Garry McDonald on Norman Gunston, Mother & Son and Comedy
Sunday, June 13, 2004
One of my favourite Aussie television moments involves Norman Gunston providing on-the-spot reports from a Logie Awards presentation from the late 80s. Child actor Rebecca Smart had appeared with Bryan Brown in the miniseries The Shiralee in 1989, and she was up for the âBest Actress in a Mini Seriesâ Logie. As she trod the red carpet upon arrival, Gunston stopped her to ask her to show us how sheâd cry if she didnât win the Logie sheâd been nominated for. Then he enquired, âand if you donât win, will you say that the girl who did win went âbye-byesâ with the judges?â She was about twelve years old at the time. Pretty funny stuff.
If youâre too young to know who Norman Gunston is, the best way to describe him is as the Australian pre-curser to Ali G. He basically played the fool, in order to disarm his interview subjects, taking the mickey out of himself in order to take the mickey out of them. Great examples of his work includes Muhammad Ali threatening to pulverise him, Warren Beatty not sure whether to be amused or offended when Norman asks him whether or not Carlie Simon did indeed write the song âThe Impossible Dreamâ about him, and Paul and Linda McCartney taking it in their stride when Gunston points out to Paul that his Missus doesnât look in the least bit Oriental.
The Norman Gunston character first appeared on a legendary Australian comedy show, The Aunty Jack Show, which featured Grahame Bond as Aunty Jack. âSheâ wore a dress, glasses, a big moustache and boxing gloves, and she rode a motorcycle. In addition to playing a character called âKid Eagerâ, Garry McDonald was Norman Gunston, a âroving reporterâ who presented a show called Whatâs On In Wollongong on local television. Some bright spark recognised the potential in this character, and he was offered a tonight show of his own on ABC television in the mid-70s (at a time, it turns out, when John Laws was one of the people considered to host such a show!) Somewhere along the line, he was christened with the sobriquet âThe Little Aussie Bleederâ. The name borrows from the term âlittle Aussie battlerâ â used to describe any good bloke who, in the face of adversity, keeps his wits about him and does a good job without dropping his bundle or whinging or whining (watch any classic Australian cinema or recent filmed comedy and see that, traditionally, the Australian spirit is built as a result of being beaten physically and figuratively by the great powers that be, be they the government, other countries, the unforgiving land, or multinatural corporations) â and âbleederâ, an insult that seems to originate with haemophiliacs, but is applied to Gunston as a result of his shaving nicks.
Sadly, the Norman Gunston character was put to bed after an aborted âcome back seriesâ in 1993. Suffering, at the time, from anxiety disorder, McDonald didnât have the opportunity to hit his stride with the character again. However, between his own show in the mid-70s, and his aborted show in the early 90s, Norman Gunston became an Aussie television institution, doing what he did best â mickey-taking interviews and reports â on various occasions and for various shows. I remember him telling Gene Simmons, of band KISS that, at seven inches, he didnât have the longest tongue; Norman had a relative with a bizarre disorder of the skin of his under-arms, and part of the treatment was having to keep them moist with his own saliva. As a result, this relativeâs tongue had stretched to eleven inches. And interviewing Boy George of Culture Club, Gunston pointed out that he had an uncommon first name; the only other place heâd ever heard of anyone being called âBoyâ was in Tarzan films. Mr George took this with customary lack of humour.
The remarkable thing about Norman Gunston and his 1993 demise is that, by that stage, Garry McDonald had already made another of his screen characters popular amongst comedy lovers. Acting opposite Ruth Cracknell in a brilliant sitcom entitled Mother & Son, McDonald played Arthur Beare, a beleaguered and wimpy, divorced son living under the thumb of his exploitative mother. Written by Geoffrey Atherden and directed by Geoff Portmann, Mother & Son enjoyed six seasons over ten years and was winning awards up to its final season in 1994. Garry McDonald had effectively provided two of the most enduring comic characters of Australian television.
The following interview was conducted in honour of the fact that both The Gunston Tapes â a âbest ofâ compilation of the original Norman Gunston Show featuring brilliantly ridiculous interviews and a few sketches that havenât quite aged as well â and the first season ofMother & Son are being released on DVD. I figure that Iâd be one of the few people who would be able to furnish such an interview with excerpts from the Aunty Jack album, not to mention FZ:OZ, the live Zappa album (recorded in 1975 and released in 2002) that Norman Gunston guested on. When I made reference to the latter, Garry McDonald was a little bit embarrassed; during the course of his live cameo on stage at the Hordern Pavilion with Zappa and his band, Gunston perpetrated a politically incorrect gag that, nearly thirty years down the track, is most cringe-worthy. Donât get hung up about it. Get off on the fine harmonica playing instead.
