Every comic’s got something to hide
except Tim Ferguson and his
Cheeky Monkey



Tim Ferguson - Cheeky Monkey from Currency Press on Vimeo.

From one of Australia's most successful comedians, Tim Ferguson, comes The Cheeky Monkey, a practitioner's guide to the art of comedy writing. Both insightful and practical, The Cheeky Monkey explains the principles of sitcom writing and guides the reader in how to apply them. Seeded with exercises to aid the developing comedy writer, this book will help you to:
Write jokes
Create funny stories
Build comic characters
Develop a sitcom
Sell your sitcom to producers and TV networks


  Tim-ferguson

Tim Ferguson has released a brilliant book about writing narrative comedy called The Cheeky Monkey (published by Currency Press). It’s brilliant because it conveys a great deal of information simply, straightforwardly, and soundly. Every bit of ‘theory’ (often, it turns out, ‘common sense’) is illustrated by a great example of comedy that, if you’re into comedy, you’ll recognise. At the end of each section there is an opportunity to do writing exercises to put into practice what has just been taught. Each time I try, it seems impossible. Until you check some of the suggested answers at the back, and they seem so simple. But that’s the genius of good comedy writing: it is simple. That’s what makes it so hard.

Tim Ferguson is of course a former member of one of the most important comedy troupes to come out of Australia – The Doug Anthony Allstars. I first encountered them on The Big Gig, a cabaret/variety/comedy show broadcast on the ABC in the late-80s that was re-launched more recently as The Sideshow (with the role of the Doug Anthony Allstars played by Tripod. Just sayin’).

But I fell in love with the Dougs well and truly after seeing them play at the University of Technology one O-Week. That was relatively early in my Bachelor of Arts degree. By this stage they were already heading to the UK regularly, where they got massive! In time, they came back to Australia. And broke up.

Along the way I interviewed them. Repeatedly. To the point where they actually seemed to enjoy it. After they went their separate ways, I got to interview Paul McDermott in has capacity as the leader of a new musical comedy trio, Gud, and Tim Ferguson, as the author of the excellent political novel, Left, Right And Centre, and Richard Fidler as the host of Mouthing Off and Race Around The World. And Richard got to not quite interview me, as a frequent guest – the ‘Keeper of the Comedy Archive’ – on his radio shifts.

More recently (a couple of years ago now…) I got to catch up with them as a trio when they got together to promote the DVD release of a compilation of their Big Gig segments. I hope we can do it again for the DVD release of DAAS Kapital. (C’mon, guys, release it.)

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I was extremely chuffed to receive an email, out of the blue, from Kavita Bedford at Currency Press, announcing that “Tim Ferguson gave me your details claiming you were the first and last word in comedy”. Pretty chuffed. Of course I’d want to talk to him about his new book. And so I did. One day in April, during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We had an excellent chat.

It was quite far-reaching, and even covered Tim’s illness - which at the time I’d agreed to keep ‘off the record’. Not because Tim had anything to hide, only that he wanted to go public with it when he was ready. He certainly didn’t want to the story to suddenly be about his battle with multiple sclerosis – or ‘MS’ – when it should be about his book. So I agreed not to say anything about it, taking the line he liked to use when people, spotting his cane, would ask about the gammy leg: ‘I fell off my race horse’. I’ve only added this bit here two months after initial publication of this interview, because Tim’s allowed another journalist to break the story, and since speaking of it himself on an episode of Good News Week, this interview keeps getting hits from people searching for 'Tim Ferguson MS’. So let’s move back on to the actual story.

Tim’s a massive talent; we had a good interview; it’s a great book. If you like comedy enough to do more than merely laugh at it occasionally on telly, buy the book. Heck, consider doing Tim’s comedy writing course.



Dom Romeo: Tim, why a book, and why now?

TIM FERGUSON: I spent a long time trying to put sitcoms together and it’s very hard to find people who know how to write them. And you can’t really do it by yourself; you need people who understand how to build 21 minutes of a complete story with characters doing what they do.

I thought, I know, and a couple of my mates know; I should put it in a book because nobody in Australia has every sat down and said, ‘this is how we do it’. There are a couple of American books out there, but I thought they were talking about things that weren’t covering the whole picture. So I tried to go in deep, in a simple way, mainly so I could give it to people I’m working with so I could say, ‘that’s what I’m talking about.

Dom Romeo: If only you and a few of your mates know, why don’t you corner the market? This way it feels like you’re making more competition for yourselves – and ruining it for the few people who think they can write and don’t need the competition.

TIM FERGUSON: For starters, I’m essentially, effectively, retired. I promised myself that I would stop at 40. So I grabbed the saddlebags and headed for the hills. So this is partly to help new people, it’s also partly to start an argument that I think has to be had in this country, and that is, that screenwriters – and you’ll find them at screenwriters’ conferences – have no respect and no idea about comedy. They haven’t got the first idea.

Part of my inspiration for this was to start the fight with them, which basically says, comedy is harder than anything drama has ever attempted. Yes, the script to Goodfellas is extraordinary, but if you wanted to do a comic Goodfellas would be even harder. Why? Because you can sit through Goodfellas completely silent. But if you sit completely silent through a comedy movie, it’s not working and it’s not funny.

Comedy demands an instant involuntary reaction, a physical reaction from the audience. That’s why it’s harder. And I got tired of seeing the Australian film industy going up like a Hindenburg every time someone said, ‘hey look, we found more suicidal smack mothers, and look, she’s going to have a suicidal smack baby live on camera, and we’ll stop halfway through’. I was sick of those people trying to tell me that was much harder and much more important and had more of a message than comedy did. Because comedy, when it comes to a delivering messages, beats drama with a stick!

Dom Romeo:Partly because comedy fools us into giving us what really shouldn’t be given; you get to say the un-sayable to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it, through comedy.

TIM FERGUSON: And you get to deliver the truth. Drama is all about pretty pictures. We get to believe that Keira Knightley is Elizabeth, that Pride and Prejudice takes place in a real place, that Mr Darcy is a real person. Whereas in fact, they’re bullshit; they’re made of candy floss; there’s no way Darcy could exist in the real world, he’d get the shit beaten out of him. Whereas in comedy, it’s all about just telling the truth.

If someone in Pride and Prejudice was wearing a wristwatch, the audience would go, ‘What? This is supposed to be 17th Century England. The same thing happened in Quo Vadis! This is ruined for me!’ because the fantasy of the drama is ruined. Whereas in comedy, if in Life of Brian Brian himself was wearing a wristwatch at the end, on the cross, nobody would have said anything because in comedy we’re not there to learn as we are in drama; we’re only there to laugh. If we get a thought afterwards, so much the better.

So it’s time for comedy to take its place and save the Australian film industry before the depressing smack films kill it!

Dom Romeo: But what about the last ten years of locally-made comedy films that weren’t saving the film industry?

TIM FERGUSON: Kenny didn’t hurt. And The Castle didn’t hurt. Australia: that film was basically a comedy where a lot of the gags didn’t work. Some of the films just didn’t catch on. But if you think of the highpoints, out of the top 20 Australian grossing films of all time, 14 are comedies, with the 15th being Gallipoli – which I regard a buddy movie until the end when it does become tragic and moving, but until then, it’s two guys going to Gallipoli and being two young Aussies abroad.

Dom Romeo: There are some great, funny moments in Gallipoli. I’d forgotten that.

TIM FERGUSON: Yeah, it’s a very funny film. Not every film’s going to work, but comedy’s got a far better batting average than anything that’s got needles, screaming babies, mothers saying ‘little fish, little fish’ – all of that junk has to go! It has to stop! It has no place receiving taxpayer funding at all. It has no place in the Australian culture. It is only important to people in the inner city, and there’s are only eight of those, and one of them – she doesn’t even go to the movies!

Dom Romeo: What I love though, is, we’ve had a discussion like this before. It wasn’t as long, and it was after you’d written your first novel, which was a great novel, Left, Right and Centre. I asked you why you hadn’t jumped on the dirty realism bandwagon with the dole-bludging smackies, and your response was, ‘what a load of rubbish; there are no dirty realists; if they were really dirty realists, they’d be out being dirty and real and wouldn’t have time to write. Real dirty realists don’t; these authors are just posers, essentially. I see a theme in your creativity.

TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. There is nothing I hate more than wankers. I don’t mind people who masturbate, I think that’s great. But people who do that in there lives and their careers and – worst of all – with our government’s money, should be taken out, branded – with I don’t know, pick a word – and sent running. This has to stop. Because it’s ruined the Australian nation’s faith in its own film industry. All this smack drama, all this ‘oh my god, how depressing’, all this beautiful Kate, incest, precious eggs, my butt! Stick a precious egg here! It has to end, it has to stop! Comedy and light entertainment is what people want. Jesus, we’re in a recession!

