As a rule, I don’t do email interviews. I
certainly prefer not to do them with a person I’ve not met, whose work I’ve only just encountered – unless I’m well-versed with them and their work, or the genre or tradition with which they’re working, the result can only ever scratch the surface.
See, a face-to-face, or even a phoner,
gives room to make mistakes and be corrected in such a way that there are
supplementary questions to be asked, tangents to go off on and a ‘story’ to be
told from the richest vein of questioning. Then you go back to primary sources
as necessary for as much background as is required.
Without all of that, the email interview is
at best, the basics, and at worst – unless of course you’ve got all the information at your fingertips – bland. But what’s good is it is short and
sweet. (In a way, what I’m really saying is I would have loved to have more of a discussion on how the Caste system still operates, if indeed it does still operate, given globalisation and local cultures going international… oh well, not to be.)
Here are some questions answered by Soorya
Krishnamoorthy via emal, that only scratch the surface of India’s Rhythms – Ancient
Dance, Exploding Beats, Modern Moves, a showcase of dance at the Seymour
Centre tonight. There is a heap more information worth pursuing. For starters,
consider the press release – one of the most expansive with which I’ve been serviced by a publicist. And the website.
Dom Romeo: You’ve
chosen to present four of the eight Indian dance styles to present in Indian Rhythms; why only four and why those four?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: There are only six forms of classical
dance in India, mohiniyattam, bharathanatyam, kuchupudi, odissi, kathak and
manipuri. I have in my programme four classical dance forms. When the show is
presented in India, all the six are there. It’s very expensive to have all the six
in a foreign country since all perform in group.
Dom Romeo: For
the uninitiated, how do the four styles differ? What do they have in common?
What will we be seeing?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: The four classical dances differ in
language and technique. Costumes and make up are different. What is common is
the bhakthi element.
Dom Romeo: These
are traditional dances from different parts of India. What is their history?
Did they all develop at the same time in different places, or are some older
than others? Do any of them serve as ‘antecedents’ for others?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: All the classical dances of India are
not created at the same time. The latest creation could be mohiniyattam
Dom Romeo: You
are also including a modern dancing style as the fifth item. Why?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: I am not including modern dance, it’s
Dom Romeo: Tell
me about how this modern dance relates to the other more traditional dances.
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: This dance is a combination of all the
finer elements of these classical dances plus the martial art kalaripayattu and
Dom Romeo: In recent years ‘Bollywood’ cinema – featuring traditional
and modern variations of Indian dance has gained a following worldwide. What
enabled it to gain such a following?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: Bollywood dances of the Hindi cinema are
cinematic dances and are mostly vulgar in nature, they don’t stick to the
classical traditions. They don’t represent the rich culture of India.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about your own career in arts and culture –
how did you begin? Was dancing your first passion? Is a career in the arts
something people are born into, as a continuation of the caste system (and
indeed, is the caste system still rigidly in place?)
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: All details of mine can be had from my
web site www.sooryaindia.com. I am not
a dancer, I am a director. Basically I am a theatre person, writer and
director. I write and direct light and sound shows, plays (dramas), and stage
shows.The programme The Rhythm
is conceived, designed, and directed by me.
Dom Romeo: How do you establish a cultural entity with no
official offices and staff?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: From the inception of 'soorya', 33 years
back, we never wanted to have an office or paid staff. The entire work is done
by volunteers and art enthusiasts. We believe that any work of this nature,
should be strictly non commercial. We want to avoid any sort of establishment
or over head costs. Soorya has chapters in 22 countries, no where we have
office or paid staff.
Dom Romeo: You’ve presented this show around the world – do some
countries take to it more readily than others, and if so, why?
SOORYA KRISHNAMOORTHY: Soorya has chapters in gulf, far east
Europe and Australia. Everywhere we get uniformly good response, I find the
same enthusiasm everywhere, It’s GOD's grace.
“Comedy doesn’t necessarily make
a lot of money for a bar on the
night,” Jacques explains. “People don’t really get pissed at comedy.
watching a show, so they aren’t drinking constantly. They don’t hit the
cocktails and build up bar sales.”
Room to laugh
Jacques Barrett is not just a
stand-up comic on the make – one you’d be hearing about sooner rather
later if you hadn’t heard about him already – he’s also a comic who sets
runs comedy rooms. The thing about comedy rooms is they wax and wane.
Someone starts one up and it does well. Suddenly more pop up. For a while a
do good. And then one by one, they start to disappear until only the
survive. And then the cycle starts again. But, Jacques explains, the
for anyone starting up a room is the thought that it’ll provide an
cash injection for the venue on a night that’s
normally dead. It rarely does. What happens instead, especially in a
that a comedy night “gets a lot of people in that never even knew the
existed”. If they enjoyed the food and the selection of beer on tap and
great service, then the next time they’re in that part of town, hungry
thirsty, they’ll go to that pub – as well as returning on the comedy
night if they enjoyed it. But it’s on the non-comedy nights when the pub
actually make money as a result of the comedy. Essentially, Jacques says, “a comedy night is a great way to advertise
Jacques has had
quite a lot of experience,
not just on stage, but also in bars and kitchens. I discovered this a
ago when he was one of the ‘best up-and-comers’ selected for Comedy
Zone, a newbie comic showcase the
Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together. It was 2008 and I
the pleasure of sharing a South Yarra flat with Jacques for the duration
festival. And it was a pleasure (apart from the first time we tried to
use the oven and discovered previous tenants’ chicken nuggets therein).
Jacques is a master pizza maker. He’s got a
taste for the best ingredients (including jalapeno peppers) and knows
part of the oven to cook them in. (Low – bottom shelf – for a proper,
cook. As long as lazy cleaning staff have finally come in to remove the
old chicken nuggets!) But remember, this is a guy who worked in
hospitality – “bars and
kitchens” – for the better part of a decade-and-a-half. And it was while
behind a bar somewhere in the middle of it all that he decided to give
Comedy in Store for Jacques
“Seven years ago I worked at the Comedy
Store as a bartender and waiter,” Jacques explains. “I liked comedy,
thought about giving it a shot and one day I just did it: I got up
it didn’t go too bad; I didn’t die. I got a bit of a taste for it and
next gig I did, three weeks later on a Tuesday night, open mic night, I
better: I caned it; I smashed it. I was like, ‘I got this; I’m all over
This is my thing’.”
If you know any
comics, or have done any
comedy, you know where this is going: good first gig; even better second
“Three weeks later, I got up
again, and I
died. DIED. One of the worst deaths I ever had: pure silence. It was
I love that Jacques
describes his most
spectacular on-stage death as ‘awesome’ rather than awful. This is part
reason why he is a great comic on the make: he can appreciate the
failing. There is a truism that a comic has never done their best or
there’s always the potential for one better
or worse around the corner. Jacques points out a pattern that has proven
generally true in his experience: “you usually have your best gig after
had your worst gig, because you learn a lot from the bad ones”. He
truism, revealed to him by “one of the greats”, comedian Chris Wainhouse: “You
never really learn anything from a good gig;you only ever
learn from the bad ones”.
I can’t quite
pinpoint when it happened,
but for the last couple of years at least, Jacques hasn’t just been
good gigs than bad ones – he’s pretty much mostly been having great
Jacques can’t quite pinpoint it either, but puts it down to
“When I get on stage, I have
good material,” he insists. “I don’t like to do anything below
standard. But it took me a long, long time before I got to a point where
15 minutes that worked pretty much
Actually, there was a
time where that started to
happen more often than not, and it was the month of the 2008
Comedy Festival, when Jacques was in Comedy
Zone with Tom Ballard, Jack
Druce and Lila Tillman. “Comedy Zone gave me 12-15 minutes of really reliable stuff and from that
I just added extra bits,” Jacques explains. “It got to a point where I
So the transition
from good up-and-comer to
a comic you’d see any time confidently knowing you’re gonna laugh,
happened as a result of Comedy Zone. But Jacques himself can’t
pinpoint the moment; it
happens as a process. He does remember another great stand-up, Anthony
giving him sage advice: “If you want to get booked a lot, you don’t
have to be incredibly funny, you just have to be pretty funny all the
have to be reliable.”
