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

Ray Gun

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

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

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

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

  Hinger's Dreads

 

Raw Comedy

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

The result?

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

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

The difference?

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

 

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Delusionists

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, The Delusionists came into being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Return Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Back to Uni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool dad, huh!

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

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Project 52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Memoriam, Jordan McClellan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICF Poster


Going Solo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orientalism

Sydney Fringe

 

Unqualified Success

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

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

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

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

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

Still, Michael makes a convincing argument:

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

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

“And then Chortle comes to see my show.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gen Fricker brekky

 

 All roads lead to Hingers

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a reason why this is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The stereotyped kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talking out of school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A Brief History of Tommy Dean

 

Tommy_Dean_Red_Shirt

“Oh, where do you even begin?” Tommy Dean asks.

Where indeed? It’s as good a point of departure as any for an interview on the eve of his one and only 2012 Sydney Comedy Festival show.

I’ve known the long-haired American for a decade-and-a-half as a true comic genius: a man who seemingly can take anything you give him and fashion it into hilarious material. And when he watches other comedians – or, more to the point, wanna-be comedians and newbies – Tommy can point out weaknesses and suggest ways to make stronger the stuff they come up with by adhering to things like ‘truth in comedy’ and ‘answering comedy with comedy’. He's also as decent a guy as you’ll get to meet.

But Tommy’s questions are in fact answers to one of my own that comes much later, and more important ones that should come first are ones such as, why is such a brilliant comic comparatively so little known in Australia? Other brilliant comics – like Fred Lang, for instance – will describe him as ‘Australia’s best kept comedy secret’. But then, there are people who claim to love comedy who have never had the supreme pleasure of seeing Fred Lang in action either, so perhaps we should start somewhere else again.

Okay, how about this one: why is it that Tommy Dean only doing one Sydney Comedy Festival show?

“I guess I’m supposed to say, ‘I’ve been very busy, I’m obligated to a lot of other things, the schedule didn’t really come together, I’d love to do more but it didn’t really work out…’” Tommy offers.

All of which is true, as this interview will demonstrate.

What is patently not true, though, is that Tommy Dean's sole one-night-only performance is in fact his only show of the Festival. He’s already appeared in that brilliant Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza-produced Set List, in which an array of comics is given topics virtually on the way to the microphone, from which to construct their ten minute set pretty much as they’re delivering it. And he’s got a few Thank God It’s Friday obligations in the live Thank God It’s On Stage: the first, in Wollongong, has already taken place, but there’s still Saturday’s Seymour Centre show, and one at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre a week later. And Tommy’s also appeared in one of the [“lesser”] galas that have taken place.

So really, Tommy Dean is all over the Sydney Comedy Festival; but even if he weren’t, his ‘cover story’ sounds pretty convincing. And that’s because it’s pretty much true: Tommy does seem to be busier than ever. And, to be fair, there was a time when Tommy seemed less gung-ho about pursuing opportunities. If anything, he is a less well-kept secret, surely.

“I think that’s probably still fair,” Tommy says. “I mean, one night in the Sydney Comedy Festival is just another night in Sydney. I’m around all the time, so why should people come to this one night in Sydney when then can find me on any given night in Sydney?”

Good point. Of course, being part of something like the Sydney Comedy Festival does at least bring Tommy to the attention of the ‘special event’ comedy audience – the people who don’t go and see comedy every night of the week all year round. People, let’s face it, who may not even know you can see comedy regularly in venues around Sydney.

And the other point worth raising is, can you actually still see Tommy Dean in a comedy club any time you want to? Not as regularly as you used to, surely. I mean, nowadays, I see Tommy more often as the hilarious warm-up guy at the taping of a television show – (and note, not all warm-up guys are hilarious) – than I do as the killer headline act in a comedy room.

“Yes,” Tommy concurs, “that has become my main source of grocery buying at the moment. It takes precedence over club work. That ate up the front part of the year, this year.”

Some of the shows at which you’d have been warmed by Tommy Dean, had you been in the audience, include the Andrew Denton-produced  Gruen Planet and Randling.

“I love doing warm-up for Denton’s shows because the nature of the shows he produces makes it easy,” Tommy explains, although he prefers the term ‘focused’ to ‘warmed up’. “Most audiences come to a show wanting to have fun; Andrew Denton’s shows are fun, so I feel good about the product behind me. I’m not saying ‘Whoo, let’s be all excited about this’ knowing full well I’m about to hand them over to a pile of crap that I can’t justify.” For Tommy, it’s a matter of principal: he doesn’t want to be the entertainment equivalent of the snake-oil seller.

He also doesn’t want to be the guy desperate to ‘get laughs’; see – or hear – him as a guest on a panel show, and you won't see him hog the limelight or talk over people. “The nature of what I do, comedically, is share what I think is funny. It’s always about ‘sharing the laugh’, rather than ‘getting the laugh’.”

Having a Denton-produced program as the reason to focus an audience makes that sharing so much easier: able to remain relaxed and confident, Tommy essentially treats his sessions with audiences – getting them primed for the show, filling in the gaps if there are technical issues that halt proceedings – as ‘improv’. He’s playing games with them, talking to them, bouncing off them rather than delivering prepared material. “I like to share the show along with them, as though I’m just the audience member who talks more.”

Though not always much more – Randling, for example, has Denton up front and comedians and similarly quick-witted guests. If something did go wrong, there was always sufficient banter to ensure Tommy's presence out front was not required. “In fact," he says, "I can remember no moment during the entire time I was doing it where, once I said ‘here’s the show’, I had to come back out!” Watch any episode – Wednesday nights, 8:30pm, until some time in October – and you'll see why: hilarious television!

Thank God It's Live
Thank God It’s Backstage - Wollongong

 

Prophet margin

Tommy has a theory that comedians are like prophets: they’re loved more in lands other than those they were raised. “I still believe it, and therein lies the rub of why I’m not doing a full run in the Sydney Comedy Festival,” Tommy says with a chuckle. “I am of Sydney Town, so Sydney takes me for granted; there is no rush to go and see me. If I were playing Perth’s Wild West Festival, it’d be a case of, ‘this is the only time he here this year’ and there’d be a rush to go and see me.”

Yet, according to Tommy, even if a comedian is better loved away from home, the cruel irony is that the comic is also funniest in his or her own hometown, since they know it so intimately. “You should be at your most perceptive at that to which you have the most knowledge,” he insists. But he illustrates it with an example of the other extreme: 

“I was recently in Malaysia, where the entire audience was Malay, and I’ve never been more ‘not funny’. We just didn’t have a common ground.”

I’m a bit surprised by this – what about the whole ‘innocent abroad’ thing – where the outsider sees the place for what it really is, noticing stuff the locals don’t because they take it for granted?

