Sydney Hing Festival
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…?’”




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.



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.”



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.


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.


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.


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.”


Acting funny:
an interview with Matt Okine

Matt Okine - Photo Shoot

I’ve started our conversation rather bluntly, at what I consider to be the beginning: my first awareness of the stand-up comic Matt Okine.

It wasn’t after I’d first seen him on stage. It wasn’t after I’d first seen him on television. It was a couple of years before that.

I’d first heard of Matt when another comic who had cut his teeth on the Brisbane circuit told me about two Brisbane comics – Matt being one of them – who’d made an ad for McDonald’s. The Macca’s ad, as far as comedy peers were concerned, was a bad move.

“A lot of people thought that,” Matt laughs, admitting that the thought also crossed his mind. “As a comic, you’re always going to come across situations where you have to question whether doing something is going to be good for your career or not. It all comes down to what you genuinely think of whomever you’re advertising for, I guess.”

Matt’s got no problem being affiliated with Macca’s. Why would he? They were literally his very first employer as a teenager. “After I did that ad, I landed a small part on a TV show which I since got to work on the next season of; I got a small part in an American TV show that they were doing on the Gold Coast at the time; I’ve done multiple spots on TV as a comic; I’m working right now as an actor; I’m making my own stuff… I don’t think it was a bad move.”

And of course, Matt’s worked for them again. More recently, he was in the rather cute ‘Macca’s Chef’ created as a 9-part web series created and broadcast during MasterChef. They featured Melbourne comic Michael Chamberlin alongside Matt Okine.

“Comics in general don’t like anyone doing anything that’s not ‘pure’ and ‘for the art, man’,” Matt explains. “If you do anything for a commercial company, you’re ‘selling out’. But as far as I’m concerned, I was a 20-year-old guy who had nothing to sell in the first place.”

Indeed. And because Matt’s an actor and a comic, it was the perfect move to finance his comedy, and to land more acting work. It meant he didn’t have to actually keep working in a Macca’s, or undertake any other kind of Joe Job to get by. (And who can take, or even define, the moral high ground on this one? How many comics do you know will opt for late night fast food after a gig or during a festival run?)

In fact, McDonald’s has enabled Matt to do is work on a new web series with a “reasonable budget” that enables him to spend time writing with two other co-creators. “There’d be no chance that I could put something together that is mine, that has my own voice and has everything I wanted to do, without doing ads. Not just for McDonald’s, but for anyone.”

The other point, of course, is that Matt’s been able to take the mickey out of Macca’s in the process. The Macca’s Chef ads were “pretty daring”. It’s impressive, he reckons, that a corporation like McDonald’s can take a different and funny approach to what it does.

Yeah, I know; I watched Gruen Transfer too. I saw Wil Anderson, Todd Sampson, Russel Howcroft et al deconstruct that behind-the-scenes ‘trust us’ pizza ad (the ‘cheese pull’ ad); multinational corporations are producing the statistically necessary and sufficient degree of self-deprecation required to win trust and keep making money. But if, in the process, they employ comedians to do what they’re good at – be funny – and thus enable them after hours to do what they’re good at – be funny – that’s clearly far better than if they didn’t employ comedians at all.

“If more companies were willing to make content like that, it’d be a lot better,” Matt concurs. “I – and a lot of other comics, I’m sure – wouldn’t mind… working…” Irrespective, Matt also acknowledges that, chances are, “no matter what I do, there will be some comic out there who just does not like my sort of thing, or wants to have a whinge about it.”




Acting like a comedian

Matt got the comedy bug young and tried to convince a buddy whom he thought was very funny to enter the Raw Comedy competition with him, straight out of school. Unfortunately, by the time they got around to it, they’d missed the entry deadline. So Matt went about his business attending drama school. He chose the Queensland University of Technology’s course since they offered an intensive four-week comedy workshop in the second year. Before that workshop came, Matt made sure he’d registered for that year’s Raw Comedy competition. “I wanted to get a heads-up before I did the workshop, and I’d always wanted to do comedy anyway.”

Matt did extremely well. His first ever comedy performance was his Raw Comedy heat. Which he won. His second performance was his Raw Comedy semifinal. Which he also won. And although he came second in the state final – which was only his third gig – he was selected for the national final, “which,” he says, “I subsequently f*cked up”. I know it sounds harsh; it was only his fourth ever gig, and customary though it is to do okay at your first, getting by on adrenalin and fear, and then crash and burn thereafter, it is a pity that he had to crash and burn in front of his biggest live audience while being filmed for television.

“It was an amazing experience and everything like that, but it still goes down as one of my worst gigs,” he recalls.

I can’t help wondering if there was a bit too much ‘riding’ on the gig; beyond the fact that it was the national final, Matt did mention he was selected for the national final despite not winning his state final. Indeed, the state winner didn’t make the national final.

“I still don’t know why exactly,” Matt says. “I can only assume why, but I can never state why.”

I think I can guess why. Or at least, guess what Matt’s thinking, but not wanting to say. And I’m having a bit of a problem saying it, too. Perhaps he fears there was some affirmative action at work – that he got through so he could be the ‘member of a racial minority’ on the bill. “Totally,” Matt says. “I’m sure that helped…”

Yeah, being different from most people, but as talented as the other person who’s the same as almost everyone, does make you stand out. And if you think about it, guys who are totally the same, competing with others for a prize, stand less chance than guys who are very different, because they don’t stand out as much. Perhaps Matt got through to the final because he is black. (There. I said it.) But I doubt it. He more l likely got through because he was good. And not comedically ‘samey’.

