I recently interviewed Timothy J. Ross – aka ‘Rosso’ of ‘Merrick & Rosso’ fame – in honour of the DVD release of Series 2 of The Merrick & Rosso Show. One of the points that came up was the fact that Merrick & Rosso have sold a version of their Show to the UK, which is excellent news. While that interview is going to appear in the next issue of FilmInk (he wrote, at the end of September 2009 – in case you’re reading this long after that date) I thought it would be nice to pull out my first ever Merrick & Rosso interview – one of several – that took place with Merrick Watts in 1998. Enjoy.
Merrick is Grouse-o
“When people think of ‘Merrick & Rosso’ they think of my old man as a builder’s labourer with a massive coin slot and half a dozen cans shoved down the front of his pants,” Merrick Watts says.Merrick’s dad is no builder’s labourer, but I can see where the confusion may lie. My own first reaction to Merrick & Rosso, not having seen any of their work, is to file them in the same category as, say, Derek & Clive: the yobbo’s yobboes. Images of Tim Ferguson, from that golden Big Gig era of the Doug Anthony Allstars, creep into my head: “me name’s Shane-o, but me mates call me... Shane-o”.
That the duo were meeting with every sort of success only made matters worse: I was anticipating the comedic equivalent of a regular six-pack of Stubbsies1. The faux glam of the lime suits, the big, bubbly writing and the taking of Peter Allen’s name in vain on their Mardi Grouse posters offered, at best, evidence of the pair jumping on the current cocktail/easy listening band wagon (the only wagon they’d ever be on, though, considering that their first show was entitled Pissheads from Outer Space). Boy am I wrong!
Merrick insists that his parents are “very interesting people” who contributed greatly to his development as a comic. Papa Watts, “incredibly patriotic, very funny, very witty and very talented”, is also a “f*cking total smart arse.” When Merrick was a boy, friends refused to go to his house to play because his father would pay out on them, making them feel small. “I used to think it was hilarious; I never thought twice about it because in my house the only friends I ever had were ones that would mouth off back to him, and then my dad would respect them. If they weren’t a smart arse, he wouldn’t like them. So that meant the only mates I had were smart arses.”
Mama Watts, on the other hand, is “about as Aussie as you can get. My mum is hardcore.” Growing up in Broken Hill, the daughter of a miner, Merrick’s mum is also described as “fiercely patriotic” as well as being a “very, very hard-working Aussie woman.”Avoiding the cheap gag temptation to suggest that Merrick’s mum is the one with the coin slot and the six-pack, I instead enquire as to how two so disparate entities could ever have got together.
“I’ve got no idea,” Merrick says, “but I can tell now why they got divorced. I can’t imagine why my parents would ever be together; they’re just absolutely poles apart. My parents are great. In their individual climate they’re fantastic.
“My Mum’s sense of humour is something that has helped me through what I’ve been doing and has really been an influence on what I am. She’s got a good Aussie sense of humour: she likes to have a good time; she likes to be vocal. The energy, I think I get from my Mum.”
As well as a father who likes to take the piss, Merrick’s older brother and his mates were also smart arses. Like many comedians before him, Merrick realised at an early age that “if you weren’t a smart arse you just didn’t get through school properly”. Merrick’s wasn’t the sort of school where you’d get beaten up. Instead, you’d be “bullied verbally. All the time. It was a circus of smart arses and I was the ringleader.” With such a proving ground to grow up in, it is no surprise that Merrick Watts is a comedian. In fact, it also really isn’t surprising, though it may be enviable, that Merrick is only 24 years old.
“People always get surprised to hear that,” Merrick says, playing it down. “A lot of comics start when they’re 25, 26, 27, but I knew I wanted to be a comic before I even knew I wanted to do comedy. When I was a kid I used to just look at the television and think, ‘oh yeah, one day I’ll be on the telly’. I had no idea what I was going to do, but there was no doubt in my mind. In high school I still didn’t know that I was going to be a comedian. I thought I wanted to do funny stuff, but I wanted to be on television. And then when I was about 19 I decided I was going to be a comic. By the time I was 20 I was doing it.”
Not long into his stand-up career, Merrick met Tim Ross. The pair had “been mates for a couple of years,” meaning that they had become familiar with one another on the comedy circuit. Back then Tim led a band, a comedy troupe called Black Rose2 . “I used to go and see Black Rose play,” says Merrick. “I thought that they were pretty funny.” One night when both men were on the same bill they introduced themselves to each other, and, in Merrick’s words, “that was it.”
