A Ward Winner (A Brief History of Felicity Ward)
Monday, December 28, 2009
That Was The Week That Was, also known as âTW3â, was a weekly television show in England that was fronted by David Frost (a Cambridge graduate whose laconic speaking voice is said to be based on Peter Cookâs EL Wisty character), employed a small army of writers (some of whom would be Pythons and Goodies), and though not actually responsible for launching the so-called 'satire boom' of the early 1960s, certainly provided evidence that it was truly underway. There was also an American version of the show. A clever singer-songwriter (who would give up writing clever satirical songs and touring the world performing them in order to return to lecturing mathematics at university) called Tom Lehrer used to write a clever song each week for the American edition and went on to release an album of the best bits, called That Was The Year That Was. It was much better than the single released as the 'theme' of the British version of the show.
For the second year in a row, the Sydney Opera House is home to a gala comedy event looking back satirically at the year that was, tipping its hat to the satire tradition from which it borrows its name: That Was The Year That Was. This year's line-up features Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Mikey Robins, Wendy Harmer, Flacco and the Sandman, Felicity Ward and Celia Pacquola, to name but several, and the poster suggests there are more, yet to be announced.
I'm taking the opportunity to present an interview with Felicity Ward, who appeared to come not quite out of nowhere and be brilliant in the shortest period of time. One minute she was producing Heath Franklin's Chopper shows, the next she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe.
This interview took place midway through 2009 after Wardy had enjoyed excellent festival seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney with Ugly as a Child, the show that had won her âBest Newcomerâ at Melbourne Fringe in 2008. At the time, wanting to try to develop my writing style, I decided to take on a proper in-depth profile â with a view to one day tackling a full-blown biography. Clearly, I bit off more than I can chew; it contains a heap of Wardyâs â and a certain period of Australian comedy's â history, but really should have culminated in more of a portrait of what it is she does. Or at least, what it was she was doing at the time. Rest assured, Felicty Ward is nothing short of brilliant. An hilarious comic, a worthy guest on your show and the perfect person to spend an afternoon chatting to in a cafÃ©. Sheâs certainly less melodramatic and less highly strung than when first invited to guest on a live late night variety show at a comedy festival!
âI was so nervous before I went on. I got so worked up that I honestly thought â and I say this without any exaggeration â âwhen I get off stage I will probably kill myself, so it doesnât matter what I do on stageâ. I just hated myself. I thought, âThis isnât funny, I donât know what Iâm doing. This is just terribleâ.â
Okay. Letâs backtrack a bit. Itâs just gone 4pm and Iâm sitting in a cafÃ© â two doors up from a primary school â that specialises in hot chocolate. Sitting opposite me is Felicity Ward, a comic I was first aware of on the Channel Ten sketch show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, where she was responsible for characters like cute little Poppy, the girl who innocently explains away inadvertently dodgy photographs, and scarily angst-ridden existentialist Gretchen. Nowadays, Felicityâs a stand-up comic. A good one. She made her festival debut at Melbourne Fringe last year where her show Ugly as a Child earned her the âMelbourne Airport Best Newcomer Awardâ. At this yearâs Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the show played to mostly sold-out houses. Somewhere in between Ronnie Johns and Ugly as a Child, Felicity started appearing on Spicks and Specks and proved to be nothing short of bloody good on that, too. Not long after we caught up for this conversation, she made her debut appearance on Thank God Youâre Here. And guess what? She absolutely blitzed it.
But according to Felicity, her very first stand-up gig was going to be her last. While many a comic may fear âdyingâ, metaphorically, on stage, she wasnât fussed; she reckons she was happy to do so literally, after she got off stage. Whatâs more, sheâs dead serious. But school has knocked off for the day and weâre surrounded by a multitude of kiddies peaking on a sugar rush, their mums seemingly indifferent to the chocolate stains that will have to be removed from uniforms later on, so nowâs not quite the right time to chase down the suicide story â lest a multitude of âPoppiesâ repeat it for âshow and tellâ tomorrow morning.
