âIâm definitely not a musical comic,â DeAnne Smith assures me, but not with the kind of vehemence a President of the United States might employ to deny shagging an intern, nor even the type St Peter might use to thrice deny knowing Christ as a prologue to bitter weeping. Itâs merely a statement of fact, provided because I seem to ârecallâ â erroneously, it turns out â DeAnne being a musical comic. In my head, I picture her wielding a ukulele. Itâs an image wedded to the first memory I have of the slight, svelte, well-dressed (collar and tie, sometimes even a jacket) androgynous pixie in glasses, performing in the line-up of Ali McGregorâs late night variety show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival some years ago.
More recently, Iâve seen DeAnne at story-teller nights where the point has been to spin a narrative more than get laughs â although DeAnne does both rather readily. Point is, in my head, she started out as a musician whose between-song patter has grown to be the main feature. You know, like Billy Connolly â if youâve been following him since his folkie days as a member of the Humblebums.
âI have only just started playing the ukulele this year,â DeAnne informs me. âI have literally three songs that I do. Maybe four. But itâs all so very new. Iâll probably play some songs in one-hour show, and if Iâm doing a spot â like, say, half an hour, Iâll punctuate the performance with a song. But itâs not where I started, or where Iâm coming from.â
Ah, now thatâs the other thing I seem intent on being vague about: DeAnneâs origins. Iâd almost certainly sign a statutory declaration stating my belief that she is Canadian, though very little supports that contention. In those more recent âstory-tellingâ gigs, she's told of having lived in Mexico - but that's not where she's from either.
So where did DeAnne Smith start? How did she start? Where is she coming from?
âI donât know where Iâm coming from,â DeAnne laughs. Stylistically, she says, her approach to comedy is âfrom a kind of âwriterlyâ placeâ. Geographically, however, sheâs all over the place, having grown up â and studied â upstate New York.
âAfter university, I lived in Baltimore for about a year and a half, and worked at a publishing company and on a street outreach team,â she recalls, âwhich was kind of fun.â Itâs more fun nowadays, when DeAnneâs out in the street, accosting passers-by in order to distribute pamphlets advertising her show â the fine art of âflyeringâ. âPeople say, âWow that takes a lot of guts, approaching strangers to come to your showâ,â she explains. âI used to approach strangers all the time on the streets of Baltimore, asking them if they needed condoms or clean needles. To give someone a flyer for a comedy show feels like nothing.â
DeAnne almost hit the stand-up stage in Baltimore. She got as far as going to an open-mic venue, but the night was cancelled:
âThere werenât enough people. I just never went back. I guess I didnât have the guts or the desire. But it was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while.â
From Baltimore, Deanne âhopped to Mexicoâ, where she lived for the next five or six years. âI moved to Mexico for no real reason. I was just young and I wanted to do something different. I think I went for a bit of a lark, to do something different, and it was how my life became: Iâd go to the beach, Iâd teach Englishâ¦â
While teaching English, DeAnne started writing humorous columns for online publications. And in time, she realised, âit would just be easier to get up and say this stuff, rather than taking so much care of my vocabulary choice and syntax.â Thus, when DeAnne Smith finally did start doing comedy, âit was definitely from a writing point of view than a performance point of viewâ.
DeAnneâs first foray into open-mic comedy didnât come in Mexico, either, although she says thatâs where she âgot bit by the bugâ. It began with a CD DeAnneâs girlfriend, an engingeer working on a project for Sirius Satellite Radio, burned for her, featuring comics and material from one of the stationâs shows. She didnât know DeAnne had any interest in comedy. Nor did DeAnne. âListening to it awakened all this desire in me,â she explains. âIt didnât make me happy and relaxed, it made me feel jealous and angry. I could feel this clenching in myself: âI wanna do this. This is what I should be doing.â So I did that.â
Not directly, mind. It still took another step before DeAnne got to the stage. âMy girlfriend wanted to go to Mime School. In Montreal. Thereâs a mime school in Montreal!â (A very good one, it seems: lâEcole de Mime, Montreal.) âI went, âOkay, Iâll go with you.â Very whimsical. So basically I moved to Montreal to be with a mime.â
DeAnne also made study plans for her new life in Montreal. She applied, and was accepted, into a masters degree at a writing school. âI deferred the writing thing for a year and started doing stand-up at open mic rooms, and decided thatâs what I wanted to do.â
Makes perfect sense, then, DeAnne Smithâs writerly approach to stand-up comedy. âSo many people get into it with a theatre background or an acting background,â she says. âI just threw myself into it. I feel like Iâve been catching up with the performance aspect of things. But I think it works for me because Iâm very much myself on stage â thereâs not a lot of pretense there.â
The origins as a writer and the lack of pretense â along with the cute pixie androgyny â contribute to whatever it is that sets DeAnne apart. And something certainly does, stylistically. I just can't quite verbalise it. And although DeAnne agrees that something does, she can't - or won't - name it either. âThat sort of thing is not for me to say. I donât like to get involved. I probably should â Iâd be better at promoting myself if I knew how to better articulate what I do and what Iâm likeâ¦â
Probably better this way. Let other people - fans and critics - come up with descriptions. It's only when she finds one she likes that she should adopt it as her own, I tell her. âGood,â she agrees.
