Still Here...


May I just say that despite lack of evidence of regular posts here, please be reassured I am alive and well and doing a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called Stand-Up Sit-Down, where I get up close and personal with a bunch of awesome comedians. Here's the list, where you can also buy tickets. What? You couldn't possibly leave this page and check it out? Okay. Here's the list:

You missed Fiona O'Loughlin last night.

Don't miss:

Tom Gleeson, March 30;
Fear of a Brown Planet, March 31;
DeAnne Smith, April 1;
Sammy J, April 3;
Tim Ferguson, April 4;
Greg Fleet, April 5;
Hannah Gadsby, April 6;
Celia Pacquola, April 7;
Andrew Denton, April 8.

Seriously. Come hang out with Dom ’n’ Tom tonight!

Tom Gleeson photo

I will keep blogging, but mostly as a kind of festival diary for the show. And only when not flyering, seeing shows…

Meanwhile, come see the show.

And failing that, support it through my Pozible campaign. Pledge a small amount, it all helps to contribute to what, in Fiona O'Loughlin's words, is "a fine tradition that has begun!!!!!"

Dope on the Rope

I have had the pleasure of speaking to Andrew Denton a number of times and he remains one of my favourite interviewers for several reasons – including his humour, intelligence and ability to be both interesting and interested. However, when I first spoke to him regarding Enough Rope, I felt the need to take issue with some of what I perceived to be shortcomings of his work – like letting Rene Rivkin and Rachel Griffiths off the hook a little too easily when he interviewed them (I blogged about this at the time – not knowing I would subsequently interview Denton about the show, for FilmInk, in honour of the first Enough Rope DVD release). Surely calling a show Enough Rope was a reference to the phrase ‘give ’em enough rope to hang themselves’. Why did conversation always turn to child rearing? What happened to the angry young Denton? Did he have to mellow so annoyingly?

I’d first had the pleasure of interviewing Denton when he had nothing at all to promote. His time on breakfast radio was drawing to close – although I didn’t know it – when I happened to accost him in public. He was happy to be interviewed but the finished product unfortunately never saw the light of day. I was writing for the street press then and since there was no potential for advertising revenue, they had no particular desire to publish a profile of one of my heroes. As I wasn’t yet blogging and I hadn’t made the acquaintance of the right editor at some party, there didn’t seem to be another outlet for it.

One of the things that came up during that chat was Denton’s belief that documentary as a form of entertainment was going to take off. He likened it to non-fiction literature, that had overtaken fiction in the best-sellers lists. So when I got to speak to him about his new television show, I put it to him that Enough Rope was the televisual equivalent of ‘non-fiction’ entertainment. Although he didn’t quite agree, Denton has since made good on his instincts regarding documentary with God On My Side. (And since it was broadcast within the [More Than] Enough Rope slot, Enough Rope may not be television doco, but television doco can certainly be Enough Rope.)

In the course of the Enough Rope interview, Denton also pointed out that his show wasn’t about taking interview subjects to task – that his use of the title was about giving people the opportunity to do rope tricks, rather than hang themselves. He explained his take on all of the things I took issue with and allowed me to see another side (not necessarily ‘the other side’, note), pointing out that an interview is like taking a picture, and if I don’t like the interview, really, I’m only taking issue with his choice of camera angle. I liked the metaphor, but more importantly, I liked the point he was making. It gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate the work and what I thought I didn’t like about it. It’s not every day that someone invites you to voice a criticism of his work, to his face, and have him address your criticism, all in a rational manner.

One of the things that I wanted to know about Enough Rope – particularly when it came to the DVD release – was with regards to where edits had clearly been made in the interviews. What was it that didn’t make the final cut? And why couldn’t ‘extended versions’ of the original broadcasts – with some of the edited material re-instated – have been included on the DVD? After all, that’s pretty much what DVDs are for. “You know what?” Denton said, “there just isn’t the time, unfortunately.”

Thankfully, time has made itself available. I’m really enjoying More Than Enough Rope, the series of Enough Rope currently being broadcast that re-visits some of the best interviews, re-instating some of the bits that were originally cut. More than that, the interviews often pause in order to allow Denton to offer some commentary about the proceedings. Again, this is what DVD is supposed to provide. How cool is it that we’re getting it for free on the telly? No doubt one day all entertainment will have the ‘extended with commentary’ option – but we’ll have to pay a little bit extra each month to be able to download and enjoy it.

At this point, the logical thing for me to do is revisit that FilmInk interview, and present it in it’s original question-and-answer form. It serves as a follow up to my earlier blog about the show, since it addresses – as Denton did – my original criticisms. I promised at the time to follow up and present the other side of the story. It’s only taken me about three years!

I’d also like to add a bit of trivia I discovered a little while ago. The title Enough Rope originally graced a radio show hosted by Meshel Laurie and Josh Kinal on Melbourne’s Triple R. That program no longer existed by the time Andrew Denton wanted to use the title for his television show. There is no provision to copyright a title, and so anyone can use a pre-existing title if they want to, even if the other thing with that title still exists. However, Denton still made contact, to ensure that it was okay to name his show Enough Rope, despite having no obligation to do so. I love it when a powerful person makes an effort to behave honourably, even if he doesn’t have to.

After that rather long introduction, here is the long interview.

Dom Romeo: Andrew, is it okay if I start by hitting you with a quote from an interview we did some years ago?


Dom Romeo: You said,

“Documentary is the great unexplored form of entertainment; ten years ago, non-fiction was the ugly cousin of publishing. Now non-fiction is the thing; that’s where the best-sellers are. I firmly believe the same of documentary. I believe that documentary could become the non-fiction of feature film, done right.”

Is Enough Rope the televisual equivalent?

ANDREW DENTON: No, not really. I don’t see it as documentary. It’s conversation. It’s a different thing. And it’s not something that would readily translate to cinema, I don’t think, although probably The Fog of War belies that.

Dom Romeo: Where did the concept of Enough Rope come from? It’s kind of like a chat show, but a chat show done the way ‘chat’ hasn’t been done for quite some time.

