Just Another Misfit:
Cam Knight gets back on the horse

Cam Knight Misfit

If you were a comedy lover digging the local scene around five years ago, give-or-take, you know Cam Knight very well – and, in addition, virtually every other Aussie stand-up gigging during that period – because of the time Cam spent fronting Stand Up Australia for the Comedy Channel. “That’s where just about everyone in Australia got a good show reel!” Cam insists, because there were 120-odd hour-long episodes, each featuring four comedians. But stand-up is not all that Cam’s known for: he’s also an actor. Which is why, on the eve of the taping of his first comedy DVD at Sydney’s original Comedy Store, it’s worth asking Cam which came first – the acting or the comedy?

“I was always the smart-arse in class,” Cam says, “but I guess you could say the acting came first because I was studying acting before I got into comedy.” Yeah, but only just, it turns out. Still, the comedy was kind of inevitable, since the young Cam was “always drawn to it” – his parents buying him a copy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian on video when he was 12. “They were pretty much setting me up for comedy,” he reckons. They must have had a sense of humour; they gave their 12-year-old the most Christianity-lambasting of absurdist satires – before going on to send Cam to a Lutheran boarding school for his high school education. But more of that later…

Cam went straight into acting classes after school, and that’s when the comedy bug bit. One of his classmates, Dave Williams, was already doing comedy, and Dave’s ‘boss’, Dave Flanagan – from Adelaide’s Comix Comedy Cellar – went to see a first year play both Dave and Cam were in, after which, Cam says, “he offered us all jobs”. Although it was mostly ‘pre-show entertainment’ – “while people were eating their meals, you do some sort of cabaret bullshit; I played a chef who thought he was Elvis and sang Elvis songs!” – Cam and Dave were soon doing improv. But it wasn’t until they’d relocated to Melbourne that Cam did actual stand-up comedy. “Dave booked a gig behind my back and said, ‘You’ve got to go do some stand-up now’. We walked to the gig that night and I did it, and that was it: it just sort of stuck.”



Stand-Up Australia

You wouldn’t guess, from so casual start to his career, that Cam would host such a seminal show as Stand-Up Australia. But he did. And it was seminal – people you wouldn’t expect to have any knowledge of bona fide gigging comedians got to see them in action. How it all happened was, Cam auditioned for the hosting role of a Fox 8 show called Chain Reaction, and got it. “After I shot that, I went home and didn’t think anything of it,” he says.

But three months later Cam was offered another hosting gig, this time for a Comedy Channel ‘gong show’ called We’ll Call You. “Of course: I’m young and I’m broke, so I say yes. It’s a ‘gong show’, so it’s not an amazing piece of work… but it’s work! So I went and did that.”

And then Cam was offered fulltime employment at the Comedy Channel, “because apparently they liked what I did”. This led to further hosting duties, including taking over from Adam Spencer for the second season of Hit & Run, in which comedians were inserted into ‘fish-out-of-water’ situations and made to write material about it.

“Then,” says Cam, “I just got told, ‘we want to do a stand-up show, it’s gonna be called Stand-Up Australia, it’ll be on five nights a week and you’ll front it’. I was like, ‘Okay’ and that was it. That’s how it came about.”

Suddenly comics had an ideal opportunity to showcase their work, and while it was “a good platform for a lot of people”, it was hard work for Cam: he was a relatively new comic still finding his voice, having to come up a heap of new material on a regular basis. “I got Dave to help write for me most of the time,” Cam says. “There were a couple of other helpers: Michael Chamberlin and Sam Bowring helped me, and I think Fox Klein submitted some stuff. But we had to write 8 to 10 minutes of material a week and we weren’t getting to test it out anywhere. So if it failed, it really failed cos it went to air.”

Most comics take a few years to ‘find their voice’, but get to do it more-or-less anonymously, on the open mic stand-up circuit. You only start seeing them on the telly when they’re good enough to be considered worthy of that opportunity. (And, let’s face it, Cam’s employers knew Cam was worthy – even if his peers and detractors felt otherwise.) However, rather than his lesser gigs being seen by a mere handful of people in the back room of a pub, Cam had to do it in front of a dedicated viewership. This baptism of fire was, for Cam, as stressful as it was exciting: “I was very young. I’m still cutting my teeth and finding out what I want to do, which way I want to go, what I want to say, and we were just sitting down and going, ‘right… what’s funny?’ By the end of it, you don’t know anymore.”

Having to create so much material produced “a good work ethic”, but, Cam reckons, it didn’t necessarily make him a better comedian. “It made me self-conscious for a long time. I felt like I had more to prove,” he says. “What made me a better comedian was when I left the Comedy Channel and forced myself to work and gig my arse off.”

Although, I reckon a well-paying gig early on makes having to fail publicly a better proposition. Doesn’t it?

“It’s kind of nice to have that security – but it’s still humiliating when you’re out there,” Cam says. “You do kind of cop it. You go out and people come up to you and go, ‘you suck!’ You don’t want to suck. You want to go out and you want to get better. And just because I’ve made a lot of money doesn’t make that go away. It doesn’t make anybody’s opinion change; it might actually make it worse.”

Indeed, Cam argues, the money doesn’t make you good; if anything, it probably makes you worse. “You need to actually need it. You need to crave it and you need to want to get better and challenge yourself. Money can sometimes make you complacent.”

If complacency was ever a threat, it was a while ago: Cam’s challenged himself. Constantly. As well you’d know, if you’ve seen him live over the last five years. He’s just kept getting better and better. All the hard work has paid off. So much so that it’s hard to believe that, save for Just Another Misfit – the hilarious show he did at Sydney this year – it’s been so long since Cam’s taken a show to any of the country’s comedy festivals. But it’s all down to timing, he says.

“It just didn’t work out this year. I was all set to go to Melbourne and Adelaide but I just had a bad feeling; my wife and I were trying to have a kid, I’d travelled so much last year… I probably should have hit Melbourne and smashed that out, but it just didn’t sit right. I felt like I should stay here with my wife and respect what she wanted”.

It’s hard to fault a relatively new husband – who’s had a successful career thus far – choosing to put his family first. But at this point, I’ve got to – sheepishly – ask an obvious question or two. And here are the answers: no, they didn’t have a baby. But it’s not a ‘touchy’ subject, or a sad story.

“It’s fine,” Cam says. “It’s just annoying. I wish I could say ‘yes’.”

Oh, but, Cam, here’s the perfect scheme: you want a kid? I can guarantee you’ll have one. Here’s how: start planning next year’s festival circuit. Once you’ve locked in firm seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, you and your missus will almost certainly be expecting. And it’s July now – the baby will be due just in time for you to have to cancel all those festival seasons again.