So back to that CD that inspired DeAnne to pursue stand-up in earnest. Who was on it? And were some of them â whisper it â a bit sh*t, in order to inspire the clenching response?
âThat was part of it,â DeAnne confirms, unwilling to name the comics who seemed to solicit more approval from the audience than perhaps they deserved. âHearing the audienceâs response made me feel I oughta give it a try!â
One comic who did stand out for being brilliant was Maria Bamford. âShe was amazing. I was like âWho is this person?â I guess that was the immediate instigator to get me going. I started doing open mic and I never looked back.â
It wasnât too long before DeAnne was visiting Australia for the first time â here for the 2008 comedy festival season. âIt was fun. It went well and I met a lot of people. I wasnât really thinking about making it an annual thing, but when all the deadlines for the 2009 festivals rolled around again, I realised I should come back again because Iâd done a bit of groundwork. There was a tiny bit of buzz, so it would be silly to not come back the next year, and to come back in two years when everyoneâs forgotten about me.â
It was when she was back in 2009 that DeAnne made her debut on Good News Week. âThat was really good for me â it helped people know who I am.â
Itâs also the reason we assume this American comic is Canadian.
When DeAnne first came to Australia and had to register for the Adelaide Fringe, she âdidnât know anything about anythingâ, she says. âGeorge Bush was president and I hadnât lived in the States in about eight years. I had to choose a âcountry of originâ so I just put âCanadaâ because that was where I started comedy and thatâs where I lived.â
When she appeared on Good News Week, she would have been known as the comic from Montreal who had performed on the Australian festival circuit the year before. âThey were talking to me a lot about Canada, and I just kind of went with it, and I regretted it â I lied to the nation! Unfortunately, my little lie has been reinforced because I meet a lot of people who say, âI know you were Canadian; you donât seem like an American; those Americansâ¦â â and they start trash talking to me about America.â
Subsequently, DeAnne has spoken of her American origins on stage and on her website. Most people are hip. âI donât pretend that Iâm not from New York. But I hadnât lived there for a while. During the George Bush years, I was like âI had nothing to do with that!ââ
Currently, Montreal is still home to the comic, although she spends a lot of her year travelling, performing in Australia and the southern part of the United States. âI think the way I approach it is to make everywhere home, and any audience youâre performing for, thatâs who you want to reach. Iâve been on Roadshow with Melbourne International Comedy Festival and played some really out-of-the-way rural towns and Iâve maybe looked out into the audience and thought, âOh gosh, Iâm not gonna connect with these people; weâve nothing in commonâ¦â and then go out there and do the show and everyone has a really great time. Itâs hard to know where something will work better than somewhere else.â
There are, of course, subtle changes a seasoned comic can make to cater to different audiences. âIf Iâm in front of a rural crowd of middle-aged to older people,â DeAnne explains, âI might play up the âsweet, innocentâ angle a bit more just to get away with the things I want to say. And then, if Iâm at the Feast Festival, in front of a group of lesbians, say, I might play up a slightly more aggressive or hard-edged angle. Itâs just knowing what you can get away with in front of different crowds. It comes from experience and also instinct. You start to adjust onstage.â
Again, part of what helps DeAnne do that, is her image. People do assume sheâs younger than she actually is. Which she readily acknowledges. She puts it down not just to her looks, but also to her spirit. âI have a brother and sister who are quite older than me â my brother is 11 years older than me and my sister is 7 years older. I had this revelation the other day: Iâm in my 30s but I have this âkid sisterâ energy. I keep waiting to outgrow it, but it just doesnât happen.â
It might happen. In time. Perhaps it should have already. Perhaps that's why her next festival show is called About Freakin' Time. âItâs about time in general, and nerdy aspects like time travel, the concept of âforeverâ and the passage of time, that sort of thing.â
If you haven't seen DeAnne Smith live yet, you really should this time round. It's About Freakin' Time.