Promoters the world over will program a comedy night to make it appeal to the most people and there’s any number of reasons they’ll select some specific comics over others. Usually it is so the audience doesn’t have to sit through two comics doing the same shtick. You don’t want to see two musical folk singing comics on the same bill, or two impressionists, or two anythings (unless it’s a festival specifically celebrating folk singing comics or impressionists or the anything subgenre of comedy, in which case, take a bunch of the best and hope they stand out from each other for some other reason) because the second one’s rarely even close to seeming as funny as the first, even if the second is as good as the first. Unless, of course, the second one is better than the first. In which case, ditch the the first, go with the second.

But if you do perceive yourself as a member of some subgenre, and you are put on a bill, there’s more to be said of making the most of it, of taking the stage time and making it matter, rather than wondering why. Far better you just ensure you have your shit together enough to make the most of such a situation, should you ever be part of it. Because all stage time is good stage time. Particularly when you’ve won each round of a talent contest because you’re good. Maybe Matt didn’t win the state final because he had an off night, or didn’t bring as much of an audience, or any other number of reasons that would have been taken into account before putting him into the national final. It doesn’t matter anymore.

 And anyway, it’s not like affirmative action – if that’s what it was (and I don’t believe it was) – can’t work against the minority, either. Matt knows this from his acting experience. “Instead of being one in 2000, I’m one in 20,” he explains, which is good. But, he adds, “the amount of roles that come up for those 20 is about 80 to 90 percent less.”

And what of those roles that do come up? I can’t help thinking of Margaret Cho, the American comic of Korean descent who, before she made it as an internationally successful comedian, would get offered television parts all the time. Mostly as ‘the Asian prostitute’ in a police drama.

“I always get to play the homeboy or the guy’s best friend,” Matt laughs. “But I don’t care if I’m playing the best friend; I’ll take that.”


Black comedy

The reason I don’t mind writing about this is because Matt has to deal with it, time and again, as a way of life. Indeed, the first routine I ever saw him do was one about how he is perceived: people asking him where he’s from – (it’s Queensland) – when what they really want to know is why he looks different. Point is, in the process, Okine revealed some of my own inherent racism to me. Not an overt hateful bigotry, just a tendency towards preconceived modes of thinking and behaviour in which, to be honest, I’d otherwise have kidded myself I don’t indulge. And that’s what good comedy can do: reveal truths about yourself and your world that you didn’t realise were the case. Or truths you knew, but didn’t actually realise or acknowledge that you knew.

“That’s why I still use that joke, three years on,” Matt says. “I do a little bit of ‘black’ material in my set, but I try not to over-saturate my material with it. I like opening with that joke because generally, when I walk on stage, it’s just natural for the audience to go ‘here’s the black guy’, and I just address it and get it out of the way and it’s over.”

In other words, there can often be a level of trepidation in the audience that dissipates as soon as Matt has dealt with it. It’s not so apparent in busy cities where there are lots of different people. But in regional towns boasting a more homogenous populace, you can “really feel it in the audience, people watching you, going, ‘I wonder what this is going to be like’. And then after I do that opening joke, you can really feel the audience warm and relax.”

And of course, in the big cities where the audience is less homogenous, punters will step up to Matt after a gig and tell him that they experience the behaviour he described – people asking where they’re from and not meaning ‘where in Australia’ – all the time.

That opening routine is one of many I can quote, having seen him perform several times. But when I think about it, I can’t actually encapsulate what his comedy is about or what it is he does. In fact, Matt hasn’t quite found a pat description for his comedy either.

“People ask me what my comedy’s about all the time, and you know what? I don’t really know. My comedy is about me. It’s very self-indulgent, but I just talk about things that I’ve done and the way that I see things in the world. That’s all I really talk about. Put simply like that, I sound like some kind of egomaniac, on stage with a microphone, letting loose about whatever I think is funny – but that’s pretty much what I do. I don’t try to hide that with one-liners or anything. What I talk about is my point of view. I’m just talking about shit that I’ve done and seen.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s pretty much what every good comedian you care to mention does, in the end.


Disco Matt MC Esquire III

Given that Matt continues to act and to do comedy, the question is whether acting and comedy are parallel careers for him. Because some comics trained as actors but really just want to be comedians. Other comics are doing stand-up in the hope to ultimately get into movies. In Matt’s case, the two will continue, together.

“From very early on, I’ve wanted to something like Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld,” he says, “where I can write and act in my own sitcom or show. It doesn’t have to be The Matt Okine Show. I’d like to be part of the writing team and act out a character I’m writing for.”

Matt’s already started: late last year he worked on a pilot for television, but by the time they cast it, there wasn’t a character for Matt to play. “I didn’t want to write a new one, I just enjoyed working on it. But I’ve done the writing thing; I’ve done the acting thing; I’ve done comedy; I’d like to meld it all together, whichever way it works. I really like the idea of writing a show and then acting in it.”

The first step towards the master plan is a web series that’s due to launch in November, entitled The Future Machine (one of those proejects Matt is able to finance through doing ads for the likes of Macca’s). In fact, here’s the trailer for it, hot off the press:


There are, of course, other creative projects he’s undertaken, in order to hone his skills and pursue his creative bent. Like the video blog he maintains, as Disco Matt MC Esquire, III. It began as a hobby.

When I was 18 I started making music in my bedroom. At first it was acoustic music, me stuffing around with my guitar. Then I discovered how to make rap beats in my bedroom. So I just started making hip hop EPs with a friend, and I went under the name Disco Matt MC. The first one  was me learning how to use everything.”

The second one was more creative. Entitled The Bling, it was a take-off of The Ring: “If you listen to the EP you’ll die in seven days,” he says. “It’s got a narrative that goes through the five songs.” The third one, The New Start, was more serious, dealing with his “move to Sydney… and stuff”. In the process, the Disco Matt MC character developed.

“I really like the character,” Matt says. “I think he’s fun.” Ideally Matt would like to put Disco Matt MC Esquire III in a sitcom. In the meantime, he appears in funny sketches on YouTube.