Jacques Barrett got
reliable, and so, he
says, “got more gigs because of that reliability. And the more gigs I
more material I got that was reliable. It got to a point where I was
reliable and the phone rang a lot.”
The next step was MCing gigs.
“I was MCing everywhere,” Jacques recalls. The beauty of being able to
MC is that a
lot of your job is functional. You need some material, but you also need
interact with the audience and bounce of the acts that have just been on
(particularly if they’ve ‘broken’ the room and it needs to be ‘re-set’
the next act). It’s often the perfect situation for trying out new
usually under the guise of ‘talking to the audience’, which is great
“if it doesn’t go that well, you can still save it”:
just fall back into your tried-and-true stuff, the ‘really reliable’ material.
Although it doesn’t
always work like that.
Stand Up Get Down In The Fireplace
A couple of weeks ago, for example, I saw
Jacques headline at World Bar, in the room Rhys Jones runs with Dan Chin, as
‘Stand Up Get Down’. World Bar is one of those Kings Cross venues that was
clearly a stately old home back in the day. The comedy room was a spacious
drawing room or lounge room once – the stage set up in front of a massive old
fireplace, which is handy, because the mantle serves as a shelf for the comic’s drink. It has a lot of character. But it was a strange night: the audience
began as minuscule; it would grow to quite a nice size as punters wandered in
for a bit and then disappeared again; then it would shrink to only slightly larger than the core keen kids
who’d been there since the beginning. During one of the lulls in audience size,
Rhys put it to Jacques that as there were so few punters, there wasn’t going to
be the opportunity for payment – would he still want to do the gig?
“I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’m here, let’s
try and give these people a show’,” Jacques says. “Everyone was having fun with
it, experimenting.” But the fact that he was now performing for free meant that
he had no obligation to stick to his ‘reliable’ material – he could have fun
and experiment too. Jacques spent most of the evening riffing and bouncing of an
audience that, by the lead-up to his set, had swelled to a good size, and rather than shrink, appeared to continue to grow while he was on the stage.
Perhaps because he was now playing to a fair amount of punters, Jacques
frequently chose, after each leap into the unknown, to bring the show back to a spot of established ‘routine’,
a bit of ‘reliable’ with which to round off before moving on into some other hitherto
But a strange thing happened: each
concluding ‘routine’, building on observations and improvised banter with the
audience, should have blown the roof off. Instead, the free-form material would
build and build and then… plateau during the ‘reliable’.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Even if
they don’t realise that they’re hip to it, at some level, punters can tell the
difference. It’s in a comic’s voice, or poise, or pace, the transition to being
‘in the moment’ and improvising with what’s being given to them, compared to
the established material that they’re entirely in control of. No matter how
realistically you can deliver a script, it’s never going to be as ‘real’ as
saying what pops into your mind the moment it appears there. Jacques concurs.
see you having fun, and then you go back to old material, the material you’ve
usually done… I think they see it in your face. They kind of go, ‘Oh,
you’ve done this heaps of times before. You don’t believe it like you believe
that ranty, off-the-cuff stuff.’”
Where it happened so spectacularly was with
one of Jacques’s best loved bits (best loved by the comic and his fans), a very clever, very funny routine. And after it played to near indifference, Jacques ‘called
it’: “Right,” he said, “that was my best bit, and you don’t care about it. I’m
going to do the rest of the set from inside the fireplace.”
At which point, Jacques climbed into the
fireplace behind the stage, and proceeded to deliver his set from there. Which
worked: suddenly he’d re-set the room. Elements of indifference disappeared.
Any material now, even the most ‘reliable’, had been at the very least
physically re-contextualised. When all you are is a head, a hand and a
microphone, you are forced to put more into delivery and an audience is forced
to do more in watching and hearing – if they’re interested. How can you not be interested in a guy who just climbed into the fireplace? Suddenly everyone’s on edge, wanting to see how it goes.
“There’s a real joy that comes through in a
performer when you know they’re doing something that’s completely ‘new’,
something they’ve never done it before,” says Jacques, likening the process to a street
fight. “When it goes well, you feel like a real raw comic out there. You’re in
the scraps. You’ve got no weapons. You’re not armed with any material. You’ve
just got you and you’ve got your bare fists and you’re out there and you’re
throwing punches and they’re landing. You’re not just funny because your
material is funny; you’re actually funny in the moment as well.”
I guess it’s the difference between a
choreographed fight scene and an actual fight. And the difference is, if you’re
up for it, and you’ve got the confidence and you’re fit, it’s a fight you’re likely to win. “As long as you can land the first couple of punches,” Jacques qualifies.
“You get ’em onside.”
The fat kid in history
Some of what gets punters onside for
Jacques are admissions of growing up a poor, fat kid and a victim of
indifferent schooling in Brisbane. It’s interesting because every
comic pretty much starts out doing self-deprecating autobiography – ‘talk about
what you know’ – but an audience doesn’t like having to give a comedian pity,
no matter how much it is warranted. They want a comic who is in control. Tell
those sad stories, by all means, but tell ’em funny, with the comic having overcome the hardships, delivering the right twist at the right time to make it about the audience’s
entertainment, not about the comic’s therapy. When Jacques tells his stories,
they are hilarious. I’m curious to know how ‘true’ they are – if they are
utterly made up, have a kernel of truth or are utterly autobiographical. As
ever, it’s mostly the middle range (kernel of truth), with bits at either
extreme (made up, utterly autobiographical) that makes the story funny.
“My parents were real estate agents, so
they went through sporadic periods of not having much money if the market was
bad,” Jacques relates. “I was fat. I was teased pretty bad.”
According to Jacques, his parents “begged,
borrowed and stole” to get him into a private boys’ school. But even though he
did attend a private school, there wasn’t “that much cash lying around”.
Rather, everything his folks did, they did to get their kid educated in a ‘good’
“It was a big school, and I did stand out,”
Jacques says. “I was in the top two per cent of the fattest kids in the school.”
Even though he’s shed that weight, he claims to still have “that fat kid
mentality: ‘please like me; please like me for my personality’.” It is, in
effect, the root of Jacques Barratt, the comic, wanting to be loved by an
entire room full of strangers on a regular basis. And Jacques knows it. He knew
it back when he was “being fat at school”:
“People I didn’t even know would be teasing
me at school. I didn’t know their names, but they knew mine. They knew who I
was and it almost felt good. It almost felt like, if I lost weight,
I’d blend into the crowd and nobody would know me. Instead, I stood out because I was chunky and people would pay me out. I almost
liked the attention. Maybe that’s why I never lost the weight.”
Build it and they will laugh
After Jacques had arrived with his reliable
routines, he did something a lot of comics do: he opened a room. He and fellow
comic James Rochford started up a company called Wagon Productions, and opened a
comedy room at BBs, a bar on Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach. More about the room
Traditionally, comics do this to ensure
they get quality stage time. Eddie Izzard, for example, ran a cool room in
London for a while, just before he broke through. But if the comic is too new,
and too indulgent, it can mean a quick end to the room as they put themselves on too much, failing to entertain an audience with quality comedy. Newer comics may also fall into the trap of spending too much time building the
empire when they should just be building up their own skills and material.
Jacques found a way to strike a balance, to ensure that the room and his comedy
both progressed healthily.
