A Ward Winner (A Brief History of Felicity Ward)

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That Was The Week That Was, also known as ‘TW3’, was a weekly television show in England that was fronted by David Frost (a Cambridge graduate whose laconic speaking voice is said to be based on Peter Cook’s EL Wisty character), employed a small army of writers (some  of whom would be Pythons and Goodies), and though not actually responsible for launching the so-called 'satire boom' of the early 1960s, certainly provided evidence that it was truly underway. There was also an American version of the show. A clever singer-songwriter (who would give up writing clever satirical songs and touring the world performing them in order to return to lecturing mathematics at university) called Tom Lehrer used to write a clever song each week for the American edition and went on to release an album of the best bits, called That Was The Year That Was. It was much better than the single released as the 'theme' of the British version of the show.

For the second year in a row, the Sydney Opera House is home to a gala comedy event looking back satirically at the year that was, tipping its hat to the satire tradition from which it borrows its name: That Was The Year That Was. This year's line-up features Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Mikey Robins, Wendy Harmer, Flacco and the Sandman, Felicity Ward and Celia Pacquola, to name but several, and the poster suggests there are more, yet to be announced.

I'm taking the opportunity to present an interview with Felicity Ward, who appeared to come not quite out of nowhere and be brilliant in the shortest period of time. One minute she was producing Heath Franklin's Chopper shows, the next she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe.

This interview took place midway through 2009 after Wardy had enjoyed excellent festival seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney with Ugly as a Child, the show that had won her ‘Best Newcomer’ at Melbourne Fringe in 2008. At the time, wanting to try to develop my writing style, I decided to take on a proper in-depth profile – with a view to one day tackling a full-blown biography. Clearly,  I bit off more than I can chew;  it contains a heap of Wardy’s – and a certain period of Australian comedy's – history, but really should have culminated in more of a portrait of what it is she does. Or at least, what it was she was doing at the time. Rest assured, Felicty Ward is nothing short of brilliant. An hilarious comic, a worthy guest on your show and the perfect person to spend an afternoon chatting to in a café. She’s certainly less melodramatic and less highly strung than when first invited to guest on a live late night variety show at a comedy festival!

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“I was so nervous before I went on. I got so worked up that I honestly thought – and I say this without any exaggeration – ‘when I get off stage I will probably kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I do on stage’. I just hated myself. I thought, ‘This isn’t funny, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is just terrible’.”

Okay. Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s just gone 4pm and I’m sitting in a café – two doors up from a primary school – that specialises in hot chocolate. Sitting opposite me is Felicity Ward, a comic I was first aware of on the Channel Ten sketch show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, where she was responsible for characters like cute little Poppy, the girl who innocently explains away inadvertently dodgy photographs, and scarily angst-ridden existentialist Gretchen. Nowadays, Felicity’s a stand-up comic. A good one. She made her festival debut at Melbourne Fringe last year where her show Ugly as a Child earned her the ‘Melbourne Airport Best Newcomer Award’. At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the show played to mostly sold-out houses. Somewhere in between Ronnie Johns and Ugly as a Child, Felicity started appearing on Spicks and Specks and proved to be nothing short of bloody good on that, too. Not long after we caught up for this conversation, she made her debut appearance on Thank God You’re Here. And guess what? She absolutely blitzed it.

But according to Felicity, her very first stand-up gig was going to be her last. While many a comic may fear ‘dying’, metaphorically, on stage, she wasn’t fussed; she reckons she was happy to do so literally, after she got off stage. What’s more, she’s dead serious. But school has knocked off for the day and we’re surrounded by a multitude of kiddies peaking on a sugar rush, their mums seemingly indifferent to the chocolate stains that will have to be removed from uniforms later on, so now’s not quite the right time to chase down the suicide story – lest a multitude of ‘Poppies’ repeat it for ‘show and tell’ tomorrow morning.

So. First things first: Ronnie Johns. “That was a big accident,” Felicity insists. “I had never done comedy in any sort of form.”

Oh. Okay. Looks like we need to backtrack even further.


Wardy portrait


Giving Wardy The Third Degree

It was 2004. Having attended performing arts schools growing up, Felicity Ward was momentarily distracted with an interlude of Music Business Skills at Wyong TAFE – (“I was gonna be a band manager or event manager because in some part of my history, that’s what I wanted to do...”) – before acting won out. Wardy moved to Sydney to be an actor, getting involved with ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), an entity run as a professional theatre company –with set and costume designers, actors and directors – by the Sydney Theatre Company. “They put on really great plays, specifically for young people. The people you were working with were really professional so you treated it like a job.”

Felicity appeared in an ATYP production of The Musicians, directed by Tim Jones for that year’s Sydney Festival. One of Felicity’s fellow cast members, Benedict Hardie, was directing the University of Sydney’s Arts Faculty Revue soon after and asked Wardy if she’d be in it. The fact that Felicity didn’t actually go to Sydney Uni wasn’t a problem. “There were twenty people in the cast,” Felicity says with typical modesty. “Not that it wasn’t a big deal, but lots of people got into that.”

The previous year, a couple of clever people from Macquarie University had acknowledged that university revues mostly follow the same pattern: a handful of awesome sketches appear in a show surrounded by the same old stuff. These guys – Chris McDonald and Heath Franklin – decided it’d be really cool to take just the awesome sketches from a handful of different university revues and combine them into really good show. The cast of the show would similarly consist of some of the best performers from those various revues. That show was called The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS, the ‘3rd Degree’ nicely referring to comedy derived from university revue (not unlike The D-Generation, from two decades earlier) as well as offering a pun on intense interrogation, the final stage of initiation and the most severe type of burn (they’re all known as ‘third degree’).

Successful enough to warrant a second year on the festival circuit, The 3rd Degree came together for the show Eskimos with Polaroids at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Having appeared in the 2004 University of Sydney Arts Faculty Revue, Felicity auditioned for that 3rd Degree show and “got in, somehow”. That second incarnation proved successful at Sydney’s Big Laugh Comedy Festival as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.


On to the next stage

Someone who had noticed The 3rd Degree in Melbourne was comedian Glenn Robbins. He’d had a history of fostering up-and-coming talent with Headliners, a live stand-up show devised and taped for the Comedy Channel. He also had a history of sketch comedy, with Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Big Girl’s Blouse. When, he says, Channel Ten approached him enquiring if he “knew of anyone” worth developing, he pointed the network towards The 3rd Degree. Channel Ten liked the idea. Powers that be suggested Robbins ought to mentor the young comedians, and though initially reluctant – there was plenty of work coming through with the likes of The Panel, Russel Coight’s All Aussie Adventures and  Kath & Kim – he realised “it’d be unfair to block that opportunity” for the up-and-comers.