The interview was broadcast Saturday 5 June 2004. You can hear a podcast version of it here.
Soundbite: âNorman Gunstonâs 2nd Dreamâ â from The Auntyology (1972-1985), bonus disc accompanying the 1995 re-release of the Aunty Jack Sings Wollongong album on CD.
Met a man with a big cigar.
Said, âCome on, Mr Gunston,
Gonna make you a celebrity,â
Went into town on the 412 bus
And got the job.
So I went back home and
Made some toast and ate it.
I got the star-struck showbiz
Light the lights, hit the heights
Whatâs On In Wollongong blues.
Demetrius Romeo: Garry, the Norman Gunston character originated on the Aunty Jack Show in the early 70s. How did he come into being?
GARRY McDONALD: When I was about 13 I think, I went to see a documentary that was a big hit called Mondo Cane, and there was a segment in it that struck me as terribly funny, was where they went back to Rudolph Valentinoâs hom town: all the young men in the town hoped that they were going to be kind of âdiscoveredâ. They all became like Elvis: they all dressed like him and slicked their hair backâ¦ There was one guy they panned across, and he was like Norman Gunston â he had this extraordinary lower jaw, and he just looked terribly amusing, and that developed then with a school friend. Whenever we wanted to make fun of something we would slip into that character with the shot jaw.
And so when I did a tour with David Frost â I was doing some sketches with him â we had a run-in with an an air hostess and she actually had this lower protruding mandible. She gave David Frost a really hard time on this flight. So when the Aunty Jack Show was offered to me there was a character in it that didnât have a name, and he used to do reports from Wollongong. I thought it would be very funny if I did him like this character that Iâd always done and I would name him with the same name as this woman, just as an in-joke. I bumped into her many years later on a plane and she came up to me and she said, âyou know a lot of people say that that characterâs based on meâ¦â. I mean, the name was so close.
Soundbite: âWollongong the Braveâ â from theAunty Jack Sings Wollongong album.
Oh, Wollongong the Brave!
Lift up your hand
To an Illawarra land,
Of Dapto, Port Kembula and thee
What should I say?
Should I just say âGâday?â
Wollongong the Brave!
Demetrius Romeo: How did Norman Gunston graduate from being a reporter in Wollongong to having his own tonight show?
GARRY McDONALD: Norman had worked â this is really politically incorrect nowadays â but he worked for a television station called WOG4; he had a current affairs program on it called What Did You Do Today? and that was shot from his living room, and one of the guests he had on it was woman that heâd met on the bus â things like that. So apparently John OâGrady, who was working at the ABC at the time, saw that and thought you could do a whole talk show around this character. At the time they were talking about having their own tonight show and OâGrady pushed for this Norman Gunston character and the idea then was that I'd be the only fictional thing in it; everything else would be real. We wouldnât script anything else. Iâd know what I was going to say and hopefully Iâd know what I was going to answer to people.
Demetrius Romeo: Did you have to script two lots of responses, depending on which way the interviewee went after you asked them a question?
GARRY McDONALD: Not really, no.
Demetrius Romeo: So in some ways you were just winging it a lot of the time.
GARRY McDONALD: If the interview was going well, you could ad lib; there was no problem there. But if it wasnât going well, you kind of had to stick to what youâd worked out.
Demetrius Romeo: Iâm just amazed at things like Keith Moon losing it and tipping a drink on you.
GARRY McDONALD: Oh, yes.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you prepare yourself for such a potentialâ¦
GARRY McDONALD: Well I didnât know that was going to happen. I had been told by the BBC producer that we had then, that heâd lined him up and heâd agreed to do it, so I thought, âfineâ. Well he just came out of that car firing. I mean, I couldnât open my eyes â that was half a bottle of vodka that he poured all over me. It was pretty dangerous, really, but he was a mad man. And of course, the other thing is that youâre always thinking, I canât lose this bit of footage. Youâre desperate not to lose it.
You know, when I did Sally Struthers, I really thought that interview wsas a disaster. She couldnât stop laughing.
Soundbite: Interview with Sally Struthers (star of the 70s sitcom All in the Family) â from the DVD The Gunston Tapes
Sally Struthers: I'm sorry, I don't want to embarrass you, but you ought to use an electric razor.
Norman Gunston: Yeahâ¦ I do!
