“We did about ten shows and all the shows were great – standing ovations and good stuff like that. But at one of the shows, there was a person there who didn’t like my show, and they complained to the comedy club in London and they fired me for the next two weeks.”
What? How does that work?
“Exactly. That’s what I said. ‘How does that work?’ Someone in Dubai saw me, didn’t like my show – even though after the show I was signin’ autographs and taking pictures with the punters – she called London and these people just fired me, no questions asked. They didn’t say, ‘Hey, did you do this, did you do that?’ Nothin’! I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Welcome to America. Wait – I’m not in America!’”
I’m talking to Tony Woods long distance from the United States. He’s a comedian I’ve never met, nor seen live, but I know he’s good because when he was in Australia for the Cracker Comedy Festival earlier this year – appearing both in the Gala and on Good News Week – there was a buzz among other comics. There are clips, just in case you didn’t see him either and didn’t have other comics talking him up to you.
Tony’s in the middle of telling me a story about a Dubai gig that got him sacked, and I’m annoyed on his behalf. Firstly, the whole point of comedy is that the comedian tells ‘jokes’ – that is, they are effectively ‘pretend’ or ‘make-believe’ compared to ‘facts’ or ‘news’ or ‘reality’. Secondly, comedy is the one place where you are supposed to be allowed to explore taboo topics – to say things in jest that you could never have enough courage or insensitivity or permission to say in all seriousness.
“Well, first of all,” Tony insists, “I didn’t say what she accused me of saying, anyway. So… oh well.”
We’re still talking hypothetically, to a degree. Tony hasn’t divulged what he was accused of saying. I’m not gonna ask him. It shouldn’t matter. Comedy should be one place where you’re able to ‘push the envelope’ if you want to – and Tony reckons he wasn’t even doing that.
“Didn’t even push ’em. I don’t know what the hell she heard. She was drinkin’. Or somethin’. I don’t know. Oh well. She ruined my summer vacation. I was supposed to go to The Bahamas for a vacation, me ’n’ my family, but with two weeks of work fallin’ out of the pocket like that, you can’t just up and go on a vacation. So I don’t really wish the best for her at all.”
Well you wouldn’t, would you. No, if you were a comic in Tony’s position, the best outcome would be to enable everyone to laugh at this turn of events by turning this story into a comedy routine.
“Yeah,” Tony says. “I will. Heh, heh, heh, heh.”
Ah, the Tony Woods laugh. I love that laugh. People claim Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, has the dirtiest laugh since Sid James. Tony’s laugh is different to that: it is cool and conspiratorial. It has probably gotten Tony into as much trouble as it has gotten him out of. No doubt it’s gotten him laid.
You can hear the laugh on that YouTube clip where Paul McDermott grills Tony on the Good News Week couch. (‘Couch Potato, the interrogation game of comfort and joy’.) Although one question that doesn’t immediately elicit the laugh is when McDermott asks Woods why he applied for Dental School. “How’d you know that?” Tony says, taken aback. Eventually he replies “Man, I was 18; I just wanted… girls.”
When I ask him, Woods explains that he gained his first experience as “what they call a ‘dental technician/dental assistant’” in the navy. After advancing to ‘surgical assistant’ he decided he might actually pursue dentistry as a career. “But then,” he says, adopting a conspiratorial whisper, “I started doing comedy…”.
There’s a pause. Followed by the signature laugh.
“Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh… you know…”.
It’s a low sound that emanates from deep within, detached and yet cheeky. It’s the sort of laugh that implies a shared knowledge we both know better than dare admit out loud. Although, in this instance, all I really ‘know’ is that things don’t always go to plan. The full story of how and why comedy usurped dentistry is something only Tony knows – but the encouragement to draw my own conclusion coupled with that laugh makes me want to assume the worst, something unspeakably shameful. That’s what that laugh does. On stage, the laugh causes the audience similarly to reach unspeakable conclusions, enabling the material to become as funny as our own imaginations allow. It means that Tony can create ‘off-colour’ material without actually delivering it. Audiences titillate themselves at his prompting.