The ‘up-and-comers’ were selected by Chris McDonald from the cast of both shows: Dan Ilic, James Pender, Becci Gage and Caz Fitzgerald, who’d been in the show’s first incarnation; Jordan Raskopoulos and Felicity, who had been in the second; Heath Franklin, who’d helped create the show with Chris, had been in both. (In fact, prior to The 3rd Degree, Pender, Franklin, Gage and Ilic had appeared in a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called The Beatification of Newt Berton and the Great Viagra Robbery, written and directed by McDonald.) But according to Felicity, news of Channel Ten’s interest came as a surprise:

“About three weeks after the Melbourne Comedy Festival had finished, we get this call: ‘Channel Ten want to give you a writing workshop’. It was unheard of; it meant we would be employed as writers. I was a waitress; Heath was a labourer; I think Dan was working in a computer shop; Jordan was working at his dad’s dry cleaners; Becci was becoming a teacher; Caz and James Pender were studying to become lawyers. This was none of our professions so that was really, really cool.”

For two months, the team just wrote. “‘Let’s see what the funniest shit we can come up with is’ – that was our job description,” says Felicity. “No promise of anything at the end: no promise of even an episode; of employment with Channel Ten; nothing. It was just, ‘let’s see what you can do’, which was so cool, now that I think back to it.” During this period, Robbins would spend a day each week workshopping their material. “We’d talk about how we could hone the characters and improve it. Because none of us had any idea about TV, or that there would be any kind of transition to make from the page to screen.”

Glenn says it was as much of a learning experience for him. “I don’t actually know how I do most of my stuff – I just write it and do it. Putting into words the reason why they should be editing something or doing something a different way was hard.”

After two months of writing, the day came to pitch to Channel Ten. “We just went in and said, ‘this is what we do’ and had all these different scene ideas and recurring character ideas,” Felicity recalls. “About a month later they were sort of saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do something, yeah, we’re gonna do something’, and I thought, ‘It’s not gonna happen, but that’s okay, I had a really cool time’.”

A month after that, Channel Ten offered the team a pilot, which they spent a fortnight filming. “We handed the pilot in on the Friday and on the Monday, got a call saying we had six episodes of a TV show. And then got a call on the Tuesday saying, ‘Actually, you’re going to have 13 episodes’.” And so, The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – to give it its full title – was underway. All told, Felicity calculates about “thirteen months in total” from her first performance, as a Sydney Uni Arts Revue ring-in, to her first day of proper work on a TV show. “It was… kind of inexplicable, really,” She says, and then corrects herself: “Not even ‘kind of’; it was inexplicable. Wonderful. All the superlatives. Because I’d tried for a really long time to be an actor and just couldn’t get parts in anything. But as soon as I started comedy, it was easier. Not ‘easier’ – Ronnie Johns was really, really hard work. But it just seemed to progress quicker.”

True enough. All the character roles Felicity failed to land while slogging away as an actor suddenly appeared more-or-less at once on Ronnie Johns. Some were her own. Some were devised by others, but brought to life by Felicity. Others still were people she just happened to notice.


Poppy

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There was the deceptively innocent little girl, Poppy, with the photo album, whose explanations were a little bit disturbing. It turns out Poppy grew out of the first week of writing workshops. The rule was, everyone had to arrive each morning with five things: “They could be a funny line, a joke, a sketch, a funny character, a concept, a clipping from a newspaper that you wanted to satirise, anything, but you just had to come up with five of them. Often, four of them were absolute rubbish.” Felicity, having trouble coming up with stuff, noticed her dictionary.

“I started flicking through. It fell open on the page with the word ‘macabre’ and I thought, ‘It’d be kind of cool if there was a little girl who read out really dark definitions from the dictionary.’ Messing around with voices and characters, she realised the definitions themselves weren’t so funny. But what if she had pictures… say, of animals… that she could define…? Then there’d be room for humour. “I showed it to a network executive and he went, ‘A six-year-old showing pictures of animals is cute, but it’s not really that funny; it needs a spin.’” So Felicity came up with the spin. In the pilot episode, Poppy shows us a picture of a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a mirror, and explains, in her cutest little girl voice: “This woman likes to look at herself through a straw in a mirror and she does that sometimes for money but she won’t kiss a boy on the lips because it means something.”

“I remember writing that and thinking, ‘That’s rather dark, Felicity; we’ll see how that goes.’ That ended up being a flagship character for me.” Poppy would go on to offer innocent explanations for photos of Ku Klux Klan members and prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.


Underground Girl

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Justin Heazlewood – also known to comedy fans as ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’ (and more recently, for playing the role of young John Safran in Race Relations) – served as one of the show’s ‘non-performing writers’ and he came up with ‘Underground Girl and Underground Guy’. These were a pair of emo kids who essentially talked about “how ‘underground’ they were”. Felicity played Underground Girl while Jordan was Underground Boy. The quality of Justin’s writing was such that, when she read it, Felicity reckoned – adopting the emotionless emo tone ¬– she “could, like, tell they were, you know, like, not really into each other”. Adopting, along with Jordan, the appropriate nonchalant tone, they “tried to out-nonchalant each other”. The sketch came at the end of the first season and proved extremely popular on YouTube – so much so that Underground Girl and Underground Guy became recurring characters in the second season.


Gretchen the Nihilist

Gretchen

Felicity’s favourite character was the Nihilist, Gretchen. Dressed in black and flanked by similarly clad Simon (Heath Franklin) und Sigmund (James Pender), they were a trio of emotionless existentialists who somehow end up where colourful, exuberant, larger-than-life characters ought to be: hosting kids’ shows, exercise shows, playing Santa Clause in department stores…. Although the Gretchen character wasn’t devised by Felicity – the Nihilists originated in the Macquarie University Revue that Heath, James, Dan and Chris were involved in – she took to it immediately. “For some reason, it was one of those characters that, as soon as I read it, I knew exactly what to do and where to pitch it. Sometimes you just read stuff and it’s like a present: ‘There you go!’”

The initial gift was a sketch in which the Nihilists host the equivalent Playschool. It appeared in the live 3rd Degree show as well as Ronnie Johns. Felicity loved the way they “got darker and darker” as the love story developed between Gretchen and Simon in subsequent sketches. “Well,” she corrects herself, “not between Gretchen and Simon; Gretchen was in love with Simon.” Her affections were not reciprocated. In fact, the sketches “turned into a big ‘shitting on Gretchen’ competition” as Simon and Sigmund set up Gretchen in order to cut her down. “It was so much fun to do,” says Felicity. “It was great.”