Dom Romeo: I take all that on board, but when you say we don’t do that well… Look, there was a time when the colour supplement of every weekend paper used to bitch and moan that Australia can’t make funny sitcoms. They’d stop bitching and moaning come comedy festival time, when there was advertising dollars to be made promoting Australian comedy, but every other issue of the colour supplement would be fair game for the recurring ‘why can’t Australia make funny sitcoms?’ article. And now we’ve had a number of great ones, some that are doing very well overseas. What is it that has to happen for things like that to come about with comedy films in Australian cinema?

TIM FERGUSON: It’s worth pointing out that while people were saying that, Hey Dad…! was one of the highest rating, longest running programs on air, in primetime, in Australia’s history. There are dramas that would have given their eye teeth to be on at the peachy slot of 7pm on a commercial network for eight-and-a-half years. So while those people were saying, ‘why can’t we make a good one?’ we were making a good one. And it had a huge audience, a regular audience and a family audience. The thing was, people who write for broadsheets tend to like little films about suicide. They should never be listened to, those people. The people who should be listened to live in a little place: it’s called ‘the western suburbs’ of each and every one of our major capitals. No other audience is important.

Dom Romeo: Okay, again, that’s interesting. Hey Dad…! was our longest running sitcom. Despite all its flaws – characters who came and went, look-alikes, act-alikes, the sechetary lasting longer than the arch-a-tect even though it was about the arch-a-tect dad and not his sechetary – it lasted. And yet, this is a hard one. If it’s so good, why is it so derided? Have you tried watching any episodes recently? But then again, the follow-up question is, have you tried watching any comedy a decade after it stopped being made?

TIM FERGUSON: Gary Reilly, when he was putting Hey Dad…! together, looked at history and he didn’t look just at recent history, he looked at ancient history. And each one of the characters in Hey Dad…! is based upon an ancient archetype that goes back to Roman times. Similar archetypes you will find in Arrested Development, in Seinfeld… and Gary Reilly just did them Australian style. There’s the idiot, that was played by Betty Wilson, and who is the classic ‘idiot with a capital ‘I’ archetype’ and this character has only so many kinds of jokes that she will use. One of the jokes that the idiot always uses is the taking literally of things that everybody knows shouldn’t be. So a euphemism will be taken literally.

If someone says to an idiot character, ‘it’s so sad, my dentist bit the bullet’, the idiot character will say, ‘he was a dentist; you’d think he’d know better’ whereas we know ‘bit the bullet’ is a euphemism for dying. That’s what the idiot character does and they do it in all the shows: they do it in Seinfeld, they do it in all the cool shows. That’s what Kenneth in 30 Rock does; it’s the same character. That’s what Rose in The Golden Girls does. It’s the same character.

Dom Romeo: So what makes 30 Rock a much better show than The Golden Girls?

TIM FERGUSON: I don’t think that it is. I think The Golden Girls is probably the best sitcom ever made: four middle-aged women on television. For starters, can you imagine trying to sell that concept? I mean, putting middle-aged women behind a news desk still seems beyond most networks. Four women living together, working – again, ancient archetypes. It was brilliant. It’s interesting that Mitch Hurwitz, who was one of the writers of The Golden Girls, said he used the same four archetypes as those four characters as the lead characters in Arrested Development.

Dom Romeo: Oh my goodness. That’s interesting.

TIM FERGUSON: Buster does all the joke-types that Rose did. He does not understand sarcasm. He takes it on face value. That’s because, for the last two-and-half thousand years, that’s been working, so why screw with it? And this is the producer of Arrested Development saying this. Americans are a lot less abashed about using archetypes because they understand an archetype’s role. In Australia people say, yeah, but that’s old. The fact is, it’s so old, it’s in your DNA. Don’t screw with it. Just follow it.

For example, why do you think poor Richard Fidler, who in real life, as you know, is a bloody genius – he’s got a bigger brain that I’ll ever have – played the idiot? One – he was busy with the guitar; and two – because that’s always worked. Why would you screw with it?

Dom Romeo: I must say, back when I was young and ignorant and interviewing you for guys for the first time, I was genuinely surprised to discover that he wasn’t the fool he played on stage in real life – in fact, he was quite a well-read intellectual, though he’d play that down.

TIM FERGUSON: Oh, he’s also a financial wizard. We’d all be driving taxis if Richard hadn’t sat down and said, ‘well, we’re gonna sell out, but this is how!’ The man is a machine. He was the one with the briefcase. Paul and I were just the ones holding flowers, kissing people, trying to make people feel better about themselves.

Dom Romeo: Signing the odd breast, too, I remember.

TIM FERGUSON: Yes! Never the nipple! Never sign a nipple unless you want to go to gaol.

Dom Romeo: Apart from the ‘nipple indemnity’, is all of this theory covered in your book?

TIM FERGUSON: Yeah. There’s no nipple-signing in the book. The book does talk about archetypes, I talk about how to structure a comic story, and break down the different schools of jokes, basically into two types.

One is the stand-alone joke – where you don’t need to know who’s in it or who’s telling it. ‘Three guys walk into a bar…’; that kind of joke. Or just plays on words.

The other kind of joke that I cover is what I call ‘narrative gags’: jokes with a story, jokes that are tied to a particular character. It’s funny not because of the way the language is used or played with, but because we know who is saying it.

There’s a very funny moment in Arrested Development where a pretty girl says to Michael Bluth, ‘so, can I meet your family?’ and he says, ‘no’. Now knowing Michael and knowing his family makes it funny. He just says it deadpan: ‘no’. Because, we know why: they’re monsters.

That’s a narrative gag. So the book’s about how to build those; how to build a comic character so that it’s reliably funny, so that it has the right flaws, so that it’s not so complex that it then becomes like a real person, in which case, it belongs in drama.

There’s a lot of stuff: just what comedy is, how it works, why we laugh.

Dom Romeo: Have you been working on these theories through life? Are these ideas that you’ve learnt by being on stage, writing for television, being on television?

TIM FERGUSON: Yes, but also, talking to professionals who actually know what they’re doing, helps. You learn stuff on stage. You learn what works pretty quickly, because silence teaches you what doesn’t and noise teaches you what does.

Some of the theories I have in the book won’t please some people, and will probably make them angry.

Dom Romeo: Give me an example. Try me on.

TIM FERGUSON: One of the things that I talk about is that the key to doing a good character, dramatic or comic, is simplicity. They are all puppets. It’s when you try to make a dramatic or comic character too complex, people lose the point. Characters should only ever be driven by a couple of things: what they want, what they emotionally need, what they’re scared of, and the way they see the world. That’s it. They’re the only things you have to worry about.

While that sounds easy, the real trick is deciding which quality to go for. Because if you can only pick one… what do they want? What, in the entire world? Yeah. Right now and always, what is the one thing they want? Once you nail that, you’ve got the character. But nailing it means you’ve got to throw out all the other little things you wanted to have in the show.

Dom Romeo: But that makes perfect sense: as in stand-up comedy, if something you say isn’t the punch line, or a feed to the punch line, or doesn’t serve the punch line, you’re wasting time.

TIM FERGUSON: Oh yeah, then it’s just a sentence. Anthony Morgan’s got that great line: ‘sometimes you say a joke, and when it’s over you realise it was just a sentence. It’s very true.

Dom Romeo: But – not even a sentence; if there are too many words in a routine what they’re doing is preventing an audience from laughing.

TIM FERGUSON: Absolutely.

Dom Romeo: So too many characteristics in a character stops you getting to… whatever.

TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. If you look at The Golden Girls, you can pretty well boil down all of those four ladies down – Dorothy, Sofia, Blanche and Rose – to a couple of adjectives each. It was the biggest show of its time for a decade. Why was it brilliant? Because it was simple. Simplicity is genius.

“E=MC2

“That’s it?”

“Yes,” says Albert, “zat’s it. I am happy wiz zat.”

“Anything else? You want to write books about it?”

“Zat is for you to write,” he said. “It is for you to write the books – but zat is all I haff to say.”

Paperclips. Bullclips. People look at things like that and say, “that’s genius”. Only writers say, “there must be more in this character! They should be like me, pulled in ten different directions…” What you end up with is some sort of half-pancake/half-maple syrup slop that nobody likes and nobody wants to watch.

Dom Romeo: Having had a lot of experience making people laugh, let me ask you this: why do people laugh?

TIM FERGUSON: A little over a million years ago, our brains took up about – oh what was it? – 600 square centimetres. They’ve doubled in size in a million years. What that means is that our brains are actually only a million years away from being monkeys’. We’ve grown the front part of our heads, so we’re very good at talking and very good at gymnastics and those kind of things, but essentially, we’re still monkeys. And of course there’s nothing new in saying, ‘we’re the naked apes, except we wear bow ties’, but thinking about this, and making people laugh, particularly in the Doug Anthony Allstars which was – if nothing else – apart from the very gentle, interpretive dance stuff that we did, was quite a confronting little trio of guys. Even Richard, who was supposed to be nice, would come on shouting.

