I recently interviewed Timothy J. Ross â aka âRossoâ of âMerrick & Rossoâ fame â 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 â in case youâre reading this long after that date) I thought it would be nice to pull out my first ever Merrick & Rosso interview â one of several â that took place with Merrick Watts in 1998. Enjoy.
Merrick is Grouse-o
âWhen people think of âMerrick & Rossoâ they think of my old man as a builderâs labourer with a massive coin slot and half a dozen cans shoved down the front of his pants,â Merrick Watts says.Merrickâs dad is no builderâs 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 yobboâs yobboes. Images of Tim Ferguson, from that golden Big Gig era of the Doug Anthony Allstars, creep into my head: âme nameâs Shane-o, but me mates call me... Shane-oâ.
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 Allenâs 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 theyâd 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 âvery interesting peopleâ who contributed greatly to his development as a comic. Papa Watts, âincredibly patriotic, very funny, very witty and very talentedâ, is also a âf*cking total smart arse.â 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. âI 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 werenât a smart arse, he wouldnât like them. So that meant the only mates I had were smart arses.â
Mama Watts, on the other hand, is âabout as Aussie as you can get. My mum is hardcore.â Growing up in Broken Hill, the daughter of a miner, Merrickâs mum is also described as âfiercely patrioticâ as well as being a âvery, very hard-working Aussie woman.âAvoiding the cheap gag temptation to suggest that Merrickâs 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.
âIâve got no idea,â Merrick says, âbut I can tell now why they got divorced. I canât imagine why my parents would ever be together; theyâre just absolutely poles apart. My parents are great. In their individual climate theyâre fantastic.
âMy Mumâs sense of humour is something that has helped me through what Iâve been doing and has really been an influence on what I am. Sheâs 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.â
As well as a father who likes to take the piss, Merrickâs older brother and his mates were also smart arses. Like many comedians before him, Merrick realised at an early age that âif you werenât a smart arse you just didnât get through school properlyâ. Merrickâs wasnât the sort of school where youâd get beaten up. Instead, youâd be âbullied verbally. All the time. It was a circus of smart arses and I was the ringleader.â With such a proving ground to grow up in, it is no surprise that Merrick Watts is a comedian. In fact, it also really isnât surprising, though it may be enviable, that Merrick is only 24 years old.
âPeople always get surprised to hear that,â Merrick says, playing it down. âA lot of comics start when theyâre 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, âoh yeah, one day Iâll be on the tellyâ. I had no idea what I was going to do, but there was no doubt in my mind. In high school I still didnât 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.â
Not long into his stand-up career, Merrick met Tim Ross. The pair had âbeen mates for a couple of years,â 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 . âI used to go and see Black Rose play,â says Merrick. âI thought that they were pretty funny.â One night when both men were on the same bill they introduced themselves to each other, and, in Merrickâs words, âthat was it.â
Rosso, three years Merrickâs senior, grew up near the beach while Merrick lived âup in the hillsâ. Despite their coming from âcompletely oppositeâ sides of town, Merrick claims that the two of them have very similar backgrounds. âWe both were left-of-centre or right-of-centre â either way, we were both not âcentreâ; we also grew up in a very similar physical climate.â Merrick claims that they were both reared in forested areas with a high bushfire danger. âNot that Iâm saying bushfires determine your comic abilitiesâ he adds, âitâs just that where he grew up was very similar aesthetically. Thereâs a lot of similarities there: he also went to a school with a lot of smart arses.â
As they both have a similar sense of humour, the pair agree on most things. âThere arenât many ideas or jokes that one will suggest that the other one doesnât like. We never have to argue about what weâre gonna do or anything like that. We sort of agree on most things because we have a similar sense of humour.â
Merrick says that Pissheads from Outer Space, his first collaboration with Rosso, âwasnât dissimilar to what we do now. It was just very, very raw and very, very messy.â 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 1997âs Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and that, says Merrick, is âwhere it all fell into place.â
A Triple J slot followed, almost as a matter of course. Although, truth be told, it was really the result of Merrick & Rossoâs 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.