The Inbreds

Some characters didn’t make it from stage to screen, like ‘The Inbreds’ – hillbilly characters who were brother and sister as well as boyfriend and girlfriend. “I didn’t really understand the concept of things being ‘too big’ for TV,” Felicity says. “I had no idea it could be an issue. They were really funny and good on stage, but they were just too big for television.”


Judy de Groot

Another character who never made it to air was Judy de Groot, a school counsellor. “I’d written heaps of sketches for her. We would read them around the table and everyone was laughing and I was laughing. We’d do the scene, and that was fine as well. And then we’d put it in front of a live audience and it didn’t breathe – for some reason, in a studio it was just weird. So we thought, we’ll pre-record it on location somewhere. We did that, and then played that back to the audience in between the live sketches, and again it just didn’t work, and we didn’t know why. That’s something we really had to learn: we had characters that were hilarious in the room, but – I don’t know what happened between the room and filming – some just didn’t make it.”


Heidi

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One character who did come to life – and continues to live on for fans – was lawn bowls instructor with the serious speech impediment, Heidi. “She’s not a character,” Felicity insists. “I met her in real life. She was just ‘ready to go’.”

At a bowling club for a friend’s party, Wardy confessed utter ignorance of the ways of lawn bowls. “This bowling instructor stepped up – she was so awkward: about my age, and had that strange dichotomy of being very womanly while living just for sports – and said:

“‘Okay, we have four teamsh – you have to take a shilver band, or an oranshe band, or a…’.

“I was just looking at this woman, going ‘are you for real…?’

“She was wearing zinc, Steve Waugh sunglasses, blue knee-length shorts, and a blue polo t-shirt that said ‘rock’n’bowl’ – it’s all in the show. I just… it was… just incredible. There was nothing about the character that I made up physically.

“She went through and explained the rules about how this hilarious lawn bowls competition was gonna go for about five minutes, and then at the end, she goes, ‘of the two teamsh, the winner getsh the ashesh…’ – she had this little trophy of ‘the ashes’ – ‘… and the losher getsh the donkeysh arshe…’ – and there was this little picture of the donkey’s arse. And she lost it – she just thought it was the funniest thing.

“I didn’t think, ‘I’m gonna make a character out of her!’ I just went to work the next week and went, ‘My god, it was so funny – there was this chick… blah, blah, blah…’ and Chris said, ‘You should write a sketch about it’. ‘Oh… okay!’ We ended up writing about five or six more of those in the second season.”

I let Felicity know how much this reminds me of that story Garry McDonald occasionally tells of the airline stewardess with the ‘shot jaw’ and bogan accent who gave him and David Frost some grief. Her name was Norma Gunston…

“There are moments like those where my eyes just sparkle now,” Felicity says, “because I had no experience writing comedy or doing comedy before Ronnie Johns. It didn’t occur to me that everything that I see every single day is a possibility.”


On-Air Outrage

Like all successful television sketch comedies, some items were outstanding; a few were painful; many were somewhere in between. But like all successful television sketch comedies, few agree on which sketches fall into which categories. I recall 2GB talkback radio host Ray Hadley, who trades professionally in perpetual outrage, being particularly gobsmacked by a Ronnie Johns sketch. Specifically, he was flabbergasted that Channel Ten would put to air a sketch that involved the cast spitting food onto one another. Essentially, it’s a dinner party that falls to pieces with a food fight.

“That’s what he got worked up about?” Felicity demands incredulous. I take her point. When I saw it on DVD I found it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Australia You’re Standing In It ‘Chunky Custard’ sketch, and more importantly, utterly hilarious.

“This sounds sentimental and daggy, but that was the last scene that we filmed for the last episode of the first season, and at the end of that sketch was the moment where I looked around and went, ‘Oh my god, I get paid for this’. It was really one of the best moments of my whole life: just sitting there, spitting food at my mates.”

She elaborates: one of the team’s policies, established early on, was to avoid ‘corpsing’ – the breaking of character by laughing, or causing other cast members to laugh. “We didn’t like it. We wouldn’t film it; it wouldn’t go to air. Not to say that we never broke character and never laughed, but in the beginning, we were quite hard on that. We didn’t want the audience to think that we were having more fun than they were.”

According to Felicity, that was one of only two scenes ever retained featuring the team corpsing, and the DVD contains an extra thirty seconds of them losing it. “There was supposed to be this carry-on effect where someone said something offensive and Jordan spat onto James, James spat onto Heath, Heath spat onto me, I spat onto Dan and Dan spat onto Caz. There were so many disgusting bits – it was one of my favourite sketches that we did. There’s a bit where ham lands in Pender’s mouth – it’s so disgusting. It’s gross. So much fun.”

That was a gross moment in a sketch from the final episode. There’s a similarly golden ‘gross’ moment for Felicity in a sketch in the first episode, in which she ‘hosts’ a kids’ show with a puppet frog and they ‘get to know’ each other very well in the process. “I don’t know if I would do that again,” Felicity admits. “There was a lot of stuff that, if it made us laugh, we just did it. We didn’t really think of the consequences. I was a pretty big attention-seeker and I was like, ‘that’ll make 200 pople laugh in a sudio audience’, forgetting that everyone would see it.” Forgetting, perhaps, that ‘everyone’ included people she also knew. That first episode went to air with Felicity’s family watching proudly.

“My sister rang me the next day and went, ‘Grandma and Grandpa came over to watch the show last night, and I had to sit there while you received cunnilingus from a frog. I am gonna kill you!’” Understandably, Felicity avoided visiting her family for a while. “Poor Grandma! All she wants is to be proud of me. She wants to tell all her friends, but usually I’m doing things that she can’t brag about. Grandma’s not any less proud of me but she couldn’t go to a CWA meeting and go ‘my granddaughter’s on a lovely program called The Ronnie John’s Half Hour…’.”

‘Everyone’ also included people Felicity didn’t know. “About six months after we’d filmed it, this guy leaned over to me in a pub – it’s so clear in my mind; I don’t get recognised very often, which is good and fine and appropriate – but this guy leaned over to me and went, ‘Hey, hey, are you from Ronnie Johns Half Hour?’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah!’ He goes, ‘I loved the frog sketch’. I’m like ‘Oooooooh… Yuck, yuck, yuck.’”


Wardy on board

Ronnie Johns came to an end with the clearest path appearing almost immediately before Heath Franklin: his ‘Chopper’ character clearly had a life on stage beyond the show. And despite initially sussing Wardy out as a bit of a trouble-maker – (“I am a bit of a trouble-maker; he wasn’t too far off the mark!”) – Heath hit it off very well with Felicity, so Chris McDonald, as producer of Franklin’s Chopper tour. made Wardy an offer.