Sally Struthers proceeds to wet herself.
GARRY McDONALD: When John cut it together to put it to air, I looked at it and said, âyou canât put that to air, thatâs self-indulgentâ. He said, âwhat are you talking about, itâs greatâ, and I said, âno itâs not, itâs awfulâ, and of course itâs one of our most famous interviews.
Demetrius Romeo: Another person you clicked with was Frank Zappa. You even got up on stage with him on the â76 Australian tour.
Soundbite: âThe Torture Never Stopsâ â from the Frank Zappa album FZ:OZ
Frank Zappa:: Ladies and gentlemen, Norman âBlind Lemonâ Gunston â the Little Aussie Bleeder!
Instrumental break ensues, featuring Norman Gunstonâs harmonica solo.
GARRY McDONALD: I was young and thought, âwhat does he want me here for?â He actually said to me, âI donât want you to do any jokes, I just want you to play.â At the time I was thinking he wanted me there just to give it a bit of local colour â but I didnât think too much about the playing. Things like that wash over me â itâs really interesting.
Soundbite: âThe Torture Never Stopsâ â from the Frank Zappa album FZ:OZ
Instrumental break continues, featuring Norman Gunstonâs harmonica solo.
Demetrius Romeo: When I watch Mother & Son, Iâm just struck by how strong the characterisations are; the writingâs strong, but the acting also is very strong.
GARRY McDONALD: Yeah, itâs interesting â I did a filmâ¦ which Iâd like to forget; Iâve done many that Iâd like to forget! But I did a film with Pamela Stephenson, and sheâd just seen Mother & Son and she said to me, âvery good actingâ. But what I find interesting with comedy, what a lot of people donât realise, is that you do need to have a good comedy director and there arenât a lot of comedy directors. I mean, comedy is a very specialised field, and there are not too many people who know how to direct it. Geoff Portmann â Mother & Son was like his baby. Atherdenâs scripts were great, but Portmann just held the style together. When we ever did anything that was just funny for no reason, he wouldnât allow it. Everything had to come out of the situation and the characters. And for me, it was a bit of a stretch, because I had only ever done Norman Gunston. I had never done a sitcom. I was playing it a bit broadly at first, I was thinking you had to signal a bit. And Portmann would just stand there looking at me with a dreadful look on his face all the time, and Iâd go, âwhat? What?â and heâd go, âyouâre mugging!â
Soundbite: Excerpt from âThe Funeralâ episode of Mother & Son, from the Mother & Son DVD.
Liz (Judy Morris): People donât just die like that.
Arthur (Garry McDonald): What do they do, Liz? Make an announcement?
Liz: Weâve just been to a funeral.
Arthur: Oh, you think he should have died there and saved us a second trip?
Liz: People donât just come home from a funeral and keel over in someone elseâs living room.
Arthur: Maybe Uncle Tom doesnât know that.
Liz: Well he should!
GARRY McDONALD: Thatâs the problem: a lot of drama actors think that you approach comedy like you approach drama, and you donât.
Demetrius Romeo: Whatâs the major difference?
GARRY McDONALD: Itâs got to seem natural, but itâs not. But it has to seem natural. Itâsheightened. But it has to seem natural. It has much more energy than drama. It moves at a brisker pace but itâs also more energetic. And it has the ability to turn on an emotional sixpence, which is very funny. But also, itâs all driven by the subtext, but you must never play the subtext. Once you play the subtext, itâs not funny, and thatâs actually soap opera acting. Itâs the subtext that drives it, but you musnât show the subtext. Itâs the duplicity thatâs funny.
Soundbite: Excerpt from âThe Promotionâ episode of Mother & Son, from the Mother & Son DVD.
Arthur: I donât understand, Mum. Why did you keep telling me to go?
Maggie (Ruth Cracknell): Because I didnât want to be in the way, and because Iâm your mother, and because I didnât think for one minute that you would go.
Arthur: Oh, mum!
Maggie: I did the right thing, Arthur, I told you to go. Why couldnât you do the right thing and say ânoâ? The sad part is, I thought I could trust you.
Demetrius Romeo: Both Mother & Son and Norman Gunston came to an end around the same time in the early 90s; do you miss either of the characters?
GARRY McDONALD: I guess I miss Mother & Son. Oh! I miss Ruth. But I donât miss doing Norman.
Demetrius Romeo: Are you glad that you did them?
GARRY McDONALD: Oh, God yeah! I mean, I really look on the Mother & Son period as the best training ground. That was the best training ground.
Demetrius Romeo: Garry McDonald, thank you very much.
