Merrick is Grouse-o


I recently interviewed Timothy J. Ross – aka ‘Rosso’ of ‘Merrick & Rosso’ fame – in honour of the DVD release of Series 2 of The Merrick & Rosso Show.  One of the points that came up was the fact that Merrick & Rosso have sold a version of their Show to the UK, which is excellent news. While that interview is going to appear in the next issue of FilmInk (he wrote, at the end of September 2009 – in case you’re reading this long after that date) I thought it would be nice to pull out my first ever Merrick & Rosso interview – one of several – that took place with Merrick Watts in 1998. Enjoy.

Merrick is Grouse-o

“When people think of ‘Merrick & Rosso’ they think of my old man as a builder’s labourer with a massive coin slot and half a dozen cans shoved down the front of his pants,” Merrick Watts says.

Merrick’s dad is no builder’s labourer, but I can see where the confusion may lie. My own first reaction to Merrick & Rosso, not having seen any of their work, is to file them in the same category as, say, Derek & Clive: the yobbo’s yobboes. Images of Tim Ferguson, from that golden Big Gig era of the Doug Anthony Allstars, creep into my head: “me name’s Shane-o, but me mates call me... Shane-o”.

That the duo were meeting with every sort of success only made matters worse: I was anticipating the comedic equivalent of a regular six-pack of Stubbsies1. The faux glam of the lime suits, the big, bubbly writing and the taking of Peter Allen’s name in vain on their Mardi Grouse posters offered, at best, evidence of the pair jumping on the current cocktail/easy listening band wagon (the only wagon they’d ever be on, though, considering that their first show was entitled Pissheads from Outer Space). Boy am I wrong!

Merrick insists that his parents are “very interesting people” who contributed greatly to his development as a comic. Papa Watts, “incredibly patriotic, very funny, very witty and very talented”, is also a “f*cking total smart arse.” When Merrick was a boy, friends refused to go to his house to play because his father would pay out on them, making them feel small. “I used to think it was hilarious; I never thought twice about it because in my house the only friends I ever had were ones that would mouth off back to him, and then my dad would respect them. If they weren’t a smart arse, he wouldn’t like them. So that meant the only mates I had were smart arses.”

Mama Watts, on the other hand, is “about as Aussie as you can get. My mum is hardcore.” Growing up in Broken Hill, the daughter of a miner, Merrick’s mum is also described as “fiercely patriotic” as well as being a “very, very hard-working Aussie woman.”

Avoiding the cheap gag temptation to suggest that Merrick’s mum is the one with the coin slot and the six-pack, I instead enquire as to how two so disparate entities could ever have got together.

“I’ve got no idea,” Merrick says, “but I can tell now why they got divorced. I can’t imagine why my parents would ever be together; they’re just absolutely poles apart. My parents are great. In their individual climate they’re fantastic.

“My Mum’s sense of humour is something that has helped me through what I’ve been doing and has really been an influence on what I am. She’s got a good Aussie sense of humour: she likes to have a good time; she likes to be vocal. The energy, I think I get from my Mum.”

As well as a father who likes to take the piss, Merrick’s older brother and his mates were also smart arses. Like many comedians before him, Merrick realised at an early age that “if you weren’t a smart arse you just didn’t get through school properly”. Merrick’s wasn’t the sort of school where you’d get beaten up. Instead, you’d be “bullied verbally. All the time. It was a circus of smart arses and I was the ringleader.” With such a proving ground to grow up in, it is no surprise that Merrick Watts is a comedian. In fact, it also really isn’t surprising, though it may be enviable, that Merrick is only 24 years old.

“People always get surprised to hear that,” Merrick says, playing it down. “A lot of comics start when they’re 25, 26, 27, but I knew I wanted to be a comic before I even knew I wanted to do comedy. When I was a kid I used to just look at the television and think, ‘oh yeah, one day I’ll be on the telly’. I had no idea what I was going to do, but there was no doubt in my mind. In high school I still didn’t know that I was going to be a comedian. I thought I wanted to do funny stuff, but I wanted to be on television. And then when I was about 19 I decided I was going to be a comic. By the time I was 20 I was doing it.”

Not long into his stand-up career, Merrick met Tim Ross. The pair had “been mates for a couple of years,” meaning that they had become familiar with one another on the comedy circuit. Back then Tim led a band, a comedy troupe called Black Rose2 . “I used to go and see Black Rose play,” says Merrick. “I thought that they were pretty funny.” One night when both men were on the same bill they introduced themselves to each other, and, in Merrick’s words, “that was it.”

Rosso, three years Merrick’s senior, grew up near the beach while Merrick lived “up in the hills”. Despite their coming from “completely opposite” sides of town, Merrick claims that the two of them have very similar backgrounds. “We both were left-of-centre or right-of-centre – either way, we were both not ‘centre’; we also grew up in a very similar physical climate.” Merrick claims that they were both reared in forested areas with a high bushfire danger. “Not that I’m saying bushfires determine your comic abilities” he adds, “it’s just that where he grew up was very similar aesthetically. There’s a lot of similarities there: he also went to a school with a lot of smart arses.”

As they both have a similar sense of humour, the pair agree on most things. “There aren’t many ideas or jokes that one will suggest that the other one doesn’t like. We never have to argue about what we’re gonna do or anything like that. We sort of agree on most things because we have a similar sense of humour.”

Merrick says that Pissheads from Outer Space, his first collaboration with Rosso, “wasn’t dissimilar to what we do now. It was just very, very raw and very, very messy.” It was also very, very successful, considering that it was the first show of a new act. Its follow-up, The Imposters, was mounted a few months later, and it also proved successful. Finally, The Merrick & Rosso 5000 was conceived and mounted for 1997’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and that, says Merrick, is “where it all fell into place.”

A Triple J slot followed, almost as a matter of course. Although, truth be told, it was really the result of Merrick & Rosso’s professionalism. Helen Razer and Judith Lucy were broadcasting their Triple J show The Ladies Lounge from Melbourne during the Festival, and were featuring a horde of comics that day.

“It was our second time on national radio and we wanted to make a pretty strong impression,” Merrick recounts, “so we took in a few of our letters to read out over the air.” As it went down a treat, the team was invited to appear more frequently, for a bit of a casual chat. Then, during last year’s Sydney tour, the offer of a weekly slot was made, and accepted. “I think it was just ‘right time, right place’,” Merrick modestly admits.

As was Planet Merrick & Rosso, no doubt. Planet Merrick & Rosso is a five-minute comedy slot that can be seen each week on the Comedy Channel. Each episode consists of a short film. “They’re called ‘interstitials’ in the television industry,” Merrick informs me. I don’t know about the technical jargon, but I guess those little time-filler clips you’d occasionally see before The Goodies on the ABC must have been ‘interstitials’. Meaning that The Goodies and whatever preceded it… were ‘stitials’…? Anyway, the beauty of Merrick & Rosso’s interstitial films is their complete off-the-wall simplicity. “We don’t have a script, we have no lights, no studio time, nothing like that,” continues Merrick. “We travel really, really light; we have a cameraman and a sound man. Basically, we just get a f*cking camera and we hit the road.”

Merrick gives an example of one of the films: “We get a camera and we dress up as what people in Sydney call ‘real hardcore Westies’ and we rock down to Bondi Beach and just start asking people questions. We wear hidden microphones and most of the time the camera is just not obvious, so people often have no idea that they’re being filmed. It’s shot-gun comedy; it’s really hit-and-run and it’s great fun to do.”