“I didn’t really have a job,” Felicity recalls. “Well, none of us had jobs – but Chris said, ‘You wanna be tour manager?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ He went, ‘You wanna be stage manager?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, all right!’”

Despite utter inexperience, Felicity helped Heath and Chris organise a 90-city national tour. “It meant four months of living in each other’s pockets. And it was the first tour, so we didn’t know if it was going to be successful or anything, so often it would be me and the two boys sharing a hotel room. Not like a hotel apartment, where we’d each have our own room – we would literally be sharing a room. I was going through a tough period of my life and it was really, really hard work and we just knew each other inside-out.” The following year, Felicity served as production manager for Heath’s comedy festival Chopper shows.

That still doesn’t explain how she got back on stage. As a stand-up comic in her own right. In fact, initially, Wardy considered cobbling together a character-based show. But she gave up on it. “I’d started writing one but I just couldn’t get it together in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it would have been me producing, writing, directing, all of that stuff, and it was just too much for me.”


Enter. Stage right.

What happened next, Wardy explains, is that following the first Chopper tour, she travelled overseas and ended up in Edinburgh the year Phil Nichol was directing a production of Breaker Morant for the Fringe Festival (that is, 2007). In addition to Heath Franklin, the cast included the likes of Brendon Burns, Sammy J and Adam Hills. Hanging out with Heath meant, at times, hanging out with Hillsy. So Wardy got to know Hillsy well enough to be hanging out with him while he toured Australia subsequently with the live Spicks and Specktacular.

“We were out and at a pub with Adam and he said, ‘Do you want a drink?’,” Wardy relates. “I said, ‘No, I’m fine’. He said, ‘It’s on me’. I said, ‘No, I don’t drink’. He said, ‘Really? If you’re like this when you’re sober, we’re gonna get you on Spicks and Specks; If you can be half as funny as this…’.”

Hearing the words coming out of her mouth, Wardy checks herself with her customary modesty: “I sound like a real dickhead saying this. Sorry, I’m not trying to say I’m funny or anything like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure Adam, nicest guy in the world, that’s a really nice thing to say’.” In Felicity’s head, Adam was paying her a nice compliment; she never expected to be invited onto the show. But she was:

“I get a call two weeks later saying, ‘Hi, I’m calling from Spicks and Specks, Adam’s recommended you, I’m just wondering if you’d be interested in coming on the show…’.”

Felicity finds it a bit hard to believe that she was asked onto the show for – she says – “no better reason” than she’s “a friend of Adam’s friend”. Sure, she’d appeared on Ronnie Johns, but she herself is the first to acknowledge that since it was “quite ‘culty’”, nobody really watched it (except Ray Hadley, during a slow week, when sport was rightfully getting more press than the arts, and for the right reasons). And furthermore, even if she was “a funny sketch comedian” (which she is), it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’d be “funny in real life” or “ enjoyable to watch” or “affable” or, she concludes, “any of those things”. (Felicity Ward is in fact all those things.) “So it was a pretty big risk.” (Actually, it wasn’t – not as far as Hillsy was concerned, clearly.)

“Then I went on and it was great. I had lots of fun. They got me back a couple of times and every time I finished there I thought, ‘Maybe it’s all right that I’m just me; maybe I don’t need to do character stuff.’”


Variety - the spice of taking your own life

That is the plain truth of it: some people really are natural born entertainers whose best work is pretty much whatever they do when they’re being themselves – but learning how to just be yourself on stage is one of the most difficult things to do; often it is other people around you who recognise the natural talent people you have just being yourself.

Hillsy wasn’t the only person who recognised Wardy’s talent and sought to include her in his show. Ali McGregor, the operatic soprano and singer of burlesque who has been hosting a late night variety show on the festival circuit for the last few years, encountered Wardy at Adelaide Fringe in 2008 and, with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to follow shortly thereafter, asked her if she might “want to do something one night”.

“I’m like, ‘Um… yeah, okay, sure!’” Felicity relates, not having thought anything of it at the time. “Then I ran into Ali again in Melbourne and she’s like, ‘When do you want to come on?’ I’m like, ‘Um… oh… like… er… whenever?’ She said, ‘Well… just tell me when.’” A couple of weeks later, with the festival almost over, Ali saw Wardy in the street and said, “We’re running out of slots; do you want to do something?” Felicity had to agree, she says, “because I knew that if I didn’t, I would really hate myself”. So Wardy was locked in for the final night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

“I didn’t have to do comedy or anything like that,” Felicity says. “I could do anything, basically.” Jordan Raskopoulos, Felicity’s old Ronnie Johns colleague and himself a veteran of several subsequent festivals, both as a solo act and as one third of The Axis of Awesome, had some remote control toy tanks that, when ‘fired’, resulted in giving the user electric shocks. “I thought, what I should do, I should order these electrocuting toy tanks online and use them in the show,” Wardy decided. “I will pick someone from the audienc, ask them trivia questions, and if they get them wrong, I’ll zap them – and vice-versa. I don’t know where that idea came from but that was the idea.”

Electrocuting tanks were duly ordered and arrived on the Friday. Felicity’s gig, as a guest on Ali McGregor’s Late Night Variety Show, was on the Sunday. But Felicity happened to be on the phone when the postman buzzed her, and even though she instructed him to “just bring them up”, it was ages later that she finished her phone call and realised he hadn’t come up. “I was staying in this little apartment in Melbourne,” Wardy says. “They weren’t outside my door, they weren’t in the foyer, they weren’t outside… he must have just stolen them. I was like, ‘Oh no! Oh no! What am I gonna do now?’ I just started freaking out.”

With twelve minutes to fill on Ali’s show, never having done stand-up before, and not much more than two days to write something, Felicity began to have a breakdown. Or would have, had she not been keeping notebooks full of ideas since her Ronnie Johns days. “I just started writing furiously – anything I could think of. I ended putting together ten minutes.” It was at this point that Felicity Ward began planning her own demise, as outlined at the beginning of this piece. It was her coping mechanism: it didn’t matter how bad her performance would be – and she was certain it was going to be terrible – because she’d already formulated her exit strategy. She was going to take her own life. And then…

“It was amazing. It went really well. I thought, ‘Why have I been waiting so long to do this?’”

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Just like a Hollywood film

Two weeks later, Felicity decided to move to Melbourne, started doing stand-up and began creating her first festival show. Four months later she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe with her award-winning show Ugly As A Child.

