Shortly after I wrote the rant that follows, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Denton and was able to put my criticisms to him directly. He accepted them with an open mind and answered them honestly, in the process making me realise just how much prejudice I was carrying. After you read this, do check out the interview.
I’m not always home in time on a Monday night to catch Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, and it’s a pity. I grew up – or failed to grow up – at just the right time to have Denton as a hero: someone who somehow fooled the powers that be to land a job that he clearly could do well, and that he clearly deserved – the sort of job that traditionally would go to some half wit rather than the geeky, cheeky, clever, funny guy.
That show was Blah Blah Blah, and I mention it only to point out that before Denton left radio – the Breakfast shift on Triple M, which he claimed to leave because, amongst other reasons, he got sick of having to promote things like Big Brother – his advertising catchphrase seemed to be the Jewish equivalent of ‘blah blah blah’: ‘yadda yadda yadda’. The phrase came to the fore with comic overtones thanks to the likes of Seinfeld. But enough of the diversion. Back to Enough Rope.
One of the things I notice about Enough Rope when I do catch it is that it sits a little uneasily, and I’m not sure why. One of the reasons might be because it gives television commentators in newspapers reason to allow their senses to leave them long enough to make foolish generalisations like ‘finally we now have someone on par with Michael Parkinson here in Australia’. This is clearly a foolish thing to say, not because Denton isn’t ‘on par’ (which I take to mean ‘as good an interviewer’) with Michael Parkinson. Sure, Denton appears less subjective and tends to direct the interview with a slightly heavier hand, but he’s also funnier, and will pull out the comic armoury to corner his quarry when he feels it necessary. That’s pretty much ‘on par’ with Parky. But there’s no ‘finally’ about it; Denton always has been a great interviewer. Cast your mind back, if you will, to that fantastic yet sadly undervalued tonight show he had on the Seven network about a decade ago, and recall how good his interviews were.
Admittedly, those interviews were set up to be ‘events’ where the medium was also the message: when interviewing Peter Greenaway, the director responsible for such striking cinema as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and A Zed And Two Noughts, Denton chose to match the filmmaker’s style, having him brought onto the interview set between hanging slabs of meat. The proceedings were shot at weird angles, the cameras shooting between flickering candle flames. It was a hoot. Similarly, when interviewing the world’s greatest model (whoever it was that year), Denton did so while photographing her at weird angles. In a sense, Denton, as an interviewer, was coming at them from different angles. The show really subverted the expectations and the established norms of the ‘tonight’ show format. It also gave rise to the ‘musical challenge’ – itself an overhang from Denton’s sophomore show for the ABC, The Money or the Gun, on which a different band delivered ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a different style each episode.
So back to Denton’s new chat show, Enough Rope. It has few frills, and part of its thing is to include interviews with interesting people who aren’t celebrities (something he pioneered, again, on his earlier shows). Naturally, we only get to see the interesting ones – who knows how many dull ones never made it to the screen? But often they are utterly engaging, showing a side to a person or a profession that you would not expect. On the other hand, sometimes the celebrity interviews just fail to deliver. Other commentators have probably taken Denton to task for going a little easy on disgraced stockbroker Rene Rivkin. If they haven’t, heaps of ‘men on the street’ certainly have. But then, Rivkin has something that makes him special. He must have; he was featured on Australian Story recently as well. But whatever that something is, I can’t for the life of me work it out. If a poor person had benign brain cancer and was convicted for insider trading, he’d probably just go to gaol without getting on prime time television. Twice. Without his wife telling the nation that she resents him for losing her children’s inheritance. Heck. There’s probably been heaps of such poor people, and we just haven’t heard about it – because they’re poor!
Denton’s recent interview with Rachel Griffiths was mostly good, but there a few moments that, once again, sat a little uneasily. The introduction of Toni Collette in the audience was a little bit cheesy and stage-managed, not least of all because her (and Rachel’s?) publicist was sitting right next to her in the audience. Fair enough, the publicist has to be present at official functions featuring his or her clients, but that’s the thing: since the publicist was present, it was an official function. Collette didn’t ‘just happen’ to be in the audience. She wasn’t even ‘just a friend showing support’. This was a marketing opportunity. So a mutual admiration session, a back-slap-a-thon, ensued and though it was not overly long, and it was even quite touching, it was still a bit much. Thankfully, Denton was able to debase it a little with a partner-swapping gag.