In fact, Merrick goes as far as to assure me that he has encountered fans who get Foxtel purely to have access to Planet Merrick & Rosso. “We go ‘hang on, our show is only five minutes a week…’ and they go ‘nuh, nuh’. They’ve seen the shows before, and in some instances they’ve only heard about them, and they’re going and signing up with Foxtel.”

I, of course, find this hard to believe. I’d want more than one program, and certainly more than five minutes of it, if I were to sign up to cable. Even if the show was Duckman or South Park. However, if Planet Merrick & Rosso is as successful as Merrick says, I can only say “release a best-of video, you fools, you’ll make a mint!” Or at least, get Packer to bankroll a series. Then The Sydney Morning Herald’s comedy hack can stop re-writing the ‘there’s no funny Australian comedy on television’ story that gets published in a colour supplement every couple of months.

“There’s been rumours that we might do a half-hour program or a series of half-hour program at some stage,” Merrick admits, “ but it is all hearsay and chit-chat, there’s been nothing proposed as yet. But obviously that’s the next thing we’d be looking to do – a bit of television.” He goes on to say that there have been some “partial offers and soundings” from certain networks, but he and Rosso are not interested as yet because “it doesn’t suit who we are and what we’re doing at the moment”.

What Merrick & Rosso are doing at the moment is Mardi Grouse, their latest stage show. “I’ve got no fucken idea what the title means,” Merrick confesses. “Neither does Rosso. He said, ‘I want to a show called Mardi Grouse’ and I said, ‘Aw, hang on…’ He said, ‘No, no, it’s good.’ Oh. No worries then…”

Mardi Grouse, according to Merrick, picks up where the hugely successful Merrick & Rosso 5000 left off: “Prank phone calls, prank letters, prank films... The way we see it is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.” Hence, Mardi Grouse offers a “new angle” on a similar show, with lots of new material. However, as far as Sydneysiders are concerned, Mardi Grouse also shows Merrick & Rosso to be a lot slicker than we’d remember them. “Last time we were in Sydney we weren’t stumbling around in the dark or anything,” Merrick explains, “but it’s six to eight months since we were last in Sydney performing. Over that time we’ve done about thirty or forty shows, and that’s thirty or forty shows’ experience. We’ve really got it down pat now.”

Two years, four shows, a regular slot on radio and television. I think it’s fair to say that it has been a rapid rise for Merrick & Rosso. “I suppose in some ways it has,” Merrick concedes, with some reservation. “Rosso and I work very hard on what we do to get where we’re going so it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise to us.”

For Merrick, honesty is the secret to Merrick & Rosso’s success. “We don’t look as though we’re putting on the ‘Hey, this is CRAZY MERRICK…’ routine,” he says. “Obviously, the Merrick that’s on stage is different to the Merrick at his home. It’s the same with Rosso. But we don’t put on characters. Part of the appeal to audiences is that we look like a couple of mates who just tell each other jokes. We tell the audience jokes and it’s very, very honest. It really is Rosso and I, the way we are.”

It is Merrick’s honesty that prevents him from glorifying his own work thus far, which he refuses to analyse or dwell upon. “At the moment,” he says, “what I’m doing is not artistic, it’s just funny. When people ask us what sort of comedy we do, we go ‘funny comedy’. It’s that simple. There’s no education, there’s no politics, there’s no trying to tell people how bad the world is. People just come along and then you laugh and then you go home. It’s as simple as that.”

It is as simple as that. But if their success continues to grow as rapidly as it is growing now, one imagines that this will be the last tour that we see Merrick & Rosso in a venue such as the Comedy Hotel, where Mardi Grouse is currently playing. I suspect that next time, it will be the Enmore, or perhaps even the State. Merrick denies this.

“The difference we see in our shows compared to other comedy shows,” he begins, “is that you can put most comedy shows into a theatre without any problem, and you’ve got more problems putting them into a pub. But with us, it is pub-oriented comedy. We like people being able to smoke and to drink… We put on a night of entertainment. It’s like being at a barbecue where we tell all the jokes. It’s more like party than a show.”

Gorgeous sentiments, Merrick Watts. Any final comments?

“This show is Mardi Grouse. And Mardi Grouse is grouse.”



1. Having only seen Richard Stubbs a couple of times on the box – in stubbies and blue singlet – I’d somehow mistaken him for something other than the brilliant comic he is. I was younger, more foolish and far less ready to admit it!

2. Black Rose still play, as Rosso told me in that FilmInk interview, in a bit that didn’t make the final cut, and so I present it here:

We played at the V Festival this year. We did a gig at the Oxford Arts Factory about three or four weeks ago. I drop in and out of it. The V Festival was a blast. It was only Melbourne and Sydney, but I think we’ll do that again next year. So we’re still actively doing it, but it really is, when we get a moment. When we played that gig four weeks ago, I don’t think the boys have played better. We’re still a good, funny act. We went and did a song on Kerri-Anne to promo it. That stuff’s still unreal, to sing a song on morning television. Tick that f*cking box, motherf*ckers!

Unfortunately, the guys all live interstate. If we all lived in the one city, we probably wouldn’t play live at all. We’d just write, rehearse and record albums that noone was interested in buying, and keep hobby music the way it is. But as it is, we find that for us to get together to play, we need to do shows or get someone to pay to get everyone in the one city at the one time. That’s pretty much how it works.

Noble Cliches

This interview with Ross Noble took place one sleepy Sunday during the 2001 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for Revolver, in anticipation for his subsequent Sydney run. So, this being an old interview, ignore the show details at the bottom.

You will notice recurring themes in these recurring Ross Noble interviews – attempts to encapsulate what exactly the comic genius does on stage. Or what it is I think he’s doing. Hence the title ‘Noble Cliches’ – the cliches are mine, about him. I forget what this one was called – probably the same as the last one:

The Noble Art of Comedy

A funny thing happened to English comic Ross Noble one day, trying to order a ‘vegie burger’ at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mildura. Ross claims that the woman behind the counter “just looked at me as though I’d asked for a polystyrene head,” before replying that all McDonald’s hamburgers featured vegetables amongst their ingredients. When Noble explained that, as a vegetarian, he didn’t want any meat, the woman offered him a chicken burger. “Chicken’s a sort of a meat, isn’t it?” the comic pointed out. Deciding to just get fries instead, and wanting to make a meal of it, Ross asked for both a small serving of fries and a large one. This must have thrown the woman, because she wanted to know why he didn’t “just have the medium fries” instead. “She couldn’t grasp any concept of space, time or what was animal, vegetable or mineral,” Ross says. “I was literally just standing there going, ‘What the fuck have I walked into?’”

If you have seen Noble on stage you may empathise with his McDonald’s misadventure. Ross Noble is a kind of comedic alchemist who seems to create something out of nothing as a way of life. He effectively grabs all manner of concepts of space, time, and what is animal, vegetable and mineral, and contorts them, taking them apart and rebuilding them in a different order. He improvises material around whatever prompts his audience gives him. However, Ross himself is loath to put it in those terms.

