Rebecca De Unamuno

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“With improv, I can just be myself,” says Rebecca De Unamuno. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable.”

For a fine actor like Rebecca – with a comic bent and a particular love of improvising – the beauty of impro is that it grants both her and her audience immedate suspension of diselief, making it easy for her to take on any character she chooses:

“I can be a southern belle, a hooker, grandmother, even a man, or an inanimate object” she says, roles she wouldn’t always land in other situations.

“I would not be cast as the tall blonde size 8, because that is not what I am. In improv, I can be whatever I want to be. That’s absolute freedom, as opposed to, ‘No, you can’t do that, you can’t be that, you’re too this, you’re too that…’”

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Rebecca De Unamuno with Daniel Cordeaux

 

As It’s near the end of Rebecca’s Sydney Comedy Festival run, where she’s fronting The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno – “it just makes me laugh, that that’s the name of the show,” she says, with healthy self-deprecation – where she’s had the opportunity to showcase the talents of newer comics as well as bigger name stars like Frank Woodley as special guests.

But the reason I’m catching up with her – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages – is because I had the pleasure of seeing her improvising, once again, with a crack team of similarly talented individuals, as part of the Cale Bain- directed Full Body Contact No Love Tennis currently occupying the Tuesday night improv slot at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe.

There was a particular moment – that I won’t be able to do justice in words – in a scene she shared with another player, where she was an ‘elderly mother’ receiving a ‘home made present’ from her ‘daughter’. At a certain point early in the scene, every other improviser had the exact same idea of what the parcel, yet to be handed over, must contain, as they all contributed to the scenario. Rebecca took it a step further by ‘calling back’ to an earlier scene. It was magical to watch.

“They’re very exciting moments,” Rebecca says, “when you have that ‘shared brain’ experience on stage and you go, ‘I knew you were going to do that!’ It’s just as exciting as the moments where you go, ‘I had no idea you were going to do that!’”

That is the beauty of improv: the opportunity to “work with other people who are having a very similar, shared experience as you. And performing without that net – the trust that you put in other people, experimenting on stage and seeing what will happen. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But what a ride; what a risk: to have nothing guaranteed.”

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I’ve known Rebecca since her university days. You know her too. Even if your love of comedy is a passing dalliance, you know her better than you imagine. Because, even if you think you haven’t seen any of the short films she’s appeared in that have made the Tropfest finals (Muffled Love, finalist, 2001; Tragic Love, 2nd place, 2002; Garbage Man, finalist, 2005; The Code, finalist 2008). Tropfest Finalist, Winner of Best Short Film at the 2009 World Comedy Film Awards); if you haven’t seen any of the Theatresports finals she’s played, let alone hosted or directed; if you haven’t seen her guest in various Chaser projects; haven’t heard her on Thank God It’s Friday; haven’t seen any of the various shows she’s been in or fronted in the various festivals around the world; not seen an episode of Big Bite; not seen the Great Debate she was in at a Melbourne International Comedy Festival; not see any of the three brilliant tours with Jason Alexander and his Comedy Spectacular; not seen her in Dad & Dave Live or Spontaneous Broadway

Even then, you’ve been exposed to Rebecca’s work. You know her far better than you realise. Because you hear her voice regularly.

Between the “big acting jobs”, Rebecca does a lot of voiceover work. “I’m the one selling you products,” she says, citing current Pine-O-Clean and anti-smoking campaigns as the examples currently in high rotation. And it’s a good thing too – it’s those jobs that enable Rebecca to keep getting on the improv stage.

What I didn’t know is that initially, during Rebecca’s university days, she had her sights set on serious drama.

“I really enjoyed comedy and was into it, but I never really saw myself doing it,” she says. “I was going to be…” – adopts the voice – “… a serious actor. I auditioned for all the drama schools when I finished high school. I very much wanted to do theatre…”

It was in the pursuit of theatre – a major production by the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) of Danton’s Death – that Rebecca began hanging out with fellow student actors who were doing this thing called ‘Theatresports’, where they’d compete in teams, playing games that involved making stuff up on the spot. They’d play professionally, at the Belvoir St Theatre, as well as during lunchtimes on the stage of Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar, in a competition hosted by Adam Spencer.

“I used to go and watch, and think, ‘I could never do what they’re doing’, but over time I’d start to think of scenarios and things to say in response to scenes,” Bec recalls. Then one of her Danton’s Death mates “dragged” her onto the Manning Bar stage.

“I said, ‘but I don’t know what I’m doing’, and he said, ‘good!’” At the beginning of each round, he’d give her just enough information for her to get through the game. Adam would announce the next round as ‘Subtitles’, say, and Rebecca would ask, ‘What’s that?’ Her mate would reply, “just speak in a funny language and I’ll translate!” Thrown in at the deep end, Rebecca realised the comedic side of things were taking over!

In time Rebecca directed the Arts Revue on campus, after which, she was ‘discovered’; she was part of a troupe put together to create sketch comedy professionally. The show was called Larfapalooza. Actually, it was first and ever-so-briefly called The Sketchy Sketch Show. The cast consisted of stand-up comics Subby Valentine, Tom Gleeson and Sarah Kendall, the latter two, having just appeared in the Arts Revue, brought their friend and director onboard. The show played the Melbourne Fringe in 1998. “That was great,” Rebeccas recalls. “That was our first exposure to a festival, as such.

I remember interviewing Sarah Kendall at the time, and was surprised to discover how much Sarah loathed improvisation. Despite working so well with Rebecca, the stand-up comic in her couldn’t take the leap of faith without the safety net of a well-scripted routine.

“I would say the same thing about what Sarah did,” Rebecca explains. “There was no way that I could get together five minutes of material and work it and re-work it and re-work it again to make it right.”