So. First things first: Ronnie Johns. âThat was a big accident,â Felicity insists. âI had never done comedy in any sort of form.â
Oh. Okay. Looks like we need to backtrack even further.
Giving Wardy The Third Degree
It was 2004. Having attended performing arts schools growing up, Felicity Ward was momentarily distracted with an interlude of Music Business Skills at Wyong TAFE â (âI was gonna be a band manager or event manager because in some part of my history, thatâs what I wanted to do...â) â before acting won out. Wardy moved to Sydney to be an actor, getting involved with ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), an entity run as a professional theatre company âwith set and costume designers, actors and directors â by the Sydney Theatre Company. âThey put on really great plays, specifically for young people. The people you were working with were really professional so you treated it like a job.â
Felicity appeared in an ATYP production of The Musicians, directed by Tim Jones for that yearâs Sydney Festival. One of Felicityâs fellow cast members, Benedict Hardie, was directing the University of Sydneyâs Arts Faculty Revue soon after and asked Wardy if sheâd be in it. The fact that Felicity didnât actually go to Sydney Uni wasnât a problem. âThere were twenty people in the cast,â Felicity says with typical modesty. âNot that it wasnât a big deal, but lots of people got into that.â
The previous year, a couple of clever people from Macquarie University had acknowledged that university revues mostly follow the same pattern: a handful of awesome sketches appear in a show surrounded by the same old stuff. These guys â Chris McDonald and Heath Franklin â decided itâd be really cool to take just the awesome sketches from a handful of different university revues and combine them into really good show. The cast of the show would similarly consist of some of the best performers from those various revues. That show was called The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS, the â3rd Degreeâ nicely referring to comedy derived from university revue (not unlike The D-Generation, from two decades earlier) as well as offering a pun on intense interrogation, the final stage of initiation and the most severe type of burn (theyâre all known as âthird degreeâ).
Successful enough to warrant a second year on the festival circuit, The 3rd Degree came together for the show Eskimos with Polaroids at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Having appeared in the 2004 University of Sydney Arts Faculty Revue, Felicity auditioned for that 3rd Degree show and âgot in, somehowâ. That second incarnation proved successful at Sydneyâs Big Laugh Comedy Festival as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
On to the next stage
Someone who had noticed The 3rd Degree in Melbourne was comedian Glenn Robbins. Heâd had a history of fostering up-and-coming talent with Headliners, a live stand-up show devised and taped for the Comedy Channel. He also had a history of sketch comedy, with Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Big Girlâs Blouse. When, he says, Channel Ten approached him enquiring if he âknew of anyoneâ worth developing, he pointed the network towards The 3rd Degree. Channel Ten liked the idea. Powers that be suggested Robbins ought to mentor the young comedians, and though initially reluctant â there was plenty of work coming through with the likes of The Panel, Russel Coightâs All Aussie Adventures and Kath & Kim â he realised âitâd be unfair to block that opportunityâ for the up-and-comers.