“When you’re putting yourself on in your
own room to develop comedy,” he explains, “it has to be a real comedy room to
actually know whether what you’re doing is funny.” By ‘real comedy room’, he
means a room that appeals to every-day punters; people who aren’t necessarily
comedy-savvy, but who will be able to watch a show in that room and laugh. “Sometimes
when you’re doing an open-mic room, you’re playing to an audience that’s mostly
open mic-ers and friends of open mic-ers and we have such a strange taste in
comedy that if you do something in an open-mic room and it’s only that audience
and they laugh, when you go to an actual comedy club and do it, like the Laugh Garage, for example, it’s not funny.
Ridiculous, dark, off-the-wall kind of stuff makes other comedians laugh.
It’s strange and weird stuff. But that stuff doesn’t necessarily work at a
mainstream comedy club.”
So the reason why Jacques’s own comedy was
working at the same time as he was running rooms and appearing in them was because
he made an effort to make those rooms as much like the mainstream club
circuit rooms as possible. “We paid the acts as much as we could. We got an MC,
two or three suppot acts and a headliner. Pretty standard stuff. And that meant
that people who came to see comedy got a show, as opposed to coming to
support open mic-ers. If I got up on my stage and made them laugh, I was
going to make people laugh in other venues. It helped my comedy.”
Where to start
Jacques and James had been considering
setting up a room for a while. “I’d run rooms before,” Jacques says, “but they
didn’t really work out very well, although I got invaluable experience and now
know how they work, what to do and what not to do.”He and James had spent some time “scouting around” and had
“knocked up a little proposal” by the time Jacques had spotted the perfect
venue, BBs, on Bondi Beach. “A guy I worked with at a bar, that was his local,”
Jacques says. “We went in there and the guy said, ‘We were thinking of doing
comedy in here as well, so it’s perfect’. We went, ‘Great, three weeks from
now, let’s do a trial night’.”
As it happens, Jacques knows a lot of
people in Bondi, a lot of surfers, and knows that “word-of-mouth in a beach
suburb is crucial”. So they put the word out and they organised the opening
night of [email protected]. “When we got there, there were about a hundred people crammed into a
space that holds 80. I MC’d it, we had Tommy Dean headline, James did a
spot, Ray Badran did a spot, Tom Oakley did a spot… From the second I put my
foot on stage, people were ready to laugh. They let us all know, ‘Yes we want comedy here and this is going to work’. It killed. It was one of the greatest nights
of comedy ever.”
[email protected] is still going strong, and what’s more,
the audience is strong and demanding. “They have slowly built up a knowledge of
comedy and now there’s a standard they expect. It’s pretty high, and it pushes
comics: you get a decent crowd, but you’ve got to make sure you bring decent
material. You can’t fluff around.” That’s part of the reason Jacques got so
good so fast – the quality of the room he was running. “It raises your level.
That’s been a contributing factor to some of my newer material and the snappy,
punchy nature of it. The crowd at BBs is very much, ‘Make me laugh now until
the night finishes. Do not stop making me laugh’.”
In addition to [email protected] on a Tuesday night,
Jacques and James’s other room, Coogee [email protected] Rugby Club “is ripping”
on Thursday nights. “The back cocktail room only needs about 40 people to feel
full,” Jacques reports, “but the crowds we’ve been getting down there – they
love it. They love comedy so much, they laugh straight away. They’re not
pretentious; they’re not expectant; they just get into it. Coogee will go with
the dark, strange comics as much as the straight-down-the-line ones. They’ll
appreciate where you’re coming from.”
Although Jacques intends heading overseas
later this year, and Jim has a full time job, Wagon Productions is going strong.
They’re working with other comics – Ray Badran, Sam Makhoul and Tom Oakley – to
ensure everything continues to run smoothly. “We’re gonna pass the keys on to
those guys,” Jacques assures me: “Bondi and Coogee are going to function, as
long as there are people there to rip tickets. It’s just keeping the numbers
really high – that’s where the work comes into. Because you can rest on your
laurels and people will come for a certain period of time, but after about
three months, if you haven’t promoted with fliers and posters and stuff like
that, the numbers go down a little bit. That’s the kind of maintenance that’s
required by the guys we’ve recruited. We handpicked them because we knew they
were guys who have the same motivation and are at the same level as Jim and I.
They’ll keep it going like that.”
Pimpin’ the Wagon
Speaking of fellow comics with the same
motivation and at the same level, Jacques and James are taking the next brave
step with Ray, Sam and Tom, and two other great comics, Matt Dyktynksi and Cameron
Knight. They’re putting on two shows, back-to-back, in a theatre, to be turned
into a DVD.
“The seven guys we’ve got, on paper we’re
very similar; we’re all about the same age, we’re all guys, we do comedy that
works,” Jacques says of the lineup, “but individually, we’re all different.
It’s a really good example of how unique and diverse comedy can be. Off stage
you go, ‘they’re all kind of the same’ but then you see our acts, they’re such
different points of view on everything. There’s a little bit of everything for
everyone. That’s why I wanted to make a DVD of it.”
One of the things they all have in common
is the fact that they’ve not yet become ‘TV comics’. “If we have been on TV, it
hasn’t been in any massive way. So we thought, let’s do something ourselves,
let’s get something filmed, make it look good, get our names out there as best
we can. Because we all want to get known for our comedy, as opposed to just
getting on TV for any other reason. That’s the one common thread: we all just
love doing comedy.” For Jacques – and, he argues, for the rest of the group,
including NIDA-trained actor Matt Dyktynski who’s had roles in everything, and
Cameron Knight, who hosted Stand Up Australiafor the Comedy Channel – the ideal is
to make a living out of stand-up comedy, “with TV as the odd, extra-curricular
activity to help get more stand-up. Comedy is the main passion and career. We
all have that in common.”
According to Jacques, if you see the shows,
or end up buying the DVD down the track, what you’ll be doing is getting a
taste of good comedy you just wouldn’t see on television. “It’s safe and
similar, the comedy that you see on TV. And I think people need a bit of a
shake-up, and to see comedy that includes people who say stuff that’s a little
bit wrong. Chances are, even though it’s a little bit wrong, people are into
that. Chances are that’s what really makes them laugh.”
Of course, the greater project is to try to
make stand-up comedy as popular in Australia as it is in the UK, where it’s one
of the top three forms of entertainment that people actively go out to see. “It’s
such small amount of people who go, ‘Let’s go see some comedy’ and consider it a
legitimate form of entertainment here,” Jacques says. “I don’t really know why
that’s the case because 75 per cent of comedy gigs you see in Sydney, you’d go,
‘Wow, that was really great’.”
I know part of the reason why that’s the
case: in the UK, you just can’t sit outside at nighttime for most of the year.
You go indoors. And when you’re indoors, even when you’re drinking, there’s
something else you can be doing. Comedy is one of those indoor things you can
go to. In Australia, you can spend most of the year outdoors at night. We’re an
‘outdoors’ culture. But if your ideal pastime is sitting on the back veranda
sinking the piss with your mates while you all talk bollocks, why not go to a
pub and sink the piss with your mates while someone on the stage talks
Jacques agrees, but suggests another
cultural reason why comedy doesn’t do as well here as it does in the UK just
yet. In Australia, he points out, there’s a sense of everybody being funny. “Everyone’s
got a sense of humour, everyone’s funny to their own mates, and I think some
people have a bit of a problem seeing someone who’s funnier than them or perhaps
not as funny as them but getting more attention to them. Cos they’re the
larrikin at the barbie, the guy who tells the good story, everyone listens to them
around the watercooler, they’ve now got to go to comedy and watch these other
guys get more attention and get way more laughs. At the same time, though, we
do it for a living and maybe, if you’re the guy used to being the centre of attention,
the larrikin, you should give it a shot. It’s a lot of fun to do if you’re
popular with your mates. Be a part of it. See what it’s all about.”
some of the places to do it
would be [email protected], Bondi Beach, on a Tuesday night, and Coogee
Rugby Club on a Thursday night. And at one of two gigs, 5.30pm and
Sunday 23rd May at the Cleveland Street Theatre, Surry Hills. (Ticket info here). Or, otherwise,
on a DVD
that’ll be shot there.
