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Absolute Commitment: Lano & Woodley Revel in the Build-Up

Lano & Woodley must be on tour somewhere. The interview I did with them for their show Bruiser is getting heaps of googled hits at the moment. So I thought I should locate this article and post it. It’s long and indulgent, and first appeared in 1997 in issue four of my ill-fated and short-lived comedy zine, Stand & Deliver! (hmm, that title has a nice kind of ring to it, doesn’t it!). I’m not surprised by my seriousness in approaching the comedy, only that I sustained it throughout out the article. Furthermore, despite Colin making it plain and obvious by saying so, I never realised back then how much Lano & Woodley borrow and follow on from Laurel & Hardy: naive, innocent, child-like two-man slapstick. This is even more evident in a show like Bruiser, that sees the pair taking turns at playing each other’s girlfriend, as well as each other. The other great characteristic they share with Laurel & Hardy – apart from the fact that there are times when you feel they could afford to originate more material instead of forever drawing from their earlier work – is that they are hilarious.

Before I quit banging on, I must add that the caricature is the work of Nick O’Sullivan.

“That’s the first time anybody has referred to our work as ‘a body of work’,” announces Colin. He is extremely chuffed, but also slightly stunned – more at the concept of actually having an oeuvre than at the prospect of having it analysed. The Adventures of Lano & Woodley is about to begin on ABC as the Monday night comedy, a new series written and starring Colin ‘Lano’ Lane and Frank ‘Woodley’ Wood. I feel that the series builds upon themes and issues initiated by their book Housemeeting (1996). It demonstrates characteristics that are apparent throughout their work. “That’s good,” Frank says, beaming his approval.

Many commentators see Lano & Woodley as the classic slapstick duo – straight man and funny man, necessarily in that order. While their work obviously contains slapstick, the pair are more like two kids. Lano is the relatively straightforward one, an older, more practical, bullying leader to Woodley’s forgetful, dependent daydreamer. But both Lano and Woodley are the funny man, and they’re with me on this one:

“If you’re gonna latch onto someone, the clown and the straight man is the simplest way to look at it,” observes Frank. “We’ve never thought of it that way. We’ve always thought of it less like Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and more like Laurel & Hardy, where there’s a status relationship, definitely, but they’re both funny. They’re both telling jokes.” The popular perception of Lano & Woodley arises because Col is the “‘straight’-looking” one but, according to Frank, that’s part of the duo’s ‘thing’.

As straight as Colin may appear to be, there are moments when a deranged alter ego bleeds through. When he laughs, for example, his amusement topples over into mania, his bottom jaw threatening to drop off its hinge at any moment prior to his explosion, as if he is part of an animated Terry Gilliam segue another sketch. I think it looks beautiful.

“Not to me it doesn’t, not when I look back,” Colin says. “I just find it frightening. Disturbing.”

Childlike characters have existed in the duo’s work as far back as when they were still a trio, with Scott Casley, known as The Found Objects. A favourite skit involved kids daring each other to jump into a body of water from an impressive height.

“I’ll go if you go,” was Lano’s promise.

“You’d better go, Colin,” Frank would warn. “If you don’t go…”

On the count of three, Frank would hurl himself into the ‘river’ below, only to find that Lano had piked. “Colin, you didn’t go!”

Memories and past experiences continue to be utilised in the duo’s new work. See in Housemeeting, for example, the urban myths that comprise Frank’s hard-luck stories regarding his sister. They include the burst pimple that disgorges baby spiders and the roll of film developed long after the robbery revealing the need for a new toothbrush – the sort of stories that, when heard as a kid, conjure vivid images that pretty much stay with you. Cleverly, Frank dismisses his sister’s apparently fabricated stories by ascribing her need to lie to the trauma she suffered as a teenager when a psychopath “jumped on the top of her car and banged a severed head on her roof”. “Those urban myths are definitely things that are kicking around in your head,” Frank agrees. The ‘psychopath’ urban myth also turns up in an episode of The Adventures of Lano & Woodley entitled ‘Tonight You Die’.

In the same episode, Lano and Woodley rent a scary video. While they are watching it, someone phones their house and announces, “Tonight, you die!”

“The prank call actually happened to a friend of mine,” Frank explains. “He got out the video Friday 13th and watched it. Just when the film finished, the phone rang. He picked it up and someone said, ‘tonight, you die!’ They never found out who it was.”