“I would argue that that’s the case if you’re ‘of the background’,” Tommy says, essentially explaining that there has to be some common ground. There wasn’t any for him and his Malay audience. “I’ve never been to England, but I would expect to do well there, being more-or-less of the English ethos and presenting a view that would be easily understood to the English.”

None of that holds true when he visits Malaysia, and furthermore, Tommy says, Malaysia is a “very interesting case in point” because it feels as if it’s “very new” to comedy: “There’s a very interesting dynamic there, in the old guard of the oppressive government holding out, while the new internet-trained, westernised youth coming up through the system starting to rebel against it.” Stand-up, and having touchy subjects discussed out load, seems very new to them, so when an outsider starts “having a go”, the locals have trouble dealing with it. "It feels like a very fresh wound; they’re not sure if they can accept that.”

Really, it’s not unlike initial reactions to Tommy Dean when he first hit the stand-up scene in Australia. Some audiences resented the ‘Seppo’ telling them how things were. “In Malaysia, if you made any reference to corrupt police as an outsider, they were very, ‘oh, let’s be a little bit cool now, you’re judging Malaysia!’ But the locals could talk about corrupt cops and the audience would be all, ‘oh yeah, they’re corrupt!’ Generally speaking, the locals were better prepared to service the comedy needs of Malaysia than I was. And fair enough, too!”

In conclusion, however, Tommy still maintains: “You must go abroad to be at your funniest. Or at least, to be seen as being at your funniest.”

Tommy_red_rabbit

 

Pick a card/perception of doors

Another thing I recall Tommy mentioning in the past, is his process of delivering comedy. He likens it to constantly shuffling a deck of cards, knowing at any one time only the card he’s currently playing, and the one he’ll play next, but otherwise he is constantly going through the deck.

“That is so true,” Tommy insists: “Comedy is a game tactical manoeuvres, not strategy.” Because you can plan an entire set, but if something unexpected happens, you should be prepared to address the unexpected thing and veer ‘of piste’ as necessary, rather than stick to the script. It’s much funnier that way.

‘That’s exactly right,” Tommy says. “And I like the metaphor more now, because I’m thinking I probably only have about 52 cards. It’s not an endless deck.”

There was also a metaphor of ‘going through doors’: you’re constantly faced with options on stage – choices between different doors.

“It’s simply a re-visualisation of the cards metaphor, isn’t it?” Tommy reasons. “Same idea: you walk through a door, now you’re in this room; this room only has so many doors out of it.”

Perhaps, but at least with the doors, you can go back the way you came if you hit a dead end or a situation where you don’t want to go through any of the doors currently on offer…

“Yeah, I suppose, in a pure metaphorical sense, the door philosophy is probably better,” Tommy agrees. “But you could backtrack on the card play. I see no reason not too. Maybe you’d take the card metaphor kind of like a game of solitaire: you play the card, they only allow certain options, but eventually, because of card play on the right hand side, you suddenly now have access to move that shift back to the left side… ‘oh, finally, a red 8! Right, 9 – and we’re back in business on the left side!’”

Collectors_Tommy_Fred
Dom, Tommy and Fred Lang playing games for Collectors

 

Tommy’s game

The card metaphor is most telling; the best door to open when it comes to Tommy Dean, is the one that leads to the games room. See, Tommy loves games. Board games in particular. His collection of games has featured on the ABC show Collectors. Indeed, Tommy is a member of Board Games Australia, a body that exists to “promote gaming as a fun and educational tool”. Board Games Australia awards annual ‘best game’ in various categories, with Tommy on the panel for ‘Best International Game’.

Again, there’s nowhere to start with this one apart from the most basic and obvious place:

“Tell me about your love of games, Tommy.”

“Oh, where to begin? Where do you even begin?” Tommy replies. “This is my true, true passion. I absolutely adore it at so many levels.”

Tommy reckons he “spotted very early” the “glory” in sitting around the table with friends and family playing games. It was his favourite adolescent pastime: “While cooler kids were sneaking into keg parties and getting interested in drugs and alcohol, I found it much more satisfying to gather with a few friends and play cards all night.”

The father of one of those friends was “a high-rated chess master whose mental processes went to all things games” so the interest spread from card games to board games:

“It was hilarious fun, just at a social level,” Tommy explains, “and then at a tactical thought level, it became energizing and engaging, being able to deal with thought processes and results that you never had a chance to experience in real life. There’s something about playing for survival in a game where, on the board, you lose and the world is destroyed, but in real life, the world is fine.”

It sounds to me like Tommy’s describing ‘Risk’, a game that has come up time and again in his stand-up over the years. But suggesting as much makes me sound ignorant: “There are many, many other games that put the entire world at stake,” Tommy says. His favourite at the moment is ‘Twilight Struggle’, a two-player game based on the cold war; one player is the US, the other Russia, and game play is card-driven.

“You attempt to influence the various continents such that you score more points and prevent nuclear war. If things go wrong, the world gets lit up!”

It's not too much of a stretch to consider the decision-making and strategic – or rather, tactical manoeuvring – as good training for a leadership role. We seem to be a at somewhat of a loss with regards to the top job in this country right now. Any chance, Tommy?

“It’s not bad training,” Tommy says, but he’s a bit reticent to commit to that kind of responsibility, pointing out that winning the cold war by avoiding a nuclear apocalypse is not the same on the game board as it is in real life. “It’s the difference between playing poker for chips and playing poker for cash,” he says, explaining that “it’s one thing to go all in on a bluff when the only thing you lose is your pile of plastic. It’s a different thing when your house is there in the middle.”

After the briefest of pauses, Tommy adds: “By the way, I hate poker. Just so we’re clear on that. I like board games. Gambling games, not so much, for that reason right there: I like the stakes to be fantastical, as opposed to real.”

For Tommy, it's all about the tactical thought and the games themselves.

“I love the themes that come out of the games, I love tactically manoeuvring against the mechanics of a game – the concepts the game’s designer has given you to play with – manipulating those concepts to make happen whatever needs to happen in the game. And I do love pushing against the other players. There’s something amazingly telling about what you can learn about the other players over a board game.”

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Games Mormons play

I’m vaguely aware of Tommy’s Mormon upbringing, and I’m wondering how formative it was of the young Tommy Dean. Was it particularly strict? Is that what led to his love of games over other adolescent pursuits? Is that what gave rise to his love of Coca-Cola, something that would have been denied a child in a strict Mormon household? And how did his love of comedy develop?

“We were a very religiously aware family, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘strict’,” Tommy advises. He was initially raised a Southern Baptist – in fact, had an uncle who was a preacher – which meant not just Sunday School, but also “Wednesday night pot luck”, entailing midweek “casserole and preaching”.