One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is 7 Day Sunday, featuring comedians Chris Addison, Andy Zaltzman and Sarah Millican, often with other guests. It’s a Sunday morning overview of the previous week’s news. On BBC5 in England. In Australia, it’s a podcast I try to remember to listen to on Monday while it’s still more-or-less relevant.
Although more recently, it’s also the source of a Sunday night (Australian time) challenge I attempt to rise to. Addison will tweet for audience suggestions regarding an issue that’s been in the press. I try to contribute something funny and clever enough to make it to air.
This week the question was, what can former British PM Gordon Brown do now that he’s resigned?
I’ve always thought Brown was separated-at-birth twin of Monty Python’s Terry Jones.
My suggestion made it to air. And it made Andy Zaltzman and Sarah Millican laugh. Nice.
“Ever dream this man?” asks website http://www.thisman.org. It is not uncommon for someone resembling this gentleman to appear in people’s dreams, apparently. Story goes, a psychiatric patient drew the face of a man who kept appearing in her dreams, giving her advice. It was someone she claimed not to recognise or to have ever met.
Another patient happened to see the drawing of the man on the desk of the psychiatrist treating the woman. This patient recognised the man as someone who often visited him in dreams – again, someone whom the patient had never met in everyday life.
So the psychiatrist decided to pass the drawing on to some colleagues. Turns out some of them had patients who saw the man in their dreams, too. In fact, since 2006, some 2000-odd people – from places like Los Angeles, Berlin, Sao Paulo, Tehran, Beijing, Rome, Barcelona, Stockholm, Paris, New Dehli and Moscow – claim to have seen the man in their dreams.
There are a few theories, of course, according to the website. Strap yourself in:
• He could be an ‘archetype’: an image that lives within everyone’s unconscious that rises to the surface during times of hardship.
• He could be a modern manifestation of God.
• He could be a real person who enters people's dreams – possibly as part of a mental conditioning plan developed by a major corporation.
• Perhaps the phenomenon is a result of people being exposed to the theory. (Well, it is only 2000-odd, in so many big cities of the world!)
Of course, I know exactly where the image comes from and why it appears in so many peoples’ psyche – it is actually the grown-up version of a similarly widespread archetype. If his hair hadn’t thinned out, if he’d smile to show you his missing tooth, if he hadn’t lost his freckles – as some people do – with age, you’d see all too well he is the grown-up version of the archetype adopted as mascot by Mad magazine and christened ‘Alfred E. Neuman’. (Neuman pre-existed Mad and turns up in a lot of cultures – often as an inbred idiot!)
And of course the man in everyone’s dream offers everyone advice during time of hardship. What was his catchphrase as an immature lad? It was, “What, me worry?”
From one of Australia's most successful comedians, Tim Ferguson, comes The Cheeky Monkey, a practitioner's guide to the art of comedy writing. Both insightful and practical, The Cheeky Monkey explains the principles of sitcom writing and guides the reader in how to apply them. Seeded with exercises to aid the developing comedy writer, this book will help you to:
Create funny stories
Build comic characters
Develop a sitcom
Sell your sitcom to producers and TV networks
Tim Ferguson has released a brilliant book about writing narrative comedy calledThe Cheeky Monkey (published by Currency Press). It’s brilliant because it conveys a great deal of information simply, straightforwardly, and soundly. Every bit of ‘theory’ (often, it turns out, ‘common sense’) is illustrated by a great example of comedy that, if you’re into comedy, you’ll recognise. At the end of each section there is an opportunity to do writing exercises to put into practice what has just been taught. Each time I try, it seems impossible. Until you check some of the suggested answers at the back, and they seem so simple. But that’s the genius of good comedy writing: it is simple. That’s what makes it so hard.
Tim Ferguson is of course a former member of one of the most important comedy troupes to come out of Australia – The Doug Anthony Allstars. I first encountered them onThe Big Gig, a cabaret/variety/comedy show broadcast on the ABC in the late-80s that was re-launched more recently asThe Sideshow(with the role of the Doug Anthony Allstars played by Tripod. Just sayin’).
But I fell in love with the Dougs well and truly after seeing them play at the University of Technology one O-Week. That was relatively early in my Bachelor of Arts degree. By this stage they were already heading to the UK regularly, where they got massive! In time, they came back to Australia. And broke up.
Along the way I interviewed them. Repeatedly. To the point where they actually seemed to enjoy it. After they went their separate ways, I got to interview Paul McDermott in has capacity as the leader of a new musical comedy trio, Gud, and Tim Ferguson, as the author of the excellent political novel, Left, Right And Centre, and Richard Fidler as the host ofMouthing Off andRace Around The World. And Richard got to not quite interview me, as a frequent guest – the ‘Keeper of the Comedy Archive’ – on his radio shifts.
More recently (a couple of years ago now…) I got to catch up with them as a trio when they got together to promote the DVD release of a compilation of their Big Gig segments. I hope we can do it again for the DVD release ofDAAS Kapital. (C’mon, guys, release it.)
I was extremely chuffed to receive an email, out of the blue, from Kavita Bedford at Currency Press, announcing that “Tim Ferguson gave me your details claiming you were the first and last word in comedy”. Pretty chuffed. Of course I’d want to talk to him about his new book. And so I did. One day in April, during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We had an excellent chat.
It was quite far-reaching, and even covered Tim’s illness - which at the time I’d agreed to keep ‘off the record’. Not because Tim had anything to hide, only that he wanted to go public with it when he was ready. He certainly didn’t want to the story to suddenly be about his battle with multiple sclerosis – or ‘MS’ – when it should be about his book. So I agreed not to say anything about it, taking the line he liked to use when people, spotting his cane, would ask about the gammy leg: ‘I fell off my race horse’. I’ve only added this bit here two months after initial publication of this interview, because Tim’s allowed another journalist to break the story, and since speaking of it himself on an episode of Good News Week, this interview keeps getting hits from people searching for 'Tim Ferguson MS’. So let’s move back on to the actual story.
Tim’s a massive talent; we had a good interview; it’s a great book. If you like comedy enough to do more than merely laugh at it occasionally on telly, buy the book. Heck, consider doing Tim’s comedy writing course.
Dom Romeo: Tim, why a book, and why now?
TIM FERGUSON: I spent a long time trying to put sitcoms together and it’s very hard to find people who know how to write them. And you can’t really do it by yourself; you need people who understand how to build 21 minutes of a complete story with characters doing what they do.
I thought, I know, and a couple of my mates know; I should put it in a book because nobody in Australia has every sat down and said, ‘this is how we do it’. There are a couple of American books out there, but I thought they were talking about things that weren’t covering the whole picture. So I tried to go in deep, in a simple way, mainly so I could give it to people I’m working with so I could say, ‘that’s what I’m talking about.
Dom Romeo: If only you and a few of your mates know, why don’t you corner the market? This way it feels like you’re making more competition for yourselves – and ruining it for the few people who think they can write and don’t need the competition.
TIM FERGUSON: For starters, I’m essentially, effectively, retired. I promised myself that I would stop at 40. So I grabbed the saddlebags and headed for the hills. So this is partly to help new people, it’s also partly to start an argument that I think has to be had in this country, and that is, that screenwriters – and you’ll find them at screenwriters’ conferences – have no respect and no idea about comedy. They haven’t got the first idea.
Part of my inspiration for this was to start the fight with them, which basically says, comedy is harder than anything drama has ever attempted. Yes, the script to Goodfellas is extraordinary, but if you wanted to do a comic Goodfellas would be even harder. Why? Because you can sit through Goodfellas completely silent. But if you sit completely silent through a comedy movie, it’s not working and it’s not funny.