“The video blogs are there to see what other people make of that character. I really like him. I’ve done a couple of live performances as him, but not many people know about him. I want to see what people think of him.”

Of course, the EPs are still available for download from Matt’s homepage, should anyone want to listen. But he’s quick to point out that, unlike the comedy and the acting, the music is just a hobby. “Don’t expect Ice Cube or Ice T,” he says. “It’s more like Ice Coffee. Or Vanilla Ice.”

Whatever you think, it’s an impressive body of work for relatively young comic to have behind him. Although Matt insists that it’s a “pretty weird experience”, his career thus far. Two days ago we were chatting at the Laugh Garage Comedy Club, where he took the stage first as a member of Man Choir, the a cappella group consisting entirely of male comedians, and then as a solo stand-up comic. But for this interview, I’ve phoned him in Far North Queensland, where he’s spent the day “on a boat, sailing between the islands off the coast with a full navy vessel” behind him, filming scenes that will appear in the second season of Sea Patrol. At the end of the week he’ll be headlining at the Laugh Garage again.

“It’s really cool,” Matt says. “I like acting, I like comedy. I don’t have anything else to fall back on. This is my one thing that I’ve done pretty much since I left school and I’m going to make it work, regardless.”

So, chances are, there’ll be more comedians bitching about Matt Okine soon!




‘Matt Okine’ is a difficult name to make one of my customary cute, punning title out of. The closest I could come was to use a phrase with ‘ok’, and substituting ‘Okine’ in its place. They kinda sucked (try it yourself if you don't believe me). In the process, however, I discovered a theory that ‘Okine’ is a Scottish surname, not too far removed from ‘Atkins’ and ‘Aitken’. And that the family motto is ‘Strength and Vigilence’. See for yourself.

The hilarious and absurd Shane Matheson (who presides over something called Mrs Funberries with the equally hilarious and absurd Ryan Withers) has suggested a corker of a title: Close Encounters of the Okine. I'd have used it, but when Shane gave me permission, he said that he’d previously given it to Matt as a show title. That’s where it really ought appear: as a festival show title. But I like it a lot.

Rhys in our time


“Like a lot of British, I came here backpacking,” Rhys Jones explains. “After seven months I’d run out of money and got stuck in Sydney, and just kind of gave comedy a go.”

I’d like to tell you that stand-up comic Rhys Jones – who hails from Portsmouth, England – is an interesting guy; that he’s an amazing comic; that he’s a close personal friend and it’s been a real pleasure getting to know him; but I won’t. Because no matter how true all of it is, I’m only just getting to know Rhys and I have a certain amount of jealousy that this guy can just pop up out of nowhere and be running a popular open mic room.

Okay, sure, he has been doing comedy for a few years now – paid his dues and all that – and he himself admits that he’s only really started to pick up momentum “over the last six months or so”, but this is also the guy who’ll occasionally give notice for failing to make a gig because he’s landed another, MCing for strippers. When has your excuse for ‘piking’ ever been so good?

Meanwhile, his room, ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ at the World Bar on Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst, has gone from being fortnightly to weekly. And Rhys is helping program comedy for festivals like the up-coming Playground Weekender. So, no matter how good, nice, talented, decent he is, or how hard he’s worked to be as successful as he is, I have to hate him just a little bit on principle. How dare he be that cool, that good, that essential to the growing comedy scene, seemingly out of nowhere?


Long Time Being

“I’ve been here five years,” Rhys explains when we finally catch up for a chat – ostensibly to promote the Playground Weekender festival. Despite being broke and stranded seven months into his visit to Australia, now he is not so broke, and not quite stranded. Rather, he says, he’s “kind of trapped” – but in a good way: “owning things” now prevents him from heading home. Acquiring ‘big things’ like a sofa, accumulating a life, a career, and friends, he is essentially planting roots over here. “I like it,” he says – and it must be liking him back. Friends are certainly harder to offload on than the sofa, so why not stay! Especially when it was “a dear friend” that finally encouraged Rhys to take a stab at stand-up comedy.

“I was kind of  ‘press-ganged’ into it,” he insists. “She suggested it when I’d come up with a particularly witty quip at a dinner party. I kind of just tossed the suggestion aside offhand. I blame her, basically.” Being the “dear friend” that she is, Rhys's buddy entered him into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival/Triple J Raw Comedy competition. Which is a good thing. Because despite growing up a “huge student of comedy” in England, where humour was essentially “embedded” into him from an early age via sitcoms like “Black Adder, Only Fools And Horses and the rest of it”, he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to giving it ago himself. Sure, Portsmouth was a big enough place to afford a lot of live comedy – with their own Jongleurs (part of a UK-wide chain of venues) and “major acts” like Harry Hill and Steve Coogan passing through to play the Guildhall as part of a national tour, and even a fortnightly comedy room at the Wintergreen – but there was no open mic scene to speak of. So even though, Rhys says, comedy was something that he’d thought about doing, something that he’d “almost fantasised about”, where was he going to take the stage in order to learn the art?

Well, of course, there is London…

“To be honest, I found London quite a daunting prospect.” Rhys admits. “Sydney, as a city, is a really good middle ground, because it’s a cosmopolitan city, but it’s not quite as harsh and as massive as London.” It’s also “by the sea”, like his home town. So Sydney offers the best aspects of London and Portsmouth with an easier entre – if you’re willing to take it – into comedy. “Since I’ve tried stand-up in Sydney, and done it elsewhere in Australia, I think Australia’s a great place to ‘learn the trade’, as it were. Particularly in Sydney: most of the audiences are pretty attentive and have a ‘good on the newcomer’ attitude. I don’t think I’d be involved in comedy in the UK – I’d be the funny guy at the pub getting drunk every weekend. Now I’m a guy doing comedy and getting drunk every weekend. And occasionally during the week.”