âIt was our second time on national radio and we wanted to make a pretty strong impression,â Merrick recounts, âso we took in a few of our letters to read out over the air.â As it went down a treat, the team was invited to appear more frequently, for a bit of a casual chat. Then, during last yearâs Sydney tour, the offer of a weekly slot was made, and accepted. âI think it was just âright time, right placeâ,â 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. âTheyâre called âinterstitialsâ in the television industry,â Merrick informs me. I donât know about the technical jargon, but I guess those little time-filler clips youâd occasionally see before The Goodies on the ABC must have been âinterstitialsâ. Meaning that The Goodies and whatever preceded itâ¦ were âstitialsââ¦? Anyway, the beauty of Merrick & Rossoâs interstitial films is their complete off-the-wall simplicity. âWe donât have a script, we have no lights, no studio time, nothing like that,â continues Merrick. âWe 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.âMerrick gives an example of one of the films: âWe get a camera and we dress up as what people in Sydney call âreal hardcore Westiesâ 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 theyâre being filmed. Itâs shot-gun comedy; itâs really hit-and-run and itâs great fun to do.â
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. âWe go âhang on, our show is only five minutes a weekâ¦â and they go ânuh, nuhâ. Theyâve seen the shows before, and in some instances theyâve only heard about them, and theyâre going and signing up with Foxtel.â
I, of course, find this hard to believe. Iâd 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 ârelease a best-of video, you fools, youâll make a mint!â Or at least, get Packer to bankroll a series. Then The Sydney Morning Heraldâs comedy hack can stop re-writing the âthereâs no funny Australian comedy on televisionâ story that gets published in a colour supplement every couple of months.
âThereâs been rumours that we might do a half-hour program or a series of half-hour program at some stage,â Merrick admits, â but it is all hearsay and chit-chat, thereâs been nothing proposed as yet. But obviously thatâs the next thing weâd be looking to do â a bit of television.â He goes on to say that there have been some âpartial offers and soundingsâ from certain networks, but he and Rosso are not interested as yet because âit doesnât suit who we are and what weâre doing at the momentâ.
What Merrick & Rosso are doing at the moment is Mardi Grouse, their latest stage show. âIâve got no fucken idea what the title means,â Merrick confesses. âNeither does Rosso. He said, âI want to a show called Mardi Grouseâ and I said, âAw, hang onâ¦â He said, âNo, no, itâs good.â Oh. No worries thenâ¦â
Mardi Grouse, according to Merrick, picks up where the hugely successful Merrick & Rosso 5000 left off: âPrank phone calls, prank letters, prank films... The way we see it is, âif it ainât broke, donât fix itâ.â Hence, Mardi Grouse offers a ânew angleâ 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 weâd remember them. âLast time we were in Sydney we werenât stumbling around in the dark or anything,â Merrick explains, âbut itâs six to eight months since we were last in Sydney performing. Over that time weâve done about thirty or forty shows, and thatâs thirty or forty showsâ experience. Weâve really got it down pat now.â
Two years, four shows, a regular slot on radio and television. I think itâs fair to say that it has been a rapid rise for Merrick & Rosso. âI suppose in some ways it has,â Merrick concedes, with some reservation. âRosso and I work very hard on what we do to get where weâre going so it doesnât really come as much of a surprise to us.â
For Merrick, honesty is the secret to Merrick & Rossoâs success. âWe donât look as though weâre putting on the âHey, this is CRAZY MERRICKâ¦â routine,â he says. âObviously, the Merrick thatâs on stage is different to the Merrick at his home. Itâs the same with Rosso. But we donât 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 itâs very, very honest. It really is Rosso and I, the way we are.â
It is Merrickâs honesty that prevents him from glorifying his own work thus far, which he refuses to analyse or dwell upon. âAt the moment,â he says, âwhat Iâm doing is not artistic, itâs just funny. When people ask us what sort of comedy we do, we go âfunny comedyâ. Itâs that simple. Thereâs no education, thereâs no politics, thereâs no trying to tell people how bad the world is. People just come along and then you laugh and then you go home. Itâs as simple as that.â
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.
âThe difference we see in our shows compared to other comedy shows,â he begins, âis that you can put most comedy shows into a theatre without any problem, and youâve 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 drinkâ¦ We put on a night of entertainment. Itâs like being at a barbecue where we tell all the jokes. Itâs more like party than a show.â
Gorgeous sentiments, Merrick Watts. Any final comments?
âThis show is Mardi Grouse. And Mardi Grouse is grouse.â
1. Having only seen Richard Stubbs a couple of times on the box â in stubbies and blue singlet â Iâd 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 didnât 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 weâll do that again next year. So weâre still actively doing it, but it really is, when we get a moment. When we played that gig four weeks ago, I donât think the boys have played better. Weâre still a good, funny act. We went and did a song on Kerri-Anne to promo it. That stuffâs 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 wouldnât play live at all. Weâd 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. Thatâs pretty much how it works.