Comedy demands an instant involuntary reaction, a physical reaction from the audience. That’s why it’s harder. And I got tired of seeing the Australian film industy going up like a Hindenburg every time someone said, ‘hey look, we found more suicidal smack mothers, and look, she’s going to have a suicidal smack baby live on camera, and we’ll stop halfway through’. I was sick of those people trying to tell me that was much harder and much more important and had more of a message than comedy did. Because comedy, when it comes to a delivering messages, beats drama with a stick!
Dom Romeo:Partly because comedy fools us into giving us what really shouldn’t be given; you get to say the un-sayable to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it, through comedy.
TIM FERGUSON: And you get to deliver the truth. Drama is all about pretty pictures. We get to believe that Keira Knightley is Elizabeth, that Pride and Prejudice takes place in a real place, that Mr Darcy is a real person. Whereas in fact, they’re bullshit; they’re made of candy floss; there’s no way Darcy could exist in the real world, he’d get the shit beaten out of him. Whereas in comedy, it’s all about just telling the truth.
If someone in Pride and Prejudice was wearing a wristwatch, the audience would go, ‘What? This is supposed to be 17th Century England. The same thing happened in Quo Vadis! This is ruined for me!’ because the fantasy of the drama is ruined. Whereas in comedy, if in Life of Brian Brian himself was wearing a wristwatch at the end, on the cross, nobody would have said anything because in comedy we’re not there to learn as we are in drama; we’re only there to laugh. If we get a thought afterwards, so much the better.
So it’s time for comedy to take its place and save the Australian film industry before the depressing smack films kill it!
Dom Romeo: But what about the last ten years of locally-made comedy films that weren’t saving the film industry?
TIM FERGUSON:Kenny didn’t hurt. And The Castle didn’t hurt. Australia: that film was basically a comedy where a lot of the gags didn’t work. Some of the films just didn’t catch on. But if you think of the highpoints, out of the top 20 Australian grossing films of all time, 14 are comedies, with the 15th being Gallipoli – which I regard a buddy movie until the end when it does become tragic and moving, but until then, it’s two guys going to Gallipoli and being two young Aussies abroad.
Dom Romeo: There are some great, funny moments in Gallipoli. I’d forgotten that.
TIM FERGUSON: Yeah, it’s a very funny film. Not every film’s going to work, but comedy’s got a far better batting average than anything that’s got needles, screaming babies, mothers saying ‘little fish, little fish’ – all of that junk has to go! It has to stop! It has no place receiving taxpayer funding at all. It has no place in the Australian culture. It is only important to people in the inner city, and there’s are only eight of those, and one of them – she doesn’t even go to the movies!
Dom Romeo: What I love though, is, we’ve had a discussion like this before. It wasn’t as long, and it was after you’d written your first novel, which was a great novel, Left, Right and Centre. I asked you why you hadn’t jumped on the dirty realism bandwagon with the dole-bludging smackies, and your response was, ‘what a load of rubbish; there are no dirty realists; if they were really dirty realists, they’d be out being dirty and real and wouldn’t have time to write. Real dirty realists don’t; these authors are just posers, essentially. I see a theme in your creativity.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. There is nothing I hate more than wankers. I don’t mind people who masturbate, I think that’s great. But people who do that in there lives and their careers and – worst of all – with our government’s money, should be taken out, branded – with I don’t know, pick a word – and sent running. This has to stop. Because it’s ruined the Australian nation’s faith in its own film industry. All this smack drama, all this ‘oh my god, how depressing’, all this beautiful Kate, incest, precious eggs, my butt! Stick a precious egg here! It has to end, it has to stop! Comedy and light entertainment is what people want. Jesus, we’re in a recession!
Dom Romeo: I take all that on board, but when you say we don’t do that well… Look, there was a time when the colour supplement of every weekend paper used to bitch and moan that Australia can’t make funny sitcoms. They’d stop bitching and moaning come comedy festival time, when there was advertising dollars to be made promoting Australian comedy, but every other issue of the colour supplement would be fair game for the recurring ‘why can’t Australia make funny sitcoms?’ article. And now we’ve had a number of great ones, some that are doing very well overseas. What is it that has to happen for things like that to come about with comedy films in Australian cinema?
TIM FERGUSON: It’s worth pointing out that while people were saying that, Hey Dad…! was one of the highest rating, longest running programs on air, in primetime, in Australia’s history. There are dramas that would have given their eye teeth to be on at the peachy slot of 7pm on a commercial network for eight-and-a-half years. So while those people were saying, ‘why can’t we make a good one?’ we were making a good one. And it had a huge audience, a regular audience and a family audience. The thing was, people who write for broadsheets tend to like little films about suicide. They should never be listened to, those people. The people who should be listened to live in a little place: it’s called ‘the western suburbs’ of each and every one of our major capitals. No other audience is important.
Dom Romeo: Okay, again, that’s interesting. Hey Dad…! was our longest running sitcom. Despite all its flaws – characters who came and went, look-alikes, act-alikes, the sechetary lasting longer than the arch-a-tect even though it was about the arch-a-tect dad and not his sechetary – it lasted. And yet, this is a hard one. If it’s so good, why is it so derided? Have you tried watching any episodes recently? But then again, the follow-up question is, have you tried watching any comedy a decade after it stopped being made?
TIM FERGUSON:Gary Reilly, when he was putting Hey Dad…! together, looked at history and he didn’t look just at recent history, he looked at ancient history. And each one of the characters in Hey Dad…! is based upon an ancient archetype that goes back to Roman times. Similar archetypes you will find in Arrested Development, in Seinfeld… and Gary Reilly just did them Australian style. There’s the idiot, that was played by Betty Wilson, and who is the classic ‘idiot with a capital ‘I’ archetype’ and this character has only so many kinds of jokes that she will use. One of the jokes that the idiot always uses is the taking literally of things that everybody knows shouldn’t be. So a euphemism will be taken literally.
If someone says to an idiot character, ‘it’s so sad, my dentist bit the bullet’, the idiot character will say, ‘he was a dentist; you’d think he’d know better’ whereas we know ‘bit the bullet’ is a euphemism for dying. That’s what the idiot character does and they do it in all the shows: they do it in Seinfeld, they do it in all the cool shows. That’s what Kenneth in 30 Rock does; it’s the same character. That’s what Rose in The Golden Girls does. It’s the same character.
Dom Romeo: So what makes 30 Rock a much better show than The Golden Girls?
TIM FERGUSON: I don’t think that it is. I think The Golden Girls is probably the best sitcom ever made: four middle-aged women on television. For starters, can you imagine trying to sell that concept? I mean, putting middle-aged women behind a news desk still seems beyond most networks. Four women living together, working – again, ancient archetypes. It was brilliant. It’s interesting that Mitch Hurwitz, who was one of the writers of The Golden Girls, said he used the same four archetypes as those four characters as the lead characters in Arrested Development.
Dom Romeo: Oh my goodness. That’s interesting.
TIM FERGUSON:Buster does all the joke-types that Rose did. He does not understand sarcasm. He takes it on face value. That’s because, for the last two-and-half thousand years, that’s been working, so why screw with it? And this is the producer of Arrested Development saying this. Americans are a lot less abashed about using archetypes because they understand an archetype’s role. In Australia people say, yeah, but that’s old. The fact is, it’s so old, it’s in your DNA. Don’t screw with it. Just follow it.
For example, why do you think poor Richard Fidler, who in real life, as you know, is a bloody genius – he’s got a bigger brain that I’ll ever have – played the idiot? One – he was busy with the guitar; and two – because that’s always worked. Why would you screw with it?
Dom Romeo: I must say, back when I was young and ignorant and interviewing you for guys for the first time, I was genuinely surprised to discover that he wasn’t the fool he played on stage in real life – in fact, he was quite a well-read intellectual, though he’d play that down.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, he’s also a financial wizard. We’d all be driving taxis if Richard hadn’t sat down and said, ‘well, we’re gonna sell out, but this is how!’ The man is a machine. He was the one with the briefcase. Paul and I were just the ones holding flowers, kissing people, trying to make people feel better about themselves.