“Yeah, you’re absolutely right,” Cam laughs. “I will. I’ll do that. I need to do it again. But the timing has to be right.”

Truth is, Cam’s pretty much ready to go:

“I’ve just been working really hard, even with the old stuff, making those routines stretch out into bigger pieces. I don’t just do ‘joke’ jokes; I’m quite physical, I move around a lot. There’s going to be a lot more improvisation that’s gonna make them bigger…”

Yes, that’s all part of what marks Cam Knight as being at the top of his game. And again, it reminds me of some of the cr*p he would have had to face early on. Along with the ‘successful too early’ resentments of a seemingly less proficient comic landing an awesome gig, there’s the intolerance of the ‘actor doing comedy’ that seems to divide open mic-ers in particular. Which is a cute irony that – should the comic persevere as Cam has – results in a nice poetic justice: the acting that appears to be a handicap to a comic early on makes them so much better down the track when they are so adept at ‘showing us’ rather than merely ‘telling us’ the joke.

“I find that taboo so hypocritical,” Cam agrees. “You’re not allowed to be an actor going into being a comedian, but you can be any other profession, and it doesn’t matter. You can be a lawyer, right – a f*cking lawyer! – and turn into a comedian. But an actor? No way!”

The taboo seems virtually non-existent in the United States, Cam rightfully points out. All the good comics head towards sitcom and feature film, remember? “They want you to be a triple threat. They want you to be good. They want you to be talented. They wanna work with you. They want to find someone who can do all those things…”


  Knight Rider

Knight Rider

Rest assured, Cam Knight does other things apart from comedy and acting. You may be aware that he pedaled 1600km from Brisbane to Cairns in 10 days, a little while back, with Tour de Cure, helping raise a million dollars for cancer research in the process.

“I did that very close to leaving the Comedy Channel,” Cam says. “I wanted to do something that made me feel good. I wanted to put my money into something else that wasn’t for me. My mum had breast cancer and I just felt like that was something that I needed to do and get out of my system.”

Again, I ask the delicate question. Cam’s mum’s fine. “She’s a survivor!” he says. She beat breast cancer back when he was in high school. Boarding. At a strict Lutheran school. And again, more of that later; back to the bike ride…

“I had very little training before we went into it,” Cam says. “I guess I was trying to train; I gave up smoking about four months before I started training, so I wasn’t very good at it…”

Although the Tour de Cure continues to take place annually, Cam has not been involved in subsequent rides. “I just wised up after the first one and went, ‘I don’t think I could do it ever, ever again’,” he says. He kept his bike, but has ridden it all of twice since then. “I jog. I just can’t get on the bike anymore. I’ve put it in the shed now, cos it just kept looking at me, making me feel guilty.” One day he’ll do something “of a similar ilk” in terms of the personal challenge, for charity, he says. But it’s not likely to involve cycling!

So back to Cam’s mum: she was diagnosed with breast cancer when Cam was 14 and away at boarding school. “I thought my mum was gonna die and I just wanted to go home,” Cam says. “So I got expelled from boarding school. On her birthday. While she was going through chemo…”

That’s quite noble, acting up to get expelled in order to be home with his mum during her illness. But Cam corrects me: he didn’t actually decide, “right, I’ve got to get booted out of here’; rather, it happened subconsciously. “When I look back on it now, I think ‘you misbehaved a lot, mate!’ I think I was just worried that my mum was gonna die.”

There was a lot of misbehaviour and Cam used to get into a lot of fights, but the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’, Cam explains, isn’t actually that bad. Well, not nearly as bad as the stories that made it back from the school to his home town fast than he did.

“The rumour was, I threw a chair at a teacher and it went through a second storey window, crashing through the windshield of another teachers’ car below. Which sounds awesome, and Breakfast Clubesque, right?”

What really happened was, after dinner one evening, all the boarders had to return to the school block to do homework and study, as they did every evening. “There was a guy giving me a whole bunch of sh*t, and I just screamed at him to f*ck off, and went ape sh*t at him. But I didn’t realise there was a Parents & Friends meeting going on in the AV Room and I was pretty much right outside it. So the principal was there and all the Lutheran mums and dads were there and they were like, ‘that’s not very good Lutheran behaviour’ and blah blah blah.”

Though not officially ‘expelled’ as such, Cam’s dad was called and recommended that he pull Cam out of the school. They won’t have to put ‘expulsion’ down on his official school record, but he still got kicked out.

“Doesn’t sound too hardcore. I wish I threw a chair at the teacher. It would have been so much cooler!”

True. You know what would also be cool? Cam Knight doing a festival show around Australia next year. Does he reckon it’ll happen?

“I don’t know mate. I’d love to say yes, but I just don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. I need to make a decision about it really soon.”


Certified male

Certified Male

One of the deciding factors is the current season of the stage play Certified Male, which Cam’s about to be appearing in. Glynn Nicholas, who created the show, did it years ago with Pete Rowsthorn. This time round, Cam’s in it with Mike McLeish, Dave Callan (the beardless, Sydney-living Dave Callan who excels at improv, as opposed to ‘hairy’ Dave Callan, from Melbourne) and, in some cities, Glynn Nicholas himself. In other cities, Glynn will be replaced by Barry Crocker. So next year’s festivals won’t even be a consideration until Certified Male is over.

Meanwhile, Cam’s set to record his current show, Just Another Misfit – which he describes as his “favourite” – at the Comedy Store. “I feel it’s the tightest. I feel like it’s a good, solid hour, and this is the one I want to record.” Cam’s taken time developing the material, and been very careful about ensuring nothing from it is already up on youtube. “I’ve made a conscious decision not to put any clips up,” he says. “I wanted to wait. I’m a big guy about biding my time for some reason.”

For some reason? I’ll tell you the reason you’ve made a point of not having stand-up footage out there, Cam Knight: because you got some big breaks before you were quite ready for them; you jumped in a little fresh, copped more criticism than you deserved, and you are cautious never to be in that position ever again.

“You’re absolutely right, I jumped in fresh and I’m very conscious about what’s out there. But I feel very good about this show, and we’re gonna shoot it. Hopefully we’ll have a full house on Saturday night and it’ll look great.”

Mickey DVD


It’s official. Mickey D is shooting a DVD. Be in the audience if you can. In case you’re reading this on your phone and can’t see the excellent graphic, the shoot is taking place 8pm Jan 11th 2011 at the Arkaba Hotel, 150 Glen Osmond Rd, Fullarton, South Austral.

There’s more info on Mickey D’s website, www.mickeydcomedy.com.

Meanwhile, feel free to read my interview with Mickey.

Now’s the Time

Continuing the project to dig up and re-publish the older interviews, here’s another one with Mr Ross Noble.