ANDREW DENTON: I quibble with the term ‘chat’; ‘chat’ is something that you do over the back fence when you’ve got five minutes. I sit down and talk to people for an hour or longer. I don’t mean to sound wanky, but it’s a conversation. I think ‘chat’ speaks of a whole different genre, which I’ve also done, which is usually a few anecdotes, a few laughs, a joke here and a product endorsement. I don’t think I’m doing that.

Where the idea came from was sitting out of television for a long time, and particularly watching the rise of reality television, feeling very strongly that there was too much chat and not enough conversation, and usually the chat happened to be about the same few subjects – a lot of them revolving around reality television. I felt, watching shows like Australian Story and listening to things on the radio like The Search for Meaning, that in fact, at a particularly stressful time in world history that we’re undeniably living through, that many people wanted to talk about matters much closer to their hearts, and that were bothering them, than simply what the latest evictee from Big Brother was like.

Dom Romeo: Is that just symptomatic of the state of the world at the moment? Entertainment seems to be the ‘opiate of the masses’.

ANDREW DENTON: No, I think sport is the opiate of the masses. And I’m a willing partaker of it on occasion. I think entertainment is a distraction, not an opiate.

Dom Romeo: You referred to the things that we hold dear to us: how does that manifest itself on Enough Rope?

ANDREW DENTON: The simplest way to put that is you will see a lot of times when I talk to people, we talk about their own parents or their own children, the fundamental things of society. It’s not to do with what you’ve earned or who you’ve met; it’s not what you’ve earned, it’s what you’ve learned. I think that’s one of the strong senses I’ve had, and discerned in the people I’ve had around me – we feel like our society is fracturing; we feel like it’s fracturing under the weight of trivia and under the weight of so many distractions – going back to the point about entertainment; and we feel like it’s under threat from a very dark force, which is fundamentalism. And the very spiritual strength of fundamentalism underlines in some ways our spiritual weakness and our weakness as a society, as a group of people who care for each other. So when I talk about parenting or children, that’s talking about the fundamentals of society: how we deal with other human beings.

Dom Romeo: There were times when I felt that, because you have a young child, you always seem to bring up the ‘young child’ topic in the interview if your interview subject also has a young child. Although it seemed more pertinent for your ‘Australian of Year’ interview with Professor Fiona Stanley in which you discussed the growing incidence of drug addicted parents and depressed children. How important is it that we address procreation and children as issues central to where we’re going as a society?

ANDREW DENTON: Well, it’s about as important as the future. They’re the next generation. Whatever we do now will shape the next twenty years. And whatever our kids do will shape the twenty years after that. As we all know, the way we’re parented has a profound influence on how we deal with the world. So it couldn’t be more important.

Dom Romeo: Did you have any idea when you were younger, before you started a family, how important the family was? Were you always aware of that?

ANDREW DENTON: Look, I come from a very strong family, as does Jennifer [Byrne, Denton’s partner], and one of the reasons we get on so well is that we’re great believers in ‘family’. Family takes care of family. But that’s on a personal level. On a societal level, no, I think you begin to understand it more when you become a parent and when you talk to other parents and start seeing the school community. You begin to see how many problems are shared and how many problems are different.

All this is important to the show, but the mission statement for the show is ‘where entertainment and ideas meet’. It’s okay to be entertaining, it’s okay to have ideas; they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Dom Romeo: What about the title of the show, ‘Enough Rope’? I’m familiar with the phrase ‘enough rope to hang himself with’. You don’t often seem to let ’em hang. You don’t let ’em dangle…

ANDREW DENTON: No, and for a very good reason. I think a good title is good for a show, and I based the title of the show on this very simple guide: if I just arrived from overseas and knew nothing about what was on TV and only had the guide to go by, I’d pick the show with a neat title. So, for instance, I would have watched The Money or the Gun, even if I didn’t know anything about it. So I think Enough Rope is a really good title. But having said that, yes, the saying is ‘enough rope and they’ll hang themselves’, but my view is always, ‘enough rope, and if you’re good, you’ll do rope tricks’.

The whole purpose of the show is not set up to trap people or to trick them. The whole purpose of the show is to let people shine and that’s one of the things we’ve found. As we talk to people and give them a chance to talk about things away from the normal publicity rounds, most of the people I speak to, they’re where they’re at because they’re intelligent, they work really hard, they’ve got a world view.

Dom Romeo: Well that puts the Rene Rivkin interview into perspective. The first time I watched it I thought you went a little easy on him. You didn’t take him to task on his alleged wrong-doing. Watching it again, I realise that none of that has anything to do with you letting him tell his story.

ANDREW DENTON: No, and with very good reason. The chronology of this – and we should get it very clear – first of all, we asked him to come on the show well before the legal stuff happened… in public, anyway. I asked him to come on the show because I’d seen him on Clive Robertson a decade earlier and never forgotten him; he was so interesting. And the night in fact he came on the show was before he’d been found guilty of anything. We knew he was before the court, but there was no point in discussing something that a) was before the court; and b) something that hadn’t been decided. And indeed, what we saw and found there was the marvelously flamboyant and eccentric individual that Rene Rivkin is. The second interview, which was in fact after he was found guilty, was a different interview all together. One that Rene left extremely unhappy from, because he was asked a great deal about his business dealings, and about the fact that he’s been found guilty. He was extremely unhappy.

So it’s very easy for people – and I think people have – to take that first interview and say, ‘you were just giving a criminal a free ride’. He wasn’t a criminal at the time, and he was and still is a fascinating man that I hate to think we’ll kick to death regardless of what he’s done wrong.

Dom Romeo: What are the criteria for the selection of guests for the show?

ANDREW DENTON: People who we feel have led enough of a life to be interesting – or who have enough of a view of life to be interesting. And they can be different categories. There have been actors and famous people that we’ve said no to, not because they’re not famous enough, but because they perhaps haven’t been around for long enough to have really formed a view on life. And then there are other people we choose who aren’t famous at all, but whose attitude towards life, or what they’ve done with their life, is really instructive and extraordinary. It’s pretty simple but they’re interesting enough to sustain a longer conversation, as opposed to a ‘chat’.

Dom Romeo: Tell me about the ‘non-celebrity’ guests. It’s an interesting and vital angle that no other conversation show or chat show has dealt with.