Rosso, three years Merrick’s senior, grew up near the beach while Merrick lived “up in the hills”. Despite their coming from “completely opposite” sides of town, Merrick claims that the two of them have very similar backgrounds. “We both were left-of-centre or right-of-centre – either way, we were both not ‘centre’; we also grew up in a very similar physical climate.” Merrick claims that they were both reared in forested areas with a high bushfire danger. “Not that I’m saying bushfires determine your comic abilities” he adds, “it’s just that where he grew up was very similar aesthetically. There’s a lot of similarities there: he also went to a school with a lot of smart arses.”
As they both have a similar sense of humour, the pair agree on most things. “There aren’t many ideas or jokes that one will suggest that the other one doesn’t like. We never have to argue about what we’re gonna do or anything like that. We sort of agree on most things because we have a similar sense of humour.”
Merrick says that Pissheads from Outer Space, his first collaboration with Rosso, “wasn’t dissimilar to what we do now. It was just very, very raw and very, very messy.” It was also very, very successful, considering that it was the first show of a new act. Its follow-up, The Imposters, was mounted a few months later, and it also proved successful. Finally, The Merrick & Rosso 5000 was conceived and mounted for 1997’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and that, says Merrick, is “where it all fell into place.”
A Triple J slot followed, almost as a matter of course. Although, truth be told, it was really the result of Merrick & Rosso’s professionalism. Helen Razer and Judith Lucy were broadcasting their Triple J show The Ladies Lounge from Melbourne during the Festival, and were featuring a horde of comics that day.
“It was our second time on national radio and we wanted to make a pretty strong impression,” Merrick recounts, “so we took in a few of our letters to read out over the air.” As it went down a treat, the team was invited to appear more frequently, for a bit of a casual chat. Then, during last year’s Sydney tour, the offer of a weekly slot was made, and accepted. “I think it was just ‘right time, right place’,” Merrick modestly admits.
As was Planet Merrick & Rosso, no doubt. Planet Merrick & Rosso is a five-minute comedy slot that can be seen each week on the Comedy Channel. Each episode consists of a short film. “They’re called ‘interstitials’ in the television industry,” Merrick informs me. I don’t know about the technical jargon, but I guess those little time-filler clips you’d occasionally see before The Goodies on the ABC must have been ‘interstitials’. Meaning that The Goodies and whatever preceded it… were ‘stitials’…? Anyway, the beauty of Merrick & Rosso’s interstitial films is their complete off-the-wall simplicity. “We don’t have a script, we have no lights, no studio time, nothing like that,” continues Merrick. “We travel really, really light; we have a cameraman and a sound man. Basically, we just get a f*cking camera and we hit the road.”Merrick gives an example of one of the films: “We get a camera and we dress up as what people in Sydney call ‘real hardcore Westies’ and we rock down to Bondi Beach and just start asking people questions. We wear hidden microphones and most of the time the camera is just not obvious, so people often have no idea that they’re being filmed. It’s shot-gun comedy; it’s really hit-and-run and it’s great fun to do.”
In fact, Merrick goes as far as to assure me that he has encountered fans who get Foxtel purely to have access to Planet Merrick & Rosso. “We go ‘hang on, our show is only five minutes a week…’ and they go ‘nuh, nuh’. They’ve seen the shows before, and in some instances they’ve only heard about them, and they’re going and signing up with Foxtel.”
I, of course, find this hard to believe. I’d want more than one program, and certainly more than five minutes of it, if I were to sign up to cable. Even if the show was Duckman or South Park. However, if Planet Merrick & Rosso is as successful as Merrick says, I can only say “release a best-of video, you fools, you’ll make a mint!” Or at least, get Packer to bankroll a series. Then The Sydney Morning Herald’s comedy hack can stop re-writing the ‘there’s no funny Australian comedy on television’ story that gets published in a colour supplement every couple of months.
“There’s been rumours that we might do a half-hour program or a series of half-hour program at some stage,” Merrick admits, “ but it is all hearsay and chit-chat, there’s been nothing proposed as yet. But obviously that’s the next thing we’d be looking to do – a bit of television.” He goes on to say that there have been some “partial offers and soundings” from certain networks, but he and Rosso are not interested as yet because “it doesn’t suit who we are and what we’re doing at the moment”.
