“Ack hghr lkjg alkhg,” offers Ben Mattick, the clean-shaven guitarist of the group.
I’ve phoned him at the appointed time on a Thursday afternoon, on the appointed number, in the hope of getting a quick interview with him. But Ben’s currently in the Seymour Centre Sound Lounge, below street level, so the mobile signal keeps breaking up.
When he moves closer to the door (I assume), he explains that he and brother Nick – aka Roger David and Fletcher Jones aka Smart Casual – are going through the tech run for their show Broken Dreams, the Sydney Comedy Festival run of which will be opening later that evening.
“I can call back later,” I suggest. “When’s the best time…?”
“Actually, now would be best,” says Ben. He hands the phone over to brother Nick, the hairy vocalist, who pops upstairs where reception is much better, and we’re off.
This year’s show, Broken Dreams, is about just that: Nick and Ben’s broken dreams in showbiz. “It’s about us selling out,” Nick confesses, “and wanting to move to Poland to start afresh.”
Poland? Why Poland? Is it because it sounds exotic, or do Nick and Ben actually have some links to that country?
“We’re under the illusion that musical comedy is getting really big there,” Nick says. “It’s very important to us, in the course of the show.”
Given Nick’s failure to elaborate further, I can only assume all will be revealed in the course of the show. But, I’m wondering, is ‘Mattick’ – the boys’ surname – of Polish origin?
“It can be…” Nick offers.
It can be! I love it. As ever, the world Nick and Ben offer is fluid with possibilities.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Smart Casual – and it may be the secret to their success – is their ability to ensure the song lasts as long as the joke. It’s one of the things that sets good musical comics apart from other comics who bung a song in. According to Nick, however, it’s common sense:
“We thought that’s important because if we're bored of something then the audience is probably very bored of it!”
Fair call. But – after five-odd years of success as a musical comedy duo – is it still important? Does a long-term audience, or the fact that you’ve been at it so long somehow meanyou can maintain interest in other ways and it isn’t so imperative to crack the gag and get out, as it were?
Actually, it does – because you learn ways to maintain interest. But Smart Casual have always known how to do that. They have a few “builders”, according to Nick, referring to devices that enable a song to last longer because they continue to add something that ‘buids’ upon the initial idea. “Something has to happen, if you know what I mean: there has to be a twist or a change-up,” Nick says.
A perfect example is Smart Casual’s first big hit, ‘The Hawk’: each verse develops the idea. Someone has to push The Hawk. On the catwalk. And, even after the verses have ended, things continue to happen: Nick keeps building with his shrieky 'CAW!' noise – the cry of a hawk – while he flaps his wings.
The 'origin story' of Smart Casual is simple enough. Brothers Nick and Ben wanted to do acting and music, respectively, but having set out on their chosen vocations, neither seemed to be doing particularly well just yet. According to Nick, “we met in the middle, I guess, and it just seemed to work.”
‘Just seemed to work’ is an understatement. As a comedy duo, the brothers complemented each other perfectly, each bringing something the other lacked to form a classic gestalt, where the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.
They competed in the Triple J/Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy competition of 2008 where, making it to the national final, they proved a crowd favourite. They were subsequently selected for 2009’s Comedy Zone, the show the Melbourne Comedy Festival puts together from the best up-and-comers.
“Raw Comedy opened a lot of doors, especially in Melbourne,” Nick recalls. “We got success really early and we thought it was easy, easy, easy. Then we hit a wall with our first full-length show.”
I’m not sure what exactly Nick means. Their first full-length show, technically, was Art vs Smart Casual, which took place at the Melbourne Fringe Festival of 2009. The show saw the pair line up the multitude of art forms – acting, dancing, painting, et cetera – against musical comedy to see which held more merit (“it was a draw”). Among the reviews garnered was a particular favourite, the verbal feedback of a punter: “you guys are shit-hot”. The Age considered them “immediately likeable”, opining that “Aussie laconic humour is alive and well”, while Buzzcuts recognised their work as “exceptionally clever and well executed”, predicting the duo to be “destined for big things”.