“If you were to come out and fire yourself from a cannon, land on top of a big ladder, do a big summersault, land on the floor and present a cheque to a crippled kid,” he reckons, “somebody would say, ‘What about that guy with the crippled kid?’” So Noble is at pains to point out that there is a bit more than merely “improvising around the audience” taking place. Although it isn’t necessarily obvious, the performances always contain developed or developing ‘material’ within them — or as Ross puts it, “stuff that I’ve done before”.

“With material,” Ross Noble explains, “I’ll try to expand it to see where it goes. I’ll have an idea and play around with it each night, try to take it in different directions and see what happens with that idea.” If he wants to, Ross can improvise a whole night’s show, or he can do an hour of “solid material”. The problem is that if he improvises everything, people complain that he “hasn’t got any jokes”, and if he only does material, his dedicated fans, having virtually seen it all before, bemoan the lack of improvisation. Furthermore, there are always critics who need to know just how much is improvised and how much is ‘material’. As a result, Noble is no longer interested in drawing the distinction between what is improvised and what is developing monologue. “I used to really try to pick it apart: ‘Is it this? Do I do that?’ In the end, it’s more a matter of, ‘If they’re laughing, what difference does it make?’ I just go out there to have a laugh, and hope I don’t get bottled off.”

Ross’s allusion of being ‘shot out of a cannon’ is a telling statement. Such imagery recurs in Noble’s casual metaphors, and stems from a childhood obsession with circuses. This obsession pretty much formed Ross Noble as a comic. When he first became a performer, it was one of the ‘street theatre’ variety that juggled and rode a unicycle. The way he structured the performance was to know how each stage of the show ended – that is to say, with which trick each section would culminate – allowing the rest of the performance to consist of free-form dialogue and gags leading eventually to that end. The tricks, which had no set order, built dramatically to the big finale. As a stand-up, Ross’s performances are the same, with ‘ideas’ in the place of ‘tricks’. “Stuff fits together in any order,” Noble explains. “You can link all the thoughts together.” However, he does admit that the constant interconnectivity of all things can sometimes be mentally overwhelming. When that happens, he says, it’s time to “sit down and watch ‘Burgo’s Catch Phrase’”.

Noble’s obsession with the circus continues on another level: his biggest hero is Evel Knievel, and Ross admits that his house is “one big homage” to the stuntman. Noble is also into all modern manifestations of the circus – “monster truck shows, guys on motorbikes jumping double decker buses,” as well as the guys who fire themselves out of cannons. Ross himself is into tamer versions of the same – though to no great proficiency – such as skateboarding, surfing and rollerblading. “I always buy whatever new thing comes out,” he admits, listing “boots with springs on them; one of those BMXs where you can spin the whole thing around on the front wheel…” but, he says, “I’m never at home so I never get the chance to play with them”.

I would go so far as to say that Noble’s work is the stand-up version of extreme sports, his humour bridging the gap between disparate topics as the comedic equivalent of the motorcyclist’s leap across double deckers. And Ross agrees. It is conceptually a “big extravaganza”, but, he says, “not in the sort of pretentious Cirque du Soleil ‘climb into the world of mystery’ type of thing”. Rather, Noble is of the opinion that his show is the best live experience that anyone will ever experience. And furthermore, he adds, “if they don’t come to see the show, they’ll die.”

There you have it. Avoid death and watch Ross Noble avoid the comedic equivalent of the same doing extreme comedy stunts at the Valhalla, Glebe Point Rd, 7pm from 24th April to 6th May.

Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2007


I have had the pleasure of watching Dave Jory develop as a comic, having judged his very first Raw Comedy heat in Sydney a few years back. He was a bit scary then - the bald head and the suit made him resemble one of those villains in a Guy Ritchie flick.

I was kind of eyeing the exits to make good my escape if he proved to be as dangerous as his image threatened.

Afterwards he came up and asked for advice. I told him he needed to be less scary up front, to win the audience over - one of the other judges thought he might cut them.

He learnt pretty quickly. Now Dave Jory lives up to the the title of his show - he's a polished stand-up comic.  Hence his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Dave Jory is Polished.

You should come and see him live.

Book now.

I should also tell you that the basic design of Dave's flyer is by Kim Longue, who does the poster artwork for Sydney's original Comedy Store.

going halves

I am also producing Going Halves, a show also featuring two comics on the rise. James Lieutenant I have been watching in Raw Comedy for several years now; it's not something that crops up in the normal corse of interacting with him as a stand-up comic, but James is a gifted visual artist on the verge of something major. The same is true of his comedy.

Tom Gibson has been doing comedy for about as long, and last year placed third in Canberra's 'Green Faces' comedy competition.

These guys are the fresh face of the next generation of Aussie stand up.

Book now.

And I want to add a note about the flyer. James organised the photo and insisted in no uncertain terms that I was to use it as is, without manipulating it in any way. I guess he wanted to ensure I didn't do to it what I did to the photos that made up the flyer for his Cracker show, Painful Truths, in which he split the bill with Ben Ellwood.

Somewhere on the way to being close to funny…

My 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival experience began with a flight to Melbourne two weeks prior, for the purpose of being interviewed in print and on radio in order to make members of the public aware that there was a comedy appreciation course that some of them may wish to attend.

It was an great experience. How could it not be? In the process of flying from Sydney to Melbourne, the most amazing thing happened: the very act somehow made me a funnier person. Although, having a funny - or at least unusual - name helps. My ‘real’ name happens to be ‘Demetrius Romeo’ (‘Dom’ is a nickname bestowed upon me by a PhysEd teacher - a professional rugby league footballer - in 1982, when I was in Year 5; “Dom will keep score,” he announced, as we undertook a four-week softball competition - and I still don’t know if his professional rugby league footballer’s brain thought I was really called ‘Dominic’).

So don't be surprised or incredulous when I say it was like I was automatically on my way to turning into a Perrier Award-quality, world class comedian. Well, if the boarding pass for my flight is anything to go by, that is! I mean to say, there must have been a similar flight for Demetri Martin that enabled him to make the transformation from just a guy to a Perrier Award-quality comic (ie the one that got him to Edinburgh Fringe in 2003.)

Turns out the travel agent's clientele includes comedians.


Not A Bad Egg After All

Still quite early in the course of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, comedian Matthew Hardy’s show Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions] was proving very popular. Of the one hundred eighty-odd shows on during the festival, Willy Wonka Explained was one of eight or so that had sold out. Hardy had tapped into our collective unconscious.

Be that as it may, Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, whom Matthew Hardy has somehow coerced to be in his stage show, and with whom I had the pleasure of chatting to at one of the Sydney semi-finals of Raw Comedy, has been about the easiest person to interview. This is in part because Cole is an actress and voice-over queen, so she knows precisely how to communicate. There were no technical considerations to take into account – she spoke well, into the microphone, without ‘hissing’ or ‘popping’. The fact that we’d already chatted about much of this before the interview took place certainly helped. Julie Dawn Cole is a great story-teller. Most importantly, however, she is a sweetie – sincere and effusive in conversation.

Our chat was more extensive than the final edit would suggest; it dealt with the Festival show itself, and Cole’s involvement in it, and included her reminiscences of the other ‘kids’ from the film as well as the Oompa Loompas. However, the best edit was the one that dealt soley with Julie’s recollections of filming Willy Wonka, particularly when coupled with excerpts from the film’s soundtrack. Judiciously chosen to provide imagery and/or irony, the songs underline some of the key points beautifully. For that reason, I provide lyrics along with the dialogue below. The songs should be of some interest to the comedy lover because they are the work of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley who also wrote the song ‘The Joker’ (from their musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd) which Gina Riley sang as the theme to Kath and Kim.

