âWhatâd I Say About My Mother?â
Saturday, July 17, 2004
Having heard a whisper that Fiona OâLoughlin will be up to something a little later this year, I post this as-yet unpublished interview in anticipation of hyperlinking back to it somewhere down the track. Though unpublished until now, an edit of this was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio late last year, in time for her Sydney Opera House Studio season. You can download an MP3 version of the interview here.
The beauty of Fionaâs comedy is that it is finely observed from her everyday experience, and communicated perfectly for everyone to understand and appreciate. At the moment my favourite Fiona OâLoughlin line is her truism, that âif your mother tells you that she doesnât have a favourite child, then you arenât her favourite childâ. Great stuff.
Itâs December and Fiona OâLoughlin is about to open with her show Me of the Never Never at the Sydney Opera House. âItâs exhausting to think Iâm forty now,â she says, when I catch up with her for an interview. âMost people at my age would be winding up. I donât know how much longer I have to keep it up.â
Fiona OâLoughlin is a strange case study of comedy. Sheâs only really been around for a few years, yet amongst the rookie comics who âgraduatedâ in 2000, Fiona OâLoughlin was the annoying mature-age student who topped the class. Despite (or perhaps, because of) her being a half-generation older than most of her peers, and a mother-of-five to boot, she seemed to have a fully-formed comedic persona when for all intents and purposes she should have been sounding like everyone sheâd listened to so far. More importantly, she was very funny. According to Fiona, thereâs a reason why. âIâve had two starts at this,â she confesses. âI started fifteen years ago and I gave it away. This is âtake twoâ, really.â
Growing up in a âreally smallâ country town in South Australia, Fiona relocated to Alice Springs as a newlywed. Her âhobbyâ, she says, was âworking in town as a local MC.â It was here that she inadvertently developed her skills. âSomeone said to me, âyouâre actually doing stand-up.â I was like, âoh, really?ââ
There were no comedy venues in Alice Springs, so someone suggested to Fiona that she apply for an arts grant in order to go to Melbourne to see some stand-up comedians. She did. âI got a six hundred dollar grant and I caught a McCaffertys bus to Melbourne. When I first saw a stand-up I thought, âthatâs it! Thatâs what I want to doââ. Then âhousework and having babiesâ ensued. âI really didnât understand the industry. I didnât understand how it worked. I was busy with kids so Iâd just kind of nick down to Melbourne and play clubs if I could manage it. I was sometimes only working three times a year.â Ultimately, Fiona âlet everything goâ in order to get on with life.
However, in 2000 she decided to give stand-up one last shot. Rather than cobbling five minutes together and slowly trying to build it through endless open mic nights, Fiona decided to recruit her actress sister Emily for a full-length show. Combining forty minutes of stand-up with twenty minutes of sketch comedy, Fiona OâLoughlin made her debut at the Adelaide Fringe Festival with a show entitled Fiona And Her Sister (And Some Weird Guy). Although the safety net afforded by the presence of sister Emily allowed Fiona âa really easy wayâ to ease herself into comedy, her early success is still impressive. When she took the show to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the following year, it earned her a Barry Award as âBest Newcomerâ.
âIâve whinged about it in the past,â Fiona reflects, âAlice Springs being so isolated from Melbourne, where all the action of comedy is. But I think I was luckier, in a way. Not being amongst it, I developed a style that was all my own. I think that that can be really tricky for young, urban comics. If theyâre watching too much of one person, they inadvertently start to sound like that person.â Despite being isolated from comedy-rich towns, Fiona exercised her humour muscles with activities like Theatresports. âI call stuff like that ânetball practiceâ for comedy,â she says.
Although Fiona no longer shares a stage with her sister, her comedy is still a family affair: most of her children appear in her material. âThey donât mind because some of the stories are quite appealing,â she says, âquite cuteâ. However, her eldest son has âdrawn a line in the sandâ and said enoughâs enough. âHeâs seventeen and wonât be spoken of on stage. Heâs told me that, in no uncertain terms.â And thereâs no chance of Fiona cutting a deal with him that makes it worth her while not talking about him. âGo clean up your room or Iâll tell everyone at the Melbourne Comedy Festivalâ just doesnât strike fear into the heart of teenagers; if it did, everyoneâs mum would be a stand-up comic.
Apart from the OâLoughlinsâ living room, there still arenât many comedy venues in Alice Springs. Even if there were, youâd be lucky to catch Fiona performing in one. âIâm terrified of working locally,â she confesses. âWith stand-up, youâre taking a hell of a risk every time you walk onto a stage. I only do a couple of gigs here a year and Iâm in a foetal position ten minutes before I begin. What if I stuff it up? My kidsâ teachers are in the audience; so is the lady from the shopâ¦â
Such performance anxiety in front of the home crowd is a hurdle all successful comics leap. Fiona has another performance-related problem, however. She is forever running out of time. âIâm not telling jokes, Iâm telling stories,â she explains. âItâs like being at a dinner party with the audience. I think, âoh, I really want to tell you this one.â But I usually have an hour on stage, so Iâve got to delete as I go.â Itâs difficult to know when the materialâs been truncated: youâre usually laughing too hard to be aware that something may be missing. Fionaâs long-term solution is to commit her best stories, in their glorious entirety, to posterity, in the form of a book. âItâs just a memoir,â she says, âbut what Iâm loving about it is that I have all the time in the world. I can tell every story that I want to tell.â As the kids are all at school, Fiona spends her mornings âtyping awayâ at her leisure.
As for her stage work, each show consists of bits of paper upon which sheâs scribbled down ideas during the preceding year. âThis sounds so shocking,â she admits, âor lazy! But I canât work without the pressure of it being last minute. I get all those bits of paper, generally the night before I open, and string it all together.â A strange way to work, but, surprisingly, not a lot of restructuring has to take place after opening night. Mostly, Fiona just has to âtweak it a little bitâ, because her stories have already been road-tested on friends and family. âThey donât know that Iâm trying stuff out,â she says, âitâs just me telling stories over a beer.â
That Fiona goes out knowing everything works is a good thing, particularly in December in Sydney, when most shows are a dry run for the Adelaide Fringe Festival, where everything is gotten absolutely right in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. However, Fiona insists that weâve nothing to fear â sheâs doing it âthe opposite way aroundâ this time. âI wrote this show for the last Melbourne Comedy Festival, even though itâs got a different title. This is putting it to bed, really; itâs its last hurrah. Then Iâve got to write another one for the Adelaide Fringe next year.â