Rhys in the Raw

One point I am having trouble with is that Rhys Jones was a Raw Comedy contestant in Sydney – having judged pretty much all the Sydney heats for the last I-don’t-know-how-many years, I must have judged Rhys’s. How come I wasn’t aware of him until he was doing well enough for me to be jealous of his success? According to Rhys, his two attempts “ended in a bit of a disaster” – as far as early attempts at amateur comedy go. “The first one was the first ever time I did comedy, and I lost my train of thought. The second one, I forgot the last two minutes of my routine. After a promising start, I just walked off.”

I’m kind of relieved – I’d hate to have failed to spot a genuine talent. And, better still, it proves my strongest held tenets about comedy and competitions: 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. Some of the finest talent you will ever be amused by, failed to win competitions – the comedians who make it are the ones who keep getting back up on stage. And the ones who start running their own venues so that they can keep getting back up have a better chance of that. Rhys agrees. “The only way you learn is through those bad gigs. I think I’ve come along a lot.”

Too true. In fact, you learn a lot more from a so-called ‘bad gig’ than you do from walking away from a ‘good’ one. In fact, in my limited experience, it’s easy to walk away from a successful performance a little bit proud and cocky, and then totally stuffing up the next one as a result! Again, Rhys concurs: “I think the key to getting anywhere in comedy – and I’m still just starting out –is building a thick enough skin to deal with the low blows.”

Which leads to the other golden rule of stand-up comedy: no comic has ever done their best or worst gig. There’s always going to be one down the track that could set the new benchmark! That’s just as true – possibly more so – when running the room. Again, Rhys knows this only too well. “You really get an insight how tough it is marketing comedy to people,” he says of his experience with ‘Stand Up, Get Down’. “There’s been a bit of an explosion with venues in Sydney in the last year. Some of them are doing better than others. Ours is going steady. We’ve got a particular niche… We do try and promote the little guy, to a certain extent. I’m all a bout giving headline and MC spots to guys who are up-and-coming who perhaps wouldn’t get on in a similar capacity at other venues.”

Clearly, I’d suggest, Rhys must be getting right, seeing as ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ has gone from a fortnightly room to a weekly one.

“Yeah, we changed that in December, the reason being that it was impossible for people to keep track of what weeks we were on. The idea to go weekly is just so people know every Wednesday there’s comedy at the World Bar, instead of having to faff around trying to work out which week the night falls on.”


“The weekly comedy room at the World Bar is attached to a night called ‘The Wall’, run by my business partner Dan Chin. Every week he has a different artist exhibiting upstairs and we run the comedy out of that room. ‘Stand Up, Get Down’ is also known as ‘Comedy At The Wall’ because it’s affiliated with this art space night.”

Oh, okay. So Rhys Jones in a nutshell: came to Australia to realise the lifetime of comedy embedded into him, hitherto only fantasised about, and contributes significantly to the local stand-up scene. But there’s more: in the process he also starts helping establish some of the cooler aspects of the UK comedy scene Downunder. The Playground Weekender festival, now in its fourth year, is the prime example of that.


Playground Weekender

“Playground Weekender is a festival started by English expats,” Rhys explains. “They started up Good Vibrations a few years ago before selling it on. The whole ethos is a British-style festival, so it has a lot more of a laid-back aesthetic than, say, your Big Day Outs or your other music events; the whole ethos is fun. I’ve been to every one and seen it grow, which has been great.”

From barely 2000 attendees that first year (still a significant start, of course), the Playground Weekender festival had quadrupled in size by its third year: 8000 people. This year they’re expecting 12,000. Not only that: this year there’ll be comedy. Using the British model, where every festival has a comedy venue, Playground Weekender is offering two hours of comedy on each of the festival’s four nights, in ‘The Shack’.

“Dan and I are both extremely chuffed that they’ve asked us to host the comedy stage. We’ve got one of the main stages to run. It’s a beautiful setting as well: the Del Rio resort at Wisemans Ferry, on the Hawkesbury River. It’s just a really laid- back ‘anything goes’ attitude, really. Like any music festival, it’s what you make of it. You can go for the quiet time, or you can go crazy.”

Furthermore, there are live art installations that culminate with a charity auction at the end of the festival, hosted by Rhys. “We did that a few years ago and it was a huge success,” he says. I’m impressed. More so, when I ask Rhys if he was instrumental in ensuring comedy become a part of the festival. “All the legwork was done by Dan,” he says. “I’m just clinging onto his coattails and sorting out some comics and getting the word out, I guess.”

Talented, successful and humble. Rhys, I really want to like you, but you make it so difficult… And it gets worse:

“Our grand vision is to introduce this format to other weekend festivals around Australia. In Britain it’s a given: there’s always a comedy tent in every festival you go to, which generally runs all day, every day.  If we could introduce a scaled-down version, and perhaps, further down the line, have the financial backing to get some really big names out, It could be something we take around Australia with us.”

Um… Rhys, mate, I’m just wondering… is there any more room on those coattails?



Playground Weekender runs for a four-day weekend at Wisemans Ferry, from Thurs 18 Feb to Sun 21 Feb. A four-day ticket is $219. A three-day ticket is $199 (plus booking fees). There are day tickets available as well.

Musical artists include Orbital, Lupe Fiasco, The Polyphonic Spree, The Cribs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Jamie Lidell, Steve Lawler, Bluejuice, Bjorn Again, Gui Boratto, OK GO and LTJ Bukem.