That strange Sunday catch-up with Ross Noble all those years ago began with a discussion of comedians we liked, before we actually tucked into the interview proper. At the time, I’d yet to secure a copy of Richard Pryor’s Pryor Convictions (and still have yet to do so). Ross owned a copy, he told me, in addition to many other books and videos fans of comedy would love.

“The comedy shelf’s this deep,” he said, demonstrating with palms facing each other, a considerable distance apart, “about this tall,” jumping into the air to give me an indication, “and from about here” – indicating a starting point in front of him, before taking a number of big strides – “to here”. We agreed that, should I ever get it together to head to, say, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I would get in touch with Ross first, and pop in on my way.

Of course, by the time I finally got to the Edinburgh Fringe – only a few years later – there was no way someone like me was gonna casually pop in on someone like Ross. Not that I didn’t try, mind. Just that colleagues – of his, not of mine; fellow stand-up comics – who’d have his contact details weren’t about to hand it over. So I knew Ross Noble had well and truly hit the big time… but I wasn’t sure to what degree. That is, until I actually stepped off the train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh and tried to hail my first minicab in that city. It bore an advertisement for Ross’s show that year – Unrealtime. (I apologise for the poor photo, below – and not taking the time to secure a better one.)

I certainly had an unreal time seeing the show and interviewing Ross afterwards in one of those chain coffee shops that had colonised the US and UK before they’d made inroads into this country (I’ll locate that minidisk and transcribe it – at the time, the sound recording was meant for ABC NewsRadio but my association with that station had ended before Ross returned to Australia and I could exploit the ‘exclusive’).

I was given the opportunity to talk to Ross again, for FilmInk magazine, for the Australian release of Unrealtime on DVD – which must have been some time towards the end of 2005. I used a fair whack of the interview – not represented below – for an episode of Radio Ha Ha later on, and I’ll deal with the transcript of that some other time. For now, enjoy this. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called when it was published in FilmInk.


According to fellow comic Wil Anderson, just as filmmakers nowadays learn to make films by listening to directors’ commentary on DVDs, comedians will learn to do comedy by listening to Ross Noble’s commentary on his new Unrealtime DVD. Or at least, they would if they could get their hands on it; until recently, you could only get it from the UK or through Ross Noble’s website. Although the comic was launching it in person in selected HMV stores in the UK last October, it’s taken some seven months to make it to Australia.

“It was supposed to come out at the same time in Australia,” Ross Noble insists from his Melbourne home (having ‘settled down’ with a local lass, he has spent the last little while touring and living out here) “but unfortunately – what’s the best way of putting it? – the people responsible for actually physically getting it into the shops didn’t realise that Australia was such a long way away and it might take a bit longer to get it. It was the same in Ireland as well: there’s so much stuff on the actual thing itself that to get it certificated and produced and whatever else just took a bit longer than was anticipated, i.e. seven months.”

Now, the thing about Ross Noble’s comedy is that it’s never set in stone. Having first been a street performer who juggled and rode a unicycle, when he first took to the stage as a stand-up comic, the jokes were still the fillers between the tricks. But because this took place in the northern town of Newcastle, England, where comics were a lot thinner on the ground and the London variety proved too expensive to ship up, Noble got a lot of flying time as a stand-up comic. He’d MC a lot. When he finally started to ‘make it’ in London, it was as a warm-up guy for live studio audiences in-between and during the technical hitches of sitcoms.

“It meant that I got to the point where I was comfortable enough on stage going on and actually genuinely talking and genuinely being funny without relying on jokes,” Ross explains. As a result, he learnt to have faith that no matter what came up and where he took it, he could always end with a flourish, impressively tying all the loose ends together. These are the skills the comic still utilises on the stand-up stage, bantering with the punters and looking as though he makes it all up out of thin air as he goes along. Even when he starts to do the ‘same bits’ – which in Noble’s case, means merely attempting to revisit the same topics and usually ending up somewhere else entirely – he never does them the same way twice.

Why is all of this important? Only because you’ve got to wonder at what point you decide to record it for posterity. If you’re gonna make a DVD of a show that changes nightly, how do you decide that ‘this night is gonna be the one that nails it, that best sums up what it’s about’?

“To be honest with you,” Ross admits, “that was the hardest thing about the whole process, just going, ‘well, hang on, when is the best time to catch it?’ So, basically, I didn’t. The release is actually a two-disc set. There are two shows, filmed three months apart.”

The first show, Noble explains, took place at The Regent’s Park, an open air theatre “where they do Shakespeare and it’s all a bit ‘la-di-da’.” Having recorded that show, it was bunged on the shelf and duly ignored it. Two months later, Ross embarked on a month-long run at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End, which culminated in a final night’s taped performance. “Obviously,” Ross says, “they’re two different shows. But they were basically recorded at the same time.” Rather than a document of ‘a show’, they form a snapshot, like a band’s live performance, of what took place on those respective nights.

So, okay. How do the performances differ?

“Oh, blimey!” the comic begins. “Well, one’s indoors and one’s outdoors, that’s the main one.” Because of the nature of performing outdoors – “it’s got no roof on it and all the rest of it” Ross elucidates – the performance is more driven by the venue. “Just ’cause of the nature of being outside, there’s a ton of stuff about picnics and cheese and there’s a bit about a fight that kicked off on a moped just up the road from where the gig was. It was the sort of thing where everyone was going, ‘well, this is a bit weird; we’re watching a stand-up show, but we’re essentially in a park’.”

The show at the Garrick Theatre is in fact the Unrealtime show proper, and, Ross insists, “is a bit darker; it’s a bit more about what’s going on in my head than what’s going on in the room.” He pauses before offering the definitive explanation of the differences between the two performances: “I say different words and people laugh in different places. That’s the main difference.”

In addition to two and a half hours of stand-up comedy – the Garrick performance goes for ninety minutes, while the open-air performance is an hour – Ross promises that the two-disc set is “chock-a-block!” There are the educational commentaries, the subtitles and pop-up trivia, even a standard ‘Ross On Tour’ featurette. And then it gets interesting: there is a Trivia Quiz To Unlock Hidden Extra Footage, so there are easter eggs as well. “Nine hours it will take you to get through everything,” Ross reckons. “There’s no room left on either of the discs!”

All Creatures Grate And Smell


I saw the advertisement for the DVD of I Am Not An Animal on the ABC before they actually started broadcasting the series – as is the way now, the ABC will actually commission shows on the strength of being able to sell the DVD and the book of the series through ABC shops. I figured this thing about talking animal animations was the legacy of the Aardman studio’s Creature Comforts.