With a little luck, Willy Wonka Explained will go on the road – not just in Australia, but also to Edinburgh for the next Fringe Festival.

With its talk of Easter eggs and chocolate, this interview was broadcast on Saturday 10 April 2004 – a fitting treat on the day before Easter.

Enjoy the print version below (at least until the transcript is moved to the Radio Ha Ha website), or, to hear the sound file, subscribe to the FREE podcast Radio Ha Ha by pasting this link into your podcatcher: The Julie Dawn Cole interview is now part of Episode 10.

Music: ‘I Want It Now’ - Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) and Mr Henry Salt (Roy Kinnear)

Veruca Salt: Gooses! Geeses! I want my goose to lay gold eggs for Easter.
Mr Henry Salt: It will, sweetheart.
Veruca Salt: At least a hundred a day…
Mr Henry Salt: Anything you say.
Veruca Salt: …and by the way…
Mr Henry Salt: What?
Veruca Salt: I want a feast!
Mr Henry Salt: You ate before you came to the factory.
Veruca Salt: I want a bean feast.
Mr Henry Salt: One of those.
Veruca Salt: Cream buns and fruitcake with no nuts,
So good you could go nuts.
Mr Henry Salt: You can have all those things when you go home.
Veruca Salt: No, now. I want a ball…

Demetrius Romeo: Julie, how did you originally land the role of Veruca Salt?

JULIE DAWN COLE: I had just started at stage school in London – we have stage schools, where you do half a day’s vocational work and half a day, educational – and they had decided that the brat had to be played by an English girl, so they came to London to do the casting and I just went for a cattle-call audition. I’d only been at the school four months, so it was pretty well my first job, and I got re-called, and re-called, and re-called, and I found that I’d got the part.

Music: ‘Pure Imagination’ - Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder)

Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination,
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination…

JULIE DAWN COLE: The whole thing was magical. It was fantastic. It was filmed in Germany, Munich, for three months, so it was my first trip away from home, having this kind of weird experience, mucking around with the other kids. It was a bit like camp for us: we all hung out together. There was no TV so we played a lot together. And then being a part of this thing, which, little did I know, was going to be with me probably for the rest of my life.

Music: ‘I Want It Now’ - Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole)

I want a party with roomfuls of laughter
Ten thousand tons of ice cream
And if I don’t get the things I am after
I’m going to screeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaammmmmm.

Demetrius Romeo: You actually celebrated your thirteenth birthday during the production of the film.

JULIE DAWN COLE: That’s right. I had my thirteenth birthday when we were filming the scene where I went down the chute. I was sitting in another studio. I was a little bit frightened of the director, it was a bit intimidating and I was sitting there, I think with Denise, in another make-up room somewhere, and somebody came running in saying, ‘you better get down to the set, Mel Stuart’s going mad, you gotta get there, you gotta get there’. I was running, running, running, thinking, ‘oh my god, I’m in trouble now’. I ran into a completely darkened set, and there was a birthday cake there, and everybody was singing happy birthday. I blew the candles out and Mel said, ‘okay, right, now, on with the filming!’ and that was it, and they chucked me down the chute.

Music: ‘I Want It Now’ - Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole)

I want the world
I want the whole world.
I want lock it all up in my pocket,
It’s my bar of chocolate.
Give it to me now…

JULIE DAWN COLE: It was a chocolate cake, and the spooky and bizarre thing is that I don’t like chocolate. Can you believe that? I’ve worked on it since. I can now kind of eat some ‘chocolate’ chocolate – like Easter egg chocolate – but chocolate cake? No way!

Demetrius Romeo: So you were the one kid let loose in the chocolate factory…

JULIE DAWN COLE: …that didn’t eat the props! I was cheap – saved the budget thousands.

Music: ‘The Candy Man’ - Bill, the candy store owner (Aubrey Woods)

Willy Wonka makes everything he bakes
Satisfying and delicious.
Talk about your childhood wishes:
You can even eat the dishes!

Demetrius Romeo: Apart from not wanting to eat the walls of the factory, were there any other negative aspects to making the film?

JULIE DAWN COLE: Well mostly they were good, but there is a rather bizarre aspect. Bearing in mind I was twelve turning thirteen, and this is a very important time for a girl and things happen. You start sprouting in certain areas and you’re very proud of them even though they’re not bigger than a jellybean. I always remember this day when I had to stand in front of the direct and producer while they were scrutinising my chest, saying,

‘Well, no, I can’t see them.’
‘Yeah, I can see them. Look, if she turns this way you can see them.’
‘No, I don’t think…’

And I thought, ‘oh no, please…’

‘We’re gonna have to strap her down and put binders on…’

I was thinking, ‘strap her down and put binders on?’ And I was very proud of my little bumps. Anyway, I think my bumps were so frightened by the whole experience that they regressed.

Music: ‘Pure Imagination’ - Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder)

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it,
Anything you want to, do it,
Want to change the world,
There’s nothing to it.

Demetrius Romeo: Have you had any contact with Gene Wilder?

JULIE DAWN COLE: I saw him when he came to London to do ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’, which is the Neil Simon play. I wrote him a letter saying, ‘Dear Gene, you may remember me, I was Veruca Salt. I used to sit on your lap and you used to tell me stories. I’m coming to see the show and would love to say hello’. I gave it to the stage doorman who said, ‘well, Mr Wilder never sees anybody, he’s gone before the audience are out’. I said, ‘fair enough, but give him the note anyway and I’ll come backstage after the show’. So I rushed around there and Mr Wilder’s dresser was waiting to show me down into the royal sanctum, and he was there and he said, ‘Ah, well, I guess Veruca wasn’t such a bad egg!’

Music: ‘I Want It Now’ - Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole)

I want the works.
I want the whole works.
Presents and prizes and sweets and surprises
Of all shapes and sizes
And now!
Don’t care how, I want it now!
Don’t care how, I want it nooooooooooooow

Demetrius Romeo: Julie Dawn Cole, thank you very much.

JULIE DAWN COLE: Thank you very much, Dom.

And as if that weren’t enough, here’s the yet-to-be-published FilmInk version:

One of the most popular shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival was Matthew Hardy’s Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions], not least of all because it featured Julie Dawn Cole, the actress who played Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory nearly thirty-five years ago. Julie says that appearing in Hardy’s show was a risk and a gamble, but one that paid off. Partaking in this non-reverential look at one of the most popular kids’ flicks ever made, she says, has been “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Julie Dawn Cole had been at drama school a mere four months when she attended the “cattle-call audition” to play “the brat” in ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Then I got re-called. And re-called. And re-called. And I found that I’d got the part.” One of her fondest memories of the production was of celebrating her thirteenth birthday – on the day they were filming the scene in which, desperate to snatch a golden egg, she is sent tumbling down a chute.

“I was a little bit frightened of the director and I was sitting in another studio somewhere, and somebody came running in saying, ‘you better get down to the set, Mel Stuart’s going mad’. I thought, ‘oh my god, I’m in trouble now’. I ran into a completely darkened set, and there was a birthday cake there, and everybody was singing happy birthday. I blew the candles out and Mel said, ‘okay, right, now, on with the filming!’ and that was it, they chucked me down the chute.”