More importantly, here are the comedians appearing – in Rhys’s words, “our favourite performers of 2009:

Eric Hutton – Stand Up, Get Down’s favourite headliner and  a highly original funny man. The Voice of Barry White with the delivery of a highly accurate postman [I’d say he’s the illegitimate product of an illicit tryst between The Chaser’s Charles Firth and Andrew Hansen, but whatever – Dom], this strawberry blond dynamo is a truly originally comic / the best freestyle rapper in town!

Nick Sun – Fresh from a tour of the States supporting Doug Stanhope, and on the verge of a fourth show at the Melbourne International Comedy festival, Nick is a unique comedian who eschews the artificiality of traditional stand up for a more insightful, honest and god damn, sharp as a knife hilarious brand of comedy…

Shane Matheson – Highly unconventional, brilliantly inventive and always hilarious, Shane is about to venture to Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his third festival show. Superb improviser and great “randomist”, Shane combines the fearlessness of Sam Simmons, with the characterisation of those British legends Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.

Ryan Withers – Natural born funny man, armed with a rapier wit and rather girlish looks, Ryan Withers aka DJ Randy Winters, is a regular performer, and organisational contributor at Stand Up Get Down. About to burst forth at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with his first solo show, Ryan has supported the likes of Arj Barker and Jamie Kilstien here in Sydney. 2009 was a massive year, but it looks like 2010 is truly going to be where this young Maestro really hits his stride. For an insight into the truly unique mind of Ryan Withers read this recent column where he interviews himself, wow, crazy fun! 

The Cloud Girls aka Carnovale and Culp – Past performers at Sydney Cracker, Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe festivals, the Cloud Girls are truly unique character based comedians. Taking the everyday mundane and turning it into great sketched routines, the C and C laughter factory is going to be one not to miss! For a tiny taster check out this clip

With ample support coming from the likes of Rhys Jones, Nick Capper, Dain Hedgpeth, Ray Badran, Rod Todd, John Cruickshank, Ben Ellwood and more to be announced, expect a hilarious and diverse show from Sydney’s best alternative comedy collective!

For more information or questions on Stand Up, Get Down please contact Rhys Jones at


Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2007


I have had the pleasure of watching Dave Jory develop as a comic, having judged his very first Raw Comedy heat in Sydney a few years back. He was a bit scary then - the bald head and the suit made him resemble one of those villains in a Guy Ritchie flick.

I was kind of eyeing the exits to make good my escape if he proved to be as dangerous as his image threatened.

Afterwards he came up and asked for advice. I told him he needed to be less scary up front, to win the audience over - one of the other judges thought he might cut them.

He learnt pretty quickly. Now Dave Jory lives up to the the title of his show - he's a polished stand-up comic.  Hence his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Dave Jory is Polished.

You should come and see him live.

Book now.

I should also tell you that the basic design of Dave's flyer is by Kim Longue, who does the poster artwork for Sydney's original Comedy Store.

going halves

I am also producing Going Halves, a show also featuring two comics on the rise. James Lieutenant I have been watching in Raw Comedy for several years now; it's not something that crops up in the normal corse of interacting with him as a stand-up comic, but James is a gifted visual artist on the verge of something major. The same is true of his comedy.

Tom Gibson has been doing comedy for about as long, and last year placed third in Canberra's 'Green Faces' comedy competition.

These guys are the fresh face of the next generation of Aussie stand up.

Book now.

And I want to add a note about the flyer. James organised the photo and insisted in no uncertain terms that I was to use it as is, without manipulating it in any way. I guess he wanted to ensure I didn't do to it what I did to the photos that made up the flyer for his Cracker show, Painful Truths, in which he split the bill with Ben Ellwood.

‘Veruca Salt: Scrumdidilyumpstious’ or ‘I Wanted Her Then, Daddy!’

The Sydney heats of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy Competition came to an end March 31, and while I feel I should provide some kind of ‘review’ of the final (or at least, a review of what of the final stood out enough that I may remember it nearly a week down the track) I would much rather convey the joy that was the first semi, which took place two days earlier. I can’t for the life of me remember much about the contestants (apart from the ones who made it through to the final – and only then because I got to see them again so soon afterwards), but the evening’s jollity began with a call from Andrew Taylor of Access Entertainment, the company that in addition to managing many great acts, runs the Sydney competition.

“Guess who the guest judge is for tonight,” Andrew began. I couldn’t, so he told me. “Julie Dawn Cole.” I suppose this was a kind of test, and I failed. I couldn’t get excited until I was told that Julie Dawn Cole had appeared in the cinematic classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the role of Veruca Salt. Then boy, did I get excited.


“She doesn’t mind talking about the film,” Andrew continued, “but she hates being referred to as ‘Veruca Salt’.” He advised that I should probably behave myself and not say anything stupid.

“Can I do my Roy Kinnear impression?” I asked, demonstrating it for him with the kind of expertise that, I dare say, would have fooled Kinnear himself, were he still alive to hear me do it: “Ve-RU-ca!”

“No, you can’t do your Roy Kinnear impression.”

“What about my Veruca Salt impression?” In perfect ‘Veruca Salt’ voice: “I want it now, Daddy!”

“No, don’t do your Veruca Salt impression.”

It turns out that Julie Dawn Cole is out here to appear in stand-up comic Matthew Hardy’s live show Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions]. It’s about his lifelong infatuation with Veruca Salt and the actress who played her. He approached Cole out of the blue and, amazingly, Cole said yes. If she has a history being contacted by weird guys who grew up infatuated with that saucy pouting princess (a kind of Hayley Mills gone bad), I’d love to know the vetting process she uses that enabled her to realise that Hardy was the safer, saner variety of the archtype.

The show apparently opens with both Hardy and Cole on their respective analyst’s couches. Hardy is in therapy because he never got over his infatuation with Veruca Salt. Cole is in therapy because she never got over playing the character.