I first encountered Sammy J at The Local, a pub in St Kilda, Melbourne. It was a Monday, so its comedy night, Local Laughs, was running. There was â as always â a strong bunch of comedians, each one standing out for different reasons. Sammy J was a musical comic, nattily dressed in suit pants, collared shirt. He kept a âpopperâ juice on hand, with a straw, and heâd sip it from time to time, pinky extended. Tall, thin, angularâ¦ he looked a little awkward, but totally at ease with the awkward look. And he was great. Musically proficient â but you donât notice that as much as you notice incompetence in a musical act â and very funny. You notice that, because in a musical act, it can often be the exception to the rule (though not at The Local, where being funny is always the pre-requisite for getting on stage). I particularly loved âThe Backwards Songâ, and immediately wanted to feature it on Radio Ha Ha, a podcast I was producing at the time. Turned out Sammy had a CD, âThe Backwards Songâ was on it, and he was selling copies after the gig.
âThat was Sammy J Live,â Sammy J recalls, speaking to me in Sydney in the middle of the current Opera House season of Ricketts Lane, his most recent collaboration with Randy â a puppet voiced and operated by Heath McIvor. Itâs also the show for which Sammy J and Heath McIvor won the Barry Award for Best Show at the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
According to Sammy â who always appears genuinely modest about his talent and success â he started producing CDs early on because he had a heap of material. âYouâre very prolific when you start out,â he says, âbecause youâve got so much energy and ideas. And a great deal of them are not good ideas, but you just throw them out there anyway.â These days, Sammy insists, heâd spend more time on each show and each song, resulting in âless output, but output of a much higher qualityâ. He pauses before delivering the punch line: âIn a word: âfunnierâ.â
What I instantly liked about Sammy J was that he was down-to-earth and at ease with himself and his material. Knew it was good; was happy to back it up. Handed me a CD and was happy to chat about it. Half a decade on, with a string of hit, sell-out seasons in Australia and elsewhere, Sammy J still happily hands over his latest CDs and DVDs, more than happy to make time to chat about his work.
âI was more than happy to talk about back then,â he confesses, âbecause there was very little interest in me. Not in a bad way. I was still just very much âup-and-comingâ, and people had a lot of different opinions, of course, as every does about everyone. To some extent Iâd been pigeon-holed at that point. But you showed an interest and you listened to the CD, and that means a lot when youâre starting out.â
Not long after I met him, Sammy J was named âBest Newcomerâ at the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival for his show Sammy Jâs 55 Minute National Tour. It wasnât just a showcase for a bunch of his best songs. It was a clever show that positioned the songs in a narrative. It was the first in a long line of shows that continue to do just that. But before we discuss Sammy Jâs current show, we have to backtrack.
Thereâs a couple of rumours about Sammy J that you hear from time to time. One is that he only attended university in order to partake in the university revue tradition â a proving ground that has given rise to a heap of brilliant comedians both locally and internationally (think: the entire OxBridge Mafia of Pythons and Goodies, not to mention Aunty Jackâ¦). The other is that he canât actually play the pianoâ¦
âThereâs a great deal of truth to the first rumour,â Sammy confirms.
Turns out, come the end of Year 12, Sammy J was shocked to discover heâd earned an excellent final mark. âPeople started telling me I should do law,â he says. âI was quite a nerd, so the idea appealed to me on one level. But the thing that clinched it was, all my comedy heroes â like the D-Generation and Shaun Micallef â had come out of law school and had spent time doing law revues and sketch comedy shows. So whenever anyone asked me whether I was looking forward to doing law, Iâd say yeah, because I was looking forward to being involved in the revues.â
Sammy didnât care much for the actual law, mind, which resulted in his dropping out two-and-a-half years into the degree. âI made it halfway,â he says. âBy that point Iâd appeared in and directed the comedy revues, so Iâd got what I wanted. I kind of did a âsmash and grabâ on the lawâs legal system!â
Also by that point, Sammy J had started to make a mark on the comedy circuit. âI did my first ever gig during my first week of uni,â Sammy J recalls, âso the two really sat side-by-side. I moonlighted as a legal student by day, and at night Iâd be at the Comicâs Lounge in North Melbourne, warbling away on my piano.