There was a lot of attack. We smelt. We had a bad smell. People knew when the Allstars were in the room because we stank. We didn’t wash our costumes for ten years. Those costumes are in the Performing Arts Museum covering in white mould. We’ve given orders they’ve never to be washed. But anyway…

Dom Romeo: I hope they’re behind glass…

TIM FERGUSON: Oh, I think they’re being sat on by people in winter; they’re warm because of the activity going on within them.

But the fact is, our brain’s very old, and when we laugh, we do something that’s involuntary, that can’t be stopped once it’s started. Laughing’s not something we can decide to do. You can’t say, “Mate, I’m just going outside; I need to relax. Going outside to have a bit of a laugh, and then I’ll come back in.” Once it’s started, it can’t be suppressed. So what’s going on?

When we laugh, of course, our bodies go to work; they give us a little kick of adrenalin. We also get a little trigger of endorphins. Small, but if we laugh for a long time, we usually walk out of the theatre feeling kind of heady and happy. People also say, “it was so funny, I pissed myself”. Or even worse: “it was a cack! It was so funny, I cacked myself at that show.” That’s because these things can occur if you laugh hard enough.

Why is this?

If you look at the fear flight response – when you see a snake and that snake comes slithering towards you at speed, hissing, your body does all those things: it involuntarily makes noise – ‘yah!’; your heart starts pumping because you have adrenalin; you have endorphins which are there as a sedative and to stop you feeling pain; your breathing becomes very low and shallow so that you can sprint for 30 or 40 metres. Fear flight is not about running a mile, it’s about getting out of somewhere very quickly and you only need the oxygen that is there in your system already to do that. You piss yourself so that you stink and the animal won’t want to eat you, and you crap yourself for the same reason.

If you look at the way we laugh and why we laugh, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that we find something witty. It’s got to do with the fact that the new part of our brain is seeing something or hearing something, has a concept in it’s head that it can’t deal with – two things that actually do have a surprising connection. In a jungle, that could be a bamboo tree and a tiger – they both have stripes. “Oh!”

Now the downstairs part of our brain is only designed for a couple of things: it’s designed to say ‘we’re okay’ and ‘we’re not okay’. And also ‘keep breathing’ and ‘keep the heart pumping. So when it gets these messages where suddenly there’s a comic reversal in a joke – I thought I was here, but now all of a sudden, in an instant, I’m somewhere else – where circumstances have instantly changed, the lower part of our brain is only trained to say, ‘when I hear that circumstances have changed: Panic! Fear! Flight! Involuntary noise!’ And away we go. That is laughter.

So if, as a comedy writer, you approach your scripts as thought you are trying to create chaos and fear within people, you will do well. You want things to be upside down. You want to say, ‘these two things that aren’t connected, actually are connected’. You want to make surprising connections, reversals, twists, turns, sudden reveals… All of these things, as Monty Python said, are ‘Fear. Surprise. These are our weapons.’

That’s why we laugh. And that’s all comedy does. Which again drives drama people made. And it’s why they think comedy is not as important or as valid an art form, or as potent a communication art form as drama. Because it’s dealing with our guts and not with the fluffy stuff upstairs that has no real import.



Tim Ferguson launches The Cheeky Monkey in Sydney at the Yalumba Wine Bar (the Enmore Theatre Café) Sunday May 9 at 4pm. If you can’t make it, you can still buy the book and learn how to devise, write and pitch your hit sitcom.

Search for Trevorrow

Hearing Mark Trevorrow on ABC 702 Sydney a couple of weeks ago made me want to dig out this old interview with him. I’d interviewed him previously, during one of his many University of Sydney performances as a stalwart of student entertainment. He was always appearing at beginning or end of term celebrations, it seemed, and one time or other, while working for the University of Sydney Union, I got to interview him for the Union Recorder (as opposed to just producing advertorial – or ‘Dombo Journalism’, as I used to call it – as I did for most Union events back then).

This inteview was pretty special, however. It really came together well. I finally worked out, in my head, who ‘Bob Downe’ was, even though I was interviewing Mark Trevorrow again. I found, in fact, interviewing Mark Trevorrow several times subsequently, that my image of Bob Downe became clearer and clearer, as Mark Trevorrow became more and more distinct as a personality apart from Bob. Indeed, I suspect Trevorrow was finding Bob Downe a more defined character as he continued to define himself more boldly as a separate but no less public, performing entity.

For some reason I found it helpful to compare and contrast, to a certain degree, Trevorrow’s Bob Downe with Barry Humphries’s characters. Interestingly, Humphries was my first real interview, ever, for Honi Soit, the newspaper of the University of Sydney, produced by the Student Representative Council. It was a breakthrough for me. The Bob Downe interview below was my first interview for Revolver, a free entertainment rag. I vividly recall trying not to talk too loudly in my office – the Publications Department (ie my cluttered office) of Cranbrook School (for that was my ‘real’ job, Publications Co-ordinator at Cranbrook School) – as I conducted the interview sans recording equipment or speakerphone, furtively scrawling barely legible notes on a legal pad. As soon as the school newspaper, The Cranbrook Chronicle was being printed, I’d feverishly complete this interview, setting the standard: every week for the next five years (failing to meet the odd deadline here or there; that is to say, occasionally being so late that no piece ran; mostly being late but still in time for one to be published) I presented a different comedy-related interview. In addition to being a crash course in stand-up for me, I felt I was also educating an audience, and all the while, helping educate up-and-coming comics. If Sydney’s stand-up scene eventually got the jump on Melbourne, it was because, for a while there, there were people who had a clear idea what they were doing, why they were doing it, how it ought to be done, who for, and where it all fit in, in the greater scheme of things. Over five years, I pretty much found my voice and an ability to interview.

I have interviewed Trevorrow a number of times since this was written in 1998 (it was 1998, so forgive the dated political outlook; who was to know Kim Beazley’s best impression of a Statesman would be in conceding defeat in an election he should have had no trouble winning, and handing over leadership of his party, in 2001?). Trevorrow continues to be an interested and engaging interview subject – responsible for increasingly involved and ever-more-funny live shows. And for the record, I’ve watched him go from taking the piss out of the Tony Bartuccio Dancers, to working with Tony Bartuccio. I hope to eventually dig out later interviews where Trevorrow discusses all of this.

For more info on Bob Downe and Mark Trevorrow, in his own words, plus updates on tours and performances, and access to heaps and heaps of clips, check out his YouTube page. Meanwhile, here’s the interview.


Bob Downe for Revolver

“You’re talking to Mark Trevorrow rather than Bob Downe,” a jet-lagged voice announces. “Did my manager explain it to you? Bob Downe’s not a real person.”

“What?” I demand, worried. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Good Morning Murwillumbah, the breakfast show he hosts, isn’t a real television program either…?”

“Well,” the voice replies, “I don’t want to break your heart…”

My first conversation with Mark Trevorrow took place in 1995 when he was frequently dashing between England and Australia consolidating Bob Downe’s success. Having been effectively ‘on tour’ with Bob for seven years, 1995 was an important year; Bob Downe met the Queen at The Royal Variety Performance. ‘Yeh Yeh’, a cover of the old Georgie Fame number, had just been released as the lead single from Bob’s then-forthcoming album Jazzy. The album featured the track ‘Je T’Aime’, a duet with Julian Clary. If Jazzy failed to entice as wide an audience as it ought to have, it is only because it arrived too soon, the cocktail music revival failing to take hold for at least another six months. Not that Jazzy was a calculated attempt to exploit a trend; Bob Downe exists beyond genres. He always was and always will be and his kitsch appeal has no beginning or end.

Yet, speaking to Mark Trevorrow then, it was as though he didn’t know this. Bob would rarely speak for himself in interview, and apart from the broad facts as to when and how Bob was conceived, Mark didn’t have much to say about him. Not like — and I loathe the ‘critic’s way out’ that this comparison presents — Barry Humphries. The characters of Barry Humphries all seem to have lives of their own. Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson are frequently interviewed in character, and they make reference to the nebulous Humphries. And his creations have a thriving inner life that enables Humphries to talk at length about them. In performance, Bob Downe would tell us more about himself during between-song patter, but he only existed on that stage.

Within the few years that have passed, things have changed. All Bob Downe, Bob’s  autobiography as written by Mark Trevorrow, has been published by Penguin. Bob’s universe has been fully fleshed out, so much so that the most recent Good Weekend’s ‘The two of us’ column featured Mark and Bob being interviewed about each other. Clearly then, when I rang Trevorrow out of the blue to request “an interview some time,” his response of “how about now” took me by surprise.

“Bob’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid to make everyone laugh,” says Mark Trevorrow of his alter ego. Influenced by the high-camp artifice that was day-to-day television programming in this country, as well as film and radio, young Mark had “a little fantasy show-biz empire” with his sister and the kids next door, putting shows on in the back yard. “I never dreamed that it would be something that I’d do professionally,” he says.