It was, Rebecca reckons, through coming from those opposite ends and meeting in the middle, that the work was so good.

The second time Rebecca was cast in a sketch show, the cast was much bigger, and she knew only one other cast member. The show was Big Bite, which she appeared in with the likes of Andrew O’Keefe (another Sydney University improvising alumnus; now hosting Deal Or No Deal), Richard Pyros (now part of the STC enseble working under artistic directors Cate Blanchette and Andrew Upton), Jake Stone (lead singer of Blue Juice), Kate McCartney (an AFI-nominated animator), Melissa Madden-Gray (nowadays known as Meow Meow) and Chris Lilley…

“Apart from Andrew and I, none of us had met,” Rebecca recalls. “We were just this random collection of people they had put together and told, ‘be funny’.” Such beginnings could prove a disaster. Instead, good things happened.

“Andrew and I were the only improvisers, as such – apart from Chris Lilley, but he didn’t really see himself as an improviser,” Rebecca says. She and O’Keefe had the ideal working relationship with the writers: they’d be given a scenario, fall into character and start riffing – sketches would be created from that. This ‘Second City’ style of sketch creation worked a treat.

“We did one that was an elderly couple; we just started putting on the voices and the scenario evolved: we were doing an audition tape for Big Brother. It was just these two bickering oldies.”

By the end of the series, everyone got on well and worked together well – which of course means the show ended after a single season. “It’s a pity the second series never happened. We’d just gotten to know each other and hit out strides with each other and knew each other’s strengths and stuff.”

 

Knowing each other’s strengths is important. So is knowing your own. There had to be a point where Rebecca realised that she could trust herself, going out on stage without anything, and knowing that she’d be fine.

“It took me a couple of years to trust myself completely,” Rebecca says, but she can pinpoint a particular moment where “everything had aligned” and she’d need not worry. It was during a Theatresports game at the Belvoir St Theatre, in which she was playing a scene with Julia Zemiro. Because it was a bigger stage than the one in Manning Bar, there was more physicality, as opposed to the need of merely being ‘talking heads’. That mean the characters could enter in silence, establishing themselves physically rather than verbally.

“It was the first time I was aware of the silence that we had in a scene,” Rebecca explains. The scene was set in an art gallery, and both Julia and she came on ‘looking at paintings’.

“I had no idea how she was reacting to the paintings, but I was having a distinct reaction and expressing it physically, and the audience was reacting positively to that,” Rebecca remembers. “That’s when I completely trusted that what I was doing was working: I didn’t have to say anything in order to create a reality. It was a shared narrative with not one word spoken. There was just that element of ‘we get this now; this is complete trust. Neither of us has to break this in order to try and say something funny’.”

That, effectively, was the moment came where Rebecca realised she could go on stage with nothing, and, if need be, create something by continuing to fill the space with nothing. The confidence and ability to hold the audience with silence is massive. It was the point she trusted herself totally in improv.

While trusting the silence is important, trusting the other bits is important too.

“When I started, I realised I would do and say things that I had no intention of being funny, and yet people would laugh at them,” Rebecca says. “I was just being the character. That happened a lot when I was starting out: I was constantly surprised that people would find things funny.”

In time, Rebecca realised that she was funny because she wasn’t trying to be. “Sometimes you can try too hard, and you just shoot yourself in the foot. Whereas, if you just stick to the story and the character, the humour will come from that.”

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The humour is present and accounted for. Does Rebecca still take on the serious roles? Well, she auditions for them. But, she says, she“always ends up getting the comedy, be it sketch or a play”. Furthermore, even when she lands a serious role, it doesn’t stay serious. Last year she played the radio MC in the Q Theatre production of Dad & Dave Live. The show was presented from the original radio scripts, on stage (as though the stage were the radio studio of the 1930s).

“I got the opportunity to put on lots of different voices, so it used all of the strings to my bow,” Rebecca says, “but my role was comedy, even though I was working opposite some really straight actors.”

Rebecca’s role, as MC, meant she had to address and interact with the audience.

“I had to break out of character – from the scripts – and still be a character and improvise with them. It gave me a chance to do everything I do. It was so much fun!”

Not least of all because it meant there could be a different, improvised bit every night:

“The demands of doing the same thingcan get a little monotonous for me. I like to shake things up a bit, so I would find ways of doing something a bit differently. When I spoke to the audience I would do something new each time.”

The she worked it was to establish a bit of a ‘crush’ on the character of the actor who plays ‘Dave’ in the radio show-within-the-play. She’d bring him forward during the ‘ad break’, when she’d engage with the audience, reading out his fanmail on stage. But the letter would always be from her, including a love poem – a different one improvised each night.

“It would always end up with me throwing myself at him, but he never knew how I would get there or what I would say.”

Being so adept at being funny while improvising, there is an essential question that has to be asked, given the success of British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway. When are we gonna get an Aussie version on the box? I know Rebecca’s been involved in pilots to bring improv to the small screen.

“Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve done about four or five pilots.”

Rebecca reckons the closest we’ve come was last year, when someone local – she can’t remember who, but suspects it was Cordell Jigsaw – acquired the rights to “an Aussie Whose Line”:

“It was great: they got all these people together and they workshopped ideas, and a pilot was going to be made… but I haven’t heard anything about it.”

The difficulty of it, according to Rebecca, is the technical inexperience when it comes to capturing it for the screen. “Those in the industry haven’t seen enough improv to know how it works,” she says. The crew has to know how improv operates, and be prepared to follow the action. You can’t block out camera shots in a rehearsal; since it’s improvised, the performers may not be standing in the same place, doing the same thing. She reckons, the crews who film sporting events would be perfect for it, since they’re used to ‘following the ball’, the perfect metaphor for following improv action – and anticipating where it will go.