Ah, see, thatâs the thing: warbling away on the piano. How much, and to what degree? Does warblage extend only as far as the songs require? Can the songs only embody a degree of complexity that Sammy Jâs piano warblage allows? To put it simply, is it true that Sammy J has never had piano lessons?
Piano wasnât his forte
âThe short answer is that Iâm self-taught,â Sammy begins. And he adds, âBut the long answer â and it is a long answer â I will give to you because you have asked.â
From about the age of seven, the young Sammy J wrote poetry. He was so prolific that, as others become known as the âclass clownâ, he became the âclass poetâ. âThatâs not something you necessarily want to be known as, I assure you,â he says. But Sammy J had a love of not so much âpoetryâ, as ârhymingâ, to the point where all his teachers were immortalised in rhyme. In fact, all his written expressing â âall my stories!â â were composed in rhyming verse. âWell before any musical influence,â Sammy says, âI was into words and poetryâ.
Piano appeared in the form of six months of lessons when Sammy J was ten years old. His entire pianoforte formal education consisted of being shown how to play, off by heart, Rolf Harrisâs âTie Me Kangaroo Down, Sportâ. âThere was no technique behind it; no theory; the teacher just told me which fingers to put on which keys.â
Was it worth it?
Well, Sammy J assures me, he can still play âTie Me Kangaroo Down, Sportâ.
But, he adds âitâs like drivingâ.
No, he corrects himself.
Itâs more like âfinding your way around the city by memory, without opening your eyes at any point: âcount to ten, then turn left; count to three, then turn rightââ.
However, it did ensure that âpianoâ was the instrument, more than any other, that Sammy J identified with.
However, David was a few years ahead of Sammy J, so their âBernie Taupin/Elton John-styled combinationâ was due to come to an end. Thus, Sammy realised, if he were to keep âwriting songsâ, heâd have to be able to write the music as well as the words. So he gave it a go with his first completely solo song, âFridge Manâ, the âhorrifying, sad storyâ about the little man who lives in the fridge and turns the light on an off, and who ends up âface-down, in a jug of lemonadeâ. Sad.
âI wrote the song literally sitting at a piano,â Sammy says, âtrying to work out where the noises would sound best. It was completely self-taught, and it shows when you watch the video, because it was pretty appalling piano.â
From there, Sammy J kept âbashing awayâ on his own, âtrying to work out what sounded goodâ. In time he discovered âchordsâ, or âcollections of notesâ, around which Sammy Jâs entire musicality is based.
âI canât read music, but I developed a musical ear,â Sammy J says. âNow if that wasnât a long enough answer for you, I donât know what would be.â
The long and the short of it
Sammy Jâs music has come a long way. So much so that itâs surprising that he canât actually read music â even though he understands chords and how they work. âIâve certainly developed a musical mindset and understand a little bit of musical theory, but notes on a page mean very little to me,â Sammy J confesses. âAnd so does timing, sadly, and thatâs something that I wish were different.â
While Sammy J can turn any idea for a song into an actual song, and play it in virtually any style â giving the joke depth by playing it in a musical genre at odds with the lyrics, when necessary â whenever he watches a âtrained pianistâ, he says, heâs âfilled with rage and jealousyâ. Yes, heâd love to learn musical theory at some stage. And yetâ¦ I canât help imagining that, at least initially, this would take him backwards before it enabled him to progress forwards.
âI think thatâs true,â Sammy J concurs. Heâs had the chance to sit and learn with more accomplished musicians. In fact, Tim Minchin invited him over for a lesson a few years back. Each time, Sammy J says, âit was like standing naked in gym class: all your flaws are exposedâ¦â Perhaps, he says, given three months off, heâd âlockâ himself âaway with some angry German tutorâ whoâd impart the important lessons by âstrappingâ Sammy J âwith a caneâ.