From 13 to 15 years of age, Tommy was indeed “embroiled in the Mormon faith”, which, he says, involved “playing a lot of games”. But even if the Mormon faith is “even more dedicated to itself” than other denominations, for Tommy and his family, it wasn't really a change at all. “Church is just what you did,” he says. “We just joined different churches. It wasn’t until much later that I even recognised a difference between religions. It was just ‘church’.”

Yeah, but still – Mormons are the ‘no caffeine’ denomination, aren’t they? It’s only an issue – potentially – because I notice Coke is Tommy’s tipple of choice, and the biggest sin is putting lemon in it…

“Absolutely,” Tommy says of his Coke imbibing. But as to Mormons eschewing caffeine, it’s “all down to how hard-line they take it”.

Turns out there is a major split in the Mormon faith, and it has something to do with The Doctrine and Covenants, the book upon which, along with The King James Holy Bible and The Book of Mormon, the Mormon faith is based. The Doctrine and Covenants is the Word of God as transcribed by the prophets to whom God spoke. “Those are where the basic rules of Mormonism are given and taken away,” Tommy explains, “and one of them, referred to as ‘The Word of Wisdom’, has a sort of health plan for Mormons. The key phrase is, ‘No hot drinks’.”

‘Hot drinks’ of the time were coffee and tea. “Now that we know what caffeine is, that’s probably what God was getting at,” Tommy says. “Because God, who also at the time should have known what caffeine was, wanted to be obscure.”

There was a backlash later on, when it was discovered that the Mormon Church held a lot of stock in the Pepsi company, apparently. It was seen by many to be hypocritical. Of course there is the stricter Reformed Church of Jesus Christ And Latter Day Saints branch of Mormonism who take a harder line still, according to Tommy: “I don’t think they even eat soup!” Well, he adds, not until it cools down. But then, the point at which ‘hot’ becomes ‘tepid’ becomes a point of issue. And ‘Jesus loves iced coffee!’ becomes a major heresy.

Tommy prays

 

The community that prays together…

“The reason we got into the Mormon Church,” Tommy says,“is the same reason we got into most churches: the neighbourhood responded in kind to our arrival.”

Tommy’s family moved around a lot, dictated mostly by his father’s work. Both parents were born to Maryland farmers, but Tommy’s dad chose not to live ‘off the land’, opting instead for “IT, before they called it IT”.

A project manager for various projects that  involved computers, he happened to be be managing a project for “the bank of Disney World, Sun Bank” that took the family to Florida for a couple of years. Later he worked for a company that sold mailing lists, as a kind of precursor to spam email. "That took us to Michigan. Then my mum had asthma and the Michigan climate didn’t suit her, so he took a job in Arizona and off we went to the Asthma State.”

Tommy’s family arrived in Arizona when he was 12 and the new neighbours “came around with casseroles and hellos and invited us to come to church with them.” Taken with the very social nature of the neighbours – who happened to be Mormons – Tommy’s mum decided to take up their offer.

“The reality is, the Mormon Church, for all of its odd philosophies and theologies, is – take away the religion – one of the greatest social co-ops,” Tommy says. “They do more to support their members than any other church I’ve ever been involved in. They’re very much community based, neighbourhood based”.

He also points out that churches in places of “heavy population” such as Arizona are like schools: “you don’t choose what church you go to; you live here, so you go to that church during that time period. And everyone you go to church with lives in your neighbourhood, the idea being to build giant community ties so when your parents are sick, your neighbourhood rallies to take care of you.”

In fact, he says, “every Sunday one of the meetings was the women’s group, and the main thing they discussed was who was on the casserole list that week. Almost everything the Mormon Church does is designed to keep Mormons hanging out with Mormons, helping Mormons, espousing Mormonism. That was also part of it: I played a lot of board games with those guys – softball leagues, basketball leagues and Wednesday night dances to keep the youth together.” That was until Tommy was 15. “Then I fell in with a group called ‘Concerned Christians’, which was really sort of ‘We Hate Mormons’.”

That must have just been a phase; Tommy doesn’t really seem to hate anyone, and unlike a lot of comics, isn’t hell-bent on pointing out – humorously – the logical flaws in belief systems. Not specifically. He loves pointing out logical flaws generally.

  Kampuchea republic tommy

 

Barréd from school

It was neither the religion nor the travel that was to inform the young Tommy Dean, wandering prophet of comedy. Rather, he says, his “main line of formation” resulted from childhood illness: Tommy contracted Gillain-Barré Syndrome at age 8. “I was paralysed for two years from the waste down and spent all that time out of school. There’s something about spending all that time out of the system at a time when you’re at your most malleable.”

Home-schooled for grades 2 and 3, Tommy Dean “spent two years out of the system, developing my own way of thinking” before returning to school for grade 4. At which point, after two years of paralysis, Tommy was “barely starting to walk again, in a very obvious and bully-drawing way.” He’s quick to point out, however, that “bullying” is a “big term”; in this instance, he means that people made fun of the way he walked at school. “So I think my sense of humour first develops around the defense of that. I was getting heckled for the way I walked, and I was quick to recognise that ‘yes, I do walk funny, but you guys have got your problems too, I notice…’”

Some of the ways in which people have reacted to Tommy’s distinct walk were quite amusing. He recalls a time at college when his gait mistaken for cockiness. “Somebody said to my best friend, ‘Hey, I see you’re friends with that guy Tommy – he sure seems to strut a lot! What’s his deal?’ ‘No, no, that’s just the way he stays upright’.”

The permanent effect of Guillain-Barré Syndrome on Tommy is a lack of muscle tissue in his legs. “I have about 85% muscle activity in my upper thighs, down to about 10-12% in my ankles. Normally people walk ‘heel to toe’, whereas, very much like an artificial limb, I swing my foot through and land it flat.”

That’s why Tommy’s classic stance on stage is to keep hold of the mic in the stand “in a classic left foot forward, right foot back pose”: he’s using the stand to help balance. “I have a really hard time standing up straight and still. If I take the mic off the stand, you’ll notice I’ll walk left to right a little more often than is necessitated by the dialogue, and that’s just me self balancing.” The worst scenario, of course, is when Tommy’s doing a corporate gig: wearing ‘corporate’ shoes – “which I’m completely uncomfortable in” – and they haven’t given him a mic stand.

“I’ve seen photos where I’ve ended up in this hilarious half-squat as I try desperately to stay upright in dress shoes! I’ve lost my balance and I’ve ended up in a half-kneeling position, but I’m halfway through a joke so I’m adjusting my posture, trying to stay upright and not lose the timing on the riff.”

I think about it, and yes, I’ve noticed Tommy’s tendency to balance with the mic stand, and pace. But it’s only now that he’s told me – I’m usually too interested in the comedy to notice the physicality. But I know that Tommy plays baseball. Doesn’t he?