The âup-and-comersâ were selected by Chris McDonald from the cast of both shows: Dan Ilic, James Pender, Becci Gage and Caz Fitzgerald, whoâd been in the showâs first incarnation; Jordan Raskopoulos and Felicity, who had been in the second; Heath Franklin, whoâd helped create the show with Chris, had been in both. (In fact, prior to The 3rd Degree, Pender, Franklin, Gage and Ilic had appeared in a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called The Beatification of Newt Berton and the Great Viagra Robbery, written and directed by McDonald.) But according to Felicity, news of Channel Tenâs interest came as a surprise:
âAbout three weeks after the Melbourne Comedy Festival had finished, we get this call: âChannel Ten want to give you a writing workshopâ. It was unheard of; it meant we would be employed as writers. I was a waitress; Heath was a labourer; I think Dan was working in a computer shop; Jordan was working at his dadâs dry cleaners; Becci was becoming a teacher; Caz and James Pender were studying to become lawyers. This was none of our professions so that was really, really cool.â
For two months, the team just wrote. ââLetâs see what the funniest shit we can come up with isâ â that was our job description,â says Felicity. âNo promise of anything at the end: no promise of even an episode; of employment with Channel Ten; nothing. It was just, âletâs see what you can doâ, which was so cool, now that I think back to it.â During this period, Robbins would spend a day each week workshopping their material. âWeâd talk about how we could hone the characters and improve it. Because none of us had any idea about TV, or that there would be any kind of transition to make from the page to screen.â
Glenn says it was as much of a learning experience for him. âI donât actually know how I do most of my stuff â I just write it and do it. Putting into words the reason why they should be editing something or doing something a different way was hard.â
After two months of writing, the day came to pitch to Channel Ten. âWe just went in and said, âthis is what we doâ and had all these different scene ideas and recurring character ideas,â Felicity recalls. âAbout a month later they were sort of saying, âYeah, weâre gonna do something, yeah, weâre gonna do somethingâ, and I thought, âItâs not gonna happen, but thatâs okay, I had a really cool timeâ.â
A month after that, Channel Ten offered the team a pilot, which they spent a fortnight filming. âWe handed the pilot in on the Friday and on the Monday, got a call saying we had six episodes of a TV show. And then got a call on the Tuesday saying, âActually, youâre going to have 13 episodesâ.â And so, The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) â to give it its full title â was underway. All told, Felicity calculates about âthirteen months in totalâ from her first performance, as a Sydney Uni Arts Revue ring-in, to her first day of proper work on a TV show. âIt wasâ¦ kind of inexplicable, really,â She says, and then corrects herself: âNot even âkind ofâ; it was inexplicable. Wonderful. All the superlatives. Because Iâd tried for a really long time to be an actor and just couldnât get parts in anything. But as soon as I started comedy, it was easier. Not âeasierâ â Ronnie Johns was really, really hard work. But it just seemed to progress quicker.â
True enough. All the character roles Felicity failed to land while slogging away as an actor suddenly appeared more-or-less at once on Ronnie Johns. Some were her own. Some were devised by others, but brought to life by Felicity. Others still were people she just happened to notice.
There was the deceptively innocent little girl, Poppy, with the photo album, whose explanations were a little bit disturbing. It turns out Poppy grew out of the first week of writing workshops. The rule was, everyone had to arrive each morning with five things: âThey could be a funny line, a joke, a sketch, a funny character, a concept, a clipping from a newspaper that you wanted to satirise, anything, but you just had to come up with five of them. Often, four of them were absolute rubbish.â Felicity, having trouble coming up with stuff, noticed her dictionary.
âI started flicking through. It fell open on the page with the word âmacabreâ and I thought, âItâd be kind of cool if there was a little girl who read out really dark definitions from the dictionary.â Messing around with voices and characters, she realised the definitions themselves werenât so funny. But what if she had picturesâ¦ say, of animalsâ¦ that she could defineâ¦? Then thereâd be room for humour. âI showed it to a network executive and he went, âA six-year-old showing pictures of animals is cute, but itâs not really that funny; it needs a spin.ââ So Felicity came up with the spin. In the pilot episode, Poppy shows us a picture of a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a mirror, and explains, in her cutest little girl voice: âThis woman likes to look at herself through a straw in a mirror and she does that sometimes for money but she wonât kiss a boy on the lips because it means something.â
âI remember writing that and thinking, âThatâs rather dark, Felicity; weâll see how that goes.â That ended up being a flagship character for me.â Poppy would go on to offer innocent explanations for photos of Ku Klux Klan members and prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.