I bet that’s what happened in Dubai: Tony didn’t say whatever the woman claimed he said. He left it open to interpretation, and then delivered that laugh. It must have made her feel funny and think dirty, in a manner she’d probably not had the pleasure of for some time. Good comedy can do that to you.
But I’m more intent on pinning the comic down than drawing my own conclusions – unspeakable or otherwise – so I press on. Was there a master-plan to ultimately ditch vocational studies for comedy, or did it happen accidentally? According to Woods, it was “very accidental”:
“I just happened to fall into it, man.” Tony’s buddies insisted he was funny, that he should “try out” as a comic. “I went touring on those ‘open mic’ deals,” he explains, “and… BANG! There you go! Ever since then, there’s no turning back.”
In addition to being able to leave the audience to do some of the work for themselves, Tony’s style involves turning real experiences into material by re-telling it in a ‘bewildered’ manner. Rather than a smug, arrogant or angry comic, Tony Woods is surprised. It’s as though events are still taking him by surprise in the re-telling. According to Tony, that's his style: “Last to know”:
“Even though I’m telling the story, it’s still taking me by surprise. I’m the last to know.”
The beauty of it is that it renders all of Tony’s material ‘universal’. He’s experiencing Australia for the first time and he’s telling us, more-or-less, as it happens to him::
“There’s freaky stuff happening. There’s a lot of animals…. I mean like, animals that I never…”
At this point, you suppose it’s gonna be every visiting comic’s monologue about Australia’s deadly fauna: spiders, snakes, sea creatures…. But no.
There was this dog on the couch, and I said to my Australian friend, ‘I ain’t never seen a dog like that. What kind of do is that?’
And he said, ‘It's a wombat, mate!’
I said, ‘yeah, I wanna dog like that’.
He said, ‘Nah, it’s a marsupial’.
‘What the f*ck does that mean?’‘He got a pocket.’
And I’m thinking, ‘What the f*ck do all the animals in Australia need with a f*cken pocket? They ain’t carryin’ no wallet or nothin’ like that. What the f*ck you doin’ with a pocket, man?’
© Tony Woods
Funny to watch him tell it, bewildered, to Australian audiences – but it’s no doubt just as funny when he tells it, bewildered, to the folk back home. Or to any other audiences he plays to around the world. Tony Woods has been standing-up on the world stage for – well, at least a decade. There are clips on YouTube from Holland that are ten years old. Tony can’t quite remember when he made the transition from open mic-er to world class comic. “I just kind of adapt to my surroundings and make it happen,” is how he explains it. “It’s a shame that it seems I can get more work overseas than I can in America.”
That is a shame, but so is having people fail to ‘get it’ as far afield as Dubai. Although the Dubai experience doesn’t necessarily rate as Tony’s worst on the road. He explains that because of his “very laid-back” on-stage demeanour, early on, audiences would assume he was a stoner. “Now everyone claims to smoke pot,” he observes. “I wasn’t smokin’ pot. I just had a very daydreamy style, so it looked as though I was stoned on stage.” Although, it turns out, this was one of Ms Disappointed of Dubai’s grievances: “She says that I was drunk, that I was stoned. But she didn’t know what she was talkin’ about.”
If I wasn’t so comedy-savvy, I’d have my suspicions, as I tell Tony: he does have a lot of material about… But I have to correct myself before I finish saying “getting stoned’. By ‘a lot’, what I actually mean is, of the few clips of his work I have seen on-line, one’s about going to Jamaica; another one recorded in Holland talks about… but Woods interrupts me.
“What it is,” he explains, “is a covert way of tellin’ people to not do drugs; showin’ people the misadventures and misfortunes you can have when you do that.”
The example I’ll go with at this point is Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose written work is riddled with drug references. If he was a medicated as he claims to be, on the substances he claims to have ingested, I doubt he’d have had the time to have written as much as he did. I don’t know many people who spend their entire waking lives stoned who have the memory or the motivation – let alone the talent – to turn their experiences into a career of stand-up comedy.
“Exactly!” Tony agrees. “You should call that woman and tell her that!”
Given that Woods is based in Washington, DC when he is in fact in the US, I would have expected a bit of a political bent to his work. But there doesn’t seem to be any.