“Yeah. Poorly. I play in an old man’s league, so even though I’m quite slow, compared to the other 50- and 60-year-old guys I run around with, I can keep up for a base or two.” Even as a kid, playing, Tommy says, the big joke was that he “had to hit the ball to the fence just to get to first base”. Back then, though, he played better, so he could hit it all the way to the fence in order to get to first. “The other big joke in baseball was to flash me the signal to steel second. That wasn’t gonna happen either!”

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Game, Set List and match

If the first stage of Tommy’s comedic development as a comic was his homeschooling at a formative age, forcing him to devise his own world view, the second stage was his discovery of drama.

“The Mormon Church do a lot of ‘church plays’, and somebody said, ‘you seem to have a thing for this ‘church play’ business; when you get to high school, you ought to investigate the drama club’”

That’s exactly what Tommy did, and “that’s where stagecraft became the game.” Four years of drama at high school involved “the competitive element” known as Speech and Debate – the ‘Speech’ aspect of which consisted of monologues rather than public speaking. “They judged you on your ability to interpret 8 minutes of drama or poetry or comedy.” There was also a ‘two-hander’ option, known as ‘dual acting’. Tommy was State Champion in Dual Acting and State Finalist in Poetry Interpretation.

“The reason I got that was because I did a piece from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that was quite funny,” Tommy says. I don’t doubt it. Tommy is hilarious. The night he did Set List – which, unfortunately, I missed – I bet he ‘hit it all the way to the fence’.

 “I don’t want to sound all braggy, but I pretty much did. I played the game exactly the way it was meant to be played, which I truly enjoyed.” Again, the game metaphor: seeing the rules and playing by them is clearly important to Tommy. So, with Set List, rather than see each topic and improvise free-standing bits, or throw the rules away in mock indignation of the ridiculousness of it – which can also be hilarious – Tommy went with the rules, justifying why each note existed on his set list and delivering a spontaneous set that carried the logical links, structure and – I’m guessing this last bit – call-backs that a polished set would carry. 

Tommy on his dad, on Thank God It's On Stage

 

Game plan

Given the ‘warm-up’ – sorry, ‘focusing’ – work, Thank God It’s Friday and appearances on [“lesser”] galas and things like Set List, even if it’s taking its time, Australia’s best-kept comedy secret is still getting out, slowly but surely.

“My schedule would suggest that’s the case,” Tommy agrees. I still think that I’m still the person with whom nobody can figure out what to do.”

Yes, there has always been that aspect to Tommy’s career. Clearly, he can do stuff. But what stuff should they get him to do? When his contemporaries were getting stabs at non-ratings period seasons of stuff, or being asked to audition for present jobs on game shows, it seemed like Tommy was still too much ‘the foreigner’ to be offered those gigs. I mean, how on earth could an American front a game show in Australia? I’d ask Bob Dyer if he were still alive…

“There does still seems to be a weird reticence,” Tommy acknowledges, describing his career so far as having been “defined by benevolent champions” such as “Richard Glover”. However, he is also aware that he himself would have a hard time finding the ideal category to place himself in:

“If someone said to me, ‘you could do any of these things, you choose,’ I’m not quite sure what show I would host. I’d like to think that I could do it.”

Again, Tommy turns to his gaming metaphor: “I define myself by the game I’m asked to play. I don’t know which game I want to play but I can play the game you ask.”

And, he says, it’s interesting to see “just how many games” he’s currently involved in: “there’s radio panelist guy” (Thank God It’s Friday); “warm-up guy” (Q & A and Andrew Denton’s shows); “corporate work” (either as the guest who “injects a bit of irreverence to your corporate setting” or the MC who “plays it straight but provides just enough irreverence to add a point of interest to your corporate gathering”).

But television’s the weirdest one. I watch Tommy focusing the audiences for shows he could easily be guesting on – be it Q & A or Randling. “It’s interesting that Spicks & Specks found me useful, but Good News Week didn’t,” Tommy says. “They strike me as the same game”.

And there, I think, is the way for it for the comic guided by game theory: he should be playing it far more obviously, and be writing his own rules. Rather than seeking the role of panelist or guest on a game show, he should be hosting a show. Perhaps about games. Or perhaps hosting the next television presentation of the Paralympic Games. Television would love that perfect fit. Point is, since he’s brilliant at ‘sharing the laugh’, Tommy would be a brilliant host, and one who’d be able to step in the moment anything comes off the rails.

Well. Tommy Dean fans live in hope.

For now, take the opportunity to see his festival show – the one that actually appears under his own name, for which he’s appearing up front rather than as an integral team member. It’s called Drop Off and Pick Up – most likely about him being a dedicated dad. But titles are almost irrelevant to Tommy’s festival shows – it’s always gonna be a bunch of his funniest stand-up, each routine hilarious and relevant to that very moment it’s being delivered.

 

Fine Print:

Tommy Dean’s sole Sydney Festival show Drop Off and Pick Up is on 7:30pm, 4 May at the Factory Theatre.

• He’s appearing in Thank God It’s On Stage 8pm, 5 May at the Seymour Centre.

• He’s also in Thank God It’s On Stage 8pm, 12 May Parramatta Riverside Theatre.

Board Games Australia’s Best Game Awards will be announced at the 2012 Sydney Toy and Game Expo taking place in Homebush June 9-11.

• Tommy’s appearing with Josh Earl, Kate McLennan, Kevin Kropinyeri and MC Dave Thornton at the Manning Entertainment Centre, Mid North Coast, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow 15 July.


In(terviewing) The
Paul Michael Ayre Tonight

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This image (c) 2011 Alex Weltinger 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not quite,” Paul laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine Print:

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It can be…” Nick offers.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fine Print:

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


Joel Creasey's dramatic feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam’s immediate reaction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fine print:

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


Que Sera, Sarah Quinn?

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I’d been seeing Sarah Quinn around comedy festivals long enough to have been on nodding and smiling terms, sometimes going as far as to say hello. I assumed she was a comedian of some kind, but not one from Australia, otherwise we’d also be nodding, smiling, and sometimes saying hello on the circuit during non-festival. Discovering, through the Facebook ‘friend-of-a-friend’ network, I discovered she was based in Canada and was grateful I’d never spoke to her long enough to mistakenly refer to an American heritage. But the assumption that she’s Canadian is also inaccurate, it turns out. She’s an Aussie. Not that any of this really matters. Except that she’s currently portraying various characters in the show Other People’s Problems (at Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Comedy Festival) so having difficulty pinning down her real life identity is apt.


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Dom Romeo: For some reason I assumed you were a Canadian visiting Australia, rather than an Aussie who is now based in Montreal. What took you to Canada?

Sarah Quinn: I am indeed an Aussie based in Montreal. I went there originally on a post-grad study exchange. I didn't really apply myself, just between you and me. I chose Montreal because it sounded exotic, diverse, inspiring and fun. Turns out, it is all those things and more. It is a very... distracting city. In the very best way.