ANDREW DENTON: It was actually the starting point for the show. Some years ago I remember watching Parkinson, and wondering what the same show would be like – with the band and all of that – but if you just spoke to people that no one had ever heard of. When I first was putting together the outline of Enough Rope in fact I envisaged a show with no celebrities at all. Now that was a fairly ‘Stalinist’ view, which was wrong for two reasons: one, because it assumed that people who are celebrities hadn’t led interesting lives, which is manifestly untrue, as Mel Brooks showed early this year; and two, because part of the secret to the show’s success is that any given week, when you tune in, you don’t know what you’re going to get. If we had completely excluded entertainers and performers, it would have limited our palette greatly.

So it comes from all the TV shows I’ve done; whenever I’ve had a break in taping I’ve gone and spoken to members of the audience, and I have been, almost without exception, astonished by what people have to say. You just never know who is going to amaze you with something they have to say, be it an opinion or something from their lives. I’ve often walked up the street and thought, ‘I could walk into any house here and with the right questions, I could unlock one thing in this person’s life, be it a relative or something they’ve done, which is astonishing’.

So it comes from that and the thought that we have spent so much time in the last ten years elevating celebrity to a religion that again, getting back to that idea of ‘society’ and ‘values’, I think we’ve actually forgotten that the far more interesting, or the equally interesting people are next to us on the bus or the train. I’m not a great believer in religions of any sort and I think the religion of celebrity is a particularly stupid one, and I just wanted to remind all of us, I suppose – myself included – that the so-called ‘ordinary’ is more extraordinary than those things that are promoted as extraordinary.

Dom Romeo: So what you’re doing, when you do interview celebrities, is trying to provide enough comfort and freedom for them to reveal something about themselves.

ANDREW DENTON: That’s something that we’re all aiming for. We research a lot, and really, there are two schools of thought on this – some people think that the approach is too soft, but my view is, there’s a lot of adversarial television around, that’s not really what I’m interested in doing. I think if you sit there with a searing list of questions, trying to tear someone apart, often those questions are about the interviewer, not about the guest.

Let me just say, I think there are places where that’s really appropriate, particularly in day-to-day current affairs. But in the stuff that we’re doing – if I attack a guest, what am I likely to get out of them? All heat, no light. I’d much rather try to open somebody up by being empathetic, by actually being interested in what they have to say, and why they might have reached a certain point in their lives, and within the course of that, throw in challenging questions so it’s not assuming that this person isn’t to be challenged.

I think most of my guests walk away feeling challenged by the experience, but it’s not that old fashioned adversarial way of, ‘right, I’m taking a position on you and I’m now going to go in hard’.

Dom Romeo: After that, and as good as that is, to suddenly meet someone in the audience who is a – I’m trying not to use the word ‘nobody’…

ANDREW DENTON: We call them “so-called ‘ordinary’ Australians” because that’s how they’re viewed.

Dom Romeo: Excellent. Then you talk to “so-called ‘ordinary’ Australians” and again, I’m astounded by their stories.

ANDREW DENTON: Yeah. And that’s always the case. And all we’ve done is put on camera what I’ve been finding for years. One of the interesting points is the lie, the commonly held belief that Australians can’t talk. I’m constantly astonished by the eloquence, let alone the honesty, with which people explain things that are very, very difficult in their lives.

When the show started and we started doing that part of the show, the response to it was very negative: ‘why are you talking to those people? We’ve never heard of them before’. And by the end of last year, for many people, that was their favourite part of the show.

Dom Romeo: Early on you featured three nurses – it was an amazing interview because of the stuff that it revealed, that we – non-nurses – just wouldn’t be aware of.

ANDREW DENTON: That’s the hardest thing to get together, because there is no starting point for those interviews. Literally, researchers have to go to the phone book, and if we’re doing truckies, we have to go to ‘t’ for trucks. There’s no registry of ‘truckies ready to talk on television’. They take a lot of lead time to find three people of sufficiently different experiences who are sufficiently confident to talk about their experiences on television but every time we do it, it’s very rewarding.

Dom Romeo: One of the nurses spoke of ‘FLKs’ – ‘funny-lookin’ kids’. That was a challenge to the way you’d think. Of course nurses are going to have to discuss their work in that way with each other, to let off steam, to cope with the job…

ANDREW DENTON: That’s right. We got some complaints about that, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t respect those kids. In the way that we all do, we all apply humour to our workplace, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t do our jobs sincerely. Something you just said there – ‘it made me think differently’ – that’s my definition of the sort of television that I’m interested in, both as a viewer and as a practitioner of it, which is, I would like to think – though it’s not always possible – that, with Enough Rope, in any given episode, if you sit down and watch it, you’re going to walk away with one thing that made you think differently about something.

Dom Romeo: Congratulations on the Kennett interview, then! In my book, he was always a bastard! I’d never seen a caring, human side to him, and you almost got him to reveal it, reluctant though he was.

ANDREW DENTON: Our website has lots of different opinions on the Kennett interview, ranging from he was a bastard to I was a bastard, and I think they might both be legitimate. He was tricky, and I just felt… the peculiar moment for me was where he couldn’t find it within himself to say something good about his wife. I was surprised because before the interview he was funny and charming and interesting, and then he came on determined to be none of those things. And I know he was there because he wanted to push the ‘Beyond Blue’ cause, which is admirable, and he did it very well. But I think if you want to speak to human beings about a really deep problem, you have to be human yourself. And to deny one in order to promote the other, I’m not sure that that works in the long run.

Dom Romeo: But he did get his message across, and you did reveal a side to him that we don’t often see.

ANDREW DENTON: Again, I think that has a lot to do with time. We do take the time to have a conversation, because it takes a while for people to relax into stuff. I’ve done the other sort: I’ve done ‘chat’. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. When I was at Channel Seven, doing a show that I loved and that I’m very proud of, I used to come away from interviewing extraordinary people for maybe ten minutes if we had a long time, and thinking ‘we only just got started’!

Dom Romeo: You said that it takes you a while to let them settle in and they’re longer interviews. Obviously they have to be edited in some way for television, but there are times when edits are apparent, that suggest sizeable chunks are missing… you make Sir David Attenbourgh laugh, for example, and we cut to you, we cut back to him no longer laughing and clearly a huge edit has taken place…

ANDREW DENTON: As with everything, there are always things that we could go back and do better.