Gene Wilder, a real sweetie who would tell the children stories, organised for a colour photographer to take a series of stills of the occasion. “It was my best birthday present,” Julie says. Better than the cake, it turns out. In the most bizarre stroke of irony, Julie Dawn Cole is one of those rare people who dislike chocolate, and it was a chocolate cake. “Can you believe it?” she says. Let loose in a chocolate factory, she was one of the kids who wouldn’t eat the props. “I was cheap – saved the budget thousands!”

Cole’s one negative experience was the day the director and producer scrutinised her chest, discussing whether or not it required strapping down. “I was twelve turning thirteen, and this is a very important time for a girl,” she explains. “You start sprouting in certain areas and you’re very proud of them even though they’re no bigger than a jellybean.” No action was taken in the end, her ‘sprouting areas’ so frightened by the attention that, she says, they regressed.

Speaking of ‘no bigger than’, what about those creepy Oompa Loompas? According to Julie, they used to have “wild parties” where they’d “drink the German beer.” It didn’t take much to fill them up. "Coupla pints," Julie says, "and they were up to the brim!”

When Julie recently caught up with Gene Wilder, he took a step back and surmised that “Veruca wasn’t such a bad egg” after all. This sweet memory is one souvenir amongst many that the actress has retained. They include a golden egg, two golden tickets and an everlasting gobstopper, not to mention a multitude of fans that share comedian Matthew Hardy’s obsession for the first character Julie Dawn Cole ever portrayed on screen.


Good God, It’s Gud!


Using the [then-upcoming, he added some time in October 2004] season at the Sydney Opera House as an excuse, I present here an interview with Mick Moriarty, erstwhile plankspanker of both The Gadflys and Gud. Paul McDermott claims loftier etymology for the derivation of the name ‘Gud’, and who can blame him when, coincidentally, it happens to be an acronym for a medical condition. However, since McDermott was once a member of The Doug Anthony Allstars, it is a fair observation to make that phonetically, ‘Gud’ is in fact ‘Doug’ backwards. And Gud is going to have to live with comparisons to McDermott’s earlier comedy combo, whether he likes it or not. Longtime fans will note, and no doubt relish, the similarities between Gud and The Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in songs that bear similar gag-structure. Case in point: ‘Peace Opus’, which works the same way as ‘What Is It You Can’t Face’. But if all you see are parallels between Gud and the Allstars, you’re missing out on a lot of fun. (And you clearly can’t have been enjoying Tripod very much, either, can you? What with the put-upon guitarist whose one chance at singing lead is drowned out by the gorgeous one and the funny-looking one singing the backing vocals way too loud, the inability to sufficiently distinguish between a boat and a girl, and… well, I’ll save it for another blog entry.)

Apart from a Parramatta Riverside Theatre season during the Big Laugh Festival a couple of years back, Gud was, for a time, under-appreciated in Sydney. There was one year that two gigs were scheduled in the same evening but as the earlier one undersold, it was cancelled, and as a result, elements of the band were more-or-less rat-arsed by the time the later one commenced. It was still funny, and not merely for the wrong reasons – sometimes the between-song-patter went nowhere, at other times it went where it shouldn’t and occasionally it seemed to go on forever, while the music remained as gorgeous as ever. It was a pity, though, that a larger Sydney audience just didn’t seem towant to know or appreciate a combo that can play brilliantly and have you cacking one minute and getting all misty-eyed and sentimental the next. And then laughing even harder again thereafter because of the presence of the seemingly nice, gooey bits.

A fine 2003 Melbourne International Comedy Festival run was followed by a fantastic sell-out season at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival which, upon their return to Australia, led to sell-out seasons in Melbourne and Sydney in the so-called ‘Famous Spiegeltent’. Back from another great Melbourne International Comedy Festival season, they hit Sydney tight and triumphant, so you should probably be booking tickets now. (The season opens April 23 – a Radiohead gig precludes my attendance on opening night.)

This interview with Mick Moriarty took place and was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio during The Gadflys’ Sydney residency at the Spiegeltent in December 2003, which, if not concurrent, must have been contiguous with Gud’s own. My inability – at that time – to structure directed interviews that dealt with one topic instead of rambling through many (a bad habit learnt through years of self-tutored print journalism, still being painfully un-learnt through tutelage in radio journalism) necessitated the use of narration to tie the edited bits together. But it hangs together pretty well, as the MP3 sound file will attest.

Music: ‘ Long Time Gone’ – The Gadflys (from the album Out of the Bag)

Narrative: The Gadflys began in the 1980s as a three-piece punk band founded by brothers Mick and Phil Moriarty. Normally, ‘punk’ means distorted guitars and loud drums playing as fast as possible. For The Gadflys, it meant a double bass, guitar and clarinet playing an eclectic mix of pop, rock, country and ballads.

The trio made its mark first as distinctive buskers, then as a popular pub band. Over the years the Gadflys have grown from the basic trio to a big band with horns, keyboards and backing vocalists. Now they’re touring again as a trio, each playing several instruments.

When I caught up with guitarist and vocalist Mick Moriarty, I wanted to know how having a double bass and a clarinet in your band affects the sort of songs you can play live.

MICK MORIARTY: Some songs over the years on Gadflys albums have just never really gone live because they’re probably a bit more rock. They’re hard to pin down with the sort of instrumentation that we have and the acoustic ethic that we use. But it’s really exciting, often, to ‘adjust’ a piece to that. It’s kind of fun for me, and hopefully, for the audience. Hopefully they’re not just going to go, “hang on, that’s not like it is on the record! Whaddaya mean? Whaddaya doing? I want five bucks back!”

Demetrius Romeo: It’s been a little while since the Gaddies released an album. Are you doing any studio work at the moment?

MICK MORIARTY: After the last album, that was a really tragic album as it turned out – not that it seemed that way while we were recording it – …

Demetrius Romeo: Why was that?

MICK MORIARTY: Because Andy Lewis, our bass player, killed himself shortly after recording was finished and before we’d even mixed it. And as it turned out, the engineer killed himself. It was appalling. It was so sad to lose friends, but just to contemplate these poor buggers so sad that they can’t see a place for themselves in the world. It was last year in Edinburgh that we got back to this three piece and found the enjoyment again. Since that time, I’ve been writing a lot, Phil’s been writing a lot, and now we’re talking about a new album.

Demetrius Romeo: When Andy Lewis died, he was your original double bass player. You’re now playing double bass. Was it hard to make the transition from guitar?

MICK MORIARTY: After Andy died, we had another guy, an old friend of mine called Elmo who’d played with us in years past, play double bass. Then we were going to Edinburgh and he couldn’t come because he had family commitments. So Pete Kelly and I decided that we would learn to play double bass. When I picked it up I just went, “hang on, why have I left this alone so long?” I really loved playing it and so I started playing with the Gadflys and by the end of that Edinburgh season I was going, “this is fantastic!”

Narrative: The Gadflys became well-known when they started appearing on the television show Good News Week in the late 90s. Paul McDermott, who hosted Good News Week, had been a member of the comedy troupe the Doug Anthony Allstars. Like the Gadflys, the Doug Anthony Allstars began as a punk group in Canberra in the 80s. Mick Moriarty and Paul McDermott began writing comedy songs together, which they then performed in their new band, Gud.