Although I convinced myself that I would behave throughout the evening, by the first interval Julie had her script out and was telling us about what a lovely time she was having after accepting a questionable job offer on a whim. But it was all kind of fitting: Cole landed the role in Willy Wonka – her first acting job – after a mere few weeks at drama school. She had plenty of fantastic stories and shared them with little prompting.

Like the time she was told she wouldn’t be needed for the next little while, and encouraged to sit on her own on another set, away from the cast and crew. Suddenly a production manager-type flew in telling her that director Mel Stuart needed her immediately and was furious that she wasn’t on-hand. It’s been said that Stuart could be a bit frightening on set – so much so that Peter Ostrum, starring as principal character Charlie Bucket, allegedly turned down a subsequent five film deal as a result of his experience (although, now a practicing vet, Ostrum claims the experience was fun, but not what he wanted to do for a living). Swallowing whatever fear she had of facing the director, Cole hurried to join the rest of the cast before him, where she discovered a birthday cake. Julie had just turned thirteen.

“It was a chocolate cake, and I don’t like chocolate,” Julie confessed. “Imagine being a kid in a film that’s set in a chocolate factory, and not liking chocolate.” She has fond memories of her birthday, and fantastic photos: although it was customary for stills to be taken in black and white at the time, Gene Wilder, who played the lead role of Willy Wonka, organised colour photographs to be taken of that occasion.

Not all of Julie’s memories are as pleasant. There was the meeting during which she was scrutinised intently and spoken of in third person while the powers-that-be decided whether or not her newly developing bust required taping down for the sake of continuity.

Julie’s sweetest story is of her reunion with Gene Wilder a few years ago. He was appearing on stage in England and Cole left Wilder a message requesting a catch-up after a performance. Assured that Wilder never met people backstage after a show – “He has left the theatre before the patrons have begun filing out,” a stage manager assured her – Julie was pleased to discover that Gene Wilder would receive her backstage. Recalling her character’s exit from the film – trying to intercept the golden egg that she wants “now, Daddy!” Veruca lands on the apparatus that determines the value of the eggs, receives a poor rating and is duly disposed of – Wilder took a step back and acknowledged that Julie “hadn’t turned out to be a bad egg” after all.

Hopefully Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions] will do so well that Matthew Hardy and Julie Dawn Cole can take the show on the road. In the meantime, I’m trying to land some interview time with Julie for ABC NewsRadio and FilmInk.

However, before moving on from this topic, I want to briefly consider the name ‘Willy Wonker’. As a character name in English children’s literature, Roald Dahl’s creation is up there with Dick and Fanny, who appeared in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It is only one vowel away from being the sort of a character in a Carry On film that would well and truly have Kenneth Williams ‘oooo-errrring’. However, I assume the name was derived from the slang term ‘wonk’ which means about the same thing as ‘swot’ – a boring person who studies too hard and is too caught up with facts and figures to have a life or a personality. Willy Wonka, embodying the traditional eccentric English boffin archetype, is imbued with some of the ‘wonk’ characteristics: a genius who knows all there is to know about his work and more besides. When he first meets Veruca, for instance, he absent-mindedly asks himself if she doesn’t share her name with a kind of wart that grows on the sole of the foot [a ‘verruca’ is in fact “ a firm abnormal elevated blemish on the skin caused by a virus”].

I recall a time during the earlier stages of the Clinton administration (actually, during his 1992 presidential campaign) when Bill Clinton was described as a ‘policy wonk’ because he was a politician who could “spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question.” Isn’t it a pity that nobody had the brainwave to write a piece on this and name the article, and the presidential candidate, ‘Willy Wonker’, or, at the very least, ‘Billy Wonker’. Then his political campaign could have involved voters holding the ‘Bill Clinton How To Vote’ pamphlet, with the box next to Billy Wonker ticked, singing, ‘I’ve got golden ticket…’ Clinton could have done a television spot likening the USA under the Republicans as a paddle steamer that had lost its way, insanely intoning the words, “there’s no earthly way of knowing… which way the river’s flowing…” Of course, this would have proven damaging in the long run: it wouldn’t have taken the Republicans long to liken Clinton to ‘The Candy Man’, even if he never did inhale.

Amongst her souvenirs, Julie Dawn Cole has retained a golden egg, two golden tickets and an everlasting gobstopper, not to mention a multitude of fans that share comedian Matthew Hardy’s obsession for the first character she ever portrayed on screen.

Mr Smith goes to Bougainville


It was after one of Emma Driver’s gigs, failing to scarper fast enough – or at all, really – that I got to hear this tall guy in a loud shirt announce himself as Fred Smith. I had no choice but to lean over to Emma and her partner and say, “I wonder how Patti’s going!” because though now sadly deceased, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith was, in addition to being the former guitarist of the MC5, also the husband of Patti Smith.

Fred Smith began with possibly too much cute patter, but it was clearly an attempt to capture the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. For the most part, it worked: Fred had good comic timing and a way with words, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise to discover, much later, that he had in fact been a national finalist in the 1997 Raw Comedy competition. However, it wasn’t merely the between-song banter that won us over. His songs were also clever and witty.

Fred opened with ‘Imogen Parker’, a song in the traditional r ’n’ b mode (where ‘r ’n’ b’ stands for ‘rhythm and blues’, as it used to, rather than ‘romantic and black’, as it seems to today). It utilised a slight variation of the basic ‘hambone’ beat as made popular by Bo Diddley (hence its other name, ‘the Bo Diddley beat’) and as featured in the Buddy Holly song ‘Not Fade Away’ (recorded by the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith and Holly himself) – that ‘jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jingjing’ strum pattern:

I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
You’re gonna give your love to me
I’m gonna love you night and day
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
Love is love and not fade away

‘Imogen Parker’ was a political song that dealt with the state of the Australian political landscape at the time of its writing. Its best verse is about Pauline Hansen:

Well I had a friend called Pauline Hansen –
Big, warm hart like Charlie Manson.
Y’know most redheads I’d take a chance on,
But she just made me wanna keep my pants on.