After completing his schooling at Murrumbeena High in 1976, Trevorrow pursued (or perhaps ‘fell into’) a career in journalism. Beginning his cadetship as a 17 year-old copy boy at Sun News Pictorial in January 1977, by its end in 1981 Mark had served as a daily pop columnist. However, broader interests were already drawing him in other directions. His years of avid television viewing may have prepared him for his production post on Channel 10’s Together Tonight (a magazine-style show than ran nightly for six months).

Irrespective, Mark was already developing a cabaret act within the comedy group Gloria and the Go Gos. Featuring Wendy de Waal in the role of Gloria, the act was largely “thrown together” as a party turn.

Renamed ‘The Globos’, the band had its first hit in 1982 with the song ‘Tintarella Di Luna’. Pre-empted back into existence by Joe Dolce’s pontificating ‘Shaddup You Face’, the sub-genre of wog novelty discs fell into (or perhaps ‘pursued’) its late-80s nadir courtesy of Con the Fruiterer’s ‘Cuppla Days’. The genre’s zenith was definitely ‘Tintarella…’, which made it into the top twenty charts. When you listen to the song (the high-camp artifice that is contemporary advertising has led to its recent use on a television commercial, but I can’t for the life of me remember what was being flogged) you will hear Wendy and the band give their all. As with Bob Downe’s Jazzy, there are times when you are not entirely convinced that The Globos know whether they’re taking the piss or not.

A second single, ‘The Beat Goes On’, made it into the Top 40 in 1983 and was followed by a national tour with the Total and Utter King of Rock and Roll, Cliff Richard (who, like Bob Downe, is a ‘committed bachelor’). When The Globos broke up in 1984, Trevorrow resumed his career in journalism. Joining Vogue Australia as a staff writer, Mark eventually rose to the position of freelance Arts Editor. However, it wasn’t long before he was once again writing and performing, this time in a double act with Cathy Armstrong. Consisting of sketch comedy, the duo devised a show, A Nice Young Couple, which they performed in 1985. They also went on to write and perform for ABC Radio’s comedy unit. It was from this work that Bob Downe was created, initially as a parody of Entertainment Tonight. Bob Downe went solo in 1987, launching his career at Sydney’s self-proclaimed nursery of comedy, the Harold Park Hotel. A brief internship at Melbourne’s Last Laugh — “it was sort of ‘Comedy Central’ in those days,” Mark explains — gave way to Bob’s foray into Britain in 1988.

I must admit that my first real introduction to Bob was via his work with the Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in the series Daas Kapital. “I think I started working with the Dougs in ’87, at the Last Laugh” Mark recalls. “They showed me the festival ropes, how to go about doing the Edinburgh Festival. Then we did a lot of touring. I used to support them a lot whenever they were playing in London.” Bob, of course, remembers the proceedings so much more vividly than Mark. In an episode of Daas Kapital, a mermaid (played by Khym Lam, partner of Dougs’ guitarist Richard Fidler) sums the group up thus: “Paul [McDermott]’s the one you want to do it to, Tim [Ferguson]’s the one you think of while you’re doing it, but Richard’s the one you want to marry.” Bob takes us a step further in All Bob Downe: “Tim — like all the pretty ones — just lay there, vaguely sort of indicating. Richard? We just talked all night. And Paul… like a stinky little jackrabbit. In the end I let him hump my leg while I read TV Week.”

All Bob Downe marks a coming of age. Bob Downe has always exploited television. On stage, his Tony Bartuccio Dancer-moves (running directly at the camera and peeling off to the side at the last moment) are exactly how they were done on The Don Lane Show. His version of The Theme from ‘Fame’ bore the garbled lyrics as learnt from the crappy monaural television that you and I used to watch it on in the 70s. Daas Kapital contained the brilliant TV-advertised album commercial — “Jesus loves me, and you will too when you hear Bob Downe for Jesus”. All Bob Downe brings this acute level of parody to the print medium. Bearing the bold and flamboyant typefaces and colour scheme (beige and parrot shit green) of a 70s annual, the chapters of All Bob Downe open with fraudulent newspaper headlines taken from archival issues of the Murwillumbah Irrigator. It also contains all the name-dropping references and photos of Bob’s brilliant career thus far.

Mark Trevorrow recognises the position Bob is now in as the beginning of a new phase. “It’s gotten to the point where Bob is someone you can always depend on to get up and do a silly song. But after 15 years, Bob is ready to host a show, rather than just make spot appearances.” Indeed. Bob’s hosting of the Mardi Gras telecast is testament to his ability and suitability. But that is the very least we should expect from Bob Downe. I put it to Mark that perhaps Bob Downe ought to be the first President of the Australian Republic.

“Bob would leave that to the Ray Martins and the John Farnhams,” Trevorrow advises. “Bob’s civic duty is strictly limited to shopping centre appearances and cutting ribbons at the openings of fetes.” Fair enough. Bob is already acquainted with public office, what with his having been presented to the Queen. Which leads me back to that loathsome comparison again. Edna Everage had reached about the same point in her career as Bob is at now when Gough Whitlam bid her ‘Arise, Dame Edna’. Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the near future, Prime Minister Kim Beazley utters a similar dictum: “Arise, Bob Downe.” That’s if Kim heeds the advice of his physicians to ‘arise, bob down, arise, bob down, arise…”


Scared Weird Little Guys

The Scared Weird Little Guys have a special position in the pantheon of musical comedy outfits. Tripod have garnered a popular following through their presence initially on Triple J (with their ‘song in an hour’ challenge and subsequent CD releases) and then on SkitHOUSE. Yet they have to contend with comparisons to other pre-existing trio-and-guitar combos – the Three Canadians, Corky and the Juice Pigs and the Doug Anthony Allstars to name but several. Then there’s the Dodge, who began as Freefall but had to change their name for copyright reasons. I recall accosting members of the Dodge, while they were still Freefall, at a Melbourne Comedy Festival some years back. “I know you must get this all the time, but you know who you guys remind me of?” I began. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” they said. “Tripod.” Which was cute. They reminded me of early Allstars. But it was nice that everyone else who would have once been comparing Tripod to the Allstars was now comparing Freefall to Tripod. Then, of course, there’s Gud – the band that are most like the Allstars, having, like the Allstars, Paul McDermott as their central character.

The Scared Weird Little Guys are the ones who get compared to others least of all, mostly because they are a duo (and partly because I can’t be bothered bringing Lano & Woodley into this introduction, even though they began as a trio, became a duo, and also dabble in music).

Beginning as half of a barbershop quartet, the Scaredies have made much of being able to utilise many musical genres. Of late, they have taken to doing their own version of a musical challenge. Whereas Tripod are given a topic and an hour to turn it into a song, the Scared Weird Little Guys take a leaf out of Andrew Denton’s book – since the ‘musical challenge’ dates back not to Denton’s Channel Seven tonight show of 1994, for which musical guests would have to render standards in their own style, but to an earlier show, The Money or the Gun, which featured ‘Stairway to Heaven’ performed in various ways by a multitude of artists. The Scared Weird Little Guys invite musical challenges of that nature: in addition writing satirical songs, sometimes to the tune of familiar songs, the Scaredies like to perform familiar songs in vary unusual genres, and invite fans to submit suggestions for such songs in a prcess referred to as ‘Stump the Scaredies’.

Thus, the Scared Weird Little Guys' new album Bits and Pieces – the excuse upon which this interview is hung – contains a bunch of satirical ditties and a sampling of Scaredy-stumpings.

Having previously interviewed the Scared Weird Little Guys, I already knew the answers to a few of the questions. But they were worth hearing again in the context of the story, rather than trying to bung ’em into an introduction – look how cumbersome this one is without them! Besides which, the answers sound even better when illustrated with soundbites.

The Scaredies have a clutch of shows coming up over the next little while, and they’re a lot of fun live. Check ’em out.

The interview went to air Saturday 15 May, an MP3 of which may be heard here.


Music: ‘Rock n Roll All Night’ in the style of a barbershop quartet – The Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: Before you became the Scared Weird Little Guys, you were both in a number of a cappella quartets. What led you both to comedy and to being in a duo? Rusty?

RUSTY BERTHER: We did start out, when we first met, in a barbershop quartet. In fact I was in this barbershop quartet for a year. It was called Four Chairs No Waiting and I was in that group for a year in Melbourne and then John auditioned and joined that group. That’s how we met. It was a bit of a ‘wacky, zany’ kind of a group, which was a lot of fun and a good thing to be doing at that time. Then we were in another five-part a cappella group called the Phones, which was a little more serious on the music side, with heavy doses of comedy, but we’d decided when we started the Scared Weird Little Guys, ‘let’s write original comedy songs’. So we kind of fell into it that way.

JOHN FLEMING: When Rusty and I met each other there was a bit of a bond that happened there, I guess. It was a business relationship but we were both into similar sort of stuff, so by the time three years had gone past, it seemed logical that we might go on to write some songs and I was playing guitar, we were both singing so we went for it.