Dom Romeo: Sure, but all I was going to say is, did you feel tempted to go back and reinstate bits that had to be edited out, to give us ‘extended versions’ for DVD?

ANDREW DENTON: You know what? There just isn’t the time, unfortunately. One of the astonishing things about this show is how ‘all-consuming’ it is. We just did Bill Clinton last week and I was just thinking about it the other day: in our terms, he’s already in the waste paper basket now. One of the interviews that, for years, I’ve wanted to do, and it’s just gone. You’ve got to turn around to the next thing. There wasn’t time to be tempted, though it would have been nice.

Dom Romeo: How did you decide what would be released on the DVD?

ANDREW DENTON: That was the ABC. They nominated what they thought would be good, and I said ‘no’ to a couple and said ‘yes’ to those ones.

Dom Romeo: Can you let me know what didn’t make the cut?

ANDREW DENTON: Oh god, I couldn’t even remember. I just thought this was the better range. I really wanted to have Fiona Stanley in, for instance, and I think that wasn’t one that they originally nominated. I wanted, like the show, to have a range of guests.

Dom Romeo: I quite enjoyed the Kath & Kim interview.

ANDREW DENTON: That was an interview almost entirely for entertainment. You weren’t going to get a great deal of enlightenment, but it was great fun. And the fact that they wrote the whole series as school mums – that’s pretty damn impressive. There’s an enormous discipline required in writing this stuff, and the fact that they were able to do that around their parenting lives is really quite something. There it is again: parenting.

Dom Romeo: When I’ve watched an interview that didn’t sit so well because I took issue with something that you didn’t take issue with…

ANDREW DENTON: I think there are many criticisms you can make of any given interview and I view it this way: there’s no such thing as a right interview. It’s just me taking a snapshot with my camera, and you don’t have to like the camera angle, and you might have wanted a completely different picture or you might of wanted it from further away or closer up – but it’s just a conversation. If a criticism is made out of ignorance or out of prejudice, well I’m happy to counter that. But if it’s an opinion – ‘you should have asked that’ – or the criticism ‘you didn’t even think to ask about this’ – well, the fact of the matter is often we do think about stuff that people wished we asked about, but we decided that’s not where we wanted to go with that interview.

Clinton is a case in point. People said to me, ‘why did you call him “Mr President”? You were just fawning all over him’. Well, the fact is that’s what he’s known as, that’s what ex-Presidents are addressed as – ‘Mr president’ – and I could have chosen to call him ‘Bill’ or ‘Prez’, but I was only there for half an hour. Why would I put an unnecessary obstacle between me and trying to talk to him about more important stuff? Of course I addressed him by the term with which he is generally addressed. Which is a long-winded way of saying, there are many criticisms, and whatever take we decide to make on an interview may not be yours, in which case, you probably have a right to be frustrated, but as I say, it’s just a snapshot.

Dom Romeo: How do you feel about the series?

ANDREW DENTON: Really happy. In a good place, in that we’re all still working our butts off – we’re really working hard – and that’s the best place to be: it’s going well, but you’re not thinking, ‘gee, this is easy’. Every interview and every guest, we’re working to keep ourselves challenged. I know that may sound very Presbyterian or very wanky, but we’re up to show 21, we’ve got 34 to do this year, and I look around the office and everyone’s ‘head down, bum up’ and I think they’re the great times in your career, when you look back and it’s a bit of a blur, and then with some perspective you can look back and say, ‘gee, we did that, and that was pretty good’. The show is where it should be, but it’s still a battle to keep it fresh for the audience and for ourselves.

Dom Romeo: You do manage to get people to feel comfortable and be themselves. I’m thinking of both Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin. I don’t know what I was expecting from either of them, but I found myself smiling – grinning with joy – throughout both those interviews.

ANDREW DENTON: I got to say, with Hoges, that was the rarest of things: he agreed to come on and he had absolutely nothing he was trying to flog. He came on because he just enjoyed the show and he wanted to come on. He was such a pleasure to talk to. I’d never met him. I’d spoken to him once on the phone. I’m nervous before every interview, so it’s not just the guest that needs to get relaxed, it’s me too. And when a guest settles into it and it becomes a good conversation – that word again – it really is fun. Sorry I keep referring to Clinton, but that’s the most recent. I found myself ten minutes into that, in the back of my mind thinking, ‘this is really cool; this is a guy I really wanted to talk to’.

Dom Romeo: Was there any moment in that when you thought to yourself, ‘I know the other side to this story’?

ANDREW DENTON: Oh look, I reckon I’m one of the few people in the world who has that bookend: signed books by both of them. And yes, the mischievous part of me was thinking, ‘I could really drop a few things here’. I did raise Monica in the interview, but in a really limited fashion, because I just think there are far more interesting things to talk to the former President about. But yes, I was struck by the weird shape careers can take sometimes.

I must say, the day I packed to go to LA to interview Monica Lewinsky, I remember thinking ‘this could be the single weirdest moment of a career that has had some pretty weird moments’, because I was heading off to interview Monica Lewinsky for New Idea, and I was packing into my bag a Gold Logie because that was also the first year I was hosting the Logies. If anyone had said to me, at any point in my life that those three things would come together – ‘Lewinsky, Logie, New Idea’ – and me, I would have said, ‘what drugs are you on?’ It was one of those moments that was so absurd, it was delightful.

Dom Romeo: Andrew, thank you, I’ve taken up half an hour of your time. You’re a busy man…

ANDREW DENTON: That’s okay. Now, before you go, are there any other things you want to take issue with that I can respond to or are you happy to leave it as it is?

Dom Romeo: I’ll leave it as it is; although, I am a blogger and I did feel the need to blog about the episode with Rachel Griffiths – particularly on her comments about the Free Trade agreement leading to everyone on Australian television having an American accent. She appears on Australian television in the show Six Feet Under, for which she uses an American accent.

ANDREW DENTON: You weren’t the only person who made that remark. That may have been you on our website, and it was a fair call. The only thing I can say is that, in looking at Rachel’s career, I didn’t really want to talk about Six Feet Under because most Australians hadn’t seen it and that’s why it was under my radar when she was talking about Free Trade. It was just not something at very front of mind. But it was a good call.