Fred Smith C 2004

A verse on the former Leader of the Australian Labor Party, the Right Honourable Kym Beazley, saw ‘Beazley’ rhyming with the election that ‘he was gonna win easily’.

In addition to the rollicking songs full of humour and politics, it turned out that Smith was capable of the most touching heartfelt ballads. He prefaced one of them with a story about the Claymore antipersonnel mine, which he described as “a box the size of a shoebox with an arrow and the words ‘point towards the enemy’ on top”. According to Fred, “it is considered prudent to do so since the weapon consists of a quantity of TNT and 500 ballbearings which project forward in a wide radius upon detonation by a hand-held remote control”. Fred had served as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons, and had likened the experience of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in Bougainville to that of the American and Australian armies in Vietnam. A favourite trick of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), when coming upon a PNGDF camp, was to turn the Claymores that the PNGDF had set up as protection around to face the other way, and then make enough noise to cause them to be detonated. Ever seeking to see both sides of the dispute, the song Smith subsequently sang was written from the point of view of the wife of a PNGDF soldier.

Another stand-out song was ‘Mr Circle’. Sung entirely in pidgin, it told of the ‘spiralling cycles of hatred’ that tit-for-tat actions lead to. Smith used to sing the song to school children in Bougainville.

By this stage I decided that I had to interview Fred Smith. I could already ‘hear’ how it would be structured: begin with a couple of choice verses of ‘Imogen Parker’, include a bit of his experiences in Bougainville and the Solomons, play a version of ‘Mr Circle’ and have Fred explain the lyrics in English, as he did between each vocal line when he sang it live. He had advertisted the availability of a couple of his CDs while on stage, so I figured I’d buy the ones that had the songs I wanted on them.

Accosting Fred after his set, I proceeded to ask him how Patti was (well, come on, how could I resist) before telling him that I wanted to interview him. He offered to give me copies of his CDs, but I insisted that, as long as he gave me a receipt with which I could claim the expenses, I had to pay – independent artists need to make enough money to remain independent, and artists. One album, Bagarap Empires, consisted of songs inspired and written during his time as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons. Another, Into My Room, was a collaboration between Smith, Liz Frencham of JigZag and Kevin Nicol of Noiseworks. Fred gave me such a good discount that when he offered me an additional CD, I had to buy it as well. It was a copy of his first album, Soapbox, from 1998. When I saw it, the penny dropped: I already had a copy.

An old and dear friend of mine who works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been posted in Port Moresby for a time, and on one of his trips home, had handed me a copy of Soapbox, explaining that Fred Smith was not only someone he had encountered while working in Papua New Guinea, but an independent musician and a good bloke. I, of course, made the ‘did you ask him how Patti was going?’ reference and pretty much ignored the disc after giving it a cursory listen. Despite being hip and knowledgeable, I have a basic distrust of cultural phenomena I haven’t discovered on my own terms. It has been a source of frustration for my friend, who also tried to switch me on to Patti Smith before I was ready to embrace her music. I had his copy of Radio Ethiopia for about a year without paying much attention to it. I came to my senses eventually.

Like all converts, I am now an annoying zealot whose task, along with proselytising, is to piss off all of the quietly faithful who have known the truth from the beginning. Fred Smith is an awesome, under-appreciated talent. One critic has gone so far as to dub him ‘Australia’s answer to Billy Bragg’. He has four CDs to his credit, the most recent, a mini-album entitled Party Pieces, sadly deleted. It contains the song ‘Imogen Parker’, and for that reason alone should be re-pressed. Visit Fred Smith’s website – to check out his tourdates as well as to e-mail him and demand that he sell you, in addition to his three still-available albums, a burnt copy of Party Pieces. Unless he does come to his senses and makes Party Pieces available once again. The new pressing should, in addition to the original, include an updated version of ‘Imogen Parker’ featuring new verses dealing with the likes of Abbott & Costello as well as Latham.

This interview was broadcast Saturday 20 March. Read it or download and listen to this MP3 version.

Music: ‘Imogen Parker’ – Fred Smith

I had a friend called Natasha Despoja
I met her in the parliamentary foyer.
She’s as hard as a Sydney lawyer
That’s Natasha Despoja for ya!
She was the leader of the Democrats
But the Democrats just fight like cats…

I had a friend called Kymberly Beazley.
I remember when he was gonna win easily.
And then there came along the NV Tampa.
And now Kim's not such a happy camper.
Simon Crean, I don't know,
Mate I felt a little sad to see Kym go…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Does the political folk song still have a role in contemporary society, and, if so, what is it?

FRED SMITH: That’s a good question, whether you can change people’s minds with a political song. I don’t know if you can, but I know that young people are susceptible to political songs, and so I think it’s worth doing. You have to say what you feel, don’t you. I don’t think that the mainstream press is doing enough by way of offering alternative ideas and I think there’s a lot to be criticised and a lot to worry about. So I do sing the odd political song.

Demetrius Romeo: After the release of your first album, Soapbox, in 1998, you went to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands as a ‘peace monitor’. What exactly is it that you do for a living?

FRED SMITH: I’ve got a bit of part-time work with the public service in Canberra. As some people might be aware, over the last five years there’s been a peace monitoring group in Bougainville, mainly Australian army but also a handful of public servants, and I went over as one of them. But I took my guitar.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that line of work affect the music that you were making?