“It’s the immediacy of improv, when you’re in the live audience, that’s really felt. It’s quite tricky, trying to give the home audience that same feeling. That’s why, for Whose Line, they record for hours and broadcast the best bits.” They also have a formula, as Rebecca points out: “Wayne Brady will always be cast in the musical numbes, because that’s his strength; Ryan and Colin will always work together because that’s their strength. It’s not left to chance.”

I’m hoping it is Cordell Jigsaw who currently own the rights. Because they’re now Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, the Zapruder bit being Denton’s company. I remember seeing Denton as a regular contestant in Theatresports on the telly back in the ’80s. Maybe it’ll happen…

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One of the other great live shows we need to talk about is Jason Alexander’s Comedy Spectacular, of which, Rebecca has been an essential part.

According to Rebecca, there are certain improvisors you just click with, and others, no matter how hard you try, you never really blend well with on stage. “It’s like a relationship: if it doesn’t work, you leave. If you find people you work well with, you want to stay in that relationship and you want to keep working with those people. Because you want to be inspired, and be inspiring to people.”

Jason Alexander and Rebecca De Unamuno have one of those ‘inspired and inspiring’ dynamics.

“He calls me his ‘sister from another mister’,” Rebecca says. “And I call him ‘my brother from another mother’. He started to introduce me as that on stage very early on. We’ve done three tours together now.”

Rebecca was approached to take part in the show because improv had been seen to be taking off in Australia, owing to Thank God You’re Here (although, fact is, there was very little improv in Thank God You’re Here; apart from the guest, the cast is very tightly drilled). The idea was to do something improv-based at the end of the show, that would involve all of Alexander’s guests.

The initial cast included Kitty Flanagan, Tom Gleeson and the Scared Weird Little Guys. “They were all enthusiastic, but it wasn’t what they all do, so it was a matter of trying to get something where we’d all ‘have a moment’. Jason was so supportive of that.”

By the third tour, Jason had brought his pianist with him, and wanted the big finale to be an improvised musical.

“My response was, ‘Um… are you kidding me? Do the things I love the most? With a Tony-Award winning Musical Theatre performer?’”

At the opening night, in the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Rebecca says she had a little ‘out-of-body’ experience, where she saw herself and said, “look at what you’re doing right now!” To say it went well was an unerstatement. According to Alexander, it’s as though the pair “had been performing together for 15 years”.

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So back to Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno, the reason we’re having this little catch-up.

Rebecca was approached by Marko Mustac, the Creative Director of Impro Australia, who had put a submission in for a late-night impro show with guests, to the Sydney Comedy Festival, not knowing if the show would get up. When it did, he approached Rebecca to host it, figuring, she can, and besides, she knows a lot of comics who’d love to come on board as guests.

“I was given complete artistic freedom as to what it was”, she says. Her only misgiving is the name, which still makes her giggle. “It sounds like I’m so up myself’: ‘The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno’. It’s quite funny!”

Since Rebecca’s career began, and has continued, being theatre-based, and she has a view to devising long-form improvised plays, she’s was quite keen to incorporate some of those elements in what is still a “good old, humour-based improv sketch show”. However, she pulls it off with smoother transitions – so it feels more like a show, than a bunch of improv bits. And she adapts it to suit the guests.

“When Frank Woodley guested, we played a scene that would normally have words in it, as a mime, because it’s his absolute forte,” she explains. “And I close the show every night with a song. I play a nightclub singer, coming to the end of the set, and I wrap up the show with a  totally improvised song.”

Bec will grab a stool and a mic and deliver a preamble over a vamping introduction, re-capping all the things the audience has seen in the show; since the show is improvised, so, too is the preamble. Then the reminiscence shifts from the night that’s unfolded, to the life lessons she’s been taught, including the advice she’ received over the years. She’ll casually ask an audience member to share some advice their mother gave them. That’s when it gets exciting. “Their answer becomes the title of the closing song, in which I deliver my parting thoughts. ‘Wear more make-up’ has been one of them. ‘Wash your face’ has been another.”

My parting thoughts? See Rebecca De Unamuno perform. Either in the Impro Late Show, or a round of Full Body Contact No Love Tennis. Or see the upcoming Theatresports grand final that she’s directing. You won’t just be amazed – you’ll be surprised at how amazed you’ll be.

 

Fine Print:

Impro Late Show with Bec De Unamuno May 11, May 12 - with special guests!

Tuesdays and Thursdays are Impro nights at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe - Rebecca’s a regular

• Celebrity Theatresports, July - directed by Rebecca

 


Still Here...

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May I just say that despite lack of evidence of regular posts here, please be reassured I am alive and well and doing a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called Stand-Up Sit-Down, where I get up close and personal with a bunch of awesome comedians. Here's the list, where you can also buy tickets. What? You couldn't possibly leave this page and check it out? Okay. Here's the list:

You missed Fiona O'Loughlin last night.

Don't miss:

Tom Gleeson, March 30;
Fear of a Brown Planet, March 31;
DeAnne Smith, April 1;
Sammy J, April 3;
Tim Ferguson, April 4;
Greg Fleet, April 5;
Hannah Gadsby, April 6;
Celia Pacquola, April 7;
Andrew Denton, April 8.

Seriously. Come hang out with Dom ’n’ Tom tonight!

Tom Gleeson photo

I will keep blogging, but mostly as a kind of festival diary for the show. And only when not flyering, seeing shows…

Meanwhile, come see the show.

And failing that, support it through my Pozible campaign. Pledge a small amount, it all helps to contribute to what, in Fiona O'Loughlin's words, is "a fine tradition that has begun!!!!!"


Stand-Up Sit-Down

Coming soon to a 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival near you:

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Tix available now.