Music: ’30 Seconds’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent


There’s only thirty seconds left in this song.
If you got a stopwatch and tried to work it out
Then you’d find around now that the time remaining
Would equal twenty seconds, yeah.

Now it’s down to eighteen.

Seventeen seconds: no time to rest.
If this was an ad you’d be impressed.
If you’re in a hurry you won’t be late,
’Cause if for the end of this song you wait

There’s only four seconds left.
How long?
There’s only one second le…


Demetrius Romeo: Rusty, the name ‘The Scared Weird Little Guys’ was indirectly bestowed upon you by Al Pacino; is that correct?

RUSTY BERTHER: That is correct. It’s a line from Al Pacino’s movie called Cruisin’. He’s an undercover cop in the serious, gay world of New York at the time, and there’s murders going on. Anyway, regardless of what the film’s about, the line ‘scared, weird, little guys’ was in it, and we thought, “scared, weird, little guys; that’s a weird grouping of adjectives – with ‘guys’ at the end – let’s call our group that!” We were searching for a name at that point.

JOHN FLEMING: Yeah, that’s right. And we have a fear that maybe in New York ‘scared, weird, little guys’ means something different, so we haven’t played in New York ever.

Music: ‘Staying Alive’ in the style of a Welsh Male Choir – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces.

Demetrius Romeo: Your new album Bits and Pieces is album number three. John, tell me where the title comes from.

JOHN FLEMING: Well it’s pretty simple, really. It’s a whole collection of things from different places, all chopped up and not really contiguous, so Rusty suggested that we might call it Bits and Pieces because that’s the kind of thing that it is, so that’s what we did.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the highpoints of your live routine is where you’d do a version of Prince’s song ‘Kiss’…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in reggae style – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

Demetrius Romeo: …You did it even more distinctively by inviting various different genres…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in Indian style– the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

RUSTY BERTHER: We don’t really do the ‘Kiss’ routine anymore, but we’ve kind of morphed that idea into a thing called ‘Stump the Scaredies’: people write in and ask for a certain song to be performed in a very different style than it’s originally performed in, or even in the style of another song.

Music: ‘Born in the USA’ in the style of Austrian Tyroler music – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: I notice one of the tracks on the CD, ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’, seems to tip its backward cap at Eminem. Tell me a bit about that song.

JOHN FLEMING: Well that was a kind of ‘Stump the Scaredies’ thing again – the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, what can we do with it? We said, “let’s do it in an ‘Eminem’ style”.

Music: ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’– Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces



Waltzing Matilda:
She came from St Kilda,
Her middle name was Hilda
And her dad was a builder.

When he could see the steam on his tea
He said, “You’ll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!”

Waltzing Matilda

Yo, come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!

Down came a jumbuck (baaa!)
And he was dumbstruck
He jumped up…


Demetrius Romeo: There are a number of musical comedy acts on the scene at the moment. Do you see a reason for the rise of the musical comedy act?

JOHN FLEMING: Well I guess, in the most narcissistic way it’s because we’ve been around for so long, we’ve spawned a lot of acts. But seriously, we’ve observed a rise of variety act over the stand-up comic for a while, and while there’s always going to be more stand-ups than variety acts that are successful and successfully performing, there seem to be more variety acts coming up now.

Music: ‘World Leaders’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces


I beg your pardon, have you forgotten
One Osama Bin Laden?
Oh behave! He didn’t shave –
He’s been hiding in a cave

The US Army couldn’t find that man
So they bombed the crap out of Afghanistan,
That crazy al-Keida Kookball
Called ‘Osama’!


Demetrius Romeo: What’s the secret of being a musical comedy act, and successful?

RUSTY BERTHER: I think, don’t take yourself too serious, number one; enjoy what you do; and I think, personally, we just try and be really good at what we’re doing.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces


John: Tonight we’re going to use some of the most rare and difficult of the hand-crafted instruments: ladies and gentlemen…
John & Rusty [in unison]: The whistle-pop!

Demetrius Romeo: Scared Weird Little Guys, that you very much!

JOHN FLEMING: Thanks Dom.

RUSTY BERTHER: Thank you Dom.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces


I played out on the street.
From far around they came.
The crowd, they clapped and cheered.
I won fortune and fame.


Good God, It’s Gud!


GudPoster.jpg


Using the [then-upcoming, he added some time in October 2004] season at the Sydney Opera House as an excuse, I present here an interview with Mick Moriarty, erstwhile plankspanker of both The Gadflys and Gud. Paul McDermott claims loftier etymology for the derivation of the name ‘Gud’, and who can blame him when, coincidentally, it happens to be an acronym for a medical condition. However, since McDermott was once a member of The Doug Anthony Allstars, it is a fair observation to make that phonetically, ‘Gud’ is in fact ‘Doug’ backwards. And Gud is going to have to live with comparisons to McDermott’s earlier comedy combo, whether he likes it or not. Longtime fans will note, and no doubt relish, the similarities between Gud and The Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in songs that bear similar gag-structure. Case in point: ‘Peace Opus’, which works the same way as ‘What Is It You Can’t Face’. But if all you see are parallels between Gud and the Allstars, you’re missing out on a lot of fun. (And you clearly can’t have been enjoying Tripod very much, either, can you? What with the put-upon guitarist whose one chance at singing lead is drowned out by the gorgeous one and the funny-looking one singing the backing vocals way too loud, the inability to sufficiently distinguish between a boat and a girl, and… well, I’ll save it for another blog entry.)

Apart from a Parramatta Riverside Theatre season during the Big Laugh Festival a couple of years back, Gud was, for a time, under-appreciated in Sydney. There was one year that two gigs were scheduled in the same evening but as the earlier one undersold, it was cancelled, and as a result, elements of the band were more-or-less rat-arsed by the time the later one commenced. It was still funny, and not merely for the wrong reasons – sometimes the between-song-patter went nowhere, at other times it went where it shouldn’t and occasionally it seemed to go on forever, while the music remained as gorgeous as ever. It was a pity, though, that a larger Sydney audience just didn’t seem towant to know or appreciate a combo that can play brilliantly and have you cacking one minute and getting all misty-eyed and sentimental the next. And then laughing even harder again thereafter because of the presence of the seemingly nice, gooey bits.

A fine 2003 Melbourne International Comedy Festival run was followed by a fantastic sell-out season at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival which, upon their return to Australia, led to sell-out seasons in Melbourne and Sydney in the so-called ‘Famous Spiegeltent’. Back from another great Melbourne International Comedy Festival season, they hit Sydney tight and triumphant, so you should probably be booking tickets now. (The season opens April 23 – a Radiohead gig precludes my attendance on opening night.)

This interview with Mick Moriarty took place and was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio during The Gadflys’ Sydney residency at the Spiegeltent in December 2003, which, if not concurrent, must have been contiguous with Gud’s own. My inability – at that time – to structure directed interviews that dealt with one topic instead of rambling through many (a bad habit learnt through years of self-tutored print journalism, still being painfully un-learnt through tutelage in radio journalism) necessitated the use of narration to tie the edited bits together. But it hangs together pretty well, as the MP3 sound file will attest.


Music: ‘ Long Time Gone’ – The Gadflys (from the album Out of the Bag)

Narrative: The Gadflys began in the 1980s as a three-piece punk band founded by brothers Mick and Phil Moriarty. Normally, ‘punk’ means distorted guitars and loud drums playing as fast as possible. For The Gadflys, it meant a double bass, guitar and clarinet playing an eclectic mix of pop, rock, country and ballads.

The trio made its mark first as distinctive buskers, then as a popular pub band. Over the years the Gadflys have grown from the basic trio to a big band with horns, keyboards and backing vocalists. Now they’re touring again as a trio, each playing several instruments.

When I caught up with guitarist and vocalist Mick Moriarty, I wanted to know how having a double bass and a clarinet in your band affects the sort of songs you can play live.

MICK MORIARTY: Some songs over the years on Gadflys albums have just never really gone live because they’re probably a bit more rock. They’re hard to pin down with the sort of instrumentation that we have and the acoustic ethic that we use. But it’s really exciting, often, to ‘adjust’ a piece to that. It’s kind of fun for me, and hopefully, for the audience. Hopefully they’re not just going to go, “hang on, that’s not like it is on the record! Whaddaya mean? Whaddaya doing? I want five bucks back!”

Demetrius Romeo: It’s been a little while since the Gaddies released an album. Are you doing any studio work at the moment?

MICK MORIARTY: After the last album, that was a really tragic album as it turned out – not that it seemed that way while we were recording it – …

Demetrius Romeo: Why was that?

MICK MORIARTY: Because Andy Lewis, our bass player, killed himself shortly after recording was finished and before we’d even mixed it. And as it turned out, the engineer killed himself. It was appalling. It was so sad to lose friends, but just to contemplate these poor buggers so sad that they can’t see a place for themselves in the world. It was last year in Edinburgh that we got back to this three piece and found the enjoyment again. Since that time, I’ve been writing a lot, Phil’s been writing a lot, and now we’re talking about a new album.