When a copy of said DVD appeared on my doorstep, courtesy of FilmInk, I popped it on and realised that I Am Not An Animal was a very different show indeed. Rather than a bunch of animal animations built around real-life interviews with people, this show features a bunch of animals that, as the result of animal experiments, think that they are people; their dialogue is voiced by contemporary comedians. But the biggest difference is that, although you can get into Creature Comforts almost immediately, I Am Not An Animal takes perseverance.

I say with total confidence that if you watch and enjoy the show, you didn’t come to it by accident in the first episode and stick with it; you must have been promised by someone you trust that your dedication would pay off. The style of animation demands a lot from your eyes, the different voices, a lot from your ears, and all the information that has to be imparted to set the scene and the characters in that first episode just makes your head hurt by the end of it. But by about episode three, the satire is working a treat, you know which character does what, and the laughs are coming thick and fast. If you packed it in early, next time the opportunity comes up, give it another go.

I got to interview animation director Tim Searle for FilmInk just before the show started going to air in Australia, so I was able to slip a snippet onto NewsRadio the day of the first broadcast. But I never got around to re-cutting a long version, partly because the phone line wasn’t so good, and also because there was a lot of um… um…ing to edit out – much as I would have loved to pull some choice quotes of the DVD. Maybe one day when I’m cashed up and bored I’ll give it a go just for this blog. Meanwhile a short, narrative version of this interview will appear in FilmInk any minute now.

And just for anyone who isn’t aware, the show’s title comes from the now-legendary lines attributed to John Merrick, the so-called ‘elephant man’ in the 1980 film of the same name, directed by David Lynch and produced by Mel Brooks:

“I am not an animal! I am a human being.”


Demetrius Romeo: How did I Am Not An Animal come about?

TIM SEARLE: I started work with Steve Coogan and Henry Normal, trying to develop an interesting narrative animation. Peter Baynham, when we were working with Steve Coogan, had this vague idea that it should include talking animals and we worked it out from there. It was very much of Peter’s brain, and we started looking at various technologies that we could utilize to bring it to fruition and we ended up with the photocollage look that we ended up working with, mainly because it’s so productive as well as looking a little bit odd. It’s got some sort of vague realism without going completely realistic.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you mean it’s more productive?

TIM SEARLE: The thing is that we do comedy, and the way that animation has tends to have evolved over the last few years is that you take it to storyboard and thereafter send it off to a cheaper market for animation. I wasn’t really into the idea of doing that. What I intended to do when I set up in animation, was do animation.

We do comedy, and I think comedy is very easy to get wrong. A scene can be as easily destroyed by over-acting or by doing an animation drum solo, as easily as if it were too wooden or too simple. I think the animation part of the process is too important to just let go of, so we use a digital desktop system that enables us to maintain a good degree of control.

Demetrius Romeo: You’re right about it being very distinctive, that digital collage method. How did you hit upon the idea to use that sort of graphic?

TIM SEARLE: We’ve been using the desktop system, using vector graphics, flat colour, and I’ve always been into photocollage. Mainly we use that sort of stuff in background work and what-have-you. We were looking at all sorts of ways of realizing it and Peter had this idea that the animals should look very distinct from other talking animals, like Yogi Bear, in terms of standing up and walking around, in that it should look a bit awkward that these animals wanted to be human and have human characteristics. So we needed to explore a way that would give us some sort of realism without it costing a fortune. We looked at full CG [computer generated images], but ultimately we realised that we couldn’t realize the ambition of this series using CG. It would have been too restrictive in the number of environments we could have had and characters we could have built. So we needed to find another way forward so we got the guys whose software we’d been using and they wrote us a means of using bitmaps, effectively, so that’s the way we could use the photocollage.

Demetrius Romeo: There are samples of, I guess, early ‘demo’-versions of animations on the DVD, and I’ve got to say they’re nowhere near as interesting to look at.

TIM SEARLE: Bear in mind that that stuff was generated four or five years ago; the CG work is something that everyone has a very high expectation of with Dreamworks and Pixar people doing what they do. The benchmark is so high that you need to hit it or you’re always going to be on the back foot. I quickly dismissed the idea of using CG, even though Peter was quite enamoured of the idea of having it look quite naturalistic so that the bizarreness of the comedy would be even more dominant. But in the end he was as much of a fan of the way we ended up working as anyone else.

The other thing we tried was motion capture because Steve Coogan, who played the Horse and Martin the Sparrow because he was quite interested in finding a way of getting his acting facial characteristics into the animation. We looked at that, but that was all in its infancy and it was going to be too restrictive as well. A lot of that stuff, you can’t get in to adapt the code – or you certainly could at the time – so it was just going to be too proscriptive. We wouldn’t have been able to control it effectively, I don’t think. So I just decided one day that enough’s enough, and I came back and worked up a few character designs on the basis of what would I do if no one was telling me that we’ve got to do this stuff and showed them to everyone who needed to see ’em and they just saw it as a way forward. That part of the process went very, very quickly; we went from situation where it all looked like the project was falling to bits, to a commission and getting going in a matter of a couple of months. I was very pleased that we just bit the bullet and went for it.

Demetrius Romeo: I want to talk about the antecedents to the show. You’ve got a few different animation fore-runners to the show, Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, and another show you do, called 2DTV that is satirical and animated. Tell me how these two shows might have influenced where you went with I Am Not An Animal.

TIM SEARLE: Technically, they were very important because Rolf’s Animal Hairdressers, that was the first thing we did using cell action, which was the digital tool we were using for I Am Not An Animal. That was the first one we cut out teeth on it. Also, we were using animals and they were quite surly and conversational. I’ve always been into the idea of animals, or characters, having a bit of depth to them. Those characters were very broad.

And 2DTV is a topical comedy show, so we learnt to work very quickly on that. It is topical, so up to eight minutes of a twenty-four minute show are made in the last four days up to transmission, so we have to work real quick in order to turn it around. In order to make six half hours for I Am Not An Animal, we needed to work well and work quickly. Both those projects enabled us to do I Am Not An Animal, in more ways than one.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve got great talent on hand doing voices on I Am Not An Animal – virtually the entire cast of Big Train plus Steve Coogan. A comment is made in one of the docos on the DVD that it would be too expensive to get the talent together to make it now if you were starting from scratch now.

TIM SEARLE: That was just an excuse from that exec from the BBC not to recommission it. I don’t think that’s true. I think the people who worked on it were such fans of the project that we would have been able to get them back.

Demetrius Romeo: With such a ground-breaking show, why weren’t BBC prepared to run with another season.

TIM SEARLE: Your guess is as good as mine. I really don’t know. It sounds presumptuous I guess, but we were working future episode ideas and we were looking forward to another series. I mean, we were critically well-received, and when people like Matt Groening of The Simpsons get in touch to say they thought it was excellent, then you think you’re on some sort of good path, but the BBC decided that because it didn’t get the ratings they were hoping for, they’d give it the chop.