I guess by this stage the glass was now half empty rather than half full, and it was a bit easier to not so much misinterpret, but interpret in less favourable light, some of Rachel Griffith’s less thoughtful comments. Admittedly, it is only through a good chat show that the interview subject will relax enough to let the unrehearsed answers slip rather than continuing to utter the glib, stock responses – but as the host didn’t pick up on them, and in some instances, set the context up for them, again, it brings about that uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right.
For instance, when Denton pointed out that Griffiths has described herself as ‘gawky’, and asked her how much the way she looked impacted upon her career in Hollywood, she replied,
I think if I looked like Charlize Theron and had my acting ability, I’d be making thirty million a year. … If I’d been offered all the Charlize Theron roles of the last ten years I probably would have just died of boredom.
I know Griffiths is saying ‘I realise I’m not universally considered to be eye-candy the way Charlize Theron is’ – which is true enough because while I wouldn’t kick Rachel Griffiths out of bed if she farted, if Charlize Theron farted, I’d try to bottle it to auction it online – but it sounds as if she’s saying ‘Charlize Theron can’t really act as good as I can but gets away with it ’cause she’s built the way she is’. And I suppose the imputation that may be extrapolated is that Charlize is none too smart either – otherwise she would have died of that boredom, what with all of those ornamental, non-draining Charlize Theron roles that Charlize Theron has had. (Look at the other side of the coin, Rachel – if you had Charlize Theron’s body, you would have had to use it to rub uglies with Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers!)
Later, Denton gave Griffiths the opportunity to explain, ‘in layman’s terms’ why exactly the Free Trade Agreement recently signed by Australia and the United States is going to be such an awful thing for Australian arts and media. The problem is that it will mean that there will be no protection of Australian product on the telly or radio – no ‘minimum amount of local content’ quota, which will mean that what we produce locally will have to compete with what’s produced in the US, and we don’t have the same budget or experience or know-how to create the same quality, or as big a market to be able to sell it for a pittance and so compete, in our limited market place, with US-produced programs. Or at least, that’s what I think it means. In a way, though, since I don’t really have a media job, what do I care that a bunch of people will be out of work? Some of them can join me in retail, or flipping burgers, where they belong!
In layman’s terms, according to Rachel Griffiths, the problem with the Free Trade Agreement with regards to Australian culture and media, is a loss of Australia’s cultural identity. She referred to that awful, harrowing past, when, to have a media job, you had to sound like you were from the BBC. Nobody heard an Australian accent on the wireless. “Everyone spoke posh” she said, putting on those posh, crisp, BBC tones as she said it, “And there was this great shame about ourselves.” According to Rachel, in the media dystopia, the cultural nadir that will ensue should the Free Trade Agreement go ahead (and it looks as though it shall), “we could very well be looking to a future where all the voices we hear or most of the voices we hear are likely to be American voices.”
Hello! Rachel, honey, the only way we’ve heard your voice on Australian television these last few years, your appearance on Enough Rope notwithstanding, is with an American accent. You’re the freaky, gawky, grave, token Aussie chick in the cast of Six Feet Under, don’t forget. Only, you wouldn’t know it, to listen to you on that show. Where was the Aussie accent then?
Besides which, we’ve lived through the shame of having to sound English on the air, we’ll live through the shame of having to sound American, if it comes to that. Rachel certainly has.
I guess I didn’t really expect Denton to make something of those things. Not now, anyway – although he might have fifteen-odd years ago when he had big hair (a mullet, in fact) and nothing to lose. I don’t know if he has mellowed or lost a bit of his bite or is just playing it a little safer. If he is still ‘hard-hitting’, his hard hits are softer than they used to be when he was young and hungry, and the industry was still mostly in the control of a stodgier, older guard in most dire need of a shake-up. Yet even if this were the case, we can at least relax knowing that he is passing on the flame to angrier and younger angry young men.
You see, the company that makes Enough Rope is Denton’s company. It’s called Zapruder’s Other Films. (Great name, isn’t it? Abraham Zapruder’s the amateur filmmaker who captured footage of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head exploding all over his good lady wife Jacqueline that fateful day in Dallas). Amongst Zapruder’s Other Films’ other films is the show CNNN which does take issue with a lot of the stuff that an older, wiser, seasoned Andrew Denton would, on his own show, possibly let pass.
Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions I’ve expressed, there is another side of the story worth reading.