There are other items in Housemeeting that you will recognise, experiences that you never thought anyone else would share. One section has Frank and Colin locked in the bathroom. Frank, staring at the floor, notices shapes and figures in the lino:

He saw a flying goose and an old woman’s face. He saw a bison and a screwdriver. There was a blob that, with a bit of imagination, looked like the drummer from Culture Club.

I tell the pair that there is an old man in snow goggles on my bathroom floor.

“Yeah,” Lano agrees, “you’re just having showers for years and years and years, and you keep on looking at the same bit of floor saying, ‘That, that is a goose. That is a goose!’”

Woodley concurs: “The more you look at it, the more it looks like a goose.” He thinks for a moment. “No-one’s ever pointed that bit out from the book, have they Col?”

“No,” Colin admits. “In fact, I don’t even know what he’s talking about.”

My immediate misgiving, approaching The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, is the premise of the show: two out-of-work bachelors sharing a flat, engaging in the typical plotlines. Squabbling and desperate owing to a dearth of nookie, the holiday that goes awry, trouble with the neighbours, even the ‘Halloween night’ story, all correspond to episodes of Bottom. Is it merely coincidental that Lano and Woodley managed to acquire Bob Spiers – director of Bottom – to direct the first two episodes?

As it turns out, the production company Working Title declared an expression of interest in Lano & Woodley after they took out the ‘Perrier Award’ at the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Past successes like Four Weddings And A Funeral enabled Working Title to hire the best talent available. Woodley admits that he had no idea who Bob Spiers was at first, but his and Colin’s jaws “just hit the floor” when past credits like of Fawlty Towers, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Absolutely Fabulous were listed on the man’s CV.

My misgivings are ill founded; since Lano and Woodley are who they are, familiar themes have been given suitably surreal twists. Like in the first episode, in which Col’s imaginary girlfriend ‘Jenny Window’ dumps him for Frank. (Is the similarity of Jenny’s surname to that of George Glass, Jan Brady’s imaginary boyfriend from an episode of The Brady Bunch, another early memory that has informed Lano and Woodley’s work?)

Lano and Woodley aren’t exactly strangers to television, frequently appearing on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. There have been other serious offers prior to Working Title’s approach for this new sitcom. “We could have made TV in Australia years ago,” Colin says, “but they would have wanted to make it at Australian levels of funding and quantity of shows. Like, twenty-six episodes with a budget of twenty bucks an episode. Whereas, if we were going to make a series, we wanted to make it properly.”

Possibly there was something to prove, since earlier television appearances have been relatively low-key. “We were on Big Gig maybe ten times,” says Frank, “but only about twelve people ever saw us.” Usually there was a State of Origin footy match, or Bangkok Hilton on another channel at the same time. So now Lano and Woodley have a series. And they’ve made it properly.

Actor/writer/talker Warren Coleman served as ‘director’s observer’ on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley and insists that Colin Lane and Frank Woodley, as executive producers, were “consulted on all major decisions, and things pretty much happened the way they wanted them to.” This is evident right down to the theme song, which they themselves wrote. Their friend Mal Webb, from the band the Oxo Cubans, arranged the song.

“Rather than finding someone who’d done a lot of TV and film stuff who was sitting at their synth in a little home studio, churning it out,” Frank explains, the decision was made to find someone “who is actually a brilliant multi-instrumentalist.”

A further delightful twist to the music, and a testament to Webb’s talent, is the closing theme: each episode ends with a different version of the opening theme song. Apart from the reggae version that ends the first show, each re-arrangement is of a musical genre somehow significant to the episode. Episode 2, for example, closes with a hard rock version of the song, tying in with the leather-bound punks that feature in the story.

There is a striking physicality to Lano and Woodley’s work, apparent in Woodley’s ‘wobbly’ tantrums and Lano’s grotesque laugh and self-assured swagger. The common slapstick fare of pratfalls and summersaults, resulting in ‘hurties’, are present and accounted for. It is almost surprising how entertaining all of this is, although Colin is again taken aback when I voice these sentiments.

“Have you had that experience in the past, finding slapstick not funny?” he asks.

The answer is yes. Nowadays slapstick is a dated comedic subgenre that seems to related more to the old, bald man getting his forehead slapped repeatedly amidst scantily clad women on The Benny Hill Show. Or B-grade black and white (or badly colourised) 1930s films that used to be broadcast on Saturday afternoons (always interspersed with that advertisement for Bex which sounded as though it was being spoken by Don Adams!) until about the mid-80s. Seeing such ‘comedy’ now always forces you to wonder how you could ever have found it funny in the first place. And yet, if Frank’s little hat conjures up vaguely remembered images of an old series entitled Mack and Myer for Hire, they are remembered fondly. The premise of Mack and Myer – two bachelors sharing an apartment, failing at every job they attempt – is again familiar, for that is the premise of Lano & Woodley. Each episodes opens with a sacking from another job.