Dom Romeo: Is there a difference between the acting scene here in Australia, and there? And if so, how do they differ?

Sarah Quinn: Yes. Very much so. Firstly, there is a lot more gender equality in the arts in general, and as far as I can tell, they don't need to sit down and have forums about it, it’s just the way it is because there is no rational reason it should be any other way. When you grow up seeing that all around you, it is very powerful. You aren’t hard-wired to believe that, for instance, Directing is a man’s job and Arts Administration is a woman’s job (not that I'm pulling specific examples here or anything). That is, as far as I can tell, a very specific load of outdated bullshit we Australians can be proud to call our own.

The first language in Quebec is French, and so the dominant culture is French culture. The English language theatre scene in Montreal is sort of like operating in a small town within a big city. Anglophones make up only about a quarter of the population, so as you can imagine, the theatre scene is a quarter of the size, and so are the audiences. Personally I find that I see a bit more programming risk being taken here,  at least on bigger stages, and that shows often have much higher production values, but I think that is a scale issue. There is also a whole world of French theatre that I haven’t yet got into because je ne comprehend pas enough French. Having said that, the fringe arts scene in Montreal is outstanding, because it is a cheap place to live, and is full of creative souls. There is a lot of really edgy fantastic stuff happening in tiny venues and warehouses. The fact that it is such a small scene means it is very supportive, welcoming, and it doesn't take long til you know almost everyone.  Living there gave me the confidence and freedom and inspiration to get back into performing, and for that (and many other reasons) it will always have a very special place in my heart. It is difficult to make money, but people aren’t money-driven there, so it doesn't matter. We're all blissfully poor. It is a singularly unique and authentic city.

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Dom Romeo: You seem to return frequently to perform here. Are you bringing shows that you’ve done back in Montreal, or do you find you create different work depending on where you are?

Sarah Quinn: What I have been doing the past couple of years is coming here with a show first, using the Adelaide Fringe as a sort of jumping off point. Generally I will preview the show once in front of a very soft crowd of people I trust in Montreal, then bring it to the Fringe and other fringey venues in Melbourne and Sydney, and then take it back to do a full season in Montreal. This has worked quite well. This year I decided to fight my drive to keep starting something new (which is strong in this one), by going back to my 2009 show and making it better. It can be beneficial to revisit work that way because no matter how successful it was, it is amazing how much you can always be tweaking and improving it. Also, I decided that this year I wanted to reach a wider audience, so having the energy to put into promotion and presentation, instead of  just creation and development, is necessary for that. It is a show I really believe in and have a lot of fun performing, and I always felt it had more potential than just a one-off fringe thing.

I create more work in Montreal just because that is where I live most of the year. I also run a monthly new-work salon called “Happenglad's New Hat”, where the rule is that all the performers need to be trying out brand new acts or bits. It is fantastic fun, and always exciting for that reason. I've seen some amazing stuff come out of that show, and as a performing artist you need that kind of forum to be able to try out new ideas. I've written a handful of new solo sketches and characters purely because the show was on the following night (or the same day) and I HAD to write something. I promised myself I would get up every time, and even though I came close to piking out several times, I always ending up pulling it out of somewhere.  And most of those tiny sketches of sketches have now become full-blown ideas for characters, or web clips, or radio plays.

Dom Romeo: Tell me about how you came to be acting. Was it your first career choice? How did you realise it was what you had to be doing? (I’m assuming I saw an earlier photo of you on your Facebook – black and white, school girlish looking one – an early production?)

Sarah Quinn: Are you talking about the photo of Jane Fonda from LIFE Magazine??

 

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Dom Romeo:
Um… yeah… that one… Clearly the LIFE watermark was not obvious enough to me…

Sarah Quinn: I love that photo because that is how I feel when I am developing and rehearsing my solo work – sort of alone, and urgent. I love that she looks as though there could be a million things racing through her mind, or nothing at all. I know that zone.

I got bit by the bug when I was in my first play in primary school. Even though the whole process of auditioning and rehearsing in front of my peers scared me to death, once I was on stage it all went away. I remember really liking that phenomenon. Then I was part of a small group who fought tooth and nail to have a drama class brought in at my academia-and-sports-focused selective high school, and after that I trained in acting at university. So you could say it was what I always wanted to do, although I feel I lost my way once I left drama school. I think I had a lot of insecurities and misgivings about the industry (not all unfounded), and misconceptions about  the kinds of people that made it as actors. I always loved performing, but for me it’s the communication, the connection with the audience, the expression of something deep and human that attracts me to it. I thought you had to be a bit of a show off, a precocious child who always loved the spotlight, and very fame-driven, to succeed in the industry. It’s not true, and it turns out I enjoy it too much to do anything else. I’ve tried to do other things, but nothing feels as right or as fun or as important to me as this. I just don't care this much about anything else. Except maybe food. I care a lot about that.

Dom Romeo: You appear to be an actor edging further into stand-up comedy. Is that an accurate observation? Why and how has your performing career pursued that trajectory?

Sarah Quinn: I get called a comedian sometimes and it makes me very uncomfortable. (That said, I do very much like the French term for actress, “comedienne”. ) I am absolutely not heading into stand-up, and that is not something I am desirous of. I certainly have gravitated toward comedy, and love performing comedy –  almost everything I write tends to turn out to be satire – but it is always in character, and while it is (hopefully) funny, it is not really “jokes”. I love stand-up, I see what those guys do first hand, and I’m very admiring of it, but it is not for me.  I have no drive toward that format and no inclination toward writing jokes.  Although I do end up being a sounding board quite a bit. When you live with a comic, (or see a lot of comedy), before long you start thinking in premises and tags, and I have always always loved to laugh. Humour is very important to me, I was brought up in a family that valued a good sense of humour very highly. Watching so much stand-up has cemented and enlivened my sense that anything can be funny, and that we need humour to face every situation.

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Dom Romeo: Tell me about Other People’s Problems.

Sarah Quinn: Other People's Problems is a satirical response to the ever-expanding self-improvement industry. It is three short plays written by three different authors – DeAnne Smith, Samuel Booth, and me. I perform them all. It delves into the world of self help, and the often unhinged characters that inhabit it. It is a dark comedy,  at times tragic, frequently absurd, but also very touching. I had an idea for a teenage video-blogger character who doles out really questionable advice on the internet, and then gets sucked into a commodified world she is too naive to deal with. I knew DeAnne was throwing around ideas for a motivational speaker, and then Sam and I came up with another character – an uptight woman listening to a sexuality self help tape – which he then went away and wrote. I rehearsed them up and workshopped them over several months, with DeAnne providing an occasional outside eye.