Dom Romeo: Signing the odd breast, too, I remember.
TIM FERGUSON: Yes! Never the nipple! Never sign a nipple unless you want to go to gaol.
Dom Romeo: Apart from the ‘nipple indemnity’, is all of this theory covered in your book?
TIM FERGUSON: Yeah. There’s no nipple-signing in the book. The book does talk about archetypes, I talk about how to structure a comic story, and break down the different schools of jokes, basically into two types.
One is the stand-alone joke – where you don’t need to know who’s in it or who’s telling it. ‘Three guys walk into a bar…’; that kind of joke. Or just plays on words.
The other kind of joke that I cover is what I call ‘narrative gags’: jokes with a story, jokes that are tied to a particular character. It’s funny not because of the way the language is used or played with, but because we know who is saying it.
There’s a very funny moment in Arrested Development where a pretty girl says to Michael Bluth, ‘so, can I meet your family?’ and he says, ‘no’. Now knowing Michael and knowing his family makes it funny. He just says it deadpan: ‘no’. Because, we know why: they’re monsters.
That’s a narrative gag. So the book’s about how to build those; how to build a comic character so that it’s reliably funny, so that it has the right flaws, so that it’s not so complex that it then becomes like a real person, in which case, it belongs in drama.
There’s a lot of stuff: just what comedy is, how it works, why we laugh.
Dom Romeo: Have you been working on these theories through life? Are these ideas that you’ve learnt by being on stage, writing for television, being on television?
TIM FERGUSON: Yes, but also, talking to professionals who actually know what they’re doing, helps. You learn stuff on stage. You learn what works pretty quickly, because silence teaches you what doesn’t and noise teaches you what does.
Some of the theories I have in the book won’t please some people, and will probably make them angry.
Dom Romeo: Give me an example. Try me on.
TIM FERGUSON: One of the things that I talk about is that the key to doing a good character, dramatic or comic, is simplicity. They are all puppets. It’s when you try to make a dramatic or comic character too complex, people lose the point. Characters should only ever be driven by a couple of things: what they want, what they emotionally need, what they’re scared of, and the way they see the world. That’s it. They’re the only things you have to worry about.
While that sounds easy, the real trick is deciding which quality to go for. Because if you can only pick one… what do they want? What, in the entire world? Yeah. Right now and always, what is the one thing they want? Once you nail that, you’ve got the character. But nailing it means you’ve got to throw out all the other little things you wanted to have in the show.
Dom Romeo: But that makes perfect sense: as in stand-up comedy, if something you say isn’t the punch line, or a feed to the punch line, or doesn’t serve the punch line, you’re wasting time.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh yeah, then it’s just a sentence. Anthony Morgan’s got that great line: ‘sometimes you say a joke, and when it’s over you realise it was just a sentence. It’s very true.
Dom Romeo: But – not even a sentence; if there are too many words in a routine what they’re doing is preventing an audience from laughing.
TIM FERGUSON: Absolutely.
Dom Romeo: So too many characteristics in a character stops you getting to… whatever.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. If you look at The Golden Girls, you can pretty well boil down all of those four ladies down – Dorothy, Sofia, Blanche and Rose – to a couple of adjectives each. It was the biggest show of its time for a decade. Why was it brilliant? Because it was simple. Simplicity is genius.
“Yes,” says Albert, “zat’s it. I am happy wiz zat.”
“Anything else? You want to write books about it?”
“Zat is for you to write,” he said. “It is for you to write the books – but zat is all I haff to say.”
Paperclips. Bullclips. People look at things like that and say, “that’s genius”. Only writers say, “there must be more in this character! They should be like me, pulled in ten different directions…” What you end up with is some sort of half-pancake/half-maple syrup slop that nobody likes and nobody wants to watch.
Dom Romeo: Having had a lot of experience making people laugh, let me ask you this: why do people laugh?
TIM FERGUSON: A little over a million years ago, our brains took up about – oh what was it? – 600 square centimetres. They’ve doubled in size in a million years. What that means is that our brains are actually only a million years away from being monkeys’. We’ve grown the front part of our heads, so we’re very good at talking and very good at gymnastics and those kind of things, but essentially, we’re still monkeys. And of course there’s nothing new in saying, ‘we’re the naked apes, except we wear bow ties’, but thinking about this, and making people laugh, particularly in the Doug Anthony Allstars which was – if nothing else – apart from the very gentle, interpretive dance stuff that we did, was quite a confronting little trio of guys. Even Richard, who was supposed to be nice, would come on shouting.
There was a lot of attack. We smelt. We had a bad smell. People knew when the Allstars were in the room because we stank. We didn’t wash our costumes for ten years. Those costumes are in the Performing Arts Museum covering in white mould. We’ve given orders they’ve never to be washed. But anyway…
Dom Romeo: I hope they’re behind glass…
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, I think they’re being sat on by people in winter; they’re warm because of the activity going on within them.
But the fact is, our brain’s very old, and when we laugh, we do something that’s involuntary, that can’t be stopped once it’s started. Laughing’s not something we can decide to do. You can’t say, “Mate, I’m just going outside; I need to relax. Going outside to have a bit of a laugh, and then I’ll come back in.” Once it’s started, it can’t be suppressed. So what’s going on?
When we laugh, of course, our bodies go to work; they give us a little kick of adrenalin. We also get a little trigger of endorphins. Small, but if we laugh for a long time, we usually walk out of the theatre feeling kind of heady and happy. People also say, “it was so funny, I pissed myself”. Or even worse: “it was a cack! It was so funny, I cacked myself at that show.” That’s because these things can occur if you laugh hard enough.
Why is this?
If you look at the fear flight response – when you see a snake and that snake comes slithering towards you at speed, hissing, your body does all those things: it involuntarily makes noise – ‘yah!’; your heart starts pumping because you have adrenalin; you have endorphins which are there as a sedative and to stop you feeling pain; your breathing becomes very low and shallow so that you can sprint for 30 or 40 metres. Fear flight is not about running a mile, it’s about getting out of somewhere very quickly and you only need the oxygen that is there in your system already to do that. You piss yourself so that you stink and the animal won’t want to eat you, and you crap yourself for the same reason.
If you look at the way we laugh and why we laugh, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that we find something witty. It’s got to do with the fact that the new part of our brain is seeing something or hearing something, has a concept in it’s head that it can’t deal with – two things that actually do have a surprising connection. In a jungle, that could be a bamboo tree and a tiger – they both have stripes. “Oh!”
Now the downstairs part of our brain is only designed for a couple of things: it’s designed to say ‘we’re okay’ and ‘we’re not okay’. And also ‘keep breathing’ and ‘keep the heart pumping. So when it gets these messages where suddenly there’s a comic reversal in a joke – I thought I was here, but now all of a sudden, in an instant, I’m somewhere else – where circumstances have instantly changed, the lower part of our brain is only trained to say, ‘when I hear that circumstances have changed: Panic! Fear! Flight! Involuntary noise!’ And away we go. That is laughter.
So if, as a comedy writer, you approach your scripts as thought you are trying to create chaos and fear within people, you will do well. You want things to be upside down. You want to say, ‘these two things that aren’t connected, actually are connected’. You want to make surprising connections, reversals, twists, turns, sudden reveals… All of these things, as Monty Python said, are ‘Fear. Surprise. These are our weapons.’
That’s why we laugh. And that’s all comedy does. Which again drives drama people made. And it’s why they think comedy is not as important or as valid an art form, or as potent a communication art form as drama. Because it’s dealing with our guts and not with the fluffy stuff upstairs that has no real import.