Demetrius Romeo: I remember a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus where John Cleese says, “I wanted to get into program planning, but of course, I’ve got a degree.” You’re up against the same woes that comedians have been up against for some time.

TIM SEARLE: Well, the thing is with comedy, I think, if you make it animation, you’re making it a little bit harder for audiences to immediately grab. I’m Not An Animal, specifically, does take a few episodes to get your head around. I think comedy, generally, is one of those things that takes a while to bed in. You’d imagine that people at the networks might have grasped that one by now.

Demetrius Romeo: I must admit it did take me a while – at least the first episode. Once you get your head around the animation style and the characters, then you start to pay attention to what they’re saying and can enjoy it.

TIM SEARLE: The other problem with the first episode is we were so worried about setting the whole world up, setting up the whole rationale for how the animals got to where they got to, that the first episode is very plot-heavy and not as heavy on the jokes as future episodes. From episode three onwards, it settles right down, and each episode is funny in its own right, and we’re not so hung up on trying to explain everything all the time. I’m still proud of the first episode, but it’s just not as strong as the episodes that follow it, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: I know that the show copped a bit of flak early on because the animals are seen to be enjoying the environment of the lab where they’re being experimented on.

TIM SEARLE: Yeah. I think if anything, it’s an allegorical tale about people as much as anything else. It’s really having a dig at the way we all live our lives at the moment, in terms of people shutting themselves from real life. I think a lot of people, if they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere and had to fend for themselves, they’d be up the proverbial.

We all came to like the characters very much and sympathise with their plight. The fact that you’ve got this horse with literary pretensions who considers himself the leader and then Mark, who’s this bitter, fiercely ambitious sparrow with a penchant for writing bad, annoying songs. They’ve all got something about them which is a little bit irritating, and yet nonetheless they all get along as a group.

One of the things that we think it’s similar to is Dad’s Army: it’s a group of people who are all thrown together with a common cause, but their all different characters.

The backdrop of the vivisection lab was one of the things that got reported on early and the anti-vivisection lobby were quite vehement and got in early to criticise it without seeing it which is a shame. We were on the back foot from the start on that basis, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s a pity, but then you do make good fun of the animal liberationists as well, I’ve got to say.

TIM SEARLE: Well, to be honest the animal liberationist is deliberately displayed in an over-simplistic way, but it would have been predictable and unfunny to portray the liberationists as angels. But you’d have to be a bit uptight to take offence at that, I think. A lot of people without watching it might think that we were making light of the suffering animals, but we certainly were not. The animals in I Am Not An Animal naively see themselves and all other animals as people, and to start with they’re clearly idiots and they’re innocent idiots who have no idea of what’s going on around them, and that’s made very clear. It’s a joke about ignorance and snobbery and the theme running through the series is about how they deal with other more ordinary and arguably more dignified creatures.

And the suffering of animals has been portrayed in other animations: Cruella DeVil wasn’t exactly kind to the animals in 101 Dalmations, and Chicken Run was set on a farm where the characters are destined to end up in pies. Numerous stories feature animals heading for a grizzly fate from which they are rescued and I think we weren’t unusual in that respect.

Demetrius Romeo: No, but you actually pinpoint the foibles of humanity particularly well in the process. Because they have human traits, we really are looking at how people behave. I particularly like the rabbit from the call centre – that is so funny.

TIM SEARLE: Arthur Mathews – he’s a really clever guy. He wrote Father Ted and Big Train. He was doing that rant quite a bit – the little Irish voice at the call centre – and Pete had this idea if part of that guy’s brain in the body of a rabbit and just goes off on these little rants.

Demetrius Romeo: The humour works well, the satire hits its mark and the animation is groundbreaking. Where do you go next?

TIM SEARLE: I don’t know, to be honest. We hope that we can continue to do other interesting narrative projects and we shall endeavour to do so. We’re developing material so we’ll wait and see what comes of it. At the moment we’re working on a pilot for the BBC which is a sketch show, and the animation is shared between three studios, so we’re doing a third of this pilot, so that’s the immediate future. But as Baby Cow animation we shall endeavour to do other interesting narrative work.

We’re really proud of the project and the fact that it’s animated I like to think is the icing on the cake. It’s a great comedy project that happens to be animated.

Tara Moss In Da House


The opportunity to conduct another interview with Tara Moss is one I’ll happily pursue. This time around, it was for the ‘In Da House’ column for FilmInk, in which celebs are asked about their film consumption on DVD and video.

Our conversation happened to take place during this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Tara, now based in Melbourne, was happy to report that she was thus an even busier model-turned-novelist than she was before; in addition to watching an average of four or more films a week, she was now seeing up to three stand-up shows a day. I hadn’t realised that along with horror, comedy has been her other life-long love.

Somewhere in the middle of all this comedy and cinema, Tara also had to make time for Makedde Vanderwall, the heroine forever haunted by serial killers in Moss’s novels. This was what she was trying to do when I contacted her for the interview.

“I’m in my running pants, sitting at my desk as we speak,” Tara told me over the phone. I had to fight the temptation to stop and contemplate whether she meant sleek tracky dacks or little shorts, since either fantasy would distract me from the interview, which, at the time, was distracting Tara from her writing. But the writing was the logical place to start. The transcript is much longer than what I could fit in the final ‘In Da House’ column, appearing any minute now in the June issue of FilmInk.

Demetrius Romeo: Tara, will there ever be a film based on any of your novels, and if there is, who would play Makedde Vanderwall?

TARA MOSS: There has been a lot of speculation over the years about who would be a good actress to play Makedde. There’s a whole section of my website where people have been writing in. I think Angelina Jolie is at the top of the polls at the moment just because she’s a beautiful woman and one that chooses very strong, independent and interesting roles. But she obviously did a serial killer thriller not too long ago so I don’t know if I’d be lucky enough to have her in the film of one of my novels. But one can only dream, I suppose.

It’s kind of a funny thing for novel writers because we, for the most part, write novels to be novels; we don’t write novels to be movies. It’s great that they can be translated and put into a different medium, but it’s not necessarily the most comforting thought, and I’m one of the writers out there who can honestly say I get really uneasy thinking about my books being made into films. I know it would be a great honour and it would be a really interesting experience, but it would also be a harrowing one because I like to control my little world within the books, and you lose that control when you hand over the rights.

Demetrius Romeo: When I read your novels, I can’t help but see you in the lead role.

TARA MOSS: If I could act, that would be great, but I have an aversion to acting. I’m really, really comfortable being myself and I’ve found that any time I’ve felt not quite right doing something, it’s usually because I’m having to speak someone else’s words for some reason.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you saying you don’t identify with your lead character?