Lano and Woodley have no idea who or what Mack and Myer are, but Colin comes out in defence of slapstick. He blames any of its failings on poor practitioners.

“There’s unfunny slapstick, there’s funny slapstick, there’s ill-conceived slapstick,” he says. “Because our whole show is based on the interaction of these two characters, it should really mean that whatever they do, if it’s in character and if it supports the whole concept of their relationship, it should be funny. So it shouldn’t really matter what we do or what sort of slapstick we use. If I hit Frank over the head or if he hits me after I’ve been niggling him for ten minutes, it’s going to be funny.”

Woodley has his own theory:

“I’ve got a suspicion that one of the differences between good slapstick and bad slapstick is the bit that come before it. If you watch Maxwell Smart or Clouseau, they put absolute commitment into the bit that comes before it. They don’t rush into the ‘getting hit on the head with the blunt instrument’ stage. They really revel in the build up.”

He illustrates his theory with an example from Peter Sellers:

“There’s a bit where Inspector Clouseau’s been put back on the beat – it was in Pink Panther XII or something – and he’s strolling down the street with his baton. He sees this spunky girl coming the other way and he very smoothly looks at her, gestures a little hello, and knocks himself in the eye with the baton. That’s the joke that a bad slapstick comedian might have done badly, but there’s something about how smooth he was, how much time he took before he hit himself in the eye. Good slapstick has something to do with the characters and not rushing it.”

Land and Woodley agree that it is ultimately the context in which the particular shtick appears that ells you whether it is funny or not. Is it rushed? Is the build-up plausible enough to lull you into a suitable willful suspension of disbelief? Because sometimes, even if you see the punch line coming, if it is still delivered correctly, if the lead and the feed lines create enough tension and expectation, the release that the punch line offers can still be a corker. In fact, it shouldn’t really matter if you can see the gag coming. It never used to, anyway: the genre takes its name from a device used in performances of bawdy French farce some centuries ago: to indicate to the audience the appearance of hilarity, a stagehand made a loud sound by striking a stick. It was the ‘slap stick’, providing the aural cues much as the sound-effects team matches the ‘boing’ (and the ‘crunch’ and the ‘slap’) sounds to Australia’s Funniest Home Video clips.

The pair cannot explain adequately how they hit upon slapstick as their mode of performance.

“It’s really hard for us to actually give you a concise answer about how it evolved,” says Lano. “It was just really lucky. I was at drama teacher’s college and Frank was selling sandwiches in the city to offices, and a friend recommended that I go along to this theatre called St Martin’s in Melbourne.”

It was at St Martin’s that Colin Lane met Scott Casley, and in no time, Colin, Frank and Scott were playing Theatresports and developing their own brand of comedy.

“We never ever sat down and had a conceptual discussion about what sort of comedy we would do. We just used to write down the stuff that would make each other laugh.”

Hailing from the same basic socio-economic demographic, each had a sense of history and humour similar enough to enable them to gel together easily.

“There was never any conscious planning of ‘you be the low status guy, I’ll be the high status guy and Scott will be the father figure’,” Colin explains. He confides that, even though it’s embarrassing to admit, (“maybe more of less for you, I don’t know,” he adds, looking at Woodley), the characters these men play are exaggerations based on their real characters. “I’m kind of a little bit egotistical and I fall over that every so often. Frank is a bit naïve about how the world operates, but in an endearing way. There was no conscious decision, but it evolved.”

Frank adds his firm belief that everyone has “a natural way of showing off or performing,” and these characters are obviously theirs. If someone wants to try to be funny there’s a “particular way that comes naturally” to the individual.

Humour definitely comes naturally to Lano and Woodley. One of my favourite performances took place on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. The routine involved squirting ‘juice’ from a hollowed ‘orange’. It was unfortunate that someone forgot to fill the orange before the show. But the improvising that took place trying to cope with the empty orange was so much fun that it looked almost as though that was how they had rehearsed it. Even now, I’m not sure whether I saw a mistake being coped with so well that it looked rehearsed, or a gag rehearsed so well that it looked like a genuine stuff-up.

Colin, however, will have no undue praise. “It was all just truthful panic,” he explains. There was no great wit or skill there as far as I could see. It was just honesty.”