Justin Heazlewood â also known to comedy fans as âThe Bedroom Philosopherâ (and more recently, for playing the role of young John Safran in Race Relations) â served as one of the showâs ânon-performing writersâ and he came up with âUnderground Girl and Underground Guyâ. These were a pair of emo kids who essentially talked about âhow âundergroundâ they wereâ. Felicity played Underground Girl while Jordan was Underground Boy. The quality of Justinâs writing was such that, when she read it, Felicity reckoned â adopting the emotionless emo tone Â¬â she âcould, like, tell they were, you know, like, not really into each otherâ. Adopting, along with Jordan, the appropriate nonchalant tone, they âtried to out-nonchalant each otherâ. The sketch came at the end of the first season and proved extremely popular on YouTube â so much so that Underground Girl and Underground Guy became recurring characters in the second season.
Gretchen the Nihilist
Felicityâs favourite character was the Nihilist, Gretchen. Dressed in black and flanked by similarly clad Simon (Heath Franklin) und Sigmund (James Pender), they were a trio of emotionless existentialists who somehow end up where colourful, exuberant, larger-than-life characters ought to be: hosting kidsâ shows, exercise shows, playing Santa Clause in department storesâ¦. Although the Gretchen character wasnât devised by Felicity â the Nihilists originated in the Macquarie University Revue that Heath, James, Dan and Chris were involved in â she took to it immediately. âFor some reason, it was one of those characters that, as soon as I read it, I knew exactly what to do and where to pitch it. Sometimes you just read stuff and itâs like a present: âThere you go!ââ
The initial gift was a sketch in which the Nihilists host the equivalent Playschool. It appeared in the live 3rd Degree show as well as Ronnie Johns. Felicity loved the way they âgot darker and darkerâ as the love story developed between Gretchen and Simon in subsequent sketches. âWell,â she corrects herself, ânot between Gretchen and Simon; Gretchen was in love with Simon.â Her affections were not reciprocated. In fact, the sketches âturned into a big âshitting on Gretchenâ competitionâ as Simon and Sigmund set up Gretchen in order to cut her down. âIt was so much fun to do,â says Felicity. âIt was great.â
Some characters didnât make it from stage to screen, like âThe Inbredsâ â hillbilly characters who were brother and sister as well as boyfriend and girlfriend. âI didnât really understand the concept of things being âtoo bigâ for TV,â Felicity says. âI had no idea it could be an issue. They were really funny and good on stage, but they were just too big for television.â
Judy de Groot
Another character who never made it to air was Judy de Groot, a school counsellor. âIâd written heaps of sketches for her. We would read them around the table and everyone was laughing and I was laughing. Weâd do the scene, and that was fine as well. And then weâd put it in front of a live audience and it didnât breathe â for some reason, in a studio it was just weird. So we thought, weâll pre-record it on location somewhere. We did that, and then played that back to the audience in between the live sketches, and again it just didnât work, and we didnât know why. Thatâs something we really had to learn: we had characters that were hilarious in the room, but â I donât know what happened between the room and filming â some just didnât make it.â
One character who did come to life â and continues to live on for fans â was lawn bowls instructor with the serious speech impediment, Heidi. âSheâs not a character,â Felicity insists. âI met her in real life. She was just âready to goâ.â
At a bowling club for a friendâs party, Wardy confessed utter ignorance of the ways of lawn bowls. âThis bowling instructor stepped up â she was so awkward: about my age, and had that strange dichotomy of being very womanly while living just for sports â and said:
ââOkay, we have four teamsh â you have to take a shilver band, or an oranshe band, or aâ¦â.
âI was just looking at this woman, going âare you for realâ¦?â
âShe was wearing zinc, Steve Waugh sunglasses, blue knee-length shorts, and a blue polo t-shirt that said ârockânâbowlâ â itâs all in the show. I justâ¦ it wasâ¦ just incredible. There was nothing about the character that I made up physically.
âShe went through and explained the rules about how this hilarious lawn bowls competition was gonna go for about five minutes, and then at the end, she goes, âof the two teamsh, the winner getsh the asheshâ¦â â she had this little trophy of âthe ashesâ â ââ¦ and the losher getsh the donkeysh arsheâ¦â â and there was this little picture of the donkeyâs arse. And she lost it â she just thought it was the funniest thing.