Demetrius Romeo: When Andy Lewis died, he was your original double bass player. You’re now playing double bass. Was it hard to make the transition from guitar?

MICK MORIARTY: After Andy died, we had another guy, an old friend of mine called Elmo who’d played with us in years past, play double bass. Then we were going to Edinburgh and he couldn’t come because he had family commitments. So Pete Kelly and I decided that we would learn to play double bass. When I picked it up I just went, “hang on, why have I left this alone so long?” I really loved playing it and so I started playing with the Gadflys and by the end of that Edinburgh season I was going, “this is fantastic!”

Narrative: The Gadflys became well-known when they started appearing on the television show Good News Week in the late 90s. Paul McDermott, who hosted Good News Week, had been a member of the comedy troupe the Doug Anthony Allstars. Like the Gadflys, the Doug Anthony Allstars began as a punk group in Canberra in the 80s. Mick Moriarty and Paul McDermott began writing comedy songs together, which they then performed in their new band, Gud.

Music: ‘Wrong Number’ – Gud (from the mini-album Gud – Official Bootleg)

Narrative: Mick Moriarty says that playing in Gud came as a welcome change from playing in the Gadflys.

MICK MORIARTY: It was great fun because it was just so away from everything I had been doing and writing comedy songs is such a different kettle of fish to trying to say what you think about yet another broken relationship or something. It was just a really enjoyable chance to apply myself to the things that I could do and learn about the things I hadn’t done.

Demetrius Romeo: There was material earlier in your career that did lend itself to a bit of a comic edge. For example, very early on you were doing a cover of ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’.

MICK MORIARTY: I was quite fond of Petula Clark, and ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ I think is a fantastic song. It was not so much ‘looking for the comedic edge’ as not taking yourself too seriously, and taking the piss, but not ‘here’s the laugh bit’ or ‘this is a funny song’ but ‘this is a novel approach to a song’. I still think it’s a great song. Tony and Jackie, if you’re listening, congratulations on your early work.

Music: ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ – The Gadflys (from an ever-so-slightly crackly 7" single!)

gadflys.jpg

And just in case you need to know more, here is a Gud interview with Paul McDermott, from a few years back, that first appeared in an issue of Revolver. Can’t remember the title, and can’t be bothered digging out the yellowing, dog-eared hard copy. Oh, I know what I’ll substitute it with…


Egad, It’s Gud!

“One of the best things about working with people is gaining that awareness of how someone else is thinking: knowing what they’re about to do,” Paul McDermott explains. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen for a long time, people gaining that understanding and knowledge of each other.”

In the case of ‘Gud’, the band and show consisting of Paul McDermott, Cameron Bruce and Mick Moriarty, the trio seems to have gained that awareness in no time at all, and the proof is in the way they each take it in turn to lead and follow the often improvised shenanigans that punctuate and interrupt songs ranging from silly to satirical to sweet. By the last night of a very short preview season at Parramatta, Gud was slick, and the Melbourne run has garnered full houses and rave reviews. Paul concurs that the three “seem to have clicked straight away”. However, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Mick Moriarty, looking – and sometimes sounding – like the resultant offspring of a union between Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, is a member of The Gadflys, who served as the house band on Good News Week. He and Paul both hail from Canberra, where, during his Doug Anthony Allstars days, McDermott “more or less knew” of Mick. Paul had seen The Gadflys in all of their incarnations, and recalls “sharing pints” with them at past Edinburgh Festivals. Gud developed out of Paul and Mick hanging out and writing songs, initially with Paul Mac. After Good News Week ended, McDermott spent the ensuing year trying to devise a show for the Festival, and Mick suggested they take their songs on the road.

Prior to joining Karma County, his most recent gig before Gud, Cameron Bruce was no stranger to the world of musical comedy. He played with the feel-good fun band ‘The Fantastic Leslie’ and his keyboard stylings have accompanied many a Theatresports stoush. McDermott got to see Cameron a couple of times in his capacity as the Club Luna house band’s keyboardist on Sunday nights at the Basement. Bruce’d tickle the ivories on outré, funked up covers of songs like ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ and ‘Islands in the Stream’, looking like some hatless cross between the Muppets’ Dr Teeth and the musician he was based on, Dr John.

The title ‘Gud’ was derived from McDermott’s realisation, while watching the Grammy Awards ceremony, that “every single person who came up on stage was going, ‘…and Ah’d lahk t’ thank Gud…’”. Thus, he decided, he’d better put a band together called ‘Gud’.

There is a point in the show where McDermott invites requests from the audience, and without fail, an Allstars fan will request a DAAS song. “I don’t really mind,” Paul says. “They can request whatever they want. We won’t do any of the old songs, but I don’t mind them requesting them.” Paul can’t blame them, really: there are some songs that bear an unmistakable similarity to Allstars’ material, particularly in gag structure, so those inclined towards sentimentality are more than likely to want to reminisce.

“Gud’s the same sort of thing as the Allstars,” Paul acknowledges. “It’s musical comedy, and it’s quite aggressive musical comedy. I like that form of expression. I feel comfortable doing it. But there are also massive differences.” Rather than closely analyse the differences and similarities, it’s probably better to note that, at least from McDermott’s point of view, Gud is as much fun as the Allstars and Good News Week were to do. “I loved working with Tim and Rich, and I loved working with Julie and Mikey, and I really am enjoying working with the boys,” he says. However, Gud seems to have covered more ground in a shorter time than its comedic predecessors. “It’s exceeded my expectations,” Paul says. “It’s gone extraordinarily well on its first outing, so I’m really, really happy. Gud is a great outfit and great fun to work with. The combination of the three is greater than the individuals and what we’re doing now is growing at an exponential rate. It’s like a Nimbin crop, out of control.”

And like that Nimbin crop, Gud will make you laugh uncontrollably for hours on end. See for yourself when Gud performs.


Adam Hills: Go You Big Red Fire Engine. Again.

Oh woe is me! Having had the utter joy of blowing all my savings (and a fair whack of those of other family members) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, I’m kind of distraught that I can’t be at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year. Despite this, it’s still nice to do the odd interview. However, as my only outlet is ABC NewsRadio at the moment, it’s a matter of choosing someone who’ll appeal to a demographic of adult professionals, who is available – while the studio’s being refurbished – for a face-to-face chat, with (until I can do this fulltime for money) flexibility. The choice came down to Charlie Pickering, late of Triple J, and Adam Hills, an ex-pat Aussie who tends to return from the UK come Festival time. Hillsy, who is presenting his new show Go You Big Red Fire Engine II, was the perfect choice.

Adam came and met me at Egg Records on a Saturday, and was as happy as a kid in a toyshop: marveling at the badges, the Japanese pressings of Kiss CDs in miniature album-replica sleeves, the other various collectible knick-knacks. Before we got down to business, I put on James Taylor’s first and self-titled album (released by Apple Records all those years ago), preceding it with a suitable lecture – (“note the song ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, the inspiration, as well as the first line, to George Harrison’s ‘Something’”) – to whet the man’s cultural appetite. Then I left him to listen, and browse, while I went about my business closing the shop.

We still couldn’t get down to the business of doing an interview until I’d played Adam a bit of the Grey Album (a remix of the Beatles’ so-called White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, perpetrated by one ‘Danger Mouse’) and a couple of tracks from Dsico that No-Talent Hack’s album of mash-ups, Booty of Choice. The interview itself flowed easily.

I’ve been accused of ‘liking’ the comic Adam Hills – by someone who has never actually gotten around to seeing him live, of course. See Adam Hills and tell me whether or not you also like him: Hills has a broad appeal without pandering to the lowest common denominator; he entertains whole families without being innocuous. His observations are mostly spot-on, and when they aren’t the generalisations lead to such good laughs that you don’t nitpick. That’s the most important thing, of course: Adam Hills is funny. This is not merely the best, but the only reason, really, to ‘like’ any comic.

This interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 27 March 2004 (the first weekend of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, at which Adam Hills is performing his latest show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine II) and is podcast right here.

Soundbite: ‘Feed the World’ – Adam Hills (from the CD single Working Class Anthem)

I grew up in the 80s. I grew up in an era when you could take a positive message to the world. I grew up in Australia wearing a shirt that said, ‘Relax’. ‘Choose life’. ‘Don't worry, be happy’. I grew up in an era when you were told that you could not only ‘feed the world’, but you could ‘let them know it’s Christmas time’. And I have a slight theory as to why there's such a high percentage of obesity in America as compared to the rest of the world. I think it’s because in 1985, a group of English musicians got together and put out a song that told us to ‘feed the world’. And then a year later, a group of American singers told us, ‘we are the world!’

