night when we’re not on, and apologise profusely.”

I think Paul’s quite possibly the luckiest person I know. I’m not discounting his talent in any way, just pointing out how good it is that he’s getting paid to use it by people who appreciate it!

“I know!” he agrees. “But it only just dawned on me recently. Just the stress of everything that was going on in the real world with writing and performing, I didn’t realise I had the best job in the world until a couple of months ago.”

Fine Print:

In The Air Tonight is on from 1st to 20th of May, but not every night. Check the Sydney Comedy Festival and the Sidetrack Theatre websites.