âI didnât think, âIâm gonna make a character out of her!â I just went to work the next week and went, âMy god, it was so funny â there was this chickâ¦ blah, blah, blahâ¦â and Chris said, âYou should write a sketch about itâ. âOhâ¦ okay!â We ended up writing about five or six more of those in the second season.â
I let Felicity know how much this reminds me of that story Garry McDonald occasionally tells of the airline stewardess with the âshot jawâ and bogan accent who gave him and David Frost some grief. Her name was Norma Gunstonâ¦
âThere are moments like those where my eyes just sparkle now,â Felicity says, âbecause I had no experience writing comedy or doing comedy before Ronnie Johns. It didnât occur to me that everything that I see every single day is a possibility.â
Like all successful television sketch comedies, some items were outstanding; a few were painful; many were somewhere in between. But like all successful television sketch comedies, few agree on which sketches fall into which categories. I recall 2GB talkback radio host Ray Hadley, who trades professionally in perpetual outrage, being particularly gobsmacked by a Ronnie Johns sketch. Specifically, he was flabbergasted that Channel Ten would put to air a sketch that involved the cast spitting food onto one another. Essentially, itâs a dinner party that falls to pieces with a food fight.
âThatâs what he got worked up about?â Felicity demands incredulous. I take her point. When I saw it on DVD I found it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Australia Youâre Standing In It âChunky Custardâ sketch, and more importantly, utterly hilarious.
âThis sounds sentimental and daggy, but that was the last scene that we filmed for the last episode of the first season, and at the end of that sketch was the moment where I looked around and went, âOh my god, I get paid for thisâ. It was really one of the best moments of my whole life: just sitting there, spitting food at my mates.â
She elaborates: one of the teamâs policies, established early on, was to avoid âcorpsingâ â the breaking of character by laughing, or causing other cast members to laugh. âWe didnât like it. We wouldnât film it; it wouldnât go to air. Not to say that we never broke character and never laughed, but in the beginning, we were quite hard on that. We didnât want the audience to think that we were having more fun than they were.â
According to Felicity, that was one of only two scenes ever retained featuring the team corpsing, and the DVD contains an extra thirty seconds of them losing it. âThere was supposed to be this carry-on effect where someone said something offensive and Jordan spat onto James, James spat onto Heath, Heath spat onto me, I spat onto Dan and Dan spat onto Caz. There were so many disgusting bits â it was one of my favourite sketches that we did. Thereâs a bit where ham lands in Penderâs mouth â itâs so disgusting. Itâs gross. So much fun.â
That was a gross moment in a sketch from the final episode. Thereâs a similarly golden âgrossâ moment for Felicity in a sketch in the first episode, in which she âhostsâ a kidsâ show with a puppet frog and they âget to knowâ each other very well in the process. âI donât know if I would do that again,â Felicity admits. âThere was a lot of stuff that, if it made us laugh, we just did it. We didnât really think of the consequences. I was a pretty big attention-seeker and I was like, âthatâll make 200 pople laugh in a sudio audienceâ, forgetting that everyone would see it.â Forgetting, perhaps, that âeveryoneâ included people she also knew. That first episode went to air with Felicityâs family watching proudly.
âMy sister rang me the next day and went, âGrandma and Grandpa came over to watch the show last night, and I had to sit there while you received cunnilingus from a frog. I am gonna kill you!ââ Understandably, Felicity avoided visiting her family for a while. âPoor Grandma! All she wants is to be proud of me. She wants to tell all her friends, but usually Iâm doing things that she canât brag about. Grandmaâs not any less proud of me but she couldnât go to a CWA meeting and go âmy granddaughterâs on a lovely program called The Ronnie Johnâs Half Hourâ¦â.â
âEveryoneâ also included people Felicity didnât know. âAbout six months after weâd filmed it, this guy leaned over to me in a pub â itâs so clear in my mind; I donât get recognised very often, which is good and fine and appropriate â but this guy leaned over to me and went, âHey, hey, are you from Ronnie Johns Half Hour?â I went, âOh, yeah!â He goes, âI loved the frog sketchâ. Iâm like âOoooooohâ¦ Yuck, yuck, yuck.ââ
Wardy on board
Ronnie Johns came to an end with the clearest path appearing almost immediately before Heath Franklin: his âChopperâ character clearly had a life on stage beyond the show. And despite initially sussing Wardy out as a bit of a trouble-maker â (âI am a bit of a trouble-maker; he wasnât too far off the mark!â) â Heath hit it off very well with Felicity, so Chris McDonald, as producer of Franklinâs Chopper tour. made Wardy an offer.