If that never happens, Sammy J shouldnât be too worried â heâs come a long way by his own devices. âI look back on my early stuff, and my playing has a lot more confidence to it now,â he says. And not only that: the arrangements are more exciting, the shows have a lot more going onâ¦ itâs been a natural progression. And, furthermore, Sammy adds, his focus has changed. While the piano âis doing its jobâ, his ânumber one passionâ is âcomedy â more than music, more than theatre, more than anything.â The piano is there to serve the comedy, and the time that could have spent learning musical theory, Sammy J says, has instead been spent âgetting back to the jokes and trying to make them funnier, as well.â
It's worked a treat.
That was the inspiration that was
Music teacher Mr Savage was responsible for more than just making a musical comic of the fledgling Sammy J. He also had a hand in directing Sammyâs style. Comedy nerds might have noticed a stylistic echo, in Sammy Jâs work to a satirical songwriter of the 1960s, Tom Lehrer. Lehrer was a Harvard mathematics lecturer who wrote funny songs, and financed his first releases himself: Songs and More Songs. However, a certain so-called âsatire boomâ that took place in the 1960s in Britain gave rise to a successful weekly television show entitled That Was The Week That Was, hosted by David Frost (of Frost/Nixon fame). That show proved popular enough for a successful American version to come into being. Tom Lehrer contributed a topical song each week, the best (or most enduring) of which were compiled and released as the album That Was The Year That Was, leading to further albums and international success for Lehrer. He undertook a sell-out tour of Australia.
Turns out Mr Savage used Tom Lehrerâs song âPollutionâ to teach a Year 7 music class about verse and chorus in song structure.
âI donât think Iâd be talking to you now if it wasnât for him playing me that song,â Sammy J says. âThatâs what made me think of writing poems in a musical context. For three years, from when I was 12, I was listening to Tom Lehrerâs That Was The Year That Was, with all of these ridiculous obscure 1960s American political references, which I had no understanding of. I just found them all hilarious and utterly enthralling.â
Like a lot of kids of the 1970s, â80s and â90s with hip parents, Sammy J still finds himself occasionally âreading an historical articleâ when âanother reference will pop upâ to lyrics he committed to memory 15 years go. âIâll suddenly have a chuckle because Iâll understand the joke Lehrer was making about Hubert Humphrey or somethingâ¦â
If you donât believe me, or werenât aware, do yourself a favour: dig out some Tom Lehrer. If youâve read this far, you clearly like Sammy Jâs work. Youâll dig Lehrer. A lot of Sammy Jâs early songs were responses to Lehrerâs influence.
It may be worth noting that Tom Lehrer also contributed to a kids show, The Electric Company. It was produced by The Childrenâs Television Workshop, the entity also responsible for Sesame Street. If youâre aware of the educational songs Lehrer wrote for it, youâll note a similarity to the songs (and animations) of Sesame Street. Joe Raposo â who wrote and arranged a lot of Sesame Street music â collaborated with Lehrer on this material.
I bring it up because Sammy Jâs current show, Ricketts Lane, features Randy, a puppet brought to life by Heath McIvor. Heath and Sammy first collaborated on a full length show a couple of years ago, in the form of the magical Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams â winner of the Age Critics Award at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Sammy, a real person, is transported to a fairytale land populated by puppets. There are shades of Muppets â and Disney â at work here.
âIt was very much a childhood-based show,â Sammy confirms. âI made a point of having no piano, so it was an opportunity to show a different side of me â and introduce Heath McIver to the comedy world.â
How Sammy got Randy
Sammy met Heath â whoâd been a puppeteer for a decade â a couple of years ago when they appeared on the same bill on the comedy circuit. âWe saw each other, loved each otherâs work, and started doing a few late night shows at the Butterfly Club in South Melbourne as Sammy J & Randy.â It was after those late night shows that they decided to collaborate on a full-length festival show, Forest of Dreams. But that show didnât include Randy â or the piano; Heath and Sammy were exploring new territory. âIt was such good fun that we decided to follow up, but in following up, we went back to the future â so Ricketts Lane is about Sammy J and Randy, which is how Heath and I first met. There is a nice continuity.â
There is also a nice kind of magic between the two. If youâve seen them perform, there is a kind of âparty trickâ they sometimes do, where Sammy J will talk for a long period of time without pausing. Initially you think, itâs off the top of his head. But Randy delivers the same speech, word-for-word, so itâs clearly a learnt script. Whatâs amazing is that Randy does his a few seconds after Sammy J, effectively talking over the top of him. Itâs amazing â they donât manage to throw each other or trip up. Turns out this bit of stage business can pop up at any time, and Sammy and Heath refer to it as the âtalkie-walkieâ.