Since the original run, I have added new production elements, and a few little audiovisual transition pieces, which tie it all together more than the original. This also meant I got to explore a few new ideas and write some new material. It feels more like a solid whole now, rather than three short plays.

Dom Romeo: Is each character that you play the creation of the respective author, as opposed to people writing material for ‘pre-established’ characters? Which was the easiest to play? Do you approach someone else’s words differently to your own?

Sarah Quinn: Yes, each character was the creation of a different writer. (I snuck two into mine, ’cos I didn’t know any better.) At first, I absolutely approached my own words differently. I felt them very silly, and clearly less accomplished as writing than the others (who  both have lots of writing under their belts; this was my first) and I doubted anyone would be interested in hearing them. Then something strange began to happen, the more I did it, and the more people responded positively, the less the words felt like my own, and the less the character felt like my creation. She had a life of her own and it felt just as real and valid as the others. I think this was just my confidence growing, and I went from declaring painfully, “I will never write again!!” to being really quite addicted to the satisfaction of expressing something of my own and having people connect with it. Now they are all equally special to me, and neither is easier or more difficult. They all take work and I inhabit them each with genuine relish every time.

Dom Romeo: Push comes to shove, what do you prefer, live performance or film/television work? And why?

Sarah Quinn: This is impossible. But if you held me at gunpoint and forced me to choose (what kind of an asshole are you anyway?), then I would have to choose live theatre, because it is my first love, and the ritual of live performance is like religion to me. That said, I have been well and truly seduced by the movies, and am now a faithful theatre devotee with a very meaningful lover on the side. (The lover is film, by the way.) Movies are awesome, and I love shooting them. I love that people come and powder your face and when you are done the director says “That’s a wrap!”, just like in the movies.

Dom Romeo: Does anyone see your name and assume you are Tegan’s sister?

Sarah Quinn: Funny you should ask. Yes, I believe they do, because back when MySpace was a thing (remember back in the mid-late noughties? Simpler times...) I used to get friend requested by girls with such monikers as “MRSTEGANQUIN”, and “T&S4EVA<3”, even though our names are spelled completely differently. In fairness, I did used to have short asymmetrical hair. Sara Quin actually lives in Montreal as well, which doesn’t help matters. Nowadays there are so many fake Facebook pages for her that they don’t make it down to friend requesting me, thankfully. I’ve never met her, but I think we have several mutual friends and am sure we would get along swimmingly.

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Daniel Townes is recording a DVD

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Daniel Townes is finally recording a DVD.

If you’re not familiar with the comic or his work, it’s your loss – Daniel’s one of the truly awesome blokes of comedy. If you ask his opinion, he’ll give it honestly. If you ask his advice, he’ll give it sincerely. But none of that matters if you’re in the audience watching him perform. If Daniel Townes is on stage, talking, you’re pissing yourself laughing.

Daniel’s a kind of contemporary urban philosopher, his stories, anecdotes and observations reminding you how people are and life is, but without any of the high-falutin’ bull – just heaps of deftly delivered punchlines. If you don’t already know this, you just haven’t been paying any attention: Daniel hit the scene in 2003 as a hot comedy prospects and didn’t waste any time taking his gags global, establishing himself as one of Australia’s youngest international comedians by making them laugh in Singapore, Germany, Spain, Ireland, South Africa, Canada, Holland and all over the UK. It wasn’t long before he became a regular on the local and international comedy festival circuit – Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Edinburgh, as you’d expect, as well as Montreal’s prestigious invitation-only Just For Laughs Comedy Festival.

Even if you don’t get out much, you must have seen him on Good News Week or the Cracker Comedy Festival Gala or Stand Up Australia or The NRL Footy Show or Good News Week… but fact is, you should get out more often.

So how about this Sunday, 7pm? If you get in touch with the Comedy Store, you might discover there’s the odd ticket left!

But if you’re too late, don’t fret – he was recording a DVD, remember. You get to see it in your own loungeroom soon enough (or whatever other room you take your laptop into… yeah, whatever, I don’t wanna know, ya sicko!)

Meanwhile, if you did miss out, you might consider seeing Daniel’s all-new festival show, Murphy’s Law, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, or the Sydney Comedy Festival.

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In Sydney for a Spell

Young Guns - Michael Workman

Dom Romeo: I’m sitting on a bench outside of Melbourne’s Town Hall the day after the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival has ended, with Michael Workman, one of my favourite up-and-coming comics – indeed, one of my favourite comics. I first saw him contesting the Raw Comedy National Final last year, which he won. This year he featured – as the Raw winner does – in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together of the best up-and-comers. He’s about to head to Sydney to perform his one-man show The Ogre as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival.

Michael, where do you want to begin?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Hm. Let’s begin at the beginning: Comedy, as an art form. Why would anybody do it?

Dom Romeo: Why do you do it?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Why would anybody do it? I don’t know. People are disturbed, I think. And I’m certainly one of those people, and so the constant need for attention and approval of complete strangers leads me to comedy. Which is working quite well, I think, at the moment.

Dom Romeo: How did you start? Why did you start?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well I was very drunk, to be fair, and alcohol sort of influences a lot of decisions you make through your life. I was a musician before this and my instruments got stolen. I was left with no means of connecting with people and entertaining, so I had to find something I could do without a musical instrument and that’s how I got into this, basically.

Dom Romeo: That’s an awesome story, but part of me says you could have made that up on the spot.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: No, it’s quite true. My house was broken into and I lost everything I used to make music.

Dom Romeo: What was ‘everything’? Were they traditional amplified instruments, or electronic stuff?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: They were electronic keyboards and a small recording device, so yeah: that was it. It was gone, Dom. Gone.

Dom Romeo: I actually thought you said, ‘it was God, Dom’ the first time, which could also be true.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s exactly the kind of thing He would pull. He has a long history of doing things like that to me. So, I don’t know.

Dom Romeo: Is there a lost, not-quite-completed first album? Had you uploaded any tracks to MySpace or elsewhere? Is there something that’s going to come back to bite you when you’re a world-famous, notorious comic – like the Bill Hicks recordings with his band Marble Head Johnson?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: No, probably not. You see, I’m quite lazy and not very technologically savvy. So I doubt that most of that would have made it onto the Internet or anything like that. I don’t think there’s even recordings of it, to be fair.

Dom Romeo: The instruments were gone; what made you go, ‘I’m going to get up on stage and talk about stuff.’

MICHAEL WORKMAN: I was incredibly depressed, I think, and not really doing a lot with my life. I was living in this horrible place surrounded by meth addicts, in a share house that I was very frustrated with. I just needed some reason to get out of there and go and meet new people and do things that were exciting.