âI didnât really have a job,â Felicity recalls. âWell, none of us had jobs â but Chris said, âYou wanna be tour manager?â and Iâm like, âYeah!â He went, âYou wanna be stage manager?â and I went, âYeah, all right!ââ
Despite utter inexperience, Felicity helped Heath and Chris organise a 90-city national tour. âIt meant four months of living in each otherâs pockets. And it was the first tour, so we didnât know if it was going to be successful or anything, so often it would be me and the two boys sharing a hotel room. Not like a hotel apartment, where weâd each have our own room â we would literally be sharing a room. I was going through a tough period of my life and it was really, really hard work and we just knew each other inside-out.â The following year, Felicity served as production manager for Heathâs comedy festival Chopper shows.
That still doesnât explain how she got back on stage. As a stand-up comic in her own right. In fact, initially, Wardy considered cobbling together a character-based show. But she gave up on it. âIâd started writing one but I just couldnât get it together in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it would have been me producing, writing, directing, all of that stuff, and it was just too much for me.â
Enter. Stage right.
What happened next, Wardy explains, is that following the first Chopper tour, she travelled overseas and ended up in Edinburgh the year Phil Nichol was directing a production of Breaker Morant for the Fringe Festival (that is, 2007). In addition to Heath Franklin, the cast included the likes of Brendon Burns, Sammy J and Adam Hills. Hanging out with Heath meant, at times, hanging out with Hillsy. So Wardy got to know Hillsy well enough to be hanging out with him while he toured Australia subsequently with the live Spicks and Specktacular.
âWe were out and at a pub with Adam and he said, âDo you want a drink?â,â Wardy relates. âI said, âNo, Iâm fineâ. He said, âItâs on meâ. I said, âNo, I donât drinkâ. He said, âReally? If youâre like this when youâre sober, weâre gonna get you on Spicks and Specks; If you can be half as funny as thisâ¦â.â
Hearing the words coming out of her mouth, Wardy checks herself with her customary modesty: âI sound like a real dickhead saying this. Sorry, Iâm not trying to say Iâm funny or anything like that. I was like, âYeah, yeah, yeah, sure Adam, nicest guy in the world, thatâs a really nice thing to sayâ.â In Felicityâs head, Adam was paying her a nice compliment; she never expected to be invited onto the show. But she was:
âI get a call two weeks later saying, âHi, Iâm calling from Spicks and Specks, Adamâs recommended you, Iâm just wondering if youâd be interested in coming on the showâ¦â.â
Felicity finds it a bit hard to believe that she was asked onto the show for â she says â âno better reasonâ than sheâs âa friend of Adamâs friendâ. Sure, sheâd appeared on Ronnie Johns, but she herself is the first to acknowledge that since it was âquite âcultyââ, nobody really watched it (except Ray Hadley, during a slow week, when sport was rightfully getting more press than the arts, and for the right reasons). And furthermore, even if she was âa funny sketch comedianâ (which she is), it doesnât necessarily follow that sheâd be âfunny in real lifeâ or â enjoyable to watchâ or âaffableâ or, she concludes, âany of those thingsâ. (Felicity Ward is in fact all those things.) âSo it was a pretty big risk.â (Actually, it wasnât â not as far as Hillsy was concerned, clearly.)