What Merrick & Rosso are doing at the moment is Mardi Grouse, their latest stage show. “I’ve got no fucken idea what the title means,” Merrick confesses. “Neither does Rosso. He said, ‘I want to a show called Mardi Grouse’ and I said, ‘Aw, hang on…’ He said, ‘No, no, it’s good.’ Oh. No worries then…”
Mardi Grouse, according to Merrick, picks up where the hugely successful Merrick & Rosso 5000 left off: “Prank phone calls, prank letters, prank films... The way we see it is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.” Hence, Mardi Grouse offers a “new angle” on a similar show, with lots of new material. However, as far as Sydneysiders are concerned, Mardi Grouse also shows Merrick & Rosso to be a lot slicker than we’d remember them. “Last time we were in Sydney we weren’t stumbling around in the dark or anything,” Merrick explains, “but it’s six to eight months since we were last in Sydney performing. Over that time we’ve done about thirty or forty shows, and that’s thirty or forty shows’ experience. We’ve really got it down pat now.”
Two years, four shows, a regular slot on radio and television. I think it’s fair to say that it has been a rapid rise for Merrick & Rosso. “I suppose in some ways it has,” Merrick concedes, with some reservation. “Rosso and I work very hard on what we do to get where we’re going so it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise to us.”
For Merrick, honesty is the secret to Merrick & Rosso’s success. “We don’t look as though we’re putting on the ‘Hey, this is CRAZY MERRICK…’ routine,” he says. “Obviously, the Merrick that’s on stage is different to the Merrick at his home. It’s the same with Rosso. But we don’t put on characters. Part of the appeal to audiences is that we look like a couple of mates who just tell each other jokes. We tell the audience jokes and it’s very, very honest. It really is Rosso and I, the way we are.”
It is Merrick’s honesty that prevents him from glorifying his own work thus far, which he refuses to analyse or dwell upon. “At the moment,” he says, “what I’m doing is not artistic, it’s just funny. When people ask us what sort of comedy we do, we go ‘funny comedy’. It’s that simple. There’s no education, there’s no politics, there’s no trying to tell people how bad the world is. People just come along and then you laugh and then you go home. It’s as simple as that.”
It is as simple as that. But if their success continues to grow as rapidly as it is growing now, one imagines that this will be the last tour that we see Merrick & Rosso in a venue such as the Comedy Hotel, where Mardi Grouse is currently playing. I suspect that next time, it will be the Enmore, or perhaps even the State. Merrick denies this.
“The difference we see in our shows compared to other comedy shows,” he begins, “is that you can put most comedy shows into a theatre without any problem, and you’ve got more problems putting them into a pub. But with us, it is pub-oriented comedy. We like people being able to smoke and to drink… We put on a night of entertainment. It’s like being at a barbecue where we tell all the jokes. It’s more like party than a show.”
Gorgeous sentiments, Merrick Watts. Any final comments?
“This show is Mardi Grouse. And Mardi Grouse is grouse.”
1. Having only seen Richard Stubbs a couple of times on the box – in stubbies and blue singlet – I’d somehow mistaken him for something other than the brilliant comic he is. I was younger, more foolish and far less ready to admit it!
2. Black Rose still play, as Rosso told me in that FilmInk interview, in a bit that didn’t make the final cut, and so I present it here:
We played at the V Festival this year. We did a gig at the Oxford Arts Factory about three or four weeks ago. I drop in and out of it. The V Festival was a blast. It was only Melbourne and Sydney, but I think we’ll do that again next year. So we’re still actively doing it, but it really is, when we get a moment. When we played that gig four weeks ago, I don’t think the boys have played better. We’re still a good, funny act. We went and did a song on Kerri-Anne to promo it. That stuff’s still unreal, to sing a song on morning television. Tick that f*cking box, motherf*ckers!
Unfortunately, the guys all live interstate. If we all lived in the one city, we probably wouldn’t play live at all. We’d just write, rehearse and record albums that noone was interested in buying, and keep hobby music the way it is. But as it is, we find that for us to get together to play, we need to do shows or get someone to pay to get everyone in the one city at the one time. That’s pretty much how it works.