C Adam Hills

Demetrius Romeo: Adam, you’re one of several Australian comics who base their careers in the UK. Why is this?

ADAM HILLS: There’s just so much work over there. There are at least 120 different comedy nights in London alone and I’ve done four or five gigs a night in London. You turn up at the first venue, you go on stage, and as you walk on, the club owner calls a taxi. It arrives as you walk offstage, you get in the taxi, you go to your next venue, you arrive and the MC sees you and says, “right, I'm gonna do five minutes and put you straight on”.

Demetrius Romeo: So how does that compare to Australia?

ADAM HILLS: There isn’t really a comedy club circuit here. For someone who loves doing stand-up, which I do, to be able to work five or six nights a week and in those five or six nights, maybe do up to ten gigs... that’s why I’m there. I mean, you can spend two weeks doing club gigs in Sydney. You can actually spend three weeks now, and pretty much gig every night, but then you don’t do those clubs for another six months or something because the audiences see you doing the same gear. So basically, I come back now to do the Adelaide Fringe, the Melbourne Comedy Festival and then maybe three or four weeks of the year, touring around Australia.

Demetrius Romeo: Surely when you come back, you notice differences in the comedy industry. For example, at the moment there are more comedians and locally produced comedy shows on television than there have been for possibly a decade-and-a-half. Do you ever feel that you should have been here to get one of those gigs?

ADAM HILLS: [Laughs] Well, yeah, but to be fair, I’ve been offered a lot of those gigs as well. I’ve had a fair few offers to do various bits and pieces in Australia, one of which was, the host of a re-vamped version of Sale of the Century. Oh yes, I could have been the new Glenn Ridge. But also, with a lot of the other TV shows that are on at the moment, I was approached to be on a fair few, and I kind of went, “well, no, because then that just ties me to Australia”, and at that stage I was starting to get a bit of a career going in the UK. Now I just want global domination, basically.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, you do very well in the UK: for the last three years, you’ve been nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, which is for the best show of the Festival. Unfortunately, you haven’t quite cracked it – ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’. How do you feel about it?

ADAM HILLS: You know what, after being nominated twice, a lot of people in interviews said, “do you think you’ll be nominated for the third time?” and each time, my stock answer was, “You know what? I’d love to be nominated for the third time and still not win it ’cause I reckon that would be really funny”. And then when it actually happened, I thought, “you know what, I really shouldn’t have said that!”

The thing about being nominated for an award in something like the Edinburgh Festival is that suddenly there’s a lot of pressure on you; every night that I’ve been nominated, I’ve had a terrible show, just through nerves, and through the audience being weird but mainly through me. I’ve just panicked and walked out on stage and gone, “um, I’m supposed to be really funny… and now… I don’t know… ahhh” and just completely capitulated. I’ve since found out that every comic goes through that. It’s all par for the course. And to be nominated for anything three times is a pretty big compliment.

Demetrius Romeo: Okay. The hard question: would you prefer to be nominated a fourth time, or would you prefer that they just leave you alone next time?

ADAM HILLS: Oooh, that’s the big question, and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s a weird one.

Soundbite: ‘Oh Yeah’ [excerpt] – Adam Hills (from the album Go You Big Red Fire Engine)

You go anywhere in Australia and you ask an Aussie to do something, and he’ll do it. Doesn’t matter where you are. You go,
“Mate, you wanna go backpacking through Europe?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Do you want to bungee jump off a bridge in New Zealand?”
“Yeah, that sounds all right.”
“Do you wanna fly a paraglider into Buckingham Palace?”
“Yeah! Come on! Let’s go!”
In fact, I reckon the Australian motto on the coat of arms should just say, “Australia – Oh Yeah!”
I think this positivity came about because we were sent there as convicts. White Australians were sent there as convicts. On the worst ships you could find. The whole way, there must have been blokes in manacles going [with English accent] “It’s gonna be horrible. It’s gonna be awful. I’m gonna hate it.” And then the boats docked at Bondi Beach. Every convict looked up and went, [in Aussie accent] “Oh yeah!” And a nation was born!

C Adam Hills

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Go you big red fire engine’ has been a catchphrase for you for a few years now. How did that all begin?

ADAM HILLS: I was doing this thing where I would get an audience member up on stage and turn them into a rock star, and get them to yell their name to the audience. The audience would yell it back and they’d get a big round of applause. I was playing a thirty-seat venue, so I was trying to get some energy into the room. And this guy, instead of yelling his name, told me that he was a fireman. And I said, “come up here and we’ll do the whole thing”, and when I said, “right, yell you're name”, for no reason he yelled, “Go, you big red fire engine!” And then the crowd yelled it back, and he kept going for five minutes and I just said, “that’s the most up-lifting and pointless thing I’ve seen in my whole life”. There's no reason for it, it’s completely stupid, and yet everyone in the room had a smile on their face. And I said, “that’s it; I’m gonna name my next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine”, partly because in Edinburgh in 2000 I was long listed for the Perrier Award and I was getting really stressed out. I decided then that I was gonna call the next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine because there’s no way that I could get that stressed about a show with a name that stupid. And then what happened was it was nominated for a Perrier Award. But then it became a catch-phrase. Natasha Stott Despoja yelled it in Parliament at one point when she was Leader of the Democrats, as my crowning achievement. And I was gonna leave it at that, but audience members kept coming up to me after the show saying, “we were hoping you were gonna say, ‘go, you big red fire engine!’ again. We really like it when you yell that”. And I just thought, I really have to reprise it because people seem to want me to say it. And being that it came about from a mad audience member, I figured that if audience members want me to say it again, I’ll say it again.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, that title also appears on a CD!

ADAM HILLS: Yes, yes, I released a CD version of the original show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve also had another CD, which was a fundraiser for the fire brigade. It was the Australian National Anthem done in a very particular way. Tell us a bit about that single.

ADAM HILLS: When I went to Edinburgh I had an idea to play around with the Australian National Anthem and I had seen a band in Sydney do… I think it was the music of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the lyrics of ‘Gilligan’s Island’. They combined the two, and that really stuck in my head. ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was playing around in my head and then I went, “what if you put ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in there?” And then came up with [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to tune of the theme to Gilligan’s Island]

Australian’s all, let us rejoice
For we are young and free,
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea.
Our home is girt by sea.

And then I kind of played around with more. ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ worked as well. [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of the theme to Beverly Hillbillies]. All of these started coming together and then they just rattled around in my head. I was actually in a shopping centre one day, listening to ‘Working Class Man’. As it was playing, over the top of the music I was just going [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’] and started going, “Oh my God, it works for ‘Working Class Man’!”

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’ (‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’) - Adam Hills and the Comedy Brig-Aid (from the CD single)

ADAM HILLS: So then I got permission and put this single out with myself, the Scared Weird Little Guys, Mark Trevorrow, Paul McDermott, Libbi Gore, Tripod and then a whole chorus of people including Greg Fleet and Steady Eddie bangin’ it out like a ‘Band Aid’-type thing.

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’

Demetrius Romeo: Adam, what can I say but ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’

ADAM HILLS: ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’ indeed.

Demetrius Romeo: Thanks very much.

ADAM HILLS: Pleasure.

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’

Like to know a bit more about Adam Hills? Here's a bunch of other interviews – although, in hindsight, they really are three variations of the same story, more-or-less.

The following article originally appeared in the May 6 2002 issue of Revolver.

Burning Down the House: Adam Hills gives it up for the fireys.

Some time in the late ’60s, the Beach Boys’ in-house acid casualty and resident genius, Brian Wilson, chose to abandon the now legendary concept album Smile. Ever the perfectionist, Wilson had been ensconced in the studio recording infinite takes of various parts of songs, with the ‘Fire’ section of the so-called ‘Elements Suite’ proving particularly elusive. It was this section that broke him: a particularly intense recording session happened to coincide with a devastating blaze that destroyed a fair chunk of (depending which myth you choose to believe) either California, or his studio. Convinced that the Fire sessions had been responsible for invoking the flames, Wilson apparently aborted the album and binned the mastertapes, the odd song from sessions cropping up in simpler form on subsequent Beach Boys releases.

Aussie comic Adam Hills may be able to identify somewhat with Brian Wilson. On the night that he first unveiled his show Go You Big Red Fire Engine, Hills and his mates decided to adjourn for a couple of post-show bevies at a local watering hole known as Q Bar. They got there just in time to see it go up in flames. In fact, it was Adam and his mates who first spotted the fire. “We grabbed as many people as we could and went straight out the door,” he explains. “The whole place was evacuated and three people were taken to hospital with smoke inhalation. The building was completely gutted.”

Watching those big, red fire engines come and go was all too much of a coincidence, and Adam’s agent agreed. It turned out that Adam’s next gig, at the Fringe Bar, would most likely also be cancelled because that venue caught fire on the same night. “Two different clubs in one night,” Adam acknowledges, laughing off my suggestion of a ‘curse’. “It was only two; I don’t think it’s technically a ‘curse’ until there’s three.”