“I figured out the other day, I did less than twenty stand-up gigs before the first show at Melbourne Fringe, which is not enough time to run-in a craft…” Wardy says.

Yeah, okay, Felicity. Shut up. Except that, being so humble, down-to-earth and modest, talk about it all you like. Wardy’s welcome to say whatever she wants about her comedy because she’s not only good, she’s also right: she did take less than twenty gigs before she was clearly being acknowledged as brilliant. And although it ‘should’ take more time to run-in a craft, it is a craft, not a science, so none of the laws or rules have to hold in every situation. You can know all there is to know about comedy before realising that irrespective of what you know, if you get in front of an audience and fail to make them laugh, in that moment, you know nothing…

Wardy, on the other hand, knows she’s onto something good. Or at least, she should. Ugly As A Child is hilarious, involving singing, characters, acting, absurdism, audience participation (with the trivia quiz-based electrocuting tanks) all based on an uncomfortable trawl through an awkward childhood. I can’t help wondering if I can detect autobiography done up as fiction.

“There’s nothing fictional about it! It’s just autobiography,” Felicity admits. And then qualifies her statement. There are a couple of elements that aren’t based on fact. Judy de Groot, the school counsellor character who never quite worked on Ronnie Johns, works a treat in Ugly As A Child. And in the first, Melbourne Fringe incarnation of the show, a segment called ‘Meat Dad’, that didn’t make it to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival version, isn’t real. Although it did grow out of a real element of Felicity’ life. “Basically, my dad used to go out west and sell vacuum cleaners for a living, so he’d be gone for weeks at a time,” Wardy explains. “I thought it would be funny if I had this puppet called ‘Meat Dad’ which was two steaks stuck to a ruler with a face on it, and I would talk to him while dad was away. That and the school counsellor were made-up, but apart from that, everything in the show is true.”

Felicity-jpg_w800_h600_fit

Ugly in Sydney

After a successful Melboure Comedy Festival season that saw Wardy make the shortlist for ‘Best Newcomer’ – the award she won at the Melbourne Fringe late last year – she brought Ugly as a Child to Sydney for Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. “I was really nervous,” she admits. “I said, ‘Look, Grandma, I really want you to see this, but I have to let you know there is some really full-on language in it and I don’t want you to be offended. Come if you’d like; I want you to be there. But…’

“After the show, I came out and I was so nervous. She just came up to me and said, ‘I am so proud of you. I thought it was wonderful’. It was like, ‘It’s okay, Gran’s proud of me. Good.’” Of course, Gran also enjoyed Wardy’s turn on Thank God You’re Here – it’s a family show, so there’s no swearing.

The question, at the time of our conversation, is: what next for Felicity? She already had her next show planned. It was to be about hedonism. But before doing a hedonism show, she was going to engage in some travelling to the UK for pleasure. Which meant she wouldn’t have time to work on a new show for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival and beyond. “I’m not comfortable having a half-baked show,” she says. Thankfully, ‘plan b’ made itself apparent instead.

“What happened,” Wardy eplains, “was I did this gig at a Bar Mitzvah. It was the worst gig I’ve ever done – excruciating from start to finish. The whole story of how it happened was a mess.” Despite going home from the Bar Mitzvah “devastated”, she decided to write about what happened. She ended up with a story, two pages long, which she delivered as stand-up. “And then I just started writing essays because I really like doing them,” she says. One of them was about the time she attended a poetry night. “That essay’s called, ‘I forgot to tell you, I hate poery!’” she says.

What’s amazing is that it took friend and producer Chris McDonald suggest “Why not just do an essay show?” After all, says Felicity, “ they’re crafted, well-written and humorous. I feel comfortable doing that. So that’s the next adventure.” That essay show was lovingly entitled Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron, and has served Wardy well: it was her 2009 Melbourne Fringe show, in preparation for the Aussie festival circuit of 2010. Meanwhile, the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe was impressed by Felicity Ward’s Edinburgh Season – the most recent incarnation of Ugly as a Child.

Meanwhile, that hedonist show may be developed down the track – which means Felicity can finally rest easy. Although she was once terrified that she’d “used up” all her “good stuff” early on, and now, unable to ever write another funny joke, it was time to “pack it up and retire undefeated,” she knows it’s not the case. “Things have been happening lately that I’ve been writing about and trying nervously, and they’ve been great. As in, the audience is responding very well. So that’s a relief I’m not ‘all out’ after thirteen months of stand-up.”

Indeed. Rest assured, even if she was one of the last people to realise it, Felicity Ward is here for the long haul.

Book of moron


Comedy Duos – Twice the Fun?

OnABCLocalRado

I’m on ABC Local Radio Overnights tomorrow (Sunday) morning across Australia. As Rod Quinn’s guest, I’ll be bringing in a bunch of samples as we discuss comedy duos. I’m on from around 4 am EST (which I think is 2am in Western Australia and somewhere in between, when you’re somewhere in between the eastern states and WA). Since I’m doing it live, and there’ll be talkback, if you’re an insomniac do listen and phone in. Don’t make the questions too hard – I’m working off the top of my head.

My playlist will be drawn from the following:


1. ‘The Cuckoo Song’ - Laurel & Hardy (sort of)

A logical place to start: Laurel & Hardy are a – perhaps the – seminal comedy team and this ditty – which existed independent of them – became their signature tune.


2. ‘Smokers’ – Fry & Laurie

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were Cambridge students who graduated to Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of the Footlights (the student club that gave members of Monty Python and The Goodies there start along with so many others I shan’t get caught up listing here), like so many university revue-educated wits before them. They first came to prominence in episodes of Black Adder before landing their own excellent sketch show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, which is where this sketch originated. Nowadays Fry continues to write books and make documentary series while serving as Twitter’s biggest celebrity user, while Laurie enjoys massive success as the main character in the US medical drama series House.


3. ‘Pregnant Women Are Smug’ – Garfunkel & Oates

How’s this for a ‘comedy duo’? Their name itself is a joke on ‘duos’, referring to the ‘lesser sidemen’ in music duos. The point, in comedy, is that even if it looks like only one comedian in the duo is doing the work, the other one is still necessary for the comedy to work: it’s all about the dynamic. (“What was it that Dudley Moore used to do?” the question has been posed. “He made Peter Cook look funny” is the standard answer. He did much more than that – without him as a foil, Cook was more-or-less lost; his work never shone as brightly after cuddly Dudley made it in his own right in Holywood.)

Garfunkel & Oates are two young Californian actors, Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci – Kate’s a regular in later episodes of Scrubs. Their sideline are these cute satirical songs. I’m hoping they become popular enough to visit some Aussie comedy festivals, in time.