 

 


Tom Gleeson


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To anyone who has followed Tom Gleeson’s comedic career, the Australian Fast Bowler comes as no surprise; not just because he’s always professed a love of Aussie (as well as British) sketch comedy, including vintage Paul Hogan (after whose multitude of comic characters the Australia Fast Bowler seems to take), but also because – along with longtime comedy collaborator Subby Valentine, Gleeson has long indulged in filming hilarious sketches. So his skitHOUSE work really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Indeed, nowadays it is the stand-up that takes fans by surprise. Thankfully, it is something Tom continues to return to, and his Sydney Opera House Studio run of Ginger Ninja is an all-too-rare opportunity for Sydney-siders to catch him in his element. It also offers me an excuse to expunge the vaults once again. Here are a bunch of Tom Gleeson interviews from way back.


From the 12 March 2001 issue of
Revolver:

Stealin’ All the Best Bits

Tom Gleeson purloins all the good gags for his new show Pirate Copy.


“It’s an illegal and inferior copy of other people’s Festival shows,” comedian Tom Gleeson offers as the concise explanation of what his 2001 Melbourne Comedy Festival Show, Pirate Copy, is about. “Everything’s been pinched from somewhere,” he insists. When pressed, Tom does have another description: Pirate Copy consists of “all the funniest things” he has ever thought of that he can “do in an hour”.

Many of the ‘funniest things’ Tom Gleeson has ever thought of consist of hilarious short films and piss-funny sound gags conjured up with guitar effects pedals. The pedals are particularly special because the routines appear to be so simple. And yet they are so clever, so much so that other comics have expressed jealousy that they didn’t make the discovery first. “That’s one of the best things about comedy,” Tom admits, “when you can just spot the really obvious thought at the heart of everything else that no-one else can get.”

These ‘funniest things’ of Gleeson’s actually date back to Tom and Subby’s Video Sandwich, an ingenious show incorporating video, devised with longtime collaborator Subby Valentine, which premiered in Sydney last September. After a few Sydney performances, Tom and Subby took Video Sandwich to Melbourne’s Fringe Festival, always with an eye to getting it into that city’s Inernational Comedy Festival (and onto television if the right producer would come to his or her senses). By the end of its Fringe run, at which audiences “laughed from one end of the show to the other,” Tom and Subby had nipped and tucked Video Sandwich into a “pretty nifty show”. However, even though Tom is heading down, Video Sandwich will not be returning to Melbourne just yet… and neither will Subby. Valentine is currently a father-to-be and the estimated time of arrival of Bubby Subby is smack in the middle of the Comedy Festival. Although initially trying to work out a way that Subby could perform the show and maintain his parental duties, the comics soon realised that such a scenario was neither “very sensible” or “very responsible”. Thus, Gleeson is going it alone with his Pirate Copy of the show. Pirate Copy then is clearly “an inferior and illegal version” of Video Sandwich. “The show’s title is really a big disclaimer,” Tom confesses.

So what happens if a producer comes to his senses while Tom is doing Pirate Copy? Would it be a case of ‘Fuck Subby!’? “Yeah, essentially,” Tom laughs. He reckons that would be the scenario if he and Valentine were in each other’s place. “If he became a really successful father, would I get involved in any ‘bringing up the child’ sort of way? No.”

Truth is, the pair have been working closely for some time, their professional relationship beginning with collaborating on each other’s stand-up material. Some of the punchlines Subby delivers are in fact Tom’s, and vice-versa. Yet there is no jealousy over who gets the laugh for whose gag. “Whoever started the idea gets the finished product,” Tom says. More importantly, the understanding is that whoever is the first to become successful, the other will be his “‘Bob Franklin’… of ‘Francis Greenslade’… or whatever.”

Despite preparations for the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Tom’s going full-speed into his other solo work. He makes his ‘television stand-up debut’ on Rove [Live] this week. (Other television appearances don’t count, says Tom, because they were either performances of songs or sketches, or were performances taped in live venues. His spot on Recovery doesn’t count because “that was early in the morning” and the audience was crap as ever.)

Meanwhile, Tom and Subby continue to forge ahead. Last week they taped an appearance for the Comedy Channel’s Headliners, to be broadcast some time in the future. “It’s to let the industry at large know that we’re doing a double act; we haven’t really scratched the surface yet – we’ve only been exposed in a minor fashion.” Although it was Video Sandwich without the videos – “a bit tricky” according to Tom, because the videos afford a break in which to remember what bits of stand-up come next – it included the hilarious pedals. The pair are also currently pre-recording a series of Triple J Breakfast spots – one would hope in order to groom them for whatever ‘comedy duo’ vacancy may arise when the void left by Merrick and Rosso’s departure is filled. And they continue to bask in the recent TropFest success of their video Rewind, which was shortlisted in the top sixty out of 580. A gorgeously self-referential, surreal film, Rewind originated in Video Sandwich. “And it’s in Pirate Copy,” Tom adds, “because, again, it’s among some of the funniest things that I have ever done.”

Tom hopes to start making videos again later this year. But he has a Melbourne International Comedy Festival season to complete first.


From the 4 September 2000 issue of Revolver:

Tom & Subby’s Video Sandwich

(More than just another TV Dinner)


“I said to Subby, ‘I reckon I’m gonna do something really, really dumb soon, I just know it’,” Tom Gleeson offers. His friend and comedic collaborator, Subby Velentine, concurs: with a bit of time on their hands, Tom decided he’d purchase a video camera. “Two hours later, he rang me and said, ‘I got it!’”