âIf weâre having fun on stage, weâll start to do the âtalkie-walkieâ â one of us will start talking and the other one will start to cut in, in a creepy, psychedelic fashion â just pick occasional words and repeat them. Thereâs no method to it â Heath and I know each other so well now that weâre not afraid to go out on a limb, and so we know one of us will be there to catch the other person if we try something different.â
Ah, I see.
In light of that explanation, I can only assume that the night I saw the âtalkie-walkieâ in action, what happened was that Sammy J was, indeed, speaking off the top of his head. And that Heath, as Randy, was listening intently and repeating everything a few seconds later. But it was no less amazing â because they sustained it long enough for it to go from silly, to annoying, to weird, to hilarious. And itâs no easy feat, really. I know this, because at this point of the interview, I attempt to perpetrate a âtalkie-walkieâ on Sammy J. Iâm no Heath McIvor. It throws him. Thereâs a long pause. I have to explain my foolishness and apologise.
After heâs finished laughing at me, Sammy J tells how âthe late show at the Opera House on Friday nightâ¦â â because there were two that night â involved a scene where Sammy visits Randy in gaol. During this scene, something usually goes wrong. âBut this time we just started having a long, intricate discussion about my secretary Wednesday, and what sort of an umbrella she takes to work, and so on.â In all, theyâd improvised from nothing a good three minutes of funny dialogue on the spot. âThereâs something magical about it,â Sammy says of the âtalkie-walkieâ, and indeed, of his working relationship in those moments with Heath McIvor . âI canât put my finger on it, but itâs like going down the comedy luge â you never know how itâs going to end up.â
The road to Ricketts Lane
Apart from a gaol scene as described by Sammy J, and the song about a love triangle that featured in the recent Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala, I know nothing about the plot of Ricketts Lane.
âLet me tell you about it by confessing that that song in the Gala has nothing to do with the show,â Sammy fills me in. âThat song was written a couple of years ago when Sammy and Randy were doing spots like that on the circuit. The name Ricketts Lane came from that song.â
According to Sammy J, he and Heath love callbacks â the act of referring back to a previous joke, or work â and they love involving previous shows in current work. So Ricketts Lane contains nods to Forest of Dreams and Sammy Jâs Heathless subsequent show, 1999 (which, produced in 2009, looked back at Sammyâs school life a decade earlier).
âIt seemed very appropriate to call our new show Ricketts Lane. âRicketts Laneâ became the name of the fictional street we live on. There is no love struggle whatsoever in Ricketts Lane, but when it came to promoting the show in the Gala, all the songs in the show â as they so often are â are some way linked to the storyline, so to pull one of those out, itâs suddenly not very funny because itâs out of context.â
Thus, as confusing as it is to set up an expectation for the show, by using that song in the Gala as the âadâ for the show, it doesnât appear in the show. It is perfect advertising though. It features the name prominently. And, Sammy adds, âitâs us and itâs our style of humour. Thatâs all people need to know.â
But can I know more about Ricketts Lane, I ask, concerned. That is the primary reason for this interview, even though the comedy nerd in me loves tracing everything back to earlier, if not first, principles.
âAbsolutely â that was just my caveat,â Sammy laughs, letting some of his inner law student out. âI wanted to start by eliminating things from the plot before revealing the actual plot.â
Ah, an argument by induction: move from the specific to the general. I love it.