Music: ‘Wrong Number’ – Gud (from the mini-album Gud – Official Bootleg)

Narrative: Mick Moriarty says that playing in Gud came as a welcome change from playing in the Gadflys.

MICK MORIARTY: It was great fun because it was just so away from everything I had been doing and writing comedy songs is such a different kettle of fish to trying to say what you think about yet another broken relationship or something. It was just a really enjoyable chance to apply myself to the things that I could do and learn about the things I hadn’t done.

Demetrius Romeo: There was material earlier in your career that did lend itself to a bit of a comic edge. For example, very early on you were doing a cover of ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’.

MICK MORIARTY: I was quite fond of Petula Clark, and ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ I think is a fantastic song. It was not so much ‘looking for the comedic edge’ as not taking yourself too seriously, and taking the piss, but not ‘here’s the laugh bit’ or ‘this is a funny song’ but ‘this is a novel approach to a song’. I still think it’s a great song. Tony and Jackie, if you’re listening, congratulations on your early work.

Music: ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ – The Gadflys (from an ever-so-slightly crackly 7" single!)


And just in case you need to know more, here is a Gud interview with Paul McDermott, from a few years back, that first appeared in an issue of Revolver. Can’t remember the title, and can’t be bothered digging out the yellowing, dog-eared hard copy. Oh, I know what I’ll substitute it with…

Egad, It’s Gud!

“One of the best things about working with people is gaining that awareness of how someone else is thinking: knowing what they’re about to do,” Paul McDermott explains. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen for a long time, people gaining that understanding and knowledge of each other.”

In the case of ‘Gud’, the band and show consisting of Paul McDermott, Cameron Bruce and Mick Moriarty, the trio seems to have gained that awareness in no time at all, and the proof is in the way they each take it in turn to lead and follow the often improvised shenanigans that punctuate and interrupt songs ranging from silly to satirical to sweet. By the last night of a very short preview season at Parramatta, Gud was slick, and the Melbourne run has garnered full houses and rave reviews. Paul concurs that the three “seem to have clicked straight away”. However, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Mick Moriarty, looking – and sometimes sounding – like the resultant offspring of a union between Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, is a member of The Gadflys, who served as the house band on Good News Week. He and Paul both hail from Canberra, where, during his Doug Anthony Allstars days, McDermott “more or less knew” of Mick. Paul had seen The Gadflys in all of their incarnations, and recalls “sharing pints” with them at past Edinburgh Festivals. Gud developed out of Paul and Mick hanging out and writing songs, initially with Paul Mac. After Good News Week ended, McDermott spent the ensuing year trying to devise a show for the Festival, and Mick suggested they take their songs on the road.

Prior to joining Karma County, his most recent gig before Gud, Cameron Bruce was no stranger to the world of musical comedy. He played with the feel-good fun band ‘The Fantastic Leslie’ and his keyboard stylings have accompanied many a Theatresports stoush. McDermott got to see Cameron a couple of times in his capacity as the Club Luna house band’s keyboardist on Sunday nights at the Basement. Bruce’d tickle the ivories on outré, funked up covers of songs like ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ and ‘Islands in the Stream’, looking like some hatless cross between the Muppets’ Dr Teeth and the musician he was based on, Dr John.

The title ‘Gud’ was derived from McDermott’s realisation, while watching the Grammy Awards ceremony, that “every single person who came up on stage was going, ‘…and Ah’d lahk t’ thank Gud…’”. Thus, he decided, he’d better put a band together called ‘Gud’.

There is a point in the show where McDermott invites requests from the audience, and without fail, an Allstars fan will request a DAAS song. “I don’t really mind,” Paul says. “They can request whatever they want. We won’t do any of the old songs, but I don’t mind them requesting them.” Paul can’t blame them, really: there are some songs that bear an unmistakable similarity to Allstars’ material, particularly in gag structure, so those inclined towards sentimentality are more than likely to want to reminisce.

“Gud’s the same sort of thing as the Allstars,” Paul acknowledges. “It’s musical comedy, and it’s quite aggressive musical comedy. I like that form of expression. I feel comfortable doing it. But there are also massive differences.” Rather than closely analyse the differences and similarities, it’s probably better to note that, at least from McDermott’s point of view, Gud is as much fun as the Allstars and Good News Week were to do. “I loved working with Tim and Rich, and I loved working with Julie and Mikey, and I really am enjoying working with the boys,” he says. However, Gud seems to have covered more ground in a shorter time than its comedic predecessors. “It’s exceeded my expectations,” Paul says. “It’s gone extraordinarily well on its first outing, so I’m really, really happy. Gud is a great outfit and great fun to work with. The combination of the three is greater than the individuals and what we’re doing now is growing at an exponential rate. It’s like a Nimbin crop, out of control.”

And like that Nimbin crop, Gud will make you laugh uncontrollably for hours on end. See for yourself when Gud performs.

‘Veruca Salt: Scrumdidilyumpstious’ or ‘I Wanted Her Then, Daddy!’

The Sydney heats of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy Competition came to an end March 31, and while I feel I should provide some kind of ‘review’ of the final (or at least, a review of what of the final stood out enough that I may remember it nearly a week down the track) I would much rather convey the joy that was the first semi, which took place two days earlier. I can’t for the life of me remember much about the contestants (apart from the ones who made it through to the final – and only then because I got to see them again so soon afterwards), but the evening’s jollity began with a call from Andrew Taylor of Access Entertainment, the company that in addition to managing many great acts, runs the Sydney competition.

“Guess who the guest judge is for tonight,” Andrew began. I couldn’t, so he told me. “Julie Dawn Cole.” I suppose this was a kind of test, and I failed. I couldn’t get excited until I was told that Julie Dawn Cole had appeared in the cinematic classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the role of Veruca Salt. Then boy, did I get excited.


“She doesn’t mind talking about the film,” Andrew continued, “but she hates being referred to as ‘Veruca Salt’.” He advised that I should probably behave myself and not say anything stupid.

“Can I do my Roy Kinnear impression?” I asked, demonstrating it for him with the kind of expertise that, I dare say, would have fooled Kinnear himself, were he still alive to hear me do it: “Ve-RU-ca!”

“No, you can’t do your Roy Kinnear impression.”

“What about my Veruca Salt impression?” In perfect ‘Veruca Salt’ voice: “I want it now, Daddy!”

“No, don’t do your Veruca Salt impression.”

It turns out that Julie Dawn Cole is out here to appear in stand-up comic Matthew Hardy’s live show Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions]. It’s about his lifelong infatuation with Veruca Salt and the actress who played her. He approached Cole out of the blue and, amazingly, Cole said yes. If she has a history being contacted by weird guys who grew up infatuated with that saucy pouting princess (a kind of Hayley Mills gone bad), I’d love to know the vetting process she uses that enabled her to realise that Hardy was the safer, saner variety of the archtype.

The show apparently opens with both Hardy and Cole on their respective analyst’s couches. Hardy is in therapy because he never got over his infatuation with Veruca Salt. Cole is in therapy because she never got over playing the character.

Although I convinced myself that I would behave throughout the evening, by the first interval Julie had her script out and was telling us about what a lovely time she was having after accepting a questionable job offer on a whim. But it was all kind of fitting: Cole landed the role in Willy Wonka – her first acting job – after a mere few weeks at drama school. She had plenty of fantastic stories and shared them with little prompting.