Why is this significant? Well, the last time Tom found himself in the ‘doing something foolish’ mindset, he went and recorded a humorous single. So if Tom Gleeson is finding himself hatching schemes, this time armed with a video camera, it is safe to assume that something good will come of it. In fact, something has: a live show – yes, ‘live’ – that incorporates the fruits of Tom and Subby’s labour: pre-recorded sketches. Or ‘clips’, rather, as the pair corrects me: “These days, ‘sketch’ doesn’t really mean anything to anyone,” Tom explains. “When you say ‘sketch show’, people say, ‘so it’s going to be like Full Frontal, is it?’ And you go, ‘No!’” Subby jumps in, covering himself karmically: “Not that there’s anything wrong with Full Frontal…”

Tom and Subby have a comedy-clip pedigree behind them. In the recent past, they both wrote and performed in James O’Loghlin on Saturday Night (Subby admits that Tom wrote; he merely “mucked around” with and “ruined” the finished scripts). Earlier on, Subby and Tom were one half of the live, sketch-based entity that went by the name of The Sketchy Sketch Show. It was later re-titled Larfapalooza and, with one eye on its television potential, was touted as ‘Sydney’s best sketch-based comedy show’. That it was also pretty much Sydney’s only sketch-based comedy show prevented any challenges to the veracity of that statement. Realising that they had everything required to go on television apart from “a camera, a director and a cameraman” (and, of course, a contract) the pair set about rectifying the situation and started shooting “stuff that we found funny”.

They began with O’Loghlin left-overs – sketches that, for whatever reason, had been rejected. Learning as they went along, they themselves ended up ultimately rejecting all but one of these early attempts; subsequent clips were better executed, the writing, more multi-layered. “We would shoot one thirty-second clip a week and probably spend half a day to one day filming,” Tom says, “working really slowly – literally relaxed – so that we could get it all right.”

Having acquired good footage, they then turned to someone who could “put it together nicely”. That someone was Michael Castleman, an editor who currently works for Channel Seven and Channel Ten and who is himself no stranger to the world of stand-up comedy. While this project has ‘television pilot’ written all over it, Subby admits that the idea to link the clips in a live show came pretty early on, when the pair realised that no matter how good the finished material was, immediate television sale was unlikely. Tom recalls that the best bits of their Larfapalooza work was when they’d use pre-recorded footage on stage. It enabled breaks in pace and an opportunity for the audience and performers to catch their breath. He explains that this format is a major selling point of Video Sandwich: “Two guys on stage, riffing; cut to a clip; come back… There’s no dead points to the show. There’s no costume change, there’s no putting on a moustache and…” – adopts a Homer Simpson–type ‘disguised voice’ – “…‘Hello! I’m someone else!’” Interestingly, Subby adds that “there’s very little character work going on” in the clips, as well. “We sort of vaguely take on different characters but we’re still ‘Tom & Subby’.”

In order to tie all the material together, the pair aim to maintain a ‘visual’ mode of performance, forever asking themselves, “what can we do live that’s interesting to look at?” As Subby notes, “If we want to talk, we can do stand-up. So it’s not just talking…” They are currently rehearsing vigorously in order to ensure that Video Sandwich runs smoothly. “In Larfapalooza, there were always big shit-fights about learning the lines,” Tom admits. But Tom and Subby agree: once they get on stage, “all bets are off!”

“That’s the whole point of having the live stuff,” Tom insists. “The clips are tight enough to enable us to just improvise in between and there’d be a really nice balance because there’d be spontaneity as well.”

By this stage, Video Sandwich not only has ‘television pilot’ written all over it, but the words are underlined in red as well. What if someone – one of Mr Packer’s lackeys, maybe – says ‘here’s a large sum of money; give me thirty-three episodes’?

“We pour the money into writers, essentially,” says Tom, sure that the weakest link of any television comedy is the amount of material that has to be produced in a limited time.

And if Aunty says ‘here’s a moderate sum of money; give me six episodes’?

“Then,” Tom says, “we’re ready to go; we’ve got some friends who can help with the writing.”


From the 5 June 2000 issue of Revolver :

Comic Changes

Tom Gleeson talks a day in the life of a comedian.

A really scary moment took place when Tom Gleeson opened for James O’Loghlin at the Valhalla Theatre a couple of weeks ago. The audience were lapping Tom up, loving every minute of it, until he did his ‘changing lives’ gag, in which he switches with Amanda Keller: “I’d get to find out what it’s like to be a high-paid television personality, and she’d get to find out what it’s like to be funny,” he joked. There was a painful, palpable beat of silence, as though Gleeson had crossed the line… until everyone, obviously concluding that, fuck it, it’s a joke, it’s funny, burst out laughing.

“It began as a pretty average ‘Changing Rooms’ sketch for James O’Loghlin on Saturday Night Gleeson explains. “The idea was changing rooms with the host and she fixes up your house while you fuck up hers. Then I tried to turn it into stand-up.” When Switching Lives began, the punchline was obvious. “I don’t hate Amanda Keller,” Tom assures me, “but I wish everyone else did a little bit because that would make the joke heaps funnier.”

Tom Gleeson’s first stab at stand-up took place at Sydney University. Beginning a pharmacy degree, Tom realised a couple of years into it that he wasn’t having fun and transferred to science. “Consequently,” he explains, “I had no friends at uni because they’d all graduated. I was open to new experiences”. At this stage, the still largely undiscovered Adam Spencer was hosting a stand-up comedy competition on campus every Thursday during lunchtime. Gleeson, who had been in a “weird experimental band”, had “a little bit of a reputation for being quite funny between songs”. He decided to have a go. It was back then, long-time Gleeson watchers might be interested to know, that Tom’s original stage persona, ‘Malcolm’, was born. However, when I bring this up, Tom insists that I “forget ‘Malcolm’; let ‘Malcolm’ go.”

Gleeson’s justification for the character was that it acted as an escape clause. “If the whole thing sucks, it’s the character that sucks. So then I’ll do another character, and if that sucks, do another, and keep going until I find my ‘Con the Fruiterer’. And then I’ll have hit paydirt!” A little further down the track, Tom came to his senses. “I thought, ‘who do I like? I like The Goodies. What are their names? ‘Graham’, ‘Tim’, ‘Bill’. I’m ‘Tom’. We’ll give that a go. We’ll exaggerate the best bits of me and run with that. It’s easier to be consistent about your own character.’"