2010 saw them deliver the show Same Mother, Different Fathers at festivals around Australia.
“Is that true?” I ask, a little sheepishly, about the title. After all, Nick and Ben do look quite different. “Esau is an hairy man, while Jacob is a smooth man,” to borrow from Alan Bennett’s paraphrasing of Genesis 27:11. If I hadn’t been told they’re brothers, they look different enough that I wouldn’t have guessed it.
“No, that’s bullshit,” Nick says. “It’s just that I’m ‘Fletcher Jones’ and he’s ‘Roger David’ and we’re brothers; that’s the way we worked that out. In our shows, if it helps us being full brothers, we’re full brothers; if it helps us being halvies, we’re halvies. The truth doesn’t matter!”
Well, that’s one bit of the folklore dealt with. There was another story that did the rounds a little while ago, that both brothers were working as teachers’ aids until some of their material was deemed perhaps a little unsuitable. Maybe, at some level, there was a conflict of interest having both careers running concurrently.
“Ben still is a teacher’s aid,” Nick reports, but sets me straight on the story: Smart Casual have a song about autism. Nick worked in a class with autistic kids. One of the kids’ parents went to see the show.
“I didn’t know she was coming, but she loved it, so it was okay,” Nick says. “They seemed to not mind it. But then it got out that we did that…”
So that’s the story: a non-offensive song that didn’t cause offense, that through a process of ‘Chinese whispers’ enraged someone at a distance who probably neither saw the show nor is attached to a child with autism, who got offended on the behalf of others. Isn’t that always the way!
“I think it’s important to note that the joke is about the misconceptions of autism,” Nick says, “rather than having a laugh at someone’s expense. I think that if the joke’s good enough, and in the right place, you can laugh at almost anything.”
Definitely. Given the right context and enough talent (the greater the talent, the less necessary the context) than anything can be funny. The comedian’s job, always, is to say the unsayable. But that’s not what’ll turn an audience, necessarily.
2011’s The Story of Captain Entrée marked a departure from the duo’s earlier work. “It was narrative, which I liked, but if we didn’t get the audience early, they were gone,” Nick explains.
It would be disingenuous – or just plain wrong – to think Smart Casual’s audience prefers a program of funny songs with no linking story over a program of less funny songs; or that Smart Casual have done away with the narrative form. If you had trouble lasting the entire voyage of Captain Entrée without threatening mutiny, rest assured, Broken Dreams will satisfy you. But it still contains a connecting narrative. Still, Nick advises, “it’s more of a variety hour. It’s got everything: dance, song, a bit of art, film…”
My immediate thought is that it thus also harks back to Art vs Smart Casual, the difference being intervening years of experience and development, and a lot more sophistication in its execution. And rather than merely talking about those other artforms, Smart Casual are actually physically executing them and incorporating them in the show. Hence the need to complete a tech run before opening night in Sydney, despite having spent a month doing the show in Melbourne.
And then my subsequent thought is that, if Smart Casual are presenting a multimedia variety show on stage, surely their own television show or Smart Casual: The Movie can’t be too far away.
However, what’s actually happening is that, having performed Broken Dreams some 50 times this year already, they’re able to pull it off every night, and spend their days writing their next show.
“But we’re definitely looking toward the future,” Nick assures me. “We’ve done a lot of filmed stuff that we’ll throw onto YouTube after this run finishes, and we’re gonna do more of that kind of stuff. It’s really fun to do that.”
Which begs the question: does Smart Casual have a DVD out yet?
“No, we don’t have a DVD,” Nick says. “We have a very old CD. We probably need to get a new one of those, as well.”
All in good time. Right now, it’s all about the Sydney Comedy Festival run of Broken Dreams.
“This is the best thing we’ve done, this show,” Nick says. “It has taken us four or five years to get here, so it’s a solid hour. It’s very fun to do and it’s very fun to watch.”
See Smart Casual’s Broken Dreams Sydney Comedy Festival run at Seymour Centre Sound Lounge at 9:30pm until Sat 28 April.