Like the time she was told she wouldn’t be needed for the next little while, and encouraged to sit on her own on another set, away from the cast and crew. Suddenly a production manager-type flew in telling her that director Mel Stuart needed her immediately and was furious that she wasn’t on-hand. It’s been said that Stuart could be a bit frightening on set – so much so that Peter Ostrum, starring as principal character Charlie Bucket, allegedly turned down a subsequent five film deal as a result of his experience (although, now a practicing vet, Ostrum claims the experience was fun, but not what he wanted to do for a living). Swallowing whatever fear she had of facing the director, Cole hurried to join the rest of the cast before him, where she discovered a birthday cake. Julie had just turned thirteen.

“It was a chocolate cake, and I don’t like chocolate,” Julie confessed. “Imagine being a kid in a film that’s set in a chocolate factory, and not liking chocolate.” She has fond memories of her birthday, and fantastic photos: although it was customary for stills to be taken in black and white at the time, Gene Wilder, who played the lead role of Willy Wonka, organised colour photographs to be taken of that occasion.

Not all of Julie’s memories are as pleasant. There was the meeting during which she was scrutinised intently and spoken of in third person while the powers-that-be decided whether or not her newly developing bust required taping down for the sake of continuity.

Julie’s sweetest story is of her reunion with Gene Wilder a few years ago. He was appearing on stage in England and Cole left Wilder a message requesting a catch-up after a performance. Assured that Wilder never met people backstage after a show – “He has left the theatre before the patrons have begun filing out,” a stage manager assured her – Julie was pleased to discover that Gene Wilder would receive her backstage. Recalling her character’s exit from the film – trying to intercept the golden egg that she wants “now, Daddy!” Veruca lands on the apparatus that determines the value of the eggs, receives a poor rating and is duly disposed of – Wilder took a step back and acknowledged that Julie “hadn’t turned out to be a bad egg” after all.

Hopefully Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions] will do so well that Matthew Hardy and Julie Dawn Cole can take the show on the road. In the meantime, I’m trying to land some interview time with Julie for ABC NewsRadio and FilmInk.

However, before moving on from this topic, I want to briefly consider the name ‘Willy Wonker’. As a character name in English children’s literature, Roald Dahl’s creation is up there with Dick and Fanny, who appeared in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It is only one vowel away from being the sort of a character in a Carry On film that would well and truly have Kenneth Williams ‘oooo-errrring’. However, I assume the name was derived from the slang term ‘wonk’ which means about the same thing as ‘swot’ – a boring person who studies too hard and is too caught up with facts and figures to have a life or a personality. Willy Wonka, embodying the traditional eccentric English boffin archetype, is imbued with some of the ‘wonk’ characteristics: a genius who knows all there is to know about his work and more besides. When he first meets Veruca, for instance, he absent-mindedly asks himself if she doesn’t share her name with a kind of wart that grows on the sole of the foot [a ‘verruca’ is in fact “ a firm abnormal elevated blemish on the skin caused by a virus”].

I recall a time during the earlier stages of the Clinton administration (actually, during his 1992 presidential campaign) when Bill Clinton was described as a ‘policy wonk’ because he was a politician who could “spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question.” Isn’t it a pity that nobody had the brainwave to write a piece on this and name the article, and the presidential candidate, ‘Willy Wonker’, or, at the very least, ‘Billy Wonker’. Then his political campaign could have involved voters holding the ‘Bill Clinton How To Vote’ pamphlet, with the box next to Billy Wonker ticked, singing, ‘I’ve got golden ticket…’ Clinton could have done a television spot likening the USA under the Republicans as a paddle steamer that had lost its way, insanely intoning the words, “there’s no earthly way of knowing… which way the river’s flowing…” Of course, this would have proven damaging in the long run: it wouldn’t have taken the Republicans long to liken Clinton to ‘The Candy Man’, even if he never did inhale.

Amongst her souvenirs, Julie Dawn Cole has retained a golden egg, two golden tickets and an everlasting gobstopper, not to mention a multitude of fans that share comedian Matthew Hardy’s obsession for the first character she ever portrayed on screen.

Adam Hills: Go You Big Red Fire Engine. Again.

Oh woe is me! Having had the utter joy of blowing all my savings (and a fair whack of those of other family members) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, I’m kind of distraught that I can’t be at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year. Despite this, it’s still nice to do the odd interview. However, as my only outlet is ABC NewsRadio at the moment, it’s a matter of choosing someone who’ll appeal to a demographic of adult professionals, who is available – while the studio’s being refurbished – for a face-to-face chat, with (until I can do this fulltime for money) flexibility. The choice came down to Charlie Pickering, late of Triple J, and Adam Hills, an ex-pat Aussie who tends to return from the UK come Festival time. Hillsy, who is presenting his new show Go You Big Red Fire Engine II, was the perfect choice.

Adam came and met me at Egg Records on a Saturday, and was as happy as a kid in a toyshop: marveling at the badges, the Japanese pressings of Kiss CDs in miniature album-replica sleeves, the other various collectible knick-knacks. Before we got down to business, I put on James Taylor’s first and self-titled album (released by Apple Records all those years ago), preceding it with a suitable lecture – (“note the song ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, the inspiration, as well as the first line, to George Harrison’s ‘Something’”) – to whet the man’s cultural appetite. Then I left him to listen, and browse, while I went about my business closing the shop.

We still couldn’t get down to the business of doing an interview until I’d played Adam a bit of the Grey Album (a remix of the Beatles’ so-called White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, perpetrated by one ‘Danger Mouse’) and a couple of tracks from Dsico that No-Talent Hack’s album of mash-ups, Booty of Choice. The interview itself flowed easily.

I’ve been accused of ‘liking’ the comic Adam Hills – by someone who has never actually gotten around to seeing him live, of course. See Adam Hills and tell me whether or not you also like him: Hills has a broad appeal without pandering to the lowest common denominator; he entertains whole families without being innocuous. His observations are mostly spot-on, and when they aren’t the generalisations lead to such good laughs that you don’t nitpick. That’s the most important thing, of course: Adam Hills is funny. This is not merely the best, but the only reason, really, to ‘like’ any comic.

This interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 27 March 2004 (the first weekend of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, at which Adam Hills is performing his latest show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine II) and is podcast right here.

Soundbite: ‘Feed the World’ – Adam Hills (from the CD single Working Class Anthem)

I grew up in the 80s. I grew up in an era when you could take a positive message to the world. I grew up in Australia wearing a shirt that said, ‘Relax’. ‘Choose life’. ‘Don't worry, be happy’. I grew up in an era when you were told that you could not only ‘feed the world’, but you could ‘let them know it’s Christmas time’. And I have a slight theory as to why there's such a high percentage of obesity in America as compared to the rest of the world. I think it’s because in 1985, a group of English musicians got together and put out a song that told us to ‘feed the world’. And then a year later, a group of American singers told us, ‘we are the world!’

C Adam Hills

Demetrius Romeo: Adam, you’re one of several Australian comics who base their careers in the UK. Why is this?

ADAM HILLS: There’s just so much work over there. There are at least 120 different comedy nights in London alone and I’ve done four or five gigs a night in London. You turn up at the first venue, you go on stage, and as you walk on, the club owner calls a taxi. It arrives as you walk offstage, you get in the taxi, you go to your next venue, you arrive and the MC sees you and says, “right, I'm gonna do five minutes and put you straight on”.