Although Tom’s first attempt at stand-up didn’t get him into the final, it did allow him to develop a taste for laughs and applause. Gleeson subsequently ‘trained’ for the next Sydney Uni comedy competition at various open mic venues around Sydney. “I was a bit sneaky,” he admits. “There was a heat, and then there was a final. I realised that the first person to have two killer five-minute routines was going to win. So I worked out two separate five-minute routines.”

Using the second-best routine for the heat, Tom easily made the final cut, and in the week leading up to the final, performed his best routine every night. Of course he won. During the subsequent year he honed his talent with more open mic nights and, interestingly, some work at the Comedy Channel. “They got a bit excited and gave me stuff to do straight away,” he says.

Despite an obvious calling to stand-up, Tom has pursued other comedic opportunities. As well as putting together the quirky, feel-good band ‘The Fantastic Leslie’, for which he drums and chooses essential repertoire like ‘Moving Right Along’ (Kermit and Fozzie’s duet from The Muppet Movie), Tom has written and performed sketch comedy for the stage and screen. “I’ve always been one to jump at opportunities with both feet,” he explains, and when O’Loghlin asked him to submit some material, he was more than happy. And happier still when it was accepted. A defining moment was Gleeson’s parody ‘DemTel’ ad: “Hi, my name’s Tom and I’ve got absolutely nothing to sell. That’s right: zip, zero, zilch.” Using a thesaurus, he explains, he devised a “neat little ‘Eric Idle’ sketch” that he was certain would be selected for that week’s show. When it was rejected owing to time constraints, Tom demanded a cameraman and half an hour, and the resulting sketch made the cut. It led to regular appearances in parody ads.

Well then, where to next?

“TV comedy is what I love,” says Tom, who has already referenced The Goodies and Monty Python. “I know a lot comics who think that stand-up is it, and all these other things are just distractions. To me, stand-up is kind of necessary evil to get out there. If I had my way I’d be making television shows.” And the good news is, Gleeson’s bought a digital camera and is “having fun filming stuff” with fellow comic and collaborator Subby Valentine. Watch out Tom, you may be changing lives with Amanda Keller yet!


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Sarah Kendall


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What with Sarah Kendall’s up-coming (in December) season at the Sydney Opera House Studio, I think it’s time to dip into the comedy archive and publish some old interviews with the criminally talented gorgeous and hilarious Sarah Kendall. Time flies: It’s been three years since I’ve interviewed this comic, but I caught up with her in Edinburgh last year, and look forward to seeing her live again. Even the most stern punter who has difficulty conceding that women can actually be funny always sets up a subset of women who are hilarious, and in addition to Kitty Flanagan, the list always includes Sarah Kendall. This first piece appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of Revolver.


War Veteran: Sarah Kendall dazzles them in the comic trenches

The fact that it’s been a while since we’ve seen her – possibly too long – no longer matters once she takes the stage. Her svelte and spunky form is unlaboured hip and unpretentious cool in flared jeans and a Rolling Stones logo’d t-shirt as she strides towards the microphone. Surveying, from the centre of the now expansive stage, Sydney University’s renovated Manning Bar, she reminds the audience of the “shoebox full of vomit” that it used to be when, as an undergraduate, she decided to try out for the lunchtime activity being run there, stand-up comedy.

Turned out she was a natural. A lot of time has passed since then, but she is so polished now that she looks, as always, natural. Her comedy, like her incredible, incandescent mane (which, she admits, has caused many an inhabitant of LA to mistake the back of her head for Nicole Kidman’s) dazzles ever more brilliantly than the last time she allowed it to shimmer before us. She’s got the goods. That much is clear from her ad lib’d opening gambit through the tight routines that are peppered with loose observations and associations, until the final killer line, a clever ‘call back’ to an earlier gag that appeared deceptively disarming as she cracked it. The comic’s name is Sarah Kendall, and she’s fucken funny.

“I’m based in London now,” the comic says when I catch up with her later. “If you want to do stand-up as a living, London is the place to live.” A much bigger population than Australia has, in a much smaller space than New South Wales means, according to Sarah, that “statistically, there are more rooms and more people going to see comedy.”

This means more gigs and more experience. It’s no wonder this woman is doing so well. She recently made her debut at the Montreal Comedy Festival – the traditional ‘foot in’ to the US, on account of the producers, directors and writers who swoop down upon the cream of each year’s crop – and she went down an absolute treat. The necessary courtship by the American entertainment industry naturally followed. Which left Sarah unfazed, only because the American comedy scene is ultimately no different to the Australian one. “When people like CBS say ‘we want to meet with you’, your first reaction is ‘fucking hell, it’s CBS!’” Kendall explains. “But then you realise that it is just a huge television station. It’s like Channel Ten with another fifty billion dollars on top of it. I think that once you put that into perspective you go, ‘okay, let’s talk business’.”

Sarah Kendall did talk business, but didn’t actually entere into any. “A lot of stuff that I was being offered wasn’t right for me,” she concedes, pointing out that a bigger industry must also have a bigger dose of mediocrity. She asks the rhetorical question: “Do I really want to play the crazy foreigner living upstairs who pops in occasionally to say nutty stuff?”

If someone came up with a suitable, interesting project, Kendall would approach it with an open mind. Unfortunately, nothing pitched at her seemed to fit within those parameters. “It sounds really trite,” the comic concludes, “but ‘all that glitters is not gold’. I think that’s true.” According to Kendall, evidence suggests that each of the best sitcoms has at its helm “ a comedian who had been doing stand-up for over ten years – Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Roseanne.”