4. ‘Six of the Best’ – Peter Cook & Dudley Moore

I could bang on about the genius of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore for days. Suffice to say, as a duo, what they did on stage was magic, and in many ways I see Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh as their present-day equivalent. For its time, groundbreaking social commentary, since Moore plays the elderly schoolmaster, Cook, the arrogant and disrespectful student, reversing the power structure just as the young generation appeared to be taking control – or at least becoming the dominant element in popular culture – in the ’60s. It’s funny because it was revealing the unspoken truth. Of course a lad on the threshold of manhood could intimidate an elderly schoolmaster, but respect for age, experience, intellect, class and position prevented it from taking place. It’s less funny now that the scenario being enacted is one that more-or-less takes place in schools all the time now.


5. ‘Chocolate’ – The Smothers Brothers

The Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dicky – illustrate why the comic song works so well within the parameters of ‘comedy duo’. The ‘straight man’/‘funny man’ dichotomy creates humour through the straight guy trying to deliver the song as it should be performed, while the clown continues to subvert expectations. Within this song, many of the traditional elements of the folk song are turned on their head.


6. ‘Bob Geldof’ – Mel Smith & Grif Rhys Jones

After working on the sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News with Pamela Stephenson and Rowan Atkinson, Smith & Jones continued to work with each other on the sketch show Alas Smith & Jones (the title’s a piss-take of the early ’70s cowboy series Alias Smith & Jones). One aspect of their work together were their ‘chats’, naturalistic dialogues derived, no doubt, from initital improvisations, not unlike the work  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in ‘Pete ’n’ Dud’ mode – two old mates talking bollocks over beer.


7. ‘Sarah Jackman’ – Allan Sherman

Allan Sherman was mostly a solo act, coming out of a Jewish television/showbiz background (the titles of many of his albums began with the words, ‘My Son…’ like My Son The Nut and My Son The Folk Singer – as though his parents were still disapproving). He was a producer of the classic Tonight Show ever so briefly – but not good enough at it. After he was sacked, he returned as a performer, doing what he did best: song parodies. Indeed, the first time you watch the Walt Disney animated masterpiece Fantasia, you may think yourself a little crazy when you realise the melody of Ponchielli’s ‘The Dance of Hours’ (ostriches doing ballet) sounds almost exactly like ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fuddah’; that’s because Sherman took ‘The Dance of Hours’ melody and wedded new lyrics to it. And he did it well – every syllable is where it should be.

For the duration of this song  – a parody of the French children’s song, ‘Frère Jacques’ – Sherman’s part of a duo with Christine Nelson. The song takes the form of a ‘catch-up’ phone call, one imagines by someone who has grown up and left the old neighbourhood, catching up with all the comings-and-goings. There’s a good deal of social commentary from its time – the early ’60s – with cousin Shirley ‘married early’, brother Bentley ‘feeling better mentally’, cousin Ida a ‘freedom rider’ and – my favourite – Sonja’s daughter Rita, now a ‘regular Lolita’!


8. ‘Who’s On First’ – Abbott & Costello

One of the seminal pieces of comedy from a classic comedy duo. Essentially the Abbott & Costello signature piece, it was recorded a number of times – in various films and on radio and television shows. This is an excerpt.


9. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ – Smart Casual

Ben and Nick Mattick are Roger David and Fletcher Jones (I may have the charaters in the wrong order), AKA Smart Casual. They first appeared on the Sydney comedy scene a few years ago, getting to the national final of the Raw Comedy competition on the strength of songs that had the good sense to be more than one gag repeated ad infinitem accompanied by 12-bar blues, or all of their jokes, delivered to opened-ended chordal vamping – which is how so much ‘musical comedy’ is unfortunately presented. (See what I’m saying, comedy n00bs? The tokenistic inclusion of music will fool the masses as easily as any other comedy corners you may find a way to cut. But people who ‘know about’ music and ‘know about’ comedy won’t be be impressed.)

Part of what makes Smart Casual’s material work is something that Garfunkel & Oates also know full well: if the joke is a quickie, so too must be the song. This year Smart Casual featured in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together from the best new talent around Australia. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ was their Raw Comedy finale and has served them well. I suspect they’ll soon be ‘resting’ it as they move on to new material.


10. ‘Happy Darling?’ – Eleanor Bron and John Fortune

Eleanor Bron and John Fortune came to the fore as part of England’s so-called ’60s satire boom. Bron went to Cambridge University and was a contemporary of Peter Cook’s. She also has a major role in the Beatles film Help! – among other things, she’s the woman being sung to in the clip for ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. During the 70s Bron and Fortune developed a series of sketches about relationships under the title Is Your Marriage Strictly Necessary? which John Cleese cites as one of the inspirations for Fawlty Towers.


11. ‘The Phonebook Song’ – Scared Weird Little Guys

The Scared Weird Little Guys are another two-guys-and-a-guitar comedy duo specialising in genre pardies and clever-silly songs. They comprise Rusty Berther and John Fleming, who met in a capella groups, having cut their teeth in barbershop quartets and the like. (Their first shared project was a five-piece a capella combo, ‘The Phones’.) ‘The Phonebook Song’ is a classic live number that demonstrates vocal prowess. At the very end, it refers to another novelty song built around clever rapid-fire syllables.


12. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams Part 2’ – Mel & Sue

Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were (and possibly still are) an English comedy duo who, earlier this century, were likened – and perhaps burdened by the comparison – to ‘French & Saunders’. The BBC Radio 4 show, The Mel & Sue Thing, and subsequent Edinburgh Fringe shows, demonstrated a clever, funny approach to sketch comedy. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ was a regular feature of the show – the serialisation of Jane Austen’s last – and lost – novella, the perfect antidote to the costumed period dramas that still occupy BBC television broadcast schedules. Part of their ‘Mel & Sue’ persona sees them share a bed in their pyjamas in a very ‘Morecambe & Wise’ manner. Mel pops up in a Vicar of Dibley Christmas special.


13. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ – Morecambe & Wise

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise met as kids in a touring vaudeville troupe and perfected their comedy in partnership very early on. Being in the right place at the right time, they were the ones who made the transition from the vaudeville stage to television most successfully, becoming the most watched comedians of their age as they broke viewing records, particularly for their Christmas specials, in which regular non-comedic television personalities – news readers and the like – would appear in guest roles. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ was, by the end of their long career, established as their signature tune.



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But you can read these interviews any time, if you’re interested:





Scared Weird Little Guys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Now it’s down to eighteen.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Waltzing Matilda

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

JOHN FLEMING: Thanks Dom.