Frank wants to try to explain to me that their ability to cope arises from their experience. But when he explains that they’ve “actually been working together for ten years”, Lano interjects:

“Help me! Help me!”

A courteous pause for laughter, and then Frank continues: “you’ve got that level of trust. A friend of mine once said, ‘when you guys do your act, it’s pretty good, but when you fuck up your act, it’s fantastic.”

Lano thinks that this is the basis for their success. People “are on the edge of their seats because we’re so on the edge of failing.”

According to Woodley, they’re “not really quite good” at what they do, and Lano agrees:

“We’re not quite good enough but we just manage to carry it off.”

I’d like to think this is false modesty, but once again, I can’t tell whether this is how they really rehearsed it and it’s all an act, or if they mean it. A motto in some comedy circles is Ars est celare artem: “The art is to conceal the art.” Lano and Woodley seem to do so with expertise.

Woodley confesses that about two thirds of their live show is rehearsed, and then most of what’s left may look like impro, but is mostly “stuff we’ve done before. We draw on ten years of material and it feels like impro to the audience.” There is also a smidgen of genuine, bona fide improvisation. But “when you’re swapping between new material, old material and improvised material all the time, the audience doesn’t know when you’re actually improvising, or when you’re doing material that you’ve rehearsed.”

Colin’s best example of quick thinking – real improvisation saving a routine gone horribly wrong – is of an Adelaide Festival Show from a couple of years back. “I lost my voice completely in the first song and I was shitting myself because it was the opening night. Frank stood behind me and sang while I moved my mouth and people thought it was brilliant. They thought it was ‘genius’.” Colin won’t agree, but several thousand Lano and Woodley fans can’t be wrong: it was genius.

Still, Frank has another example that balances the accident ‘genius’: a sketch so brilliant that when performed correctly looks as though it’s gone wrong. It involves Frank atop a wardrobe with Colin trying to get him down by shaking it (a routine revived for the television series).

“Col pushes me and I say, ‘I wasn’t actually expecting that, that’s not how we did it in the rehearsal’. We do that every time, and I make it look like I wasn’t expecting it.”

Naturally, it looks as though Frank is coming out of character and halting the routine to berate Colin. But Frank telling Colin that that wasn’t how they rehearsed it, is exactly how they rehearsed it.

“The audience is never really sure,” Frank says. “Someone said to a friend of mine, ‘they stuffed up on Hey Hey the other day; Colin nearly knocked Frank off the wardrobe. My friend replied, ‘no, they do that every time.’ ‘No,’ the person insisted, ‘not in that way; this was real…’.”

When Woodley sums up with “We’re fluctuating between genuine and rehearsed fuck-ups…”, Lano becomes a little paranoid.

“You didn’t do it on purpose, did you?” he asks of the empty orange incident.

“No, not at all…” replies Woodley. “I couldn’t believe it when I squeezed it and nothing came out.”

Tom Jones was also guesting on Hey Hey that night, and Frank confides that “a very surreal moment was when I was walking backstage and Tom Jones was coming the other way, and I said to him, ‘If you ever do an act with an orange, make sure you fill it up, Tom’.” And that certainly wasn’t how he’d rehearsed it!

Warren Coleman’s Observations on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley

I was the director’s observer on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, which meant I got to watch the director work. You don’t have any responsibility, and nobody’s really after you for anything, but you get to learn how to do stuff. I’ve been angling for some time to try and get some kind of ‘directing observation’ deal with the ABC because they’re hard to come by. The first thing that came up happened to be Lano & Woodley and it happened to be when Bob Spiers was coming out. So it was kind of ideal for me, because I finally got to see the great man at work, so to speak.

Bob Spiers is an interesting man. Very matter-of-fact and unpretentious. He rarely talked to Lano and Woodley about why he thought a joke was or wasn’t working; he always knew where the gag was coming from and was a very hands-on guy. He was very improvisational. He did little things, like put a camera up shooting through the kitchen window, as he often did in Absolutely Fabulous. He built floors on the set. Normally in studios, they build sets directly on the floor, and it feels like a set rather than a real place. But because he did it that way, it meant that they really had a sense of being in a real place. It meant that you could see a full-length show of the actor, because the floor can be included. For some gags, it’s really important.

Colin and Frank were very much involved in the putting together of the show; they were the executive producers. They were involved in it in every respect, right down to the editing of it. They were consulted on all major decisions, and things pretty much happened the way they wanted them to.

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