Thus, she concludes, successful sitcoms are the work of consummate professionals who have “honed their craft for over a decade”, who “know exactly what they want” and who “retain ultimate creative control”. Thus, her time on telly will only come, she says, “when I’m really on top of my shit”.

So what’s Sarah gonna do for the next ten years? Funnily enough, the answer is ‘stand-up’. “A lot of people think that stand-up has to be a means to an end,” she observes, “but that’s incredibly dismissive of the craft.” Sarah Kendall will be content spending nine out of every twelve months of the year in England, returning to an Australian summer in time to prepare shows for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. In fact, she is currently working on her second Festival show now. Entitled War, the show was inspired by her father’s reaching that “certain age” at which men decide to do family trees. “It turned out that about six of my family members died in World War I and II”, Kendall explains, and so a kind of long-term interest in war was revived. She considers the topic to be “really difficult” but insists that she has reached that point where she wants to attempt something challenging. So although she fears “falling off the horse”, she knows that she’ll be climbing right back on it – and maybe even leading the charge of the light brigade thereafter.

What does this mean for you, the punter? If you don’t know if you can wait ten years to see Sarah Kendall in a sitcom, and if you can’t wait to see her at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, you can see her in a preview season at the Roxbury Hotel. Max Sharam’s Mad’moselle Max, Tom Gleeson’s Pirate Copy and Sarah Kendall’s War will play over three nights from Thursday March 15th to Saturday March 17th, and you can buy one ticket for all three shows. If you don’t, it could be another year before you get the chance to wallow in Sarah Kendall’s brilliance.


From 4 February 1998 Issue of Revolver:

Sarah Kendall: Vulgar, Fart-Lighting Sell-Out

“I’m vulgar?” Sarah Kendall demands.

It’s as though you can’t spit over your shoulder without hitting Sarah Kendall square in the head at the moment. Barely a month ago she was plying her stand-up trade in the Comedy Hotel’s annual showcase of fresh talent, The Night of Nights. She supported Judith Lucy days later. Now she appears, several nights a week, on stage in the sketch-based Larfapalooza and on the telly presenting the ‘humorous’ story for Today Tonight. Her rise, apparently from nowhere, seems almost unfair in its rapidity. Which may explain the criticisms that I have heard leveled at her in the last couple of days. One person dismissed her stand-up as ‘vulgar’. Another, her television work as a ‘sell-out’.

Sarah’s stand-up routine makes clever reference to the Barbie Doll’s aberrant genitalia. It includes vivid reminiscence of the olfactory ecstasy derived from whiffing the inside of your recorder at school. But the corker is Sarah’s enactment of ‘the secret to landing a man’, as contained within a teenage glossy mag. The article posits ‘unpredictability’ as the key. Sarah embodies the same by letting rip with a mighty burp. The audience loves it.

Sarah, who cheerily burps on demand for me, has never considered her act to be vulgar. “I don’t know whether to be offended!” she says. Her initial look of bewilderment gives way briefly to hurt before steeling itself into resolve. “Next time I’ll light my fart,” she announces. “That’ll get my point across.”

The allegation of ‘selling out’ appears to strike to deeper chord. Assuming the melodramatic persona of a ‘wounded diva’, La Kendall exclaims, “Oh god, my public’s turning on me. Now I know how Evita felt!”

Then, as her real self:

“It’s hard to get high and mighty about your career moves when you’re at this stage. It’s a matter of, you do stand-up, you take the opportunities when they come. You don’t really know where your next job’s coming from. So for someone to go ‘that’s a sell-out’, I think – they’ve sort of got their head up their arse.”

Fair comment. And it’s not even as if Sarah is doing the bland ‘panda that can’t get an erection after the weather’ story that news always gives you, either. The news has to end with that fluff because prime-time entertainment is to follow and viewers are better advertising targets if they are not still ill-at-ease from the evening’s harrowing headlines full of fatal tragedies, horrific sports results and the likelihood of continued rain.

The task of injecting a bit of humour into a tightly timed innocuous advertorial is not easy, but Sarah rises to the occasion. Consider the ‘best café’ segment that ends with her ordering an extra strong espresso, “hold the sugar, hold the milk, hold the water”. In the final shot, Sarah shovels coffee beans into her gob and actually eats them. Readily acknowledging that the ‘human interest’ story “traditionally is not about humans, or interesting,” Sarah holds far nobler sentiments about her television work: “basically, it’s just an opportunity for some fart-arsing about.”

Sarah’s rise hasn’t really been that rapid. She’s been fart-arsing about since day one. “In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” she has said. “Someone for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” Sarah was that kid, always prepared to entertain “just as long as there were at least three people watching.”

The fart-arsing came to the fore at the University of Sydney, a campus responsibility for the likes of Adam Spencer and those wags who featured in the Uni documentary. “I’ve had a go at just about every activity that can be done on campus except maybe go to the library,” Sarah says, having covered extra-curricular majors such as stand-up, faculty revue and Theatresports.

Sarah took to stand-up immediately, landing impressive gigs like Amnesty International’s ‘Take No Prisoners’ fundraiser last year. Some of her routine found its way on FM programming courtesy of Radiowise. Theatresports, she found more daunting. “I’m shit at Theatresports,” she admits. And then elaborates. “I don’t know if I’m shit, but Theatresports terrifies me. Scares the bejeesus out of me.” The problem lies in the very nature of the game, which seeks to let improvisation take the performance into uncharted territory. It calls for a lot of faith in your own ability, which is usually at odds with the stand-up’s natural disposition of insecurity and the fear of failure. The comic walks the tightrope in the hope of landing in the safety net of good punchlines. Theatresports forces you to jump and trust that, should there be no punchlines to catch you, something else will. It is a leap of faith.