Tim Ferguson launches The Cheeky Monkey in Sydney at the Yalumba Wine Bar (the Enmore Theatre Café) Sunday May 9 at 4pm. If you can’t make it, you can still buy the book and learn how to devise, write and pitch your hit sitcom.
Pam Glew is an English artist exhibiting in Australia for the first time. Her work frequently consists of portraits, inspired by cinema, executed via non-traditional methods (ie not just paint) on richly textured surfaces.
In between Pam loading a van full of her newly framed artwork, and driving it to the gallery to be hung, I had the pleasure of interviewing her over a coffee.
Dom Romeo: The first thing that stands out about your work is that it’s mixed media – you use things like flags and you sew things onto them. But you also use ‘traditional art practices’. What do ‘traditional art practices’ entail?
PAM GLEW: The traditional art techniques that I use are painting, and craft techniques like sewing, appliqué and embroidery. Kind of ‘womens’ work’, I guess.
I quite like that whole 1950s ‘women’s work’ idea where you use something very ‘domestic’, but put it in an art context. It’s making craft a little bit sexy. I like the idea of not being a painter, not being a craftsperson, not fitting in any genre, but floating between a few.
My art’s a little bit like sculpture because it is pieces of work in a room; it’s a bit like working with space. But the craft techniques are in there, and they’re used with so many layers – everything’s sewn, dyed, embroidered, bleached, sewn again, then mended and then distressed. I use sandpaper and vintage materials, so it’s kind of wrecked and then mended. Those processes make it like painting, but in a new, contemporary context. By using bleach and dye it’s not easily comparable with paintings that are painted with oil. I think of oil painting as a traditional painting technique, whereas I tend to use so many techniques that it’s like a new style, a new way of painting.
Dom Romeo: What brought you to that? Was there a movement that inspired you, or was it borne of something else? Because you are crossing borders – you are transgressing boundaries and moving into new places.
PAM GLEW: Originally, I studied art, but I also studied theatre. Theatre is inter-disciplinary. You’ve got set design, costume design, prop design; working with actors and directors… I was quite used to being a scene painter one day and a costume dresser the next day. That isn’t a movement – but there’s certainly a movement in Europe with Tracey Emin and people that work on fabric and blankets – Annette Messager and that whole kind of thing. I guess it’s post modernism, but I think of it as pop art in a way. So it has references to the Andy Warhol world of celebrity and representing people in a very ‘clean portrait’ kind of way. My work references 1970s realism as well. There are connections with pop art and contemporary textiles. Although I’m not too comfortable with being thought of as a ‘textile’ artist; it’s a kind of painting that happens to use fabrics.
Dom Romeo: You tend to like to use national flags. In a world that likes to point fingers and find scapegoats and use the flag as something to condemn people as proof of disloyalty or treason… why flags? How flags? And what’s been the reaction to flags?
PAM GLEW: Before I worked on fabrics and flags, I worked on metal – on copper. So I was quite used to using vintage and antique and distressed – ‘old’ – pieces of material before I made a painting. I would never want to work on a white canvas because it hasn’t got any history.
I had a few years of using metal, and September 11th happened, and there was a lot of ‘fear’ culture around America. So I wanted to use American flags because it had a resonance and a real kind of… ‘shock’ value. I guess it’s kind of a ‘shock art’. The ‘American Flag’ series that I did was sort of designed to shock, but it was also a reference to terrorism and fear culture. I did a lot of women looking shocked on American flags – looking numb and disbelieving. I referenced lots of horror films.
I started off using the American flag and then moved to using European flags – French flags, Union Jacks. I realised that there’s something beautiful about using a flag: it’s got history and it’s got resonance that people recognise instantly.
Because it’s to do with heritage, it impacts people on their gut instinct, rather than their brain. They don’t really have to pull it apart intellectually, they can see it. It says more to them about their history quickly – it speeds up. Rather than doing a painting of a flag, it’s already there, so there’s quite a lot to work with.
Dom Romeo: The core elements that you’re bringing together will mean different things to different people. To a degree, different people will come and see your work and read different things into it depending on what the flag means to them, and what the images on them – celebrities or otherwise – mean to them as well. What have the reactions been?
PAM GLEW: The first show I did with American flags was in a provincial gallery in England. It was in a window in quite a conservative area but it was an American flag – and I’d burnt it – I use heat guns. Maybe the burning of the American flag had quite a lot of controversy around it because they pelted the window with eggs. The gallery had to take it down every night because they were scared.
Dom Romeo: I would have been photographing the egg-pelted glass as well, and making that an artwork! Do you remember the big concert and celebration after 9/11 – one of the things they did was present a burnt flag retrieved from ground zero. Sometimes a burnt flag is cool – depends who’s burnt it and why. You are opening up a whole lot of area of debate – should people want to pursue it – with your art.
PAM GLEW: That’s one way to see it. A lot of Americans have bought my work on flags and think of it as glorifying the American flag. At the beginning I wanted it to be more of a political statement – not in any way anti-American, but anti-fear culture because I felt that America and Europe were producing quite a lot of fear around this terrorist attack.
It’s grown a lot more general because I’ve started creating flags in a much more loving way. I’ve made a few flags that have a lot of work in them, so it does end up coming full circle, going from subverting it to kind of glorifying it. Especially the Australian flag series – I feel I’ve been a bit more of a worshiper than subverting it. The Kylie flag and the Dannii flag are more of a celebration.
Dom Romeo: I kind of like what’s going on there, because you’re an English artist, painting ex-pat Aussie artists who have adopted England as home, on the Aussie flag, which began as an English flag and still contains the English flag among its Aussie elements…
PAM GLEW: Yeah, the Union Jack being a big part of the Australian flag. I kind of wanted to explore whether the Union Jack needed to be on the Australian flag, because when I think about Australia, I always think about the night sky and seeing it from the other side of the world. A lot of the flags I made were to do with the star constellations and the Southern Cross and how the stars work. They all ended up being very blue. I use denim a lot because I like vintage denim. It’s got a kind of wealth of history and it references Americana and that kind of work ethic, and Australian lifestyle.
But the Union Jack is a funny one. I’m not sure if Australians like that they’ve got a quarter of their flag taken up by this flippin’ Union Jack. Does it need to be there? I don’t know.
Dom Romeo: That’s a debate that still rages: should it have the Aboriginal flag in it? Should it be the Aboriginal flag?
PAM GLEW: The Aboriginal flag is a beautiful thing as well. Colour-wise, it doesn’t go with the Australian flag. I kept it quite simple. I’ve made quite a few Australian flags. I’ve also made a few flags that are denim, just with stars. They’re sort of ‘shield’ flags, portrait-way around, that have just a few stars on a blue background. They’re quite simple and quite pure. The Dannii Minogue flag has bits of the American flag because of her fame in America. But making a Kylie flag – she’s so massive in England, I had to have the Union Jack on that one.
Dom Romeo: So the American Flag artwork’s been accepted with a different attitude, at the same time as you’ve started making them more out of love. Were you conscious of a change in your approach, and is that what changed the art and the response it receives?
PAM GLEW: I guess maybe it’s public opinion. When George [W.] Bush was in power, there was quite a lot of anger around. A lot of people in Europe couldn’t work out why George Bush was in power. Now with Obama in America, there’s a sort of change – there’s certainly a sea change of public opinion. It’s to do with the current climate. I guess I changed my view of America and changed my view of what I was saying in work – whether I was angry or not. Maybe I’m not quite as angry as I was a few years ago.
Dom Romeo: Your work isn’t all flags, though, is it?
PAM GLEW: I kind of think of it as paintings on flags or textiles or fabric. It’s not all flags. I do printmaking on vintage fabric. But it’s all fabric-based.
Dom Romeo: Tell me about vintage fabric. I wouldn’t know a vintage fabric; I’d know a vintage dress by the shape and print on it. But I wouldn’t recognize vintage fabric. Tell me about it – what constitutes vintage fabric? Where do you find it? What do you do with it?