âThen I went on and it was great. I had lots of fun. They got me back a couple of times and every time I finished there I thought, âMaybe itâs all right that Iâm just me; maybe I donât need to do character stuff.ââ
Variety - the spice of taking your own life
That is the plain truth of it: some people really are natural born entertainers whose best work is pretty much whatever they do when theyâre being themselves â but learning how to just be yourself on stage is one of the most difficult things to do; often it is other people around you who recognise the natural talent people you have just being yourself.
Hillsy wasnât the only person who recognised Wardyâs talent and sought to include her in his show. Ali McGregor, the operatic soprano and singer of burlesque who has been hosting a late night variety show on the festival circuit for the last few years, encountered Wardy at Adelaide Fringe in 2008 and, with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to follow shortly thereafter, asked her if she might âwant to do something one nightâ.
âIâm like, âUmâ¦ yeah, okay, sure!ââ Felicity relates, not having thought anything of it at the time. âThen I ran into Ali again in Melbourne and sheâs like, âWhen do you want to come on?â Iâm like, âUmâ¦ ohâ¦ likeâ¦ erâ¦ whenever?â She said, âWellâ¦ just tell me when.ââ A couple of weeks later, with the festival almost over, Ali saw Wardy in the street and said, âWeâre running out of slots; do you want to do something?â Felicity had to agree, she says, âbecause I knew that if I didnât, I would really hate myselfâ. So Wardy was locked in for the final night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
âI didnât have to do comedy or anything like that,â Felicity says. âI could do anything, basically.â Jordan Raskopoulos, Felicityâs old Ronnie Johns colleague and himself a veteran of several subsequent festivals, both as a solo act and as one third of The Axis of Awesome, had some remote control toy tanks that, when âfiredâ, resulted in giving the user electric shocks. âI thought, what I should do, I should order these electrocuting toy tanks online and use them in the show,â Wardy decided. âI will pick someone from the audienc, ask them trivia questions, and if they get them wrong, Iâll zap them â and vice-versa. I donât know where that idea came from but that was the idea.â
Electrocuting tanks were duly ordered and arrived on the Friday. Felicityâs gig, as a guest on Ali McGregorâs Late Night Variety Show, was on the Sunday. But Felicity happened to be on the phone when the postman buzzed her, and even though she instructed him to âjust bring them upâ, it was ages later that she finished her phone call and realised he hadnât come up. âI was staying in this little apartment in Melbourne,â Wardy says. âThey werenât outside my door, they werenât in the foyer, they werenât outsideâ¦ he must have just stolen them. I was like, âOh no! Oh no! What am I gonna do now?â I just started freaking out.â
With twelve minutes to fill on Aliâs show, never having done stand-up before, and not much more than two days to write something, Felicity began to have a breakdown. Or would have, had she not been keeping notebooks full of ideas since her Ronnie Johns days. âI just started writing furiously â anything I could think of. I ended putting together ten minutes.â It was at this point that Felicity Ward began planning her own demise, as outlined at the beginning of this piece. It was her coping mechanism: it didnât matter how bad her performance would be â and she was certain it was going to be terrible â because sheâd already formulated her exit strategy. She was going to take her own life. And thenâ¦
âIt was amazing. It went really well. I thought, âWhy have I been waiting so long to do this?ââ
Just like a Hollywood film
Two weeks later, Felicity decided to move to Melbourne, started doing stand-up and began creating her first festival show. Four months later she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe with her award-winning show Ugly As A Child.
âI figured out the other day, I did less than twenty stand-up gigs before the first show at Melbourne Fringe, which is not enough time to run-in a craftâ¦â Wardy says.
Yeah, okay, Felicity. Shut up. Except that, being so humble, down-to-earth and modest, talk about it all you like. Wardyâs welcome to say whatever she wants about her comedy because sheâs not only good, sheâs also right: she did take less than twenty gigs before she was clearly being acknowledged as brilliant. And although it âshouldâ take more time to run-in a craft, it is a craft, not a science, so none of the laws or rules have to hold in every situation. You can know all there is to know about comedy before realising that irrespective of what you know, if you get in front of an audience and fail to make them laugh, in that moment, you know nothingâ¦
Wardy, on the other hand, knows sheâs onto something good. Or at least, she should. Ugly As A Child is hilarious, involving singing, characters, acting, absurdism, audience participation (with the trivia quiz-based electrocuting tanks) all based on an uncomfortable trawl through an awkward childhood. I canât help wondering if I can detect autobiography done up as fiction.