GARRY McDONALD: Pleasure!
Soundbite: Norman Gunston on harmonica jamming with Frank Zappa on guitar, from the end of Norman Gunstonâs interview with Frank Zappa on The Gunston Tapes.
And here is the version of the interview written as narrative, for FilmInk. Obviously, thereâll be a witty title and hopefully a much stronger opening paragraph by the time it sees publication!
The rise of Norman Gunston is incredible. This legendary comic character of Aussie television, created and played by actor Garry McDonald, first appeared on the Aunty Jack Show in the early 70s. However, Garry says, the character first came into being after he saw the documentary Mondo Cane as a school kid.
âThere was a segment where they went back to Rudolph Valentinoâs home town. All the young men in the town hoped they were going to be discovered, so they dressed like Elvis and slicked their hair back.â One Elvis-wannabe stood out in particular. âHe had this extraordinary lower jaw and he looked terribly amusing. That developed with a school friend: whenever we wanted to make fun of something, we would slip into that character with the shot jaw.â
When he was offered the role on the Aunty Jack Show, Garry relates, he created a character like the guy in the documentary, but crossed him with a stern stewardess â who had a similar âprotruding mandibleâ â whom he had encountered while on tour with David Frost. Her name was the inspiration for âNorman Gunstonâ.
On Aunty Jack, Gunston presented the âWhatâs On In Wollongongâ segment. A subsequent one-off special had him hosting a current affairs program, âWhat Did You Do Today?â featuring guests heâd met that afternoon on the bus. It was on the strength of such work that, when the ABC wanted to launch a new âtonight showâ in 1975, visionary John OâGrady pushed for the Norman Gunston character as host. âThe idea then was that I would be the only fictional thing in it; everything else would be real,â Garry explains.
Norman Gunston delivered fantastic interviews, playing the innocent fool to disarm his interview subjects. The stars mostly played along â once theyâd recovered from their initial bemusement. The notorious exception â despite assurances to the contrary â was The Whoâs demon drummer Keith Moon, who abused Gunston and poured a drink over him. Aware that he couldnât afford to lose the footage, the best McDonald could do was play along. âIâd been told by a BBC producer that Moon agreed to do the interview. But he just came out of that car firing. I mean, I couldnât open my eyes; that was half a bottle of vodka that heâd poured all over me. It was pretty dangerousâ.
Surprisingly, the most enduring clip from the âNorman Gunston Showâ â the interview with âAll In The Familyâ star Sally Struthers â would have been canned if McDonald had had his way. âI thought that interview was a disaster,â he confesses. âI looked at it and said, âwe canât put that to air, itâs self-indulgentâ. Of course itâs one of our most famous interviews.â
In addition to Norman Gunston, Garry McDonald is responsible for another enduring and endearing character of Aussie comedy, Arthur Beare, who appeared opposite Ruth Cracknellâs Maggie Beare in Mother & Son. Running for ten years, Mother & Sun won awards right up until the end. McDonald puts this down to Geoff Portmanâs directing. âGeoffrey Atherdenâs scripts were great,â he says, âbut Portman held the style together. If anyone did anything that was funny for no reason, he wouldnât allow it. Everything had to come out of the situation and the characters.â
According to Garry McDonald, the role of Arthur in Mother & Son required âa bit of a stretchâ because heâd never been in a sitcom before. âI was playing it a bit broadly at first,â he recalls. âPortman would just stand there looking at me with a dreadful look on his face, and Iâd go, âWhat? What?â and heâd go, âYouâre mugging!â He kept doing that until I stopped.â McDonald found Mother & Son to be a âgreat school of comedyâ that taught him much about the art.
âA lot of drama actors think that you approach comedy like you approach drama,â Garry explains. âYou donât. Itâs got to seem natural, but itâs not. Itâs heightened. It has much more energy than drama. It moves at a brisker pace but itâs more energetic. It has the ability to turn on an emotional sixpence, which is very funny. But also, itâs driven by the subtext, but you must never play the subtext. Itâs the duplicity thatâs funny.â
While the Norman Gunston character was retired 1993, in part on account of McDonaldâs anxiety disorder, Mother & Son ended its sixth and final season in 1994. Garry McDonald doesnât miss either role â although, he admits, he does miss Ruth Cracknell. And he is grateful for having been able to play both characters, particularly Arthur Beare. âI really look on the Mother & Son period as the best training ground,â he says. âThat was the best training ground.â
The Gunston Tapes and Volume One of Mother & Son are available from Village Roadshow