RUSTY BERTHER: Thank you Dom.

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


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


A couple of old interviews with the Scared Weird Little Guys

What with the Scared Weird Little Guys having just released a new CD called Bits and Pieces, my interview with them in the can and awaiting editing and broadcast, and numerous people who have googled the Scaredies reaching this website to discover that until now they only appeared in passing in my interview with Adam Hills, I thought it was high time to raid the comedy archive for these old pieces. The up-to-date interview promoting the new CD will appear here soon.

The following interview appeared in Revolver shortly after the Scared Weird Little Guys released their album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent in early 2000.


In a Nutshell: The Scared Weird Little Guys on Walnuts, Wax and Weight Loss


Rusty Berther and John Fleming – the Scared Weird Little Guys to all and sundry – come bounding towards me in the foyer of the ABC’s Ultimo studios at 4:35 pm on a Friday afternoon. They have just been on Merrick and Rosso’s show to promote their brand-spanking-new album and they are both beaming.

“The new album’s called Live at 42 Walnut Crescent and we just got to see it for the first time,” Rusty tells me.

“We hadn’t seen a finished copy of it yet, but Merrick and Rosso had a copy of it,” John adds.

“You guys don’t even have a copy?” I demand in disbelief.

“No,” Rusty assures me. “No, we don’t have a copy yet, but we’re familiar with most of the material.”

The first thing about the Scared Weird Little Guys that strikes the casual observer, apart from John’s more recently acquired blond hair, is the fact that while they are still (one assumes) scared and weird, and definitely guys, they are both significantly littler. John especially.

“We’ve both been on diets,” John explains. “I’ve shed almost ten kilos.”

Thus, the littlerfication is not due to the rigours of touring, or the demands of releasing and promoting a new album, rather, John says, “it’s me deciding that I’d been carrying enough weight for too long and doing something about it. I’m pretty pleased with being a little slimmer these days.”

While I naturally assume that this must lead to pulling more groupies, I ask Rusty to set the record straight.

“I’m married now, and John’s just gotten engaged. So the answer is ‘yes’…” Rusty says.

“… with the long-term groupies,” John adds, completing his colleague’s comment and no doubt averting a night on the couch in the process.

Rusty and John’s lines always segue smoothly, as though one mind acts through the pair of them. This is probably because they have been working together for some thirteen years now. John, who wanted to be a singer, auditioned for and joined a group that Rusty was in. After “about three years muddling around in different a capella groups” like ‘The Phones’ and ‘Four Chairs, No Waiting’ (a barbershop quartet?) the pair opted for the ‘Scared Weird Little Guys’ partnership in July 1990. John claims to have noticed the difference straight away when the group scaled down to the duo:

“We only had to split the money two ways. We also noticed that there were a lot less arguments and fewer relationships to look after.”

Live at 42 Walnut Crescent was recorded at gigs in Edinburgh, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne “over the years” (the bonus, unlisted ‘McDonalds’ song dates from 1991) and put together through December and January. Released on the eve of the Scaredies’ tenth anniversary, John considers it “an opus of our work to this time”. Rusty agrees that it does constitute a timely retrospective – a ‘greatest hits live’. “If you have heard a Scared Weird Little Guys song before and liked it,” he says, “it’s probably on this album. Because there are twenty-five songs on it.”

Significant absences in the set include the Scardies’ unique cover of ‘Yesterday’ and the song which started it all, the Kennett-inspired ‘Bloody Jeff’. However, this is a pedantic quibble considering that ‘Volvo Man’, ‘Shopping and Parking’, ’30 Seconds’, ‘Macadamia’ and even the generically modified covers of Prince’s ‘Kiss’ are present and accounted for. Further, there are two all-new topical songs, designed to “give a leg up to the rest of the album through airplay”. The first is a cute parody of the early Dylan political ballad, a talking-blues entitled ‘GST’. The second is a stirring anti-anthem called ‘Olympics’, resplendent with strings, harmonies and corrupted lines from ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

The Scaredies’ most recent show ‘Rock’, designed to “explore rock music in its facets”, premiered at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year before playing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Unfortunately, Sydney is not going to get to see ‘Rock’ in the immediate future. After a two-week regional tour of South Australia, the duo will most likely be “dusting off some of the old stuff” for the three weeks they will spend in North America thereafter. The Scaredies have long enjoyed success in the North Americas, having been named Canada’s ‘Best Variety Act’ in 1994 and 1995 as well as the ‘Best Comedy Act’ in the US in ’95. That same year, they were also nominated as ‘Entertainers of the year’ in the States. Thus, they are aware of “certain little pockets” of popularity in that part of the world:

“We’re big in Nova Scotia and in Minnesota…” Rusty begins.

“… and in Alberta” John carries on as smoothly as ever.

When I point out a patterned rhythm in the placenames, the potential for a song, the Scared Weird Little Guys utter an approving “Aaaaaaah” in unison. “Now you’re thinkin’ like we think,” John assures me.

The excellent Live at 42 Walnut Crescent is released on Streetwise Records’ dedicated comedy label ‘Belly Laugh’.


The following article appeared in the 15 June 1998 issue of Revolver.


Scared Weird Little Guys


“We’ve got red pants – long ones!” explains Rusty Berther, the scared, weird, littler of the two men collectively known as the Scared Weird Little Guys. “We’ve gone to long pants now that we’ve grown up.” Rusty is describing the brand-spanking-new stage costumes that he and John Fleming, the other Scared Weird Little Guy, wore in their recent Melbourne Comedy Festival Shows. “We also had black shirts with bones down the sleeves.”

Trivial, you might think, this discussion of apparel. Well, it’s not exactly earth-shattering, but it is significant. See, the sartorial metamorphosis comes with many other developments in the Scared Weird Little Guys’ act. Not only have they progressed to long pants, but the Scaredies have also moved on to varying their song arrangements and modes of performance. The Comedy Festival Shows, for example, featuring “a whole swag of new stuff” that Rusty and John wrote over the summer, was performed with an orchestra. This is a startling new approach for a mainly acoustic duo whose showbiz career began in a cappella groups.

Rusty and partner John have just finished recorded recording an album’s worth of new material which should appear in mid-July. Once again, this work shows a developing sophistication as the duo augmented their usual sound with additional instruments. “We recorded five songs with a drummer, and I played bass,” Rusty reports. “Two of them were done ‘live-in-the-studio’ with guitar and mandolin, and the others are recorded as a three-piece. We’re pretty happy with the results.”