Dom Romeo: Well, thanks for letting me take it up with you; it’s not often I get to blog about something and have a reply to add to it, so I can actually be balanced, which I like to be, too.

ANDREW DENTON: That’s a rare quality.

Dom Romeo: One other thing. Zapruder’s Other Films [Denton’s production company]. I love the name.

ANDREW DENTON: Thank you. Most people don’t get that. You’re one of the half dozen people anywhere in the world that have ever got that joke.

Dom Romeo: Do you want to talk about it or is it better not to explain the joke?

ANDREW DENTON: I’m happy to talk about it. It actually comes from an idea that I’ve never actually made. I’d like to. It was an idea for a documentary called Zapruder’s Other Films. To explain the Zapruder film – it was by Abraham Zapruder – the hand-held home movie of Kennedy’s assassination that we see every year, which was taken by the Warren Commission and referred to thereafter as ‘the Zapruder Film’.

My concept of ‘Zapruder’s Other Films’ was this mock documentary where you’re interviewing his kids, talking about his father’s career after this film, and how disappointing it had been for him that he’d had this one huge hit film and he went around the world trying to film other assassinations, hoping to relive the glory of the Kennedy one, and he never quite got there. Indira Ghandi was blown up an hour before he got there – the frustration of never quite being able to match the original Zapruder film.

Dom Romeo: That’s such a naughty idea; I like it.

ANDREW DENTON: It’s very black. But it’s lovely to me. I remember the first time anyone ever got it. I went up to Bond University on the Gold Coast to talk about the media, and the people who organised it, afterwards were going to give me my cheque. They said, ‘who will we make it out to?’ and I said, ‘Zapruder’s Other Films’ and both of them just stopped and said, ‘Aw, that is soooo cool.’ I thought, at last, I’ve found somebody that gets it.

Dom Romeo: I’ve got to commend you on some of Zapruder’s Other Films’ other films… like the Chaser stuff you’ve produced.


Dom Romeo: I look forward to the day that I can chat to you again about some of the other comedy series being released on DVD.

ANDREW DENTON: Good. I think that’s fairly soon.

Enough (Money for old) Rope(?)

Shortly after I wrote the rant that follows, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Denton and was able to put my criticisms to him directly. He accepted them with an open mind and answered them honestly, in the process making me realise just how much prejudice I was carrying. After you read this, do check out the interview.

I’m not always home in time on a Monday night to catch Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, and it’s a pity. I grew up – or failed to grow up – at just the right time to have Denton as a hero: someone who somehow fooled the powers that be to land a job that he clearly could do well, and that he clearly deserved  – the sort of job that traditionally would go to some half wit rather than the geeky, cheeky, clever, funny guy.

That show was Blah Blah Blah, and I mention it only to point out that before Denton left radio – the Breakfast shift on Triple M, which he claimed to leave because, amongst other reasons, he got sick of having to promote things like Big Brother – his advertising catchphrase seemed to be the Jewish equivalent of ‘blah blah blah’: ‘yadda yadda yadda’. The phrase came to the fore with comic overtones thanks to the likes of Seinfeld. But enough of the diversion. Back to Enough Rope.

One of the things I notice about Enough Rope when I do catch it is that it sits a little uneasily, and I’m not sure why. One of the reasons might be because it gives television commentators in newspapers reason to allow their senses to leave them long enough to make foolish generalisations like ‘finally we now have someone on par with Michael Parkinson here in Australia’. This is clearly a foolish thing to say, not because Denton isn’t ‘on par’ (which I take to mean ‘as good an interviewer’) with Michael Parkinson. Sure, Denton appears less subjective and tends to direct the interview with a slightly heavier hand, but he’s also funnier, and will pull out the comic armoury to corner his quarry when he feels it necessary. That’s pretty much ‘on par’ with Parky. But there’s no ‘finally’ about it; Denton always has been a great interviewer. Cast your mind back, if you will, to that fantastic yet sadly undervalued tonight show he had on the Seven network about a decade ago, and recall how good his interviews were.

Admittedly, those interviews were set up to be ‘events’ where the medium was also the message: when interviewing Peter Greenaway, the director responsible for such striking cinema as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and A Zed And Two Noughts, Denton chose to match the filmmaker’s style, having him brought onto the interview set between hanging slabs of meat. The proceedings were shot at weird angles, the cameras shooting between flickering candle flames. It was a hoot. Similarly, when interviewing the world’s greatest model (whoever it was that year), Denton did so while photographing her at weird angles. In a sense, Denton, as an interviewer, was coming at them from different angles. The show really subverted the expectations and the established norms of the ‘tonight’ show format. It also gave rise to the ‘musical challenge’ – itself an overhang from Denton’s sophomore show for the ABC, The Money or the Gun, on which a different band delivered ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a different style each episode.

So back to Denton’s new chat show, Enough Rope. It has few frills, and part of its thing is to include interviews with interesting people who aren’t celebrities (something he pioneered, again, on his earlier shows). Naturally, we only get to see the interesting ones – who knows how many dull ones never made it to the screen? But often they are utterly engaging, showing a side to a person or a profession that you would not expect. On the other hand, sometimes the celebrity interviews just fail to deliver. Other commentators have probably taken Denton to task for going a little easy on disgraced stockbroker Rene Rivkin. If they haven’t, heaps of ‘men on the street’ certainly have. But then, Rivkin has something that makes him special. He must have; he was featured on Australian Story recently as well. But whatever that something is, I can’t for the life of me work it out. If a poor person had benign brain cancer and was convicted for insider trading, he’d probably just go to gaol without getting on prime time television. Twice. Without his wife telling the nation that she resents him for losing her children’s inheritance. Heck. There’s probably been heaps of such poor people, and we just haven’t heard about it – because they’re poor!