Dom Romeo: Now this was in Perth, which has a very strong, close-knit comedy community, many of who were actors before they were comics. They are very impro-driven and are very good at clowning and playing to kids… you don’t seem to fit any of the crass stereotypes I’ve created to sum up an entire city’s very strong comedy culture.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well, perhaps not, but I think there is a strong movement of surrealist comics in Perth. You’re certainly right about the theatre background and the improvisation background. There’s a lot of that going around. But I think with the isolation in the city, the art seems to be kind of bizarre and kind of from a place of sensory deprivation. There’s not a whole lot for creative people to do in Perth so there’s this bizarre outburst that happens in all of our arts culture. That’s this very surreal movement that comes out of there.

Dom Romeo: You are very surreal. If I had to describe you, to me… The accent I find a bit interesting. It’s kind of early period David Bowie crossed with A Clockwork Orange… you’ve got the whole thing going as a Goth. You have great routine about the difference between Goths and Emos… You paint your nails black, you dress mostly in black, you seem like the real thing to me.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, I am the real thing, I must say. I have glitter nail polish that’s just chipping off. That’s all right, I like it when it chips off… I was in a Goth band for five years, I was in the Goth scene for a long time. I don’t really actively participate in that anymore but I still enjoy the aesthetic. I’m still very committed to that ideal. Why not?

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Dom Romeo: I also notice some awesome tattoos. For example, on your left arm, there’s a 2+2=5, which could be a reference to a Radiohead song, but I think is more likely to be a reference to the novel 1984, which the Radiohead song also references. Tell me about that, and the tattoo under it, which I assume is in Jewish.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, that’s Hebrew…

Dom Romeo: Hebrew! Sorry. ‘In Jewish…!’ How uncultured am I!

MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s okay.

‘2+2=5’ is from 1984. That is a great Radiohead song as well, off Hail to the Thief, which is all about how Bush stole that election and that kind of thing, so it’s a good parallel to draw. But yeah, at the end of the book, they torture the main character until he admits that two plus two equals five. I guess I got this tattoo as a reminder to constantly be critical about the things that happen around me. That’s a very good thing to take into your comedy as well, because it’s your job as a comedian in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, to criticise society and make people aware of things that are going on.

As for the other one, this Hebrew tattoo, this is the Hebrew word ‘EMET’ which means ‘truth’.

Dom Romeo: And if you rub the ‘E’ out, it says ‘death’.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s right. If you rub out the Alef, it says ‘MET’ which means ‘death’. It’s what they wrote on the Golem of Prague to bring him to life.

Dom Romeo: I know that from a comic book, that’s how cultured I am. I probably couldn’t tell you which one – although it may have been a Howard the Duck comic from the 70s.

Sorry. Continue.

Are you in fact Jewish?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: No I’m not. I’ve studied a lot of ritual magic and stuff. That’s where it all comes from.

Dom Romeo: And on your chest you have another tattoo – a ‘talisman’ is what you might have called it.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: It’s a talisman from my sort of occult days, that I use for a general kind of protection. It has a symbol of a demigod in the middle of it who’s kind of my ‘patron’, if you like.

[Michael also has a symbol on the wrist of his right arm; it represents the Archangel Michael - Dom]

Workman's tats

Dom Romeo: When you say your ‘occult days’, a) are you allowed to talk about that stuff, and b) what did it entail? And if the answer to a) is ‘no’, forget b), obviously.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Of course you can talk about things. If there’s anything you can’t talk about in that circle, it’s not because people want to keep it a secret, it’s more because these things have to be experienced to be understood, so there’s really no point in explaining them verbally.

I’m sorry, what was the second part of your question again?

Dom Romeo: What did it entail? Because you say ‘occult’, I immediately think of sacrificing virgins and goats on a pentagram to comic-book demons.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Well that is fun, but it very rarely happens. It’s more about enacting your will on earth. Lots of very mundane things are actually magical rites. If you go to a church service, that’s a magical rite. If somebody’s doing some public speaking, that’s a form of magic. It’s all about dominating the physical world with the power of your mind or your being.

Dom Romeo: So, Michael Workman, I’ve seen you perform magic several times on a stage, creating something out of words, that make people react uncontrollably, beyond their ability, laughing uproariously. That’s magic.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Yeah, that’s magic. One of the first things that you learn is that words are incredibly powerful. Everything is made out of words so if you can learn to control words then you can basically do anything.

Dom Romeo: Wow, that’s awesome! And, beautifully, it’s taken us to your comedy.

What I love about your stuff, your on-stage magic, is that a lot of comics when they start out, do self-deprecating autobiography. They talk about what they know: life experiences that they’ve got enough distance from to turn around to be funny with (otherwise it’s not comedy, it’s just confessional, which isn’t entertaining, necessarily).

But your comedy is a level removed from that. There’s stuff that happens, but you don’t just talk about it literally with twists that are jokes; it’s like you’ve already moved beyond. It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a metaphorical move… Your reaction to real life is a step removed.

Like your example of being abused by random people in a car, where you repeat the abuse and point out that it took the form of haiku. Another comic would have just told us their perfect comeback, perhaps tagging it with the admission that they never delivered the perfect comeback – because they thought it up much later. You’re delivering an extra level of intelligence upon the process.

I’m gushing in a boring way here, so just acknowledge and correct me where necessary.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: You’ve got to get to the core of any issue. Finding the thing that makes something frustrating is very, very important and putting it in a succinct way, that’s your challenge as a comic.

With that particular joke, I could have been incredibly mean to that person. But what I did was point out something that he wouldn’t have realised, which in a way is an insult to him,a very shrouded insult to him that only others would understand. So he appears as quite an idiot, this hypothetical person, at the end of the joke. But I’d like to steer away from being mean to people or being insulting in my comedy because I don’t think that’s a very likeable quality and I wouldn’t like my jokes if that’s the form they all took.

Dom Romeo: The other one I like, an early joke from your Raw routine, is when you’re doing an impression by standing on the spot, waving your arm, but the impression isn’t about the arm, it’s about you standing on the spot doing an impression by waving your arm. So once again, you’ve moved the frame of reference and the joke is one step removed from the event that inspired it. It’s not about ‘that’ anymore, it’s about all of ‘this’, instead.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: To this day I still don’t know why that joke is funny. I’ve tried to deconstruct it many times, but I don’t get it. I think it’s the fact that there’s this really unexpected intense insight into me that shouldn’t be there. It’s completely inappropriate and done in such a flippant way that maybe that’s why it’s funny. I don’t know.

Dom Romeo: Maybe we shouldn’t analyse; we should just leave it to be funny.

You’re about to do a show that is far more personal. It’s certainly not self-deprecating, but it is autobiographical and heartfelt. It’s called The Ogre. I didn’t see the first Sydney test run of the show, but everyone who did told me how good it was, so kudos to you; I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Tell me a bit about the show.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: The show is about a period where I lived with my father. He was very ill at the time. It’s about working through the issues I had with him and his apparent alcoholism, and his frustrations and his hatred towards the world – his misanthropy – and seeing those things reflected in me and trying to overcome them. So basically I’m using my father as an example of how wrong you can go in life, and how hate-filled you can become. And how to avoid that.