I’m curious as to how the songs will sound; in the past, the Scared Weird Little Guys have derived much humour by being able to make up for the lack of instruments. For example, their various renditions of Prince’s song ‘Kiss’, a favourite of live perfomrances, is performed in various genres despite the fact that the pair are armed only with a guitar and their voices. They begin with one of the finest country and western rootin’, tootin’, high-fallutin’ hoe-down send-ups you could ever imagine. Then they go on to invite the audience to request various musical genres in which they will then attempt to render the song.

“I can only assume that this segment is pre-rehearsed,” I insist. “One time the guy next to me yelled out ‘indie’ and you guys pretended that he said ‘Hindi’ in order to do a Bollywood version, the guitar being plucked like a sitar, the pair of you singing with Indian accents.”

But Rusty is quick with an explanation:

“I must say, to defend ourselves, when we first started doing the bit, which was quite a few years ago, we didn’t rehearse any. But because we’ve done it so many times, we’ve had to do bits like opera, heavy metal, most thing, and we’ve genuinely learnt how to do all those styles.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but that’s not my beef; this is: one time at the Belvoir Street Theatre, I know that I clearly got in first and loudest with the request of ‘mariachi’, because you guys do such good mouth-trumpet work, but you guys ignored me and pretended to pick another genre out of the crowd.”

“Ooh yeah,” Rusty says, contemplating the challenge of the ‘mariachi’ version. He starts to simulate the cheesy Mexican brass section mariachi fanfare: “Bap bap badadp bap bap” (listen to the trumpets in the Dick Dale song which serves as the theme to Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction if you are unfamiliar with the genre).

“I’m sure we would have tried it…” Rusty insists, and then gives up with that avenue of defence. “We’re allowed to take artistic license there,” he says instead. “No matter what the crowd had shouted out, we can selectively hear whatever we need to hear. It’s a skill that develops over the years and many gigs.” Then he returns to his early tack: “But I tell you, mariachi… I reckon we’ve definitely done that before so if you’re lucky enough to call it out again, we’ll definitely give it a shot.”

God bless you, Rusty.

Rusty met John “about ten years ago”, some twelve months after he had left his native Queensland for Melbourne. “I was singing in a four-part a cappella group in 1987 and basically one guy left and John joined.” Rusty suggests that the fact that he and john were not friends or workmates prior to becoming bandmates is one of the reasons why the Scared Weird Little Guys ‘works’ as a partnership, and why they “haven’t killed each other”.

“So how did you lose the other two members to become the Scared Weird Little Guys’? I demand. “Did you have to kill them?”

“We were in that group for about a year,” Rusty explains, “and then John and I both joined another group called ‘The Phones’.” After The Phones disbanded a couple of years later, the pair decided that they may as well “do something” together because they new each other well and enjoyed working with each other.

I want to know if, like other musical comedy acts such as Billy Connolly (as he once was) and the Doug Anthony Allstars, the comedy began as between-song banter and developed from there. In the case of Billy Connolly, who started out as a folky in the group ‘The Humblebums’ the patter just kept extending and the songs came fewer and far-between. As for the Allstars, who began as the punk group ‘Forbidden Mule’ and went on to be shopping mall buskers, they needed to jump in and out of flaming garbage bins and the like in order to retain the audience’s attention.

“We were mostly musical,” Rusty says, “but there were bits of comedy creeping in, and a few of the songs and the actions we did touched on comedy. But we definitely always considered ourselves musicians before comedians. And we still do. When we started the Scared Weird Little Guys, we definitely said, ‘sure, the main aim here is to write some funny stuff’. But then, because we’ve got the musical background and we love singing harmony and we love writing songs, the music has come through as well. It’s turned out that we feature the music as much as the comedy.”

I can lay claim to being aware of the Scaredies from very early on – at least from the release of their first EP, ‘Bloody Geoff!’ which was inspired by the Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett. Rusty explains that he and John were overseas at the time of Kennett’s election.

“We came home and noticed that everyone was going, ‘Oh, Kennett’s in! Bloody Jeff!’ So we decided, quite innocently at the time, to write a song that blames Jeff for everything.”


I stubbed my toe so hard I cried,
“Bloody Jeff”!
The Beatles broke up and Elvis died.
“Bloody Jeff”!

Rusty claims that while ‘Bloody Geoff!’ has become a bit of an anthem for people who hate Kennett, it’s pretty light-weight from a political point of view. “It’s pretty apolitical,” he says.

In 1995, the Scared Weird Little Guys released a mini-album called Scared, which is not at all bad. My only criticism of it is, as with so many musical/comedy albums, that when you become familiar with a live act, you can sometimes be let down by their studio albums. This is because, unless it is a live recording (which often presents an entirely different set of difficulties) the audio artifact is a different art form entirely to the live performance, therefore making different demands with different issues at stake.

“Absolutely!” Rusty acknowledges. “We realised that we were asking ourselves the wrong question. The question wasn’t ‘how can we best capture what we do live on a record?’ but ‘what is the best that we can do, on a record?’”

The answer, Rusty assures me, is the new Scared Weird Little Guys album, Mousetrap, which boasts amongst its contents, songs about dead food in the fridge, setting the table, and death metal lyrics set to a lounge backing.

“That’s the one we’re happiest with,” Rusty says of the latter, “because we’ve gone totally in the style of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, with a full-on loungey, latin feel.

Before I can call it a day with Rusty, I need to ask two musical questions, having dealt mostly with the comic content of the Scared Weird Little Guys’ work. I apologise for the first one, which is the standard “where did you get your name?”

Rusty takes it in his stride:

“We usually say that when we were looking for a name, ‘The Village People’ was already taken, so we thought, obviously, ‘The Scared Weird Little Guys’. But the truth is, we were watching this Al Pacino movie called Cruisin’, a full-on undercover cop film set in the New York underground gay scene. At one point this guy says, ‘there are a lot of scared, weird, little guys out there who don’t know why they do what they do.’ We stopped the tape and laughed – ‘what was that? ‘Scared, weird, little guys’? That’s it!’ And it sort of stuck.”

And finally, “as vocalists, who are you inspired by?”

“Ah, jeepers,” Rusty balks. Then: “I’m a huge country/bluegrass fan, and I never really trained – I’ve had a few lessons at high school, but otherwise – I’ve just sung along to a lot of country stuff I love, especially the alternative sort of country music coming out of America. And John was a choirboy for ten years at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. So he’s got a different sort of background. But definitely not one singer; I couldn’t say ‘Michael Bolton’, or anything like that.”

Heaven forbid, Rusty, that you would ever say anything like that.


It’s probably worth noting, just so that I don’t confuse the hardcore fan, that the album referred to as Mousetrap in the interview was subsequently released as a five-track EP entitled Death Lounge.