PAM GLEW: I use anything that’s quite thick, like linen or ticking – which is like stripy linen – and also brocade. I use this brocade that’s very thick – almost like upholstery or curtaining fabric. But it’s got to be – I don’t know – at least twenty or thirty years old in order to not look too chintzy. There’s nothing worse than going to a fabric shop and using new fabrics. It always looks very wrong.
I source them through flea markets, antique shops, second-hand shops… eBay even comes up with good stuff sometimes. And friends give me a lot of things. I use denim. I started off using all my jeans. Then friends donate really interesting old, ripped up denim jeans that they’ve got. It’s good because I’m making work that has a heritage, and also, I can recognise people in it. ‘That’s the pocket of the jeans that I loved, that I used for five years…’ It’s got more humanity to it. It references people in my life.
Dom Romeo: You studied drama as well as art. Where did you study?
PAM GLEW: I went to Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in England. We call it ‘Rosie B’. It was a drama school, full of actors and musicians and directors and designers. I was a designer for a few years. There were costume makers and prop makers, and it was like working in an in-house theatre. We had three theatre buildings. We used to do productions all the time. That was kind of my training after art school. We were getting an education, but we were working from eight in the morning to 11:00, 12:00 at night. It was good for building up a work ethic. It was a good team, but I did tend to work with so many different materials that I was able to explore how to do set design with fabric and metal, and what happens when you distress different fabrics and metals.
That’s probably part of why I do what I do that isn’t traditional painting. Maybe if I went to traditional painting art school I’d be doing painting in the traditional way, but because I came round about it in a very strange direction, that’s why I do what I do.
Dom Romeo: You said you worked with metal for a while. Why did you move on? Was it just easier to work with fabric? Or was it easier to access fabric?
PAM GLEW: It was easier to work with. I used to go to scrap yards and have to chat up the scrap yard men, to go, ‘can I have this bit of copper?’ or ‘this bit of aluminium?’ or ‘can I have this bit of steel?’ And then, I’d have a taxi waiting, and I’d be like, ‘Do you mind if you carry it in to the taxi, because I can’t lift it’. And then I’d get to the other end and be having to ask my boyfriend and all his mates to carry it into the flat. It was just ridiculous. But it looked great. I did quite a few commissions for public spaces in metal. But in a way, it’s real pain-in-the-arse material to use. My hands were always cut and I’d always bash my toe and stuff.
Dom Romeo: That was my next comment – here you are bare-armed, I don’t see any scars. Are you sure you worked with metal?
PAM GLEW: That was a good few years ago – they’ve healed. It was about nine or ten years ago.
I started exhibiting locally and then nationally, and then I wanted to do shows that were further afield, and shipping a piece of heavy steel or copper hundreds of miles is just insane. I wanted to exhibit internationally, and there was no way I could do a show in America or in Australia, still working with heavy metal. It would have been difficult. Fabric’s great: you either frame it, or you roll it.
Dom Romeo: And needle-stick injuries are as bad as it gets.
PAM GLEW: Mmm. I’ve sewn through my finger a couple of times, but that’s okay, you get over it. You just pull it out.
Dom Romeo: Why are you exhibiting in Australia now? Why now? How?
PAM GLEW: Dom [Dominic Rowswell] from Bicker Gallery organised an exhibition for me when he lived in Bristol. I’d already worked with him there. He did a few pop-up shows in Bristol before that and after that. So I’m kind of used to working with him. And he emigrated to Sydney on the proviso that I could have a show.
Recently I did a few shows in LA; this year I’ve got shows in Paris and London. I exhibit internationally anyway, but I’ve never exhibited south of the equator. So this is my first show in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dom Romeo: Tell me briefly – bleach and dye. You’ve told me why they’re interesting to work with, but did they come out of the process of costuming or set design?
PAM GLEW: No. I used to do quite a lot of theatre designs that would look like an installation. I’d use mud and straw, or I’d use metal. I’d use organic materials. And then when I work on metal, I used to oxidize copper with bleach. So Domestos was always my main art material.
Then when I followed on to working with fabric, the first flag I did, I burnt with a heat gun, and it filled my studio with black smoke and I got a lot of complaints so I realised burning flags wasn’t the way forward; the next step for me was to integrate a face into the flag. Dying and bleach seemed like the natural way because painting on fabric is always going to look crap. It has to look like it’s integrated into the fabric like a ghost, rather than painted on top.
Flags have got such hardy chemical dyes that you can dye them black and then bleach them and it doesn’t get rid of the red, white and blue. That’s why I use bleach, because flags are pretty invincible.
Dom Romeo: Part of your work is also inspired by cinema. Tell me about the cinematic side.
PAM GLEW: I started working with the idea of the image of women in film, which is quite a cinematic cliché, but I wrote my dissertation about the images of women in film. I was engrossed in watching films on pause and seeing the times when actors are not really acting – they’re just being themselves. When you slow it down, you can see parts of themselves coming out in the little ways they look at the camera – it might not be acting anymore. From then, the year 2000 – ten years ago – I was photographing women in film on pause, but I didn’t quite know how to make that into an artwork.
I like watching horror films: 1960s, 1970s American horror films and also zombie films – George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead…–
and also quite obscure Italian horror films. Horror always appeals to
me – especially the way the camera always sees the film through the
women’s eyes. It’s always the victim’s eyes. And people always ask me
why I always do women. It’s probably because in film, you always see
through the male’s gaze. You rarely see a real, extreme close-up of a
male looking beautiful and scared. You never see that. But it’s quite
seductive, that kind of look. It’s a bit dark. We shouldn’t be seduced
by a woman looking scared, but we are. Women looking scared but beautiful is always a winner for me.
For the Australian show I looked at Australian film. I watched Wolf Creek and Rabbit Proof Fence. I’ve also started doing celebrities, but looking like they’re on screen. The Kylie piece for example, looks as though she’s in a horror film because it’s very dark but it has that extreme lighting, extreme contrast. Even if the origins aren’t from a film, they end up looking a bit filmic; cinematic.
Dom Romeo: Now, I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t explored this theory since I was a student.
You brought up postmodernism. Part of PoMo theory is about transgressing borders.
There’s the object, ‘A’, and it’s ‘other’ that isn’t the object, ‘not-A’. In horror, the other is different. Rather than it being ‘not-A’ it’s a combination of ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ – that’s what the ‘fantastic’ is, something somewhere in between – a mixture of both that’s not either.
Your art transgresses borders – it’s not this sort of art or that sort of art, it’s somewhere in between. And in horror film – the horrific – is the somewhere in between; and that moment of the actor who’s not quite in character and not quite herself, but is somewhere in between. I’m seeing a through-line here. If I had to write a thesis about you, or if someone had to, some years hence, that might be a starting point.
PAM GLEW: God forbid!
Pam Glew’s exhibitionLuminaries runs May 6 - 22 at Bicker Gallery, 443 Oxford Street. Opening night May 6, 6.30-10.00pm; Artist talk May 12, 6.30-8.00pm.
Just finished a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show in which I had great fun taking the piss out of Gen Y speech habits and behaviour - particularly the art[lessness] of textspeak.
Doing the Saturday morning shop this morning, I discover this new soft drink. Or 'fizzy fruit juice', as they're trying to fob it off.
It comes in awesome rad flavours… with emoticons:
=) is LOL B CURRENT
:) is LOL STRAZ BRI
;) is LOL RAZZ BRI
The LOL TROPKL flavour is the one that confuses me. It seems to be two apostrophies – well, an apostrophe above a comma – followed by a closed bracket. How do you do that? Clearly I'm too old for that one.
This product and the Gen Y palate are totes MFEO. (He said, uploading this post from his iPhone. Knowing full well he'll be correcting it from his laptop later.)