Ah, but there was a third. Well, almost. When Sydney’s Comedy Store relocated to Fox Studios, Adam Hills was acting as MC at its gala opening. He happened to be on stage when the smoke alarm went off. Thankfully, that time at least, it was a false alarm: a combination of too many cigarette smokers in the audience and not enough ventilation in the venue had set off the smoke alarms. So it doesn’t really count.

Despite the freakish coincidence of two fires, the show certainly went on for ‘Go You Big Red Fire Engine’: in addition to being recorded and released as a comedy CD, the show earned a Perrier Nomination for Adam at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As is the custom, nominated shows get to play at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London.

“That was about mid-October,” Adam explains, “so I decided to donate all funds from that performance to the New York Fire Department.” That should have dissipated any remnants of a curse.

But if it didn’t, Adam’s next project will. He has just recorded ‘Working Class Anthem’, a song consisting of the words of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ sung to the tune of Jimmy Barnes’s ‘Working Class Man’. It has been in Hills’s repertoire for a while and Adam has wanted to release it for almost as long, but has been unable to obtain permission to do so until now.

“When I got back to Australia this year, Triple M asked me to sing ‘Working Class Anthem’ at the Fire Fighters concert and I thought it’d be great if we could release the single for them. Without a word of a lie, that day I got the call saying, ‘guess what, we’ve got permission!’”

Joining Adam on the song is the Comedy Brig-Aid – a horde of comedians featuring, amongst its ranks, the likes of the Scared Weird Little Guys, Bob Downe, Paul McDermott and Tripod. In addition to the single being very funny, all proceeds will be donated to the Australian Fire Authority Council. “On a selfish note,” Adam admits, “I’d love a number one song. But on an altruistic note, I’d like it to raise lots of money.”

The following interview originally appeared in Revolver in the first week of February 2002.

Adam Hills’s Happy Feet

“At the risk of sounding cheesy, September 11 made me question what I do for a living and whether I really help people,” explains comedian Adam Hills. “Three days after the attacks I was gigging in Paris, and there was an American guy in the audience. I started to do some material about how Americans are an optimistic people, and that if any country could get through this it would be America. He laughed harder than anyone in the room and I realised that he really needed to laugh about America again. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of material about the ‘War on Terror’ and how it affects us all, especially ’cos I’ve been spending time in the UK. I was on a flight five weeks ago when someone stood up and yelled that there was a bomb on board and we were all going to die. He was bluffing, and was eventually offloaded, but it was very scary. The more I talk about that flight, and laugh about it, the less scary it becomes.”

Although he should be packing for his flight back to Australia, Adam has taken time out for an e-mail interview to discuss what, at this stage, will be his next show, tentatively entitled Happy Feet. It takes its name from a song that was popular during the Great Depression. “It was a very tough time, and yet some really up-lifting songs were written to buoy the spirits,” Adam explains. “In fact, entertainment was about the only business that improved during the ’30s. When people are down or scared, they want to laugh, and that’s where I come in.”

Adam Hills is not only one of the most optimistic, happy people you will ever meet, he is also quite possibly the ‘nicest’ comic this side of Michael Palin “I love comedy, and I love comics,” he insists when pressed. “We are a breed apart, and I think we should support each other whenever we can, ’cos it can be a harsh industry. But I’ve met so many brilliant and supportive people along the way that I don’t really know why I’m supposedly the ‘nice guy’ of comedy. I don’t mind it, as long as I’m also considered to be one of the funniest.”

Hills is one of the funniest. He is utterly and irrefutably hilarious, as his 2001 Edinburgh Festival show Go You Big Red Fire Engine proved: it received a Perrier nomination for ‘most outstanding up-and-coming stand-up comedy or comedy cabaret’. Not that this has changed Adam: such an accolade “does more for your self-belief” than anything else, he says. “You’re still only as good as your next gig, and an audience will heckle you regardless of what you’ve been nominated for.”

Despite a bunch of television offers that came after the nomination, Hills is adamantly dedicated to developing his stand-up rather than using it as a stepping-stone to other show-biz gigs. “I believe that stand-up is a legitimate art form,” he says. “Television can’t really capture it; there is something magical about the live experience”

A live CD, however, is not out of the question. For those who missed last year’s Australian run of Go You Big Red Fire Engine the show was recorded for posterity. “The idea of Go You Big Red Fire Engine is to take the phrase as far as I can, so if it makes it onto the charts I’ve achieved another goal. Plus, I grew up listening to Bill Cosby, Billy Connolly and Robin Williams albums, and I love the idea of being in the same category of the record store as them.”

Although, like everyone, Hills does have “a few ideas” for film and television, and even a book, kicking around in the back of his mind, he can’t “give away too many secrets” just yet. The next big project is a “major world tour” for later this year. After that, Adam is “very keen” to break into the US circuit. In short, he sums up his plan as “world domination, my friend, and nothing less!”

The following interview originally appeared in the 2 October 2000 issue of Revolver.

Dream a Little Dream

“I wanted to be doing something in Sydney during the Olympics,” nice-guy comic Adam Hills offers as the reason for his current spate of appearances on the Sydney comedy circuit. He claims that the week of Comedy Store gigs he recently completed was “partly an excuse to be here for the Olympics, and partly to enable me to do my little bit for Sydney.” That, of course, is only partly true. Following his success at the Edinburgh Festival last month, Adam is breaking out of his standard Sydney mode – serving as MC or the twenty-minute feature act – by road-testing an hour-long show he calls My Own Little World. If ever a successful Edinburgh act would go down a treat it would be this one; providing, as it does, a kind of international humour, it can’t help but appeal to a multicultural metropolis undergoing ‘welcome, valued guest’ mode as Sydney is at present. And if ever a traveled comic felt happy to be back home, it is Adam. After four months of international success, he returned triumphant to play his first gig – in a beer garden in Bundaberg – and was chuffed. Looking skyward from the stage of the partially covered garden and being able to see the Southern Cross, he says, forced “pangs of Australian nationalism” to flood over Hills. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! And furthermore, oi, oi, oi!

Adam Hills has been dedicated to comedy for most of his life. As a kid, he listened to Bill Cosby and Billy Connolly albums while his mates were listening to music. A high school career as a debater, public speaker and valedictorian taught him that being able to make a speech that “purely existed just to be funny” constituted just about “the best feeling ever”. After beginning a journalism degree, Hills got wise to his true vocation after a mate dragged him down to the Comedy Store’s open mic night. “As soon as I saw that,” Adam confesses, “I thought, ‘oh yeah, I have to do this for the rest of my life’.” It wasn’t very long at all before he found himself writing gags for 2Day FM’s then-breakfast shift hosts, Wendy Harmer and Agro. A year and a bit later, Adam found himself heading interstate to host the breakfast shift on Adelaide’s equivalent of 2Day.

“I did that for four years,” Adam says, “until I decided I was sick of getting up at four o’clock in the morning and wanted to do stand-up again.” Adam is grateful to have made the discovery this early in his career that he doesn’t enjoy broadcasting as much as he does live stand-up. Adam thus differs from many other comics, for whom stand-up is merely the first step towards television or radio. “All I have to worry about,” he says, “is how to make a better show on stage, rather than ‘How am I gonna be more famous?’” As far as he’s concerned, the audience can tell when comics are doing stand-up “just as a step along the way” as opposed to doing it “for the art of stand-up”.

Does the fact that Hills has just returned from the Edinburgh Festival prove that he is interested in perfecting the art of stand-up? “My bank balance would reflect that,” Adam offers, laughing. “I’m certainly not doing it for the money.” The first time you go to Edinburgh, Adam claims, “you know that you’re going to lose a lot of money”. You look upon it as a business investment that “may pay off” some time down the track. It wasn’t until his third Edinburgh Festival that Adam broke even – which meant that, through contacts made and the work that followed thereafter, he finished that year ahead of the game. This recent visit, Adam’s fourth, was the best. Adam received five-star reviews and sell-out crowds, as well as the best comic training. “I ended up doing something like fifty-six shows in twenty-three days,” he says. “I learnt what you’d normally learn in a year of doing stand-up comedy.”

It’s not hard to see why Adam was so successful in Edinburgh. Not merely because of the universal appeal of My Own Little World, incorporating, as it does, national anthems and recognisable caricatures. Hills offers a distinctly happier world view than many fellow comics on the world stage. “A lot of comics are very cynical and very world-weary,” he observes. “If you’re watching that for an hour at the end of the day, it can be quite draining.” Adam’s own attitude is to have fun and to “play” with the audience. Besides, he says, when you’re doing shows in places like the Gold Coast, it’s hard to be grumpy on stage. “Everyone’s spent the day on the beach; imagine me walking out and going, ‘well, isn’t life shit!’ It just doesn’t sit right.” In Adam’s Own Little World, life is frequently filled with joyous song – each one a loving piss-take, of course.