Dom Romeo: Not having seen the show, I think the major difference between you and your dad is you discovered the occult and learnt magic and did comedy and can devise jokes that aren’t hate-filled, and are clever and positive; your dad never got the chance.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: That’s one of the points that I make in the show: it’s very easy to say these things about him and I didn’t want it to be judgemental of him. I had way more opportunities than he did, and perhaps he missed out on some of the tools you need in life that you need to overcome those problems, that I fortunately had. So I guess it’s about being thankful that things went better for me than they did  for him.

Dom Romeo: Excellent! I could try to pick apart or guess what’s going on in Ogre, but really, if anyone’s seen you do the Raw final, or Comedy Zone this year, they should come and see your show. Clearly, you’re someone who is going to get somewhere interesting comedically much faster than a lot of other people. So now’s the time to get in at the ground level, while tickets are affordable. 

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Thank you very much, Dom.

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Dom Romeo: Now, before I let you go, I want you to tell me about the Fred Schneider game.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: There’s a game that we play in Perth called ‘Hey, Fred Schneider!’ For those of you who don’t know, Fred Schneider was the male lead singer of the B-52’s who has a very distinct voice and he always sings that don’t make a whole lot of sense so we have a little improv game that we play, where we sing, ‘Hey, Fred Schneider, what are you doing?’, and we do his voice, and then somebody’s gotta come up with some bizarre B-52’s parody lyric in his voice, like ‘I’m putting some batteries in a brick I found in the yard…’. You’ve got to keep it going. Whoever drops the ball, that’s the end of the game.

Dom Romeo: What happens to them?

MICHAEL WORKMAN: Um…

Dom Romeo: Do they go ‘down… down… down…’? Sorry. I was just trying to find a suitable B-52's reference to end on.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: I think you’ve done very well. Let’s go with that.

Dom Romeo: Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL WORKMAN: It’s been a pleasure.

See Michael Workman deliver The Ogre in The Other Room at the Factory Theatre, Wed 21 Apr - Sun 25 Apr @ 9:15pm. More info.

He's also appearing in Puppy Fight Social Club in the Boiler Room at the Factory Theatre, Fri 23 @ 10:15pm. More info.

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World’s Funniest Island

Island promo

While a multitude of comics are tense with the opening of the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it’s worth noting that Sydney’s just scored itself another comedy festival.

I know what you’re thinking, as you tick them off –  those Sydney Comedy Festivals of 1998 and 1999,  the Cracker Comedy Festival, the Sydney Comedy Festival that was really just Cracker under a different name, the Big Laugh Festival  that  used to run parallel to  Cracker once  Cracker was up-and-running… not to mention attempts at Sydney Fringe festivals, Bondi festivals, cabaret festivals, all giving a home to comedy… as well as festivals established or in development for the Central Coast and Bowral – pretty soon there’ll be enough for each and every comedian in New South Wales to have his or her very own festival.

Indeed, the Prime Minister got wind of it and has threatened to take comedy festivals over from the state governments, in order to ensure each adheres to a national standard of comedy. Here’s his National Address on Comedy:

Of course, in this instance, the role of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been played by comedian Anthony Ackroyd. It’s a little eerie how much he looks, having donned KRudd hair, like the bastard offspring of Graham Kennedy and Charles Firth. Kind of fitting that the Prime Minister is a cross between those two, I guess.

All righty, the important question is, what sets this new Sydney Comedy Festival apart from all the others?

For starters, World’s Funniest Island boasts “one ticket, two big days, 18 venues, 200 shows” because it is built on the rock festival template. That is to say, it’s built on a carnival template. With good reason: one of the people behind it is John Pinder, who has a long history in comedy and a great love of circus.

When Pinder was first pointed out to me at a taping of a comedy show, for which he was executive producer, he was described as ‘the Godfather of Australian Comedy’, a description he has forbidden me to use since it fails to acknowledge any of the people who broke comedy ground in this country before him. When I’d finally met him, Pinder was Director of the Big Laugh Festival. I wrote an article about him at the time. I present it here with a portrait of him, painted by Bill Leak.

Pinder


Comedy Pinderview

John Pinder has been involved in comedy, as well as music and theatre, pretty much throughout his life. In addition to managing acts, owning venues and touring talent, he has had a hand in the founding of such important institutions as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Comedy Channel. Sounds like he’s just the man to be launching a new comedy festival.

“Comedy’s a bit like pop,” Pinder explains. “If pop didn’t re-invent itself, nobody would ever write another good four-chord pop song. It’s the same with comedy. It becomes very easy after a long time to say, ‘I’ve heard that before’. You have to bite your tongue because it’s important that people actually do explore and experiment.” In addition to not wanting to over-analyse what should remain in and of its moment, John Pinder is loathe to talk about comedy because, he says, “comedy ought to be funny” and as far as he is concerned, he is not. He also eschews memorabilia. “There’s no point in keeping it; somebody has to re-invent it all again and if you collect all that shit they’ll look at it and go, ‘it’s been done it before’.” And yet, get him started, and he is a wealth of humorous anecdotes, a store of imaginative memorabilia housed in his own museum of recollection.

One of John’s tricks is to date you by the kind of comedy you first started listening to. If your first love is Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you’re in your mid- to late-30s; if it’s The Goodies you’re about 40 to 45. The Goon Show means you’re old enough to lie about your age if you don’t want to confess to being in your late-50s. “You get your comedy chops about the same age as you first start listening to music,” John explains. The Goon Show began when he was just hitting puberty. For a kid whose family didn’t have a television, hearing The Goons on radio was very ‘rock’n’roll’. “My father liked funny shit on the radio and we listened to it as a family because at seven o’clock on Sunday night we used to turn the radio on like people turn on the television. The Goon Show came along and my parents hated it.” Which succeeded in making John like it all the more – just like rock’n’roll!

Of course, John’s anecdotes and knowledge betray a much broader love of comedy. For starters, his favourite act at the recent Adelaide Fringe was, essentially, a juggler. “I’m really tired of people who say, ‘not another fucking juggler’. There’s something really astonishing about someone who hasn’t even opened his mouth and you’re wetting yourself laughing.” All the great stand-up comics, he points out, incorporate some sort of physicality in their mode of performance. A lot more “would benefit” from being able to mime or juggle. And, logically, “a lot of jugglers would benefit from having some jokes.” Pinder’s love of this other form of comedy also dates back to his childhood, when his family lived next door to a circus lot where Ashton’s and Bullen’s would set up their circuses when they were in town. “I wanted to run away with the circus from the time I was very young,” he says. Fact is, he pretty much has.

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