âThe plot is quite simple: Iâm Sammy J, and Iâm a shit-kicking tax lawyer â which is a sort of Sliding Doors moment, because what would have happened if I had finished that law degree is anyoneâs guess â and Randy is just Randy, a cruising sort of dude. Heâs probably ten or 15 years older than me, heâs seen a lot of the world, and heâs really down on his luck, but he doesnât moan about it much. Iâm basically told by my employees that I have to find a high profile tax evasion scalp otherwise my jobâs on the line because I havenât had any successful prosecutions, and it just so happens, in the course of my investigations, I discover Randy, my best friend and housemate, has some dodgy tax skeletons in the closet, and so Iâm forced to decide whether Iâll prosecute my housemate for tax fraud. Thatâs the nub of the drama.â
Thatâs quite a brilliant plot. Sammy J, nice guy, forced to be horrible, to his mate. Heâll be tornâ¦
âThatâs right. Itâs classic Disney film; itâs Forest of Dreamsâ¦ Youâve always got to have the breakdown of the relationship at the two-thirds mark; thatâs always the same with any good three-act structure of any play or film. It sets up the characters.â
The greater plan with Ricketts Lane was not just to produce a show, but to establish Sammy J and Randy, and their style of comedy. âNothing would suit better than for Randy to have to defend himself for all his past misdemeanours,â Sammy explains, âand Sammy J to be really finicky and anal about his job and basically rat on his best friend if the job requires it.â
Now, of course, Sammy J has always had a clear idea about how to produce merchandise â from his first CD, Sammy J Live, through Sticky Digits and the DVD Forest of Dreams. I assume thereâll be a DVD of Ricketts Lane.
âThatâs an option,â Sammy says, revealing that theyâre taping the Opera House season. âBut we have âgranderâ ambitions for Sammy J and Randy. One of the reasons for doing this show was as a bit of a TV pilot.â Rather than going to the trouble of filming a whole pilot â which requires time and money â Sammy and Heath have written a stage show that reflects the television show theyâd most want to make. âBy doing it as a live show, everyone can come and see it anyway, and youâve killed two birds with one stone.â
Thatâs very clever indeed. Sammy J and Randy have the ideal relationship for a sitcom. Ricketts Lane establishes the characters with a clever plot, the way a first episode should. âWeâre already working on the next episode, which will be our follow-up show next year. Itâs a good use of time, to be writing another show, which could â in a dream world one day â become an episode of something.â
Sammy J and Heath McIvor are happy with how their work is going, to be aiming at a bigger plan. And theyâve clearly given it a lot of thought. After all, they took a year off from each other after 2008âs Forest of Dreams.
âIt went so well,â Sammy explains, âand weâre such naturally cautious people that we wanted to not only preserve the relationship, but also challenge ourselves. It seemed almost far too easy to say, âletâs do a new show and cash in on that successâ because we enjoy moving the goalposts and want to avoid being typecast.â Thus, Heath undertook his first solo full-length show, Randyâs Postcards from Purgatory, which proved successful both in Australia and at Edinburgh Fring. And Sammy J did âthe show that Iâd wanted to do for a while, which was a tribute to school days: 1999â.
While âsome people donât have a good time at schoolâ and others âlove itâ, Sammy J reports that he had the âwhole rangeâ, from being at âthe bottom of the social ladderâ to discovering âwho I am, getting into comedy and becoming the class clownâ. It can all happen in the period of six years. Or, in Sammy Jâs hands, the sixty minutes of a musical comedy show. But, he acknowledges, a lot of people came to see the show off the back of Forest of Dreams, not knowing what to expect, and were thus confused, if not disappointed, because 1999 was âcomparatively darkâ as well as âsentimentalâ.
âIt was a bold thing to do, but it was really fun to try something different,â Sammy says. âI hope I get the chance to do it again.â
Despite sharing the general experiences, being older means that some of the details of 1999 differ from my own school days. But I do recall friends closer to Sammy Jâs age indentifying with the discman bound in bubblewrap to minimise disc skippage in transit. (In my senior years of school, few kidsâ families had compact disc players yet, and only the wealthier had video recorders. Most kids played tapes.) However, the memory that most stands out of 1999 is of Sammy J in âdick stickersâ. Or âbudgie smugglersâ, if you will.
âIâve never heard âdick stickersâ before,â Sammy J says. âThatâs great. I love it!â
Sammy J also got his top off to dress as a âcommandoâ in Forest of Dreams. And I know countless kids who not only saw Ricketts Lane repeatedly during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but who happily travel interstate to see subsequent seasons of it. Iâm sure itâs the comedy that draws them. And the music. But Sammy J in various stages of undress must also help. Does he get his gear off in this one?
âYou have no idea!â Sammy informs me. âIâm not going to rule anything in or out, but letâs just say that after going the full revolution outfit, and then the Speedos, there was only one thing we could do for Ricketts Lane, and you wonât be disappointed.â
Now, now, Sammy. My mind is on the verge of boggling, but I shanât allow it, because, being a boy, you simply arenât my type.