Denton’s recent interview with Rachel Griffiths was mostly good, but there a few moments that, once again, sat a little uneasily. The introduction of Toni Collette in the audience was a little bit cheesy and stage-managed, not least of all because her (and Rachel’s?) publicist was sitting right next to her in the audience. Fair enough, the publicist has to be present at official functions featuring his or her clients, but that’s the thing: since the publicist was present, it was an official function. Collette didn’t ‘just happen’ to be in the audience. She wasn’t even ‘just a friend showing support’. This was a marketing opportunity. So a mutual admiration session, a back-slap-a-thon, ensued and though it was not overly long, and it was even quite touching, it was still a bit much. Thankfully, Denton was able to debase it a little with a partner-swapping gag.

I guess by this stage the glass was now half empty rather than half full, and it was a bit easier to not so much misinterpret, but interpret in less favourable light, some of Rachel Griffith’s less thoughtful comments. Admittedly, it is only through a good chat show that the interview subject will relax enough to let the unrehearsed answers slip rather than continuing to utter the glib, stock responses – but as the host didn’t pick up on them, and in some instances, set the context up for them, again, it brings about that uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right.

For instance, when Denton pointed out that Griffiths has described herself as ‘gawky’, and asked her how much the way she looked impacted upon her career in Hollywood, she replied,

I think if I looked like Charlize Theron and had my acting ability, I’d be making thirty million a year. … If I’d been offered all the Charlize Theron roles of the last ten years I probably would have just died of boredom.

I know Griffiths is saying ‘I realise I’m not universally considered to be eye-candy the way Charlize Theron is’ – which is true enough because while I wouldn’t kick Rachel Griffiths out of bed if she farted, if Charlize Theron farted, I’d try to bottle it to auction it online – but it sounds as if she’s saying ‘Charlize Theron can’t really act as good as I can but gets away with it ’cause she’s built the way she is’. And I suppose the imputation that may be extrapolated is that Charlize is none too smart either – otherwise she would have died of that boredom, what with all of those ornamental, non-draining Charlize Theron roles that Charlize Theron has had. (Look at the other side of the coin, Rachel – if you had Charlize Theron’s body, you would have had to use it to rub uglies with Geoffrey Rush in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers!)

Later, Denton gave Griffiths the opportunity to explain, ‘in layman’s terms’ why exactly the Free Trade Agreement recently signed by Australia and the United States is going to be such an awful thing for Australian arts and media. The problem is that it will mean that there will be no protection of Australian product on the telly or radio – no ‘minimum amount of local content’ quota, which will mean that what we produce locally will have to compete with what’s produced in the US, and we don’t have the same budget or experience or know-how to create the same quality, or as big a market to be able to sell it for a pittance and so compete, in our limited market place, with US-produced programs. Or at least, that’s what I think it means. In a way, though, since I don’t really have a media job, what do I care that a bunch of people will be out of work? Some of them can join me in retail, or flipping burgers, where they belong!

In layman’s terms, according to Rachel Griffiths, the problem with the Free Trade Agreement with regards to Australian culture and media, is a loss of Australia’s cultural identity. She referred to that awful, harrowing past, when, to have a media job, you had to sound like you were from the BBC. Nobody heard an Australian accent on the wireless. “Everyone spoke posh” she said, putting on those posh, crisp, BBC tones as she said it, “And there was this great shame about ourselves.” According to Rachel, in the media dystopia, the cultural nadir that will ensue should the Free Trade Agreement go ahead (and it looks as though it shall), “we could very well be looking to a future where all the voices we hear or most of the voices we hear are likely to be American voices.”

Hello! Rachel, honey, the only way we’ve heard your voice on Australian television these last few years, your appearance on Enough Rope notwithstanding, is with an American accent. You’re the freaky, gawky, grave, token Aussie chick in the cast of Six Feet Under, don’t forget. Only, you wouldn’t know it, to listen to you on that show. Where was the Aussie accent then?

Besides which, we’ve lived through the shame of having to sound English on the air, we’ll live through the shame of having to sound American, if it comes to that. Rachel certainly has.

I guess I didn’t really expect Denton to make something of those things. Not now, anyway – although he might have fifteen-odd years ago when he had big hair (a mullet, in fact) and nothing to lose. I don’t know if he has mellowed or lost a bit of his bite or is just playing it a little safer. If he is still ‘hard-hitting’, his hard hits are softer than they used to be when he was young and hungry, and the industry was still mostly in the control of a stodgier, older guard in most dire need of a shake-up. Yet even if this were the case, we can at least relax knowing that he is passing on the flame to angrier and younger angry young men.

You see, the company that makes Enough Rope is Denton’s company. It’s called Zapruder’s Other Films. (Great name, isn’t it? Abraham Zapruder’s the amateur filmmaker who captured footage of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head exploding all over his good lady wife Jacqueline that fateful day in Dallas). Amongst Zapruder’s Other Films’ other films is the show CNNN which does take issue with a lot of the stuff that an older, wiser, seasoned Andrew Denton would, on his own show, possibly let pass.

Whether you agree or disagree with the opinions I’ve expressed, there is another side of the story worth reading.

Scared Weird Little Guys

The Scared Weird Little Guys have a special position in the pantheon of musical comedy outfits. Tripod have garnered a popular following through their presence initially on Triple J (with their ‘song in an hour’ challenge and subsequent CD releases) and then on SkitHOUSE. Yet they have to contend with comparisons to other pre-existing trio-and-guitar combos – the Three Canadians, Corky and the Juice Pigs and the Doug Anthony Allstars to name but several. Then there’s the Dodge, who began as Freefall but had to change their name for copyright reasons. I recall accosting members of the Dodge, while they were still Freefall, at a Melbourne Comedy Festival some years back. “I know you must get this all the time, but you know who you guys remind me of?” I began. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” they said. “Tripod.” Which was cute. They reminded me of early Allstars. But it was nice that everyone else who would have once been comparing Tripod to the Allstars was now comparing Freefall to Tripod. Then, of course, there’s Gud – the band that are most like the Allstars, having, like the Allstars, Paul McDermott as their central character.

The Scared Weird Little Guys are the ones who get compared to others least of all, mostly because they are a duo (and partly because I can’t be bothered bringing Lano & Woodley into this introduction, even though they began as a trio, became a duo, and also dabble in music).