“No, there’s not,” he confirms. “Not at all.” The political comics, Woods explains, are “the people who move to DC”, not the ones that live there. “It’s like the people who live in Los Angeles aren’t into show business,” he continues. “It’s the people who move to Los Angeles. They’re into show business.” As ever: the converts are the zealots. The life-long believers just go about their business as they always have.
Speaking of material and show business, there’s a great routine of which I’m very fond – Tony’s re-telling of the Little Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs fairy tales.
“That’s older stuff,” he says. “It’s about my introduction to kindergarten. I’d been at home watching soap operas and then I get there and they’d give me happy, sweet stories. I go, ‘no, there’s gotta be a covert mission behind these’.”
Little Red Riding Hood is a horrifying story. It is. It’s supposed to be like a kid’s story but you think about it.
First, Little Red Riding Hood: she’s like a trick, cos she wears little hot pants and stuff. You know, a big push-up bra and a little hood like a superhero stripper or something.
Remember, she’s skippin’ through the woods, teasing all the woodsmen: “Hi, woodsmen…”.
And they’re like, “Wassup, bitch?”
Okay, she didn’t hear them say that, but I want women here to know, that’s what men are always sayin’ to you when you talk to them from a distance.
© Tony Woods
What I love about these stories is that you could build a cute animation around the pre-existing routine. Perfect for vodcasting, or as a DVD extra or for… whatever, really. Woods likes the idea. “You should be my agent, man, so you can come to Los Angeles and tell these people.”
The way Tony sees it, “if you’re not doing the same thing that everyone else is doing, they don’t want to try it. Everyone says, ‘why don’t you do something like…’. I don’t want to do anything like that person did or this person did. If you think about it, in Hollywood, the film genres stay the same until one person – and it has to be someone of notoriety – goes the different way. Then they all go that way. Like, now it’s all superheroes, you know?”
Hmm. Sounds like Woods has beaten his head against a showbiz brick wall. While general trends are evident in comedy, there are least as many ways to approach the same topic as there are original comedians. But what has Woods got his eye on – television or film?
“I want to do film. I’m still trying to be an action hero but I think I’m getting old.”
Maybe. But in the meantime, make the Little Red Riding Hood animation about the superhero stripper, I reckon. That sort of thing shouldn’t be too far away from Tony’s own current interests, really. He already has his own DVD to flog after shows. “It’s an hour of different television clips of my television appearances from all around the world,” he says.
The important question is, do they include clips that we can’t sort of stumble upon for free on YouTube?
“Yes,” Tony says. “It’s un-stumble-upon-able.”
Nice. I think we’re done. I thank Tony for his time.
“No problem,” he says.
I tell him I’m looking forward to seeing him live.
“Okey-dokey,” he says.
Which makes me wanna ask one last question. I’m wondering if ‘okey-dokey’ is something he picked up on his last visit here. “Do you say ‘okey-dokey’ in your country?” I ask.
“Not everybody,” Tony reports. “I say it. It’s just one of those things. Maybe I say it from my travels, I don’t know. People say it.”
Hmm. Awkward. Let me explain. There’s one bit of routine – from the 2009 Cracker Comedy Festival Gala – where Tony imitates the Aussie accent and some of the words typical to our usage of English that aren’t in as common usage in the United States – like ‘indigenous’, ‘marsupial’ and ‘pouch’. As he continues into a an anecdote, as part of the routine, the word ‘motherf*cker’ come up a fair bit.
“Some of your material is about communicating those differences, in culture,” I offer, “and translating words. Like you say, ‘“motherf*cker” means “bloke” to me’.”
“Yeah. Heh, heh, heh, yeah,” Tony Woods says, laughing again. “It just means ‘bloke’.”
“I like that,” I offer. “Mate, you’re a good bloke!”
“Awright,” Tony says. “And you’re a good motherf*cker yourself!”
And this time, we both laugh.
“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”
Tony Woods is playing the Sydney Comedy Store until Aug 15.
Tony Woods on 2009 Cracker Comedy Festival Gala
Tony Woods on the Good News Week couch.
Tony Woods on Jamaica on Def Comedy Jam
Tony Woods’s version of Little Red Riding Hood