FRED SMITH: Well, a big part of my job was to get out into the villages and communicate with people about what was going on in the peace process and how things were changing and how things were moving, and to basically put some encouraging messages forward. It just so happened that I can play guitar and enjoy writing songs; it’s something I do pathologically. So I wrote a whole lot of songs in pidgin that really served that purpose and we ended up having a sort of traveling road show where we’d all pile into a four-wheel drive and get out and set up in a village square or a church or a school yard or an airstrip. I’d play a few songs and talk about peace process issues and developments, and some of the soldiers would do backing vocals.

Music: ‘Bagarap Empires’ – Fred Smith

East Indonesia, Iryan Jaya,
Papua New Guinea, Solomons too:
Beautiful islands, beautiful people
Uncertain future to look forward to.

While the rest of us –

Are we surprised that
Things turn to shit?
That our notions of nationhood
Don't seem to fit?
Will the bagarup empires all rust
In the tropical sun?

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: There’s an album that came out of your time in Bougainville and the Solomons called Bagarap Empires. What does the title mean?

FRED SMITH: A lot of the stories are from Bougainville and the Solomons and the word ‘bagarap’ in pidgin means ‘when things get buggered up’, which is very much what is and was happening at the time in that part of the world. The whole archipelago is very fragile, as you’re aware. Everything went badly in Bougainville for a few years – after the mine closed down, the civil war there, there was a real disintegration. The Solomons were going in very catastrophic directions up until about six or seven months ago. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about: things getting ‘buggered up’.


Demetrius Romeo: There’s a lovely song on the album called ‘Mr Circle’ that is sung entirely in pidgin. Can you tell me a bit about the song and what the words mean and how it came about?

FRED SMITH: ‘Mr Circle’: yeah, well, as I said, I was getting out into the villages and to schools and singing songs to kids about what was happening in the peace process and I wanted to get a message across about the cycle of violence – how one thing can lead to another. So I’d get up in front of the kids and I’d look the kid in the front in the eye and say,

Okay piccaninny. Sapos yu gat wanpela man bilong viles bilong yu.

Okay, suppose there’s a guy in your village.

Na dispela man i gat bel hat wantaim wanpela man bilong narapela viles.

This bloke, he’s got the shits with a bloke in another village.

Olsem em i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles.

So he goes and hits the man in the other village.

Bai yu lukim long wanem samting i kamap nau: planti man bilong arapela viles i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles bilong yu.

See what comes up now: blokes from the other village come and hit the man from your village.

Olsem yu inap lukim wei we dispela samting i go roun.

So it all goes around.
Then I’d sing this song, ‘Mr Circle’.

Music: ‘Mr Circle’ – Fred Smith, speaking translations after each line

Sun go down, sun go down
Sun go down, sun go down
Mr Circle sing sing taim long sun i go down
Mr Circle sings as the sun goes down.
Olgeta, Wanpela, mi na yu
Everybody, one person: me and you
Papa Deo kolim wantaim bigpela kundu
Papa Deo calls with his big bass drum.

‘Papa Deo’: yeah, pidgin is made up of mainly English, but a bit of German and also Latin. So ‘Papa Deo’ is ‘God’.

Woa wokim bagarap, Woa wokim bagarap
War buggers things up, war buggers things up.
Lukim olsem dispela woa i wokim bagarap
See how the war buggers things up.
Olgeta crai crai, Olgeta crai crai
Everybody cries. Everybody cries.
Olgeta crai crai taim long woa i wokim bagarap
Everyone cries when war buggers things up.

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: What has been inspiring your music since you’ve returned from Bougainville and the Solomons?

FRED SMITH: Well, I suppose a lot of the writing that I was doing there was relating the stories and things and impressions that I had while I was there. Since then I’ve been writing more personal material and in fact I’ve written a whole lot of songs that work well for a girl’s voice, and I’ve been working with a woman called Liz Frencham, and we did an album called Into My Room, which is more personal, less political, less historical material.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Wherever does it end? Wherever did it start?
The mountains and the valleys of the country of my heart –
First the pain and flat terrain and then the undulation;
It's time to send a message to the captain of the station.
Saying ‘Into my room, the sun must shine…’

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: You’re also working with the percussionist from Noiseworks on that album. How did that relationship between the three of you come about?

FRED SMITH: Basically, I’d written all these songs for a woman to sing and I went looking for the right girl and started working with a girl in Canberra who subsequently fell pregnant ‘Subsequently’, not ‘consequently’. ‘Subsequently’ fell pregnant, and got married. And so I went looking further afield and found Liz Frencham who plays double bass really beautifully and sings with an honesty that affects people, so that’s how that started: I basically buttonholed her.

The drummer, Kevin, was actually managing me at the time, funnily enough, and I was doing this album and I needed a percussionist. He mentioned that he had played in a small Sydney pub band for a while and we said, ‘all right, let’s give it a go’, and we rehearsed, and we did. But as you’re aware from the Noiseworks days, he cracks the drums pretty hard, so we had to give him a bit of warm milk before we went into the studio and rub his head a bit.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

I will do what I do, you do what you have to.
If we found common ground or accidental laughter,
Such give-and-take may help to break the ice of isolation
It's what we do with loneliness that helps the situation.
Into my room the sun may shine…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Is there a large difference writing about more personal things as opposed to writing about political things?

FRED SMITH: Well, I never set out to write political songs. I tend to write pretty instinctively about whatever’s on my radar screen. There’s an author called Margaret Attwood who said, ‘concentrate on the writing and let the social relevance take care of itself’, and that’s very much my approach: I set out to tell stories and if people come to conclusions about my politics from that, well then so be it. Writing about political things has a bit of a responsibility to get it right and for it to be balanced, because political writing, whether it be in music, prose or in the press, only endures if it is balanced. With writing political stuff, I feel a real responsibility to make it balanced, otherwise it smells.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Into my room the sun may shine.
Into my room… the sun may shine.

Fred Smith C 2004