TARA MOSS: I identify with her, but I’m not her. I think of her kind of as a sister. I do have a wonderful sister named Jacquie, but my fictional sister Makedde is someone I understand, and also someone who occasionally does things that I wouldn’t do myself. I think it’s important to have that separation between reality and fiction. Otherwise it would be very limiting from a writing perspective. Imagine every time you go to a keyboard thinking ‘what would I do?’ rather than ‘what would make for an interesting plot?’ I think it’s dangerous territory when you identify too closely to that character. With Makedde I did borrow a lot of autobiographical stuff; that’s clear. But I don’t think I’ve ever viewed her as me per se, rather as a character who I’d want to know, a character that I can understand intimately, which I think is a different thing.

Demetrius Romeo: Your husband Mark Pennell is a producer; doesn’t being married to a producer make getting a film made somewhat easier?

TARA MOSS: No, not really. In fact, if anything, it’s made me more wary of the film business than ever before just because I see the struggles he goes through with it. Mark is an Australian film producer and we know how the Australian film industry is at the moment. He’s worked on some international projects and he’s certainly working on some pretty incredible stuff at the moment, but again: danger zone! I already know my personality well enough to know that it would be difficult to let go of my books and let them become movies. I think it would be doubly difficult if the person making them is my own husband. Let me put it this way: I have a happy marriage at the moment and I don’t want that ever to change.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve said that you see four movies a week, on average.

TARA MOSS: Yeah, I do. Sometimes more than that.

Demetrius Romeo: Is that in the cinema, on DVD or on cable?

TARA MOSS: It’s a combination of DVDs and going to the cinema. I don’t watch television much at all. I pretty much use the TV for DVD rental. I love going through DVD shops and finding the most obscure foreign films or art house films or b-grade films and finding something delightful and surprising in them, and I see probably about 80 percent of what comes out in theatres, so I’m frequently at movie theatres checking things out. I just love film. I think it’s a wonderful story-telling medium. Obviously, I prefer books. I don’t read all the time; I read a lot of the time. And when I’m not reading, I’m probably watching a movie somewhere.

Demetrius Romeo: Are there any cinematic genres that don’t interest you?

TARA MOSS: I suppose particularly sappy, romantic films don’t interest me a lot. I have a lot of fun watching something like Notting Hill, something that’s like a romantic comedy but is a little more clever; that’s great. This is going to sound really awful, but if people aren’t gonna die and there’s no conflict, I’m not very interested in watching. I know it’s a terrible thing to say!

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve expressed these sentiments before, when talking about your novels: you’re interested in characters taking control of the darkness, and have been since you were a kid reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies.

TARA MOSS: I found Edward Gorey’s kind of delightfully morbid, black humour really fascinating at that age, and I think I still enjoy that. The types of books I sometimes like, like the types of movies I sometimes like, deal with really dark issues, sometimes with humour, and I think that’s the best way to deal with things we don’t understand or are afraid of.

Demetrius Romeo: You said that you like even b-grade films…

TARA MOSS: I’m a big fan of b-grade films. I think there are some beauties out there that are so bad that they’re genius, like Ed Wood’s films, or Night of the Living Dead.

Demetrius Romeo: Give me an example of a so-bad-it’s-good treasure you’ve come across recently.

TARA MOSS: Recently I watched pretty much every zombie flick every made. I went on a zombie frenzy. I started having dreams that I was being chased by zombies, I was so immersed in them. I was watching three zombie films a day. Some of them were fantastic, but I can’t even remember the name of half of them because there were so many. But I watched all of the Night of the Living Dead series. Of course, Shaun of the Dead is fantastic fun, but that is recognized as being quite a brilliant comedy. But I think a lot of the ones that are panned as being ‘b-grade’ films are actually brilliant comedies in and of themselves. I find them quite amusing.

Demetrius Romeo: If you watch so many films, do you have time to go back and watch all the special features when you rent a DVD?

TARA MOSS: I often do look at a lot of the extras. For instance, I recently rented Anchor Man which I thought was hysterical, because I love Will Ferrell. I was on the floor laughing at all the outtakes and things like that. Sometimes I do quite enjoy the extras. But I don’t tend to listen to the directors’ commentaries because I don’t want to over-analyse stuff. Unless I’m aware that there’s a particular story behind some of the scenes, I won’t seek out the commentary as much as the documentary aspects of the extras. The documentary is more interesting to me than watching the film again with commentary over the top.

The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Graduate, which is one of my favourite films, was a wonderful edition that came out and had interviews with everyone now and their views on the movie at the time. To me that’s a bit more interesting, that documentary style. I like it because they gave some behind-the-scenes information about some really classic scenes. The one at the end when they’re in the church, and Katharine Ross is getting married to her man, Dustin Hoffman’s standing above where the ceremony is taking place, and he’s tapping on the glass – because he had his arms extended, it was thought to be somehow related to Christianity. Mike Nichols and Dustin Hoffman are saying, ‘well, actually, it was because they told us that if I tapped in the middle of the glass, it would break’. So since 1967 they’ve been analysing the Christian references at the end of The Graduate – which I think is just a classic! Those sorts of stories are the ones I like to hear because I do think there’s too much analysis of creative work, whether it be books or film. We stop enjoying things for what they are in order to search for ‘hidden meanings’ in things that sometimes don’t even have meanings.

Demetrius Romeo: Are there particular directors that you like?

TARA MOSS: I’m a big Tim Burton fan. I like his kooky sense of humour. I like David Lynch and Burton and these directors who create completely different worlds out of their own imagination. I love Quentin Tarantino. I also love the stuff that people pan: I loved the Lara Croft movies. I love a lot of films that people think are quite superficial. I like films for different reasons, and there’s something very satisfying about seeing Angelina Jolie swinging on a rope with a gun strapped to her leg, and there’s something very satisfying about seeing a subtle film like Sideways that’s a bit more gentle and a bit deeper and has some great comedic moments in it.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you much of a collector when it comes to films? Do you have to own them, or are you just happy to see them?

TARA MOSS: I have to own stuff. I have to own a lot of films.

Demetrius Romeo: What sort of stuff makes the Tara Moss collection?

TARA MOSS: The Graduate – 25th Anniversary Edition. I love Wes Anderson, so The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favourites. I love Bound with Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, which I think is one of the most fabulous thrillers. A very sexy thriller!

A fabulous cheesy movie I recommend is called Ninja Killer. This is like a 70s Hong Kong action flick. If you’re used to b-grade movies, this is c-grade and it’s classic. The hair-dos, the outfits and the bad dubbing – it’s beautiful. It’s called Ninja Killer but there are no real ninja in it; it’s got a lot of people trying to pretend that they’re Bruce Lee, breaking up drug rings, with sideburns that could stop a truck.