Beginning as half of a barbershop quartet, the Scaredies have made much of being able to utilise many musical genres. Of late, they have taken to doing their own version of a musical challenge. Whereas Tripod are given a topic and an hour to turn it into a song, the Scared Weird Little Guys take a leaf out of Andrew Denton’s book – since the ‘musical challenge’ dates back not to Denton’s Channel Seven tonight show of 1994, for which musical guests would have to render standards in their own style, but to an earlier show, The Money or the Gun, which featured ‘Stairway to Heaven’ performed in various ways by a multitude of artists. The Scared Weird Little Guys invite musical challenges of that nature: in addition writing satirical songs, sometimes to the tune of familiar songs, the Scaredies like to perform familiar songs in vary unusual genres, and invite fans to submit suggestions for such songs in a prcess referred to as ‘Stump the Scaredies’.

Thus, the Scared Weird Little Guys' new album Bits and Pieces – the excuse upon which this interview is hung – contains a bunch of satirical ditties and a sampling of Scaredy-stumpings.

Having previously interviewed the Scared Weird Little Guys, I already knew the answers to a few of the questions. But they were worth hearing again in the context of the story, rather than trying to bung ’em into an introduction – look how cumbersome this one is without them! Besides which, the answers sound even better when illustrated with soundbites.

The Scaredies have a clutch of shows coming up over the next little while, and they’re a lot of fun live. Check ’em out.

The interview went to air Saturday 15 May, an MP3 of which may be heard here.

Music: ‘Rock n Roll All Night’ in the style of a barbershop quartet – The Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: Before you became the Scared Weird Little Guys, you were both in a number of a cappella quartets. What led you both to comedy and to being in a duo? Rusty?

RUSTY BERTHER: We did start out, when we first met, in a barbershop quartet. In fact I was in this barbershop quartet for a year. It was called Four Chairs No Waiting and I was in that group for a year in Melbourne and then John auditioned and joined that group. That’s how we met. It was a bit of a ‘wacky, zany’ kind of a group, which was a lot of fun and a good thing to be doing at that time. Then we were in another five-part a cappella group called the Phones, which was a little more serious on the music side, with heavy doses of comedy, but we’d decided when we started the Scared Weird Little Guys, ‘let’s write original comedy songs’. So we kind of fell into it that way.

JOHN FLEMING: When Rusty and I met each other there was a bit of a bond that happened there, I guess. It was a business relationship but we were both into similar sort of stuff, so by the time three years had gone past, it seemed logical that we might go on to write some songs and I was playing guitar, we were both singing so we went for it.

Music: ’30 Seconds’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

There’s only thirty seconds left in this song.
If you got a stopwatch and tried to work it out
Then you’d find around now that the time remaining
Would equal twenty seconds, yeah.

Now it’s down to eighteen.

Seventeen seconds: no time to rest.
If this was an ad you’d be impressed.
If you’re in a hurry you won’t be late,
’Cause if for the end of this song you wait

There’s only four seconds left.
How long?
There’s only one second le…

Demetrius Romeo: Rusty, the name ‘The Scared Weird Little Guys’ was indirectly bestowed upon you by Al Pacino; is that correct?

RUSTY BERTHER: That is correct. It’s a line from Al Pacino’s movie called Cruisin’. He’s an undercover cop in the serious, gay world of New York at the time, and there’s murders going on. Anyway, regardless of what the film’s about, the line ‘scared, weird, little guys’ was in it, and we thought, “scared, weird, little guys; that’s a weird grouping of adjectives – with ‘guys’ at the end – let’s call our group that!” We were searching for a name at that point.

JOHN FLEMING: Yeah, that’s right. And we have a fear that maybe in New York ‘scared, weird, little guys’ means something different, so we haven’t played in New York ever.

Music: ‘Staying Alive’ in the style of a Welsh Male Choir – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces.

Demetrius Romeo: Your new album Bits and Pieces is album number three. John, tell me where the title comes from.

JOHN FLEMING: Well it’s pretty simple, really. It’s a whole collection of things from different places, all chopped up and not really contiguous, so Rusty suggested that we might call it Bits and Pieces because that’s the kind of thing that it is, so that’s what we did.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the highpoints of your live routine is where you’d do a version of Prince’s song ‘Kiss’…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in reggae style – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

Demetrius Romeo: …You did it even more distinctively by inviting various different genres…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in Indian style– the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

RUSTY BERTHER: We don’t really do the ‘Kiss’ routine anymore, but we’ve kind of morphed that idea into a thing called ‘Stump the Scaredies’: people write in and ask for a certain song to be performed in a very different style than it’s originally performed in, or even in the style of another song.

Music: ‘Born in the USA’ in the style of Austrian Tyroler music – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: I notice one of the tracks on the CD, ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’, seems to tip its backward cap at Eminem. Tell me a bit about that song.

JOHN FLEMING: Well that was a kind of ‘Stump the Scaredies’ thing again – the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, what can we do with it? We said, “let’s do it in an ‘Eminem’ style”.

Music: ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’– Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Waltzing Matilda:
She came from St Kilda,
Her middle name was Hilda
And her dad was a builder.

When he could see the steam on his tea
He said, “You’ll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!”

Waltzing Matilda

Yo, come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!

Down came a jumbuck (baaa!)
And he was dumbstruck
He jumped up…

Demetrius Romeo: There are a number of musical comedy acts on the scene at the moment. Do you see a reason for the rise of the musical comedy act?

JOHN FLEMING: Well I guess, in the most narcissistic way it’s because we’ve been around for so long, we’ve spawned a lot of acts. But seriously, we’ve observed a rise of variety act over the stand-up comic for a while, and while there’s always going to be more stand-ups than variety acts that are successful and successfully performing, there seem to be more variety acts coming up now.

Music: ‘World Leaders’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

I beg your pardon, have you forgotten
One Osama Bin Laden?
Oh behave! He didn’t shave –
He’s been hiding in a cave

The US Army couldn’t find that man
So they bombed the crap out of Afghanistan,
That crazy al-Keida Kookball
Called ‘Osama’!

Demetrius Romeo: What’s the secret of being a musical comedy act, and successful?

RUSTY BERTHER: I think, don’t take yourself too serious, number one; enjoy what you do; and I think, personally, we just try and be really good at what we’re doing.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

John: Tonight we’re going to use some of the most rare and difficult of the hand-crafted instruments: ladies and gentlemen…
John & Rusty [in unison]: The whistle-pop!