âThereâs nothing fictional about it! Itâs just autobiography,â Felicity admits. And then qualifies her statement. There are a couple of elements that arenât based on fact. Judy de Groot, the school counsellor character who never quite worked on Ronnie Johns, works a treat in Ugly As A Child. And in the first, Melbourne Fringe incarnation of the show, a segment called âMeat Dadâ, that didnât make it to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival version, isnât real. Although it did grow out of a real element of Felicityâ life. âBasically, my dad used to go out west and sell vacuum cleaners for a living, so heâd be gone for weeks at a time,â Wardy explains. âI thought it would be funny if I had this puppet called âMeat Dadâ which was two steaks stuck to a ruler with a face on it, and I would talk to him while dad was away. That and the school counsellor were made-up, but apart from that, everything in the show is true.â
Ugly in Sydney
After a successful Melboure Comedy Festival season that saw Wardy make the shortlist for âBest Newcomerâ â the award she won at the Melbourne Fringe late last year â she brought Ugly as a Child to Sydney for Sydneyâs Cracker Comedy Festival. âI was really nervous,â she admits. âI said, âLook, Grandma, I really want you to see this, but I have to let you know there is some really full-on language in it and I donât want you to be offended. Come if youâd like; I want you to be there. Butâ¦â
âAfter the show, I came out and I was so nervous. She just came up to me and said, âI am so proud of you. I thought it was wonderfulâ. It was like, âItâs okay, Granâs proud of me. Good.ââ Of course, Gran also enjoyed Wardyâs turn on Thank God Youâre Here â itâs a family show, so thereâs no swearing.
The question, at the time of our conversation, is: what next for Felicity? She already had her next show planned. It was to be about hedonism. But before doing a hedonism show, she was going to engage in some travelling to the UK for pleasure. Which meant she wouldnât have time to work on a new show for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival and beyond. âIâm not comfortable having a half-baked show,â she says. Thankfully, âplan bâ made itself apparent instead.
âWhat happened,â Wardy eplains, âwas I did this gig at a Bar Mitzvah. It was the worst gig Iâve ever done â excruciating from start to finish. The whole story of how it happened was a mess.â Despite going home from the Bar Mitzvah âdevastatedâ, she decided to write about what happened. She ended up with a story, two pages long, which she delivered as stand-up. âAnd then I just started writing essays because I really like doing them,â she says. One of them was about the time she attended a poetry night. âThat essayâs called, âI forgot to tell you, I hate poery!ââ she says.
Whatâs amazing is that it took friend and producer Chris McDonald suggest âWhy not just do an essay show?â After all, says Felicity, â theyâre crafted, well-written and humorous. I feel comfortable doing that. So thatâs the next adventure.â That essay show was lovingly entitled Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron, and has served Wardy well: it was her 2009 Melbourne Fringe show, in preparation for the Aussie festival circuit of 2010. Meanwhile, the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe was impressed by Felicity Wardâs Edinburgh Season â the most recent incarnation of Ugly as a Child.
Meanwhile, that hedonist show may be developed down the track â which means Felicity can finally rest easy. Although she was once terrified that sheâd âused upâ all her âgood stuffâ early on, and now, unable to ever write another funny joke, it was time to âpack it up and retire undefeated,â she knows itâs not the case. âThings have been happening lately that Iâve been writing about and trying nervously, and theyâve been great. As in, the audience is responding very well. So thatâs a relief Iâm not âall outâ after thirteen months of stand-up.â
Indeed. Rest assured, even if she was one of the last people to realise it, Felicity Ward is here for the long haul.