Kill Bill Volume 1 – I don’t watch the whole thing over and over again, but I love the scenes in Japan, where Uma Thurman’s kicking butt! And I also love her short motorcycle scene in the yellow leather motorcycle suit so much that I went and had a red one made for myself. I have a red Kawasaki ZZR motorcycle and she’s riding a yellow Kawasaki ZZR motorcycle, so I thought it was very fitting. I also have films like Mystic River and The Thomas Crown Affair original, which is one of my favourite movies of all time – mostly because Steve McQueen is just a god! He’s such a ‘man’s man’ leading man. I love that really masculine leading man that we don’t see enough of these days. I also love The Getaway, even though there’s a lot of interaction between his character and that character of Ali MacGraw’s that’s now completely unacceptable. Thankfully. Feminism has come a bit further. Other than that, it’s a brilliant film, and very of it’s time. Blade Runner. Impossible to beat. It’s my favourite sci-fi genre movie.

Demetrius Romeo: Can the man’s man exist in a world where his woman isn’t so passive?

TARA MOSS: Absolutely. The man’s man can totally exist in today’s world now that women have power as well. I love powerful women. In fact, I like powerful women so much that I’m obsessed with actresses who starred in sometimes cheesy ‘powerful women’ roles. I love this current swing into female superheroes. I collect female action figures that all have a great deal of artillery and kick ass. But it doesn’t stop me from liking quite masculine characters. If a guy’s going to be a leading man, I don’t think he should spend more time looking in the mirror than I would. That should be the cut-off point right there.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you still have videos?

TARA MOSS: I do have some videos, but I don’t watch them very much, to be honest. I have The Shining, which is one of my favourite horror films, I only have on video so I’m planning on upgrading to a DVD version that hopefully has some very cool extras. The version I’ve got is a video, but it also has the documentary by Kubrick’s wife, about the making of the film, so it’s actually quite a good video. But it is a video; I’m sure they’ve got to be some updates since then. Kubrick was so before his time in terms of seeing a book like The Shining, seeing Steven King’s work, and seeing the primal way it taps into our sort of childhood fears, and treating that genre with respect. It’s one of those things I complain about often: just because something’s a horror story or a crime story or a serial killer story doesn’t mean you can’t treat it with respect and make it a really amazing piece of work, whether it be a book or a movie. I think there’s a lot of brilliance to be found in those genres, rather than just dismissing the genre because there are a lot of bad examples of it. There are a lot of brilliant examples of it, too. The Shining is one of those.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you think you’ll have a film script in you at some stage?

TARA MOSS: Not until I mature a bit more to be honest. Being a control freak, I’m very wary of the screenwriting process because it’s collaborative and the more I find out about the film business, the more I really don’t want to be in that position where I’m being told what to write and where the money matters so much that you have to make those compromises. Jeffery Deaver said something brilliant. He was asked how much he had to do with the making of the films of his books, such The Bone Collector. He said, “I have a lot to do with them; I cash the cheque”. I thought he was very wise: he’s a great writer, that’s what he does well; he was saving himself the frustration of actually trying to work with a whole load of people creating a film version of what he’s already done brilliantly as a book. Until I can separate myself a little bit more from my books, it would be a lot of frustration, and not the kind of frustration that pays off in the end. As we know, with the movie industry you can’t count on something being made or being successful or any of that. It’s a very difficult industry, and so, for the moment, I’m happy to stick to my writing.

Garry McDonald on Norman Gunston, Mother & Son and Comedy


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 ‘Best Actress in a Mini Series’ Logie. As she trod the red carpet upon arrival, Gunston stopped her to ask her to show us how she’d cry if she didn’t win the Logie she’d been nominated for. Then he enquired, “and if you don’t win, will you say that the girl who did win went ‘bye-byes’ with the judges?” She was about twelve years old at the time. Pretty funny stuff.

If you’re 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 ‘The Impossible Dream’ about him, and Paul and Linda McCartney taking it in their stride when Gunston points out to Paul that his Missus doesn’t 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. ‘She’ wore a dress, glasses, a big moustache and boxing gloves, and she rode a motorcycle. In addition to playing a character called ‘Kid Eager’, Garry McDonald was Norman Gunston, a ‘roving reporter’ who presented a show called What’s 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 ‘The Little Aussie Bleeder’. The name borrows from the term ‘little Aussie battler’ – 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) – and ‘bleeder’, 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 ‘come back series’ in 1993. Suffering, at the time, from anxiety disorder, McDonald didn’t 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 – mickey-taking interviews and reports – on various occasions and for various shows. I remember him telling Gene Simmons, of band KISS that, at seven inches, he didn’t 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 relative’s 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 he’d ever heard of anyone being called ‘Boy’ 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 – a ‘best of’ compilation of the original Norman Gunston Show featuring brilliantly ridiculous interviews and a few sketches that haven’t quite aged as well – and the first season ofMother & Son are being released on DVD. I figure that I’d 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. Don’t 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: ‘Norman Gunston’s 2nd Dream’ – 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, ‘Come on, Mr Gunston,
Gonna make you a celebrity,’
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
What’s 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 Valentino’s hom town: all the young men in the town hoped that they were going to be kind of ‘discovered’. They all became like Elvis: they all dressed like him and slicked their hair back… There was one guy they panned across, and he was like Norman Gunston – 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 – I was doing some sketches with him – 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 didn’t 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 I’d 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, ‘you know a lot of people say that that character’s based on me…’. I mean, the name was so close.

Soundbite: ‘Wollongong the Brave’ – 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 ‘G’day?’
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 – this is really politically incorrect nowadays – 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 he’d met on the bus – things like that. So apparently John O’Grady, 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 O’Grady 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 wouldn’t script anything else. I’d know what I was going to say and hopefully I’d 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 wasn’t going well, you kind of had to stick to what you’d worked out.

Demetrius Romeo: I’m just amazed at things like Keith Moon losing it and tipping a drink on you.


Demetrius Romeo: How do you prepare yourself for such a potential…

GARRY McDONALD: Well I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had been told by the BBC producer that we had then, that he’d lined him up and he’d agreed to do it, so I thought, ‘fine’. Well he just came out of that car firing. I mean, I couldn’t open my eyes – 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 you’re always thinking, I can’t lose this bit of footage. You’re desperate not to lose it.

You know, when I did Sally Struthers, I really thought that interview wsas a disaster. She couldn’t stop laughing.

Soundbite: Interview with Sally Struthers (star of the 70s sitcom All in the Family) – 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: Yeah… 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, “you can’t put that to air, that’s self-indulgent”. He said, “what are you talking about, it’s great”, and I said, “no it’s not, it’s awful”, and of course it’s 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 ’76 Australian tour.