Demetrius Romeo: Scared Weird Little Guys, that you very much!


RUSTY BERTHER: Thank you Dom.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

I played out on the street.
From far around they came.
The crowd, they clapped and cheered.
I won fortune and fame.

Kath & Kim

Addendum, 2010:
Worlds Funniest Island II takes place soon (Oct 16-17). Tickets are being offered at a special price until October 4. Kath & Kim are hosting the Foxy Gala. Go on, you know you want to: buy some tickets. Now.


While attempting to Google™ ‘Gina Riley’ for a suitable biography and ‘Kath & Kim’ for a suitable synopsis to link to from the introduction to my Julie Dawn Cole interview, I realised that virtually no examples of the former really exist online (although this bio is at least a good starting point for Riley, while Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope interview with Riley and Jane Turner provides quite a full picture), and few of the examples of the latter that do exist (again, apart from Denton’s work, of course) satisfy me as much as my own attempt of the same. So, despite its short-comings (no info whatsoever of Peter Rowsthorn’s contribution to the show; no mention of Marg Downey’s saucey cameo; certainly, no biographical details of the writer/stars) I include here my interview with Jane Turner and Gina Riley. It originally appeared in FilmInk to coincide with the 2002 DVD release of the first season of Kath & Kim .

A recent criticism from a regular visitor to this blog is that I have been ‘slipping’ – updates being posted a week apart. Thus, any excuse to raid the comedy archive is a good one, particularly when it gives repeat visitors something else to read.

In addition to more information on Riley and Turner as performers, and any information whatsoever on the likes of Rowsthorn and Downey, the other thing I’d want to add to this piece is the way in which the opening sequence of Kath & Kim seems to tip its hat to those first seasons of Absolutely Fabulous: the distinct typeface of the title and the white background are so stylised that it would seem deliberate. Was someone cleverly trying to coerce the same comedy audience who loved that particular mother/daughter comedy to give this one a go? Or is there another dimension of humour at work, perhaps a class-based one, whereby the newley ‘effluent’ Aussie middle class is, as ever, taking the mickey out of the upper-middle class English mickey-takers? If so, that’d be really noiyce and un-yews-ual – as far as sitcoms go, particularly as Kath & Kim is now being enjoyed in other territories around the world.

Jane Turner and Gina Riley on Kath & Kim

The first hint came during the highly stylised opening credits, when Jane Turner bent over to look back at us from between the legs of her ridiculously billowy harem pants, while Gina Riley belted out an aptly defiant rendition of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse-penned comedy song ‘The Joker’. The exact moment followed soon after, in the very first scene of that very first episode. When Kath (Turner) turned to daughter Kim (Riley) to utter for the first time the words, “Look at moiye, Kim; look at moiye, look at moiye, look at mooooiiiiye!“ and a new catch phrase entered everyday speech, it was abundantly clear that, in addition to being a comedy lover’s wet dream, Kath & Kim would also prove to be that most elusive beast of Australian culture: the funny sitcom. Jane and Gina, creators, writers and stars of Kath & Kim, have much to be proud of.

“That’s good to hear,” Jane acknowledges appreciatively. In the process of getting the show up, she says, “a lot of crap went down”. Criticisms included the apparent lack of “emotional arc”, ensuring characters “don’t learn” and “don’t change”. Gina concurs: “nobody thought that the show was going to work.” After eighteen months writing the series, it took a further two years to convince the ABC to start shooting it. But Jane and Gina stuck to their guns, concentrating on “what we think is funny and what we think is right.” With their keen eye for detail they got it absolutely right: the misadventures of the would-be “empty nester” and her “hornbag” daughter is a cack.

However, if the characters fail to show sufficient development throughout the course of Kath & Kim’s eight episodes, it is because their characterisations come to the show fully formed. Gina agrees that, in many ways, Kath & Kim is an extension of Dumb Street, the piss-take of Aussie soaps that she and Jane used to do on Fast Forward. Furthermore, Jane has a history of ditzy comedic blonde characters under her belt – or rather, in her handbag – since, Jane admits, virtually every one of her characters has had as a prop “the same sort of white, quilted handbag with gold chain.” The handbag has been passed onto Kath, the latest in a long line of “daggy housewives” Jane has been playing since her Fast Forward days. And Glenn Robbins, who plays Kim’s “hunk of spunk” boyfriend Kel Knight, often portrayed a similarly daggy bloke opposite her. “We’ve had each other’s numbers for a while as those characters,” Jane says. Indeed, it was on a sketch-comedy show that appeared in 1995, entitled Big Girl’s Blouse, that Kath and Kim were born – in a hen’s night scene, as it happens. “Jane naturally fell into the Kath character,” Gina reports, “and I naturally fell into the Kim character, and that was it; we were off and running.”

Initially, the mockumentary voice-overs and the housing estate setting of Kath & Kim – harking back to Sylvania Waters – clearly marked middle Australia as the butt of the joke. Hence a mixed response from the critics – ‘elitist’ Sydney Morning Herald gave it the thumbs up but ‘populist’ Daily Telegraph had to withhold approval until the realisation sunk in that it’s own readership also had a sense of humour. According to Gina, “the response was the opposite in Melbourne.” However, while journalists largely misinterpreted where exactly she and Jane were coming from, the audience “cottoned on” pretty quickly that they “were taking the mickey out of ourselves as much as anyone else”. Jane adds that, having no pride, she and Gina were shameless. “We pulled out our warts and our carbuncles and our monobrows and our love handles; we dredged up our own lives.”

Although the DVD release of Kath & Kim fails to include commentary or a ‘making of’, it does provide an additional hour of material. Takes in which the actors crack each other up (Jane mostly blames Magda Szubanski, who plays Kim’s “second-best friend” Sharon: “it was very hard to maintain order with naughty girls like her around”), more mockumentary sequences and ‘wine time’ ruminations and even Sharon’s handy cam footage of Kim’s own “connubials”, initially deemed superfluous to the finished product, were far too funny to lose outright. The real question, now that Jane and Gina have raised the bar so high, is “where to next?” Not giving anything away, Jane says, “because the relationships are set, we can take them anywhere and do anything with them. We just want to keep it as real as possible.”