âItâs not necessarily the first thought youâd have, as far as how youâd go worse than Speedos,â he offers, but I still refuse to consider it.
âIâll just wait and let you sit on that one,â Sammy J concludes. In a manner of speaking.
The interview is pretty much finished, but Iâve got Sammy J on the phone and thereâs other great stuff heâs done Iâd love to talk about. Like his 50 Year Show. Every five years â well, I say âevery five yearsâ â the first took place October 3rd 2008; the next instalment takes place October 3rd 2013 and the last show takes place October 3rd 2058 â Sammy hosts a show with the same castâ¦ as though the intervening years have been a mere interval. âAs I said at the very end of the last one, âokay everyone, go to the bar, have a drink, finish your degree, lose a few loved ones, and pop back in five years timeâ. Itâs really just a big comedic time capsule.â
Adam Hills took part, commencing the â50-year crosswordâ: âhe pulled out that dayâs newspaper and he had five minutes with the crowd to solve as many words as he could. He has to come back and pick up exactly where he left off. Weâll see how far he gets over the next fifty years.â
Frank Woodley undertook the â50-year physical stuntâ: âhe did a backflip and weâre gonna see how he can do that every five yearsâ¦â
Sammy opened the show by dancing with a bunch of five-year-old girls. âTheyâve all agreed â or rather, their parents and legal guardians have agreed to let them â come back every five years and join me for the same dance while the video of them as five-year-olds plays behind us on the screen.â
Although Sammy has no clear idea where the show will lead, or how it will develop, the first installment was impressive. âIt was a really electric night and itâs incredible that it actually worked outâ. Iâm looking forward the the DVD â well, I say DVD, I probably mean the memory chip I insert directly into my skull â in 2058, of the highlights of the show. There is a collection of edited highlights on YouTube.
âEven if I get hit by a bus tomorrow,â Sammy J reasons, âI will be happy that I kicked that off. And there will be plenty of good folk who will carry it on for me.â
That, too may well have been the point at which to end the interview â except that thereâs still more news for Sammy Jâs near future. He was one of a number of comics who filmed shows before a live audience, in a warehouse somewhere in Melbourne, a couple of months back. The resulting series of performances will be broadcast on ABC2 next year, as Warehouse Comedy, to be followed â or, letâs face it, preceded nowadays â by a DVD release. Sammy J took the opportunity to put a lot of his solo songs to bed: repertoire he hasnât necessarily performed in a while, and may not perform again for a while.
âIt was a really fun night,â Sammy says. âAli McGregor came along to sing our song together â which was really nice.â
If youâre not familiar with Ali McGregor, youâre not really trying. Her late night variety show has long been a mainstay of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival â not just a great way to end an evening of comedy â also a great way to be introduced to other acts worth seeing during the festival. But again, youâve read this far, Iâm assuming you know and like Sammy Jâs work. Go back to Forest of Dreams â youâll recognise her voice at the very opening bars of the theme song.
âWe have the full version of her song on the DVD, with her playing the autoharp, Sammy J says â and I canât help pointing out how cool it must be, being part of a performing community that is as generous as it is talented.
âItâs lovely,â Sammy agrees. âItâs one of the advantages of straddling the musical and comedy worlds â because music is a whole different world. I never would have dreamed that Iâd have someone of Aliâs skill and talent to come and perform on my shitty DVD, but Iâm very lucky that she agreed to be a part of itâ¦â
âThatâs a very lovely thing to say,â I interrupt, âbut itâs not a shitty DVDâ¦â
âYou havenât seen it yet,â Sammy laughs, but agrees â âno, it shouldnât be too shittyâ¦â
âOh, that one,â I offer; I thought Sammy had been referring to Forest of Dreams. âOkay, your Warehouse Comedy DVD might be shitty, but it will be all the better for Ali McGregorâs presence.â
âThatâll be the sticker I put on the front,â Sammy announces: ââDefinitely less shit, because of Ali McGregorâ.â
I canât help myself. âIn a lot of ways, this is the perfect ending for the interview, Sammy.â
Sammy J laughs in agreement:
âSammy J: Less shit, thanks to Ali McGregor. And Heath McIvor.â