Soundbite: ‘The Torture Never Stops’ – from the Frank Zappa album FZ:OZ

Frank Zappa:: Ladies and gentlemen, Norman ‘Blind Lemon’ Gunston – the Little Aussie Bleeder!

Instrumental break ensues, featuring Norman Gunston’s harmonica solo.

GARRY McDONALD: I was young and thought, “what does he want me here for?” He actually said to me, “I don’t want you to do any jokes, I just want you to play.” At the time I was thinking he wanted me there just to give it a bit of local colour – but I didn’t think too much about the playing. Things like that wash over me – it’s really interesting.

Soundbite: ‘The Torture Never Stops’ – from the Frank Zappa album FZ:OZ

Instrumental break continues, featuring Norman Gunston’s harmonica solo.

Demetrius Romeo: When I watch Mother & Son, I’m just struck by how strong the characterisations are; the writing’s strong, but the acting also is very strong.

GARRY McDONALD: Yeah, it’s interesting – I did a film… which I’d like to forget; I’ve done many that I’d like to forget! But I did a film with Pamela Stephenson, and she’d just seen Mother & Son and she said to me, ‘very good acting’. But what I find interesting with comedy, what a lot of people don’t realise, is that you do need to have a good comedy director and there aren’t 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 – Mother & Son was like his baby. Atherden’s scripts were great, but Portmann just held the style together. When we ever did anything that was just funny for no reason, he wouldn’t 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 I’d go, ‘what? What?’ and he’d go, ‘you’re mugging!’

Soundbite: Excerpt from ‘The Funeral’ episode of Mother & Son, from the Mother & Son DVD.

Liz (Judy Morris): People don’t just die like that.
Arthur (Garry McDonald): What do they do, Liz? Make an announcement?
Liz: We’ve just been to a funeral.
Arthur: Oh, you think he should have died there and saved us a second trip?
Liz: People don’t just come home from a funeral and keel over in someone else’s living room.
Arthur: Maybe Uncle Tom doesn’t know that.
Liz: Well he should!

GARRY McDONALD: That’s the problem: a lot of drama actors think that you approach comedy like you approach drama, and you don’t.

Demetrius Romeo: What’s the major difference?

GARRY McDONALD: It’s got to seem natural, but it’s not. But it has to seem natural. It’sheightened. But it has to seem natural. It has much more energy than drama. It moves at a brisker pace but it’s also more energetic. And it has the ability to turn on an emotional sixpence, which is very funny. But also, it’s all driven by the subtext, but you must never play the subtext. Once you play the subtext, it’s not funny, and that’s actually soap opera acting. It’s the subtext that drives it, but you musn’t show the subtext. It’s the duplicity that’s funny.

Soundbite: Excerpt from ‘The Promotion’ episode of Mother & Son, from the Mother & Son DVD.

Arthur: I don’t understand, Mum. Why did you keep telling me to go?
Maggie (Ruth Cracknell): Because I didn’t want to be in the way, and because I’m your mother, and because I didn’t think for one minute that you would go.
Arthur: Oh, mum!
Maggie: I did the right thing, Arthur, I told you to go. Why couldn’t you do the right thing and say ‘no’? 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 don’t 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.


Soundbite: Norman Gunston on harmonica jamming with Frank Zappa on guitar, from the end of Norman Gunston’s interview with Frank Zappa on The Gunston Tapes.

And here is the version of the interview written as narrative, for FilmInk. Obviously, there’ll 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.

“There was a segment where they went back to Rudolph Valentino’s 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.” One Elvis-wannabe stood out in particular. “He 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.”

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 – who had a similar “protruding mandible” – whom he had encountered while on tour with David Frost. Her name was the inspiration for ‘Norman Gunston’.

On Aunty Jack, Gunston presented the ‘What’s On In Wollongong’ segment. A subsequent one-off special had him hosting a current affairs program, ‘What Did You Do Today?’ featuring guests he’d met that afternoon on the bus. It was on the strength of such work that, when the ABC wanted to launch a new ‘tonight show’ in 1975, visionary John O’Grady pushed for the Norman Gunston character as host. “The idea then was that I would be the only fictional thing in it; everything else would be real,” Garry explains.

Norman Gunston delivered fantastic interviews, playing the innocent fool to disarm his interview subjects. The stars mostly played along – once they’d recovered from their initial bemusement. The notorious exception – despite assurances to the contrary – was The Who’s demon drummer Keith Moon, who abused Gunston and poured a drink over him. Aware that he couldn’t afford to lose the footage, the best McDonald could do was play along. “I’d 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 couldn’t open my eyes; that was half a bottle of vodka that he’d poured all over me. It was pretty dangerous”.

Surprisingly, the most enduring clip from the ‘Norman Gunston Show’ – the interview with ‘All In The Family’ star Sally Struthers – would have been canned if McDonald had had his way. “I thought that interview was a disaster,” he confesses. “I looked at it and said, ‘we can’t put that to air, it’s self-indulgent’. Of course it’s one of our most famous interviews.”

In addition to Norman Gunston, Garry McDonald is responsible for another enduring and endearing character of Aussie comedy, Arthur Beare, who appeared opposite Ruth Cracknell’s Maggie Beare in Mother & Son. Running for ten years, Mother & Sun won awards right up until the end. McDonald puts this down to Geoff Portman’s directing. “Geoffrey Atherden’s scripts were great,” he says, “but Portman held the style together. If anyone did anything that was funny for no reason, he wouldn’t allow it. Everything had to come out of the situation and the characters.”

According to Garry McDonald, the role of Arthur in Mother & Son required “a bit of a stretch” because he’d never been in a sitcom before. “I was playing it a bit broadly at first,” he recalls. “Portman would just stand there looking at me with a dreadful look on his face, and I’d go, ‘What? What?’ and he’d go, ‘You’re mugging!’ He kept doing that until I stopped.” McDonald found Mother & Son to be a “great school of comedy” that taught him much about the art.

“A lot of drama actors think that you approach comedy like you approach drama,” Garry explains. “You don’t. It’s got to seem natural, but it’s not. It’s heightened. It has much more energy than drama. It moves at a brisker pace but it’s more energetic. It has the ability to turn on an emotional sixpence, which is very funny. But also, it’s driven by the subtext, but you must never play the subtext. It’s the duplicity that’s funny.”

While the Norman Gunston character was retired 1993, in part on account of McDonald’s anxiety disorder, Mother & Son ended its sixth and final season in 1994. Garry McDonald doesn’t miss either role – although, he admits, he does miss Ruth Cracknell. And he is grateful for having been able to play both characters, particularly Arthur Beare. “I really look on the Mother & Son period as the best training ground,” he says. “That was the best training ground.”

The Gunston Tapes and Volume One of Mother & Son are available from Village Roadshow