“I’m always looking for the gags in Theatresports,” Sarah admits. “I’ll still have about ten ideas flying through my head thirty seconds into the scene, and by that stage, you should have committed to one of the other team member’s offers.”

Even though Sarah finds Theatresports more difficult, the audience is much more compassionate. “Doing stand-up is like…” She begins to mime driving a heavy vehicle. “No,” she coerces it, hands glued firmly to an imaginary steering wheel, knuckles glaring white. “With me,” she insists, “with me.” Then she takes on the mindset of the punter: “Oh, you think you’re funny? You’ve got a microphone? You deserve it more than I do? I cracked a joke at work today, and I’m pretty funny.”

With a fear of the unknown and a stand-up audience to placate, it comes as no surprise to note that Sarah doesn’t leave much room for improvisation in her routine. She won’t stray from the set text “unless there is a great offer from someone in the audience.”

With Larfapalooza, Sarah gets the best of both worlds: sketch comedy is performed as part of an ensemble, and so like Theatresports depends heavily on group dynamics. Yet it is scripted, and so provides the safety of a ‘routine’, from which risks may be taken only as desired to suit the individual audience and performance. “I really enjoy writing sketch,” Sarah says. “I love the whole idea of taking a notion and hammering it out; starting with some sort of idea, and taking it tangentially. I just love the set-up.”

Talk about hammering out a notion: the ‘Mabel and Tamsen’ sketch is a scream. Sarah and Rebecca De Unamuno feature as two “ridiculously bad actors who were really into it,” like the avantgarde performers who’d subject classes of school kids time and again to that bizarre sort of theatre of the abject that only visiting thespians can create. They warm up with grotesque body stretches, they recite vocal exercises like “red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather…”

“We used to have the Hunter Valley Theatre Company come and put shows on at my school, and the shows were so fucked up,” Sarah offers as an explanation. “They were so weird. You’d see teachers up the back thinking, ‘Fuck, why did we have to book these people?’” Sarah delightfully relates memories of one such entourage whose self-penned play “about heroin, AIDS and rape” featured an actress screaming “I was just a dirty piece of cunt!”

“It just flattened Year 9 one rainy day when P.E. was called off,” she recalls.

The other two members of Larfapalooza are ‘Malcolm’ (a stage name, perhaps inspired by one of the more popular human hosts on Here’s Humphrey during the 1970s; his real name is ‘Tom’, but that is all you – or I – are privy to) and Subby Valentine, both of whom are established stand-up comedians. The four were brought together by Simon Morgan, owner of the Comedy Hotel and a long-time patron of the Sydney comedy scene. (It was in fact Simon who pitched Sarah for the Today Tonight position.)

“As a team,” Sarah says, the members of Larfapalooza “all write together well and get along well. We’re all just one big, happy family.” I’m wondering if, like all microcosms of society forced into such tight working relationships, the necessary and inevitable couplings have, well, coupled. “Yep,” Sarah reports, matter-of-factly, slightly tilting her head so as not to have to meet my gaze. “Tom and I have been sleeping together for about two weeks and we included Bec, and then there was this whole sexual jealousy thing, and… uhm… she kind of ran into Subby’s arms, because she’d never had a threesome before. That fucked her up a bit. I think she and Subby are seeing each other now.”

I try hard not to flinch, willing neither to believe (because I don’t want to look foolish) or disbelieve (you don’t get scoops like that every day, and this is the comedy industry, after all) but Sarah cracks before I do, bursting out laughing.

When the phone suddenly rings, Sarah is summoned to it and I take that as the signal that the interview is over. But as I get to the door, Sarah looks up from the phone and says,

“I just told Tom that someone’s called me a sell-out, and he said, ‘that’s fantastic! That’s really exciting! Someone’s noticed!’”

Tom’s advice to Sarah is to “tell them you didn’t sell out for nothing, you sold out for CASH!” Sarah brightens.

“I take it all back,” she says. “When I said that person can stick their head up their arse, I take it all back.”


The following piece constitutes the first time I spoke to Sarah Kendall in a professional capacity, and the last time I let The Sydney CityHub hoodwink me into handing over copy with the promise of payment that never came, sometime around late ’97.

“In every class there is a kid who will do anything,” says Sarah Kendall, “for whom nothing is too embarrassing or undignified.” The young, precocious red-headed Sarah was such a kid, always prepared to perform “just as long as there were at least three people watching.” It was this schoolgirl experience that led to the realisation that she had the potential to be funny.

Sarah honed her talent at university, through faculty revue and Theatresports. Despite her friends telling her how funny she was, it took a “kick up the bum” from established comic Adam Spencer before Sarah was ready to give stand-up a go.

When asked to cite her “numerous” inspirations, Sarah necessarily names big guns like Robyn Williams and ‘her boy’ Billy Crystal. But it was the camaraderie amongst the local Sydney circuit that proved most important. “Peter Berner, Anthony Mir, Tommy Dean, Adam Couper,” she lists. “I love their material; I think they’re brilliant. They’re also nice people.” When you’re starting out, you’re really scared and in need of support, Sarah explains; the encouragement of peers-to-be is important.

The sort of routine that seems to work best is the personal reminiscence. “Kids’ stories get the best responses because the audience can identify with you. As soon as you begin, people seem to relax and get ready to laugh.” One of her popular bits involve a barbie doll. I ask her how it goes. “I’m not going to do it for you now; it will spoil it for people who want to come and see it.”

Sarah loves stand-up because “there’s something appealing” about the autonomy of being the “writer/performer/producer”. Despite having to wear it all yourself when you “fuck up”, the success is far more rewarding. Not that she’s turned her back on ensemble work. “I still love the teamwork of theatresports,” Sarah is quick to reassure, and she’s currently appearing in the Sketchy Sketch Show at the Comedy Hotel. But “stand up,” she says, “is something that I’ll always come back to.”


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