Demetrius Romeo: So how does that compare to Australia?

ADAM HILLS: There isn’t really a comedy club circuit here. For someone who loves doing stand-up, which I do, to be able to work five or six nights a week and in those five or six nights, maybe do up to ten gigs... that’s why I’m there. I mean, you can spend two weeks doing club gigs in Sydney. You can actually spend three weeks now, and pretty much gig every night, but then you don’t do those clubs for another six months or something because the audiences see you doing the same gear. So basically, I come back now to do the Adelaide Fringe, the Melbourne Comedy Festival and then maybe three or four weeks of the year, touring around Australia.

Demetrius Romeo: Surely when you come back, you notice differences in the comedy industry. For example, at the moment there are more comedians and locally produced comedy shows on television than there have been for possibly a decade-and-a-half. Do you ever feel that you should have been here to get one of those gigs?

ADAM HILLS: [Laughs] Well, yeah, but to be fair, I’ve been offered a lot of those gigs as well. I’ve had a fair few offers to do various bits and pieces in Australia, one of which was, the host of a re-vamped version of Sale of the Century. Oh yes, I could have been the new Glenn Ridge. But also, with a lot of the other TV shows that are on at the moment, I was approached to be on a fair few, and I kind of went, “well, no, because then that just ties me to Australia”, and at that stage I was starting to get a bit of a career going in the UK. Now I just want global domination, basically.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, you do very well in the UK: for the last three years, you’ve been nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, which is for the best show of the Festival. Unfortunately, you haven’t quite cracked it – ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’. How do you feel about it?

ADAM HILLS: You know what, after being nominated twice, a lot of people in interviews said, “do you think you’ll be nominated for the third time?” and each time, my stock answer was, “You know what? I’d love to be nominated for the third time and still not win it ’cause I reckon that would be really funny”. And then when it actually happened, I thought, “you know what, I really shouldn’t have said that!”

The thing about being nominated for an award in something like the Edinburgh Festival is that suddenly there’s a lot of pressure on you; every night that I’ve been nominated, I’ve had a terrible show, just through nerves, and through the audience being weird but mainly through me. I’ve just panicked and walked out on stage and gone, “um, I’m supposed to be really funny… and now… I don’t know… ahhh” and just completely capitulated. I’ve since found out that every comic goes through that. It’s all par for the course. And to be nominated for anything three times is a pretty big compliment.

Demetrius Romeo: Okay. The hard question: would you prefer to be nominated a fourth time, or would you prefer that they just leave you alone next time?

ADAM HILLS: Oooh, that’s the big question, and I don’t know the answer to it. It’s a weird one.

Soundbite: ‘Oh Yeah’ [excerpt] – Adam Hills (from the album Go You Big Red Fire Engine)

You go anywhere in Australia and you ask an Aussie to do something, and he’ll do it. Doesn’t matter where you are. You go,
“Mate, you wanna go backpacking through Europe?”
“Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Do you want to bungee jump off a bridge in New Zealand?”
“Yeah, that sounds all right.”
“Do you wanna fly a paraglider into Buckingham Palace?”
“Yeah! Come on! Let’s go!”
In fact, I reckon the Australian motto on the coat of arms should just say, “Australia – Oh Yeah!”
I think this positivity came about because we were sent there as convicts. White Australians were sent there as convicts. On the worst ships you could find. The whole way, there must have been blokes in manacles going [with English accent] “It’s gonna be horrible. It’s gonna be awful. I’m gonna hate it.” And then the boats docked at Bondi Beach. Every convict looked up and went, [in Aussie accent] “Oh yeah!” And a nation was born!

C Adam Hills

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Go you big red fire engine’ has been a catchphrase for you for a few years now. How did that all begin?

ADAM HILLS: I was doing this thing where I would get an audience member up on stage and turn them into a rock star, and get them to yell their name to the audience. The audience would yell it back and they’d get a big round of applause. I was playing a thirty-seat venue, so I was trying to get some energy into the room. And this guy, instead of yelling his name, told me that he was a fireman. And I said, “come up here and we’ll do the whole thing”, and when I said, “right, yell you're name”, for no reason he yelled, “Go, you big red fire engine!” And then the crowd yelled it back, and he kept going for five minutes and I just said, “that’s the most up-lifting and pointless thing I’ve seen in my whole life”. There's no reason for it, it’s completely stupid, and yet everyone in the room had a smile on their face. And I said, “that’s it; I’m gonna name my next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine”, partly because in Edinburgh in 2000 I was long listed for the Perrier Award and I was getting really stressed out. I decided then that I was gonna call the next show Go, You Big Red Fire Engine because there’s no way that I could get that stressed about a show with a name that stupid. And then what happened was it was nominated for a Perrier Award. But then it became a catch-phrase. Natasha Stott Despoja yelled it in Parliament at one point when she was Leader of the Democrats, as my crowning achievement. And I was gonna leave it at that, but audience members kept coming up to me after the show saying, “we were hoping you were gonna say, ‘go, you big red fire engine!’ again. We really like it when you yell that”. And I just thought, I really have to reprise it because people seem to want me to say it. And being that it came about from a mad audience member, I figured that if audience members want me to say it again, I’ll say it again.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, that title also appears on a CD!

ADAM HILLS: Yes, yes, I released a CD version of the original show, Go You Big Red Fire Engine.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve also had another CD, which was a fundraiser for the fire brigade. It was the Australian National Anthem done in a very particular way. Tell us a bit about that single.

ADAM HILLS: When I went to Edinburgh I had an idea to play around with the Australian National Anthem and I had seen a band in Sydney do… I think it was the music of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the lyrics of ‘Gilligan’s Island’. They combined the two, and that really stuck in my head. ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was playing around in my head and then I went, “what if you put ‘Advance Australia Fair’ in there?” And then came up with [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to tune of the theme to Gilligan’s Island]

Australian’s all, let us rejoice
For we are young and free,
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea.
Our home is girt by sea.

And then I kind of played around with more. ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ worked as well. [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of the theme to Beverly Hillbillies]. All of these started coming together and then they just rattled around in my head. I was actually in a shopping centre one day, listening to ‘Working Class Man’. As it was playing, over the top of the music I was just going [sings ‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’] and started going, “Oh my God, it works for ‘Working Class Man’!”

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’ (‘Advance Australia Fair’ to the tune of ‘Working Class Man’) - Adam Hills and the Comedy Brig-Aid (from the CD single)

ADAM HILLS: So then I got permission and put this single out with myself, the Scared Weird Little Guys, Mark Trevorrow, Paul McDermott, Libbi Gore, Tripod and then a whole chorus of people including Greg Fleet and Steady Eddie bangin’ it out like a ‘Band Aid’-type thing.

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’

Demetrius Romeo: Adam, what can I say but ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’

ADAM HILLS: ‘Go, you big red fire engine!’ indeed.

Demetrius Romeo: Thanks very much.

ADAM HILLS: Pleasure.

Music: ‘Working Class Anthem’

Like to know a bit more about Adam Hills? Here's a bunch of other interviews – although, in hindsight, they really are three variations of the same story, more-or-less.

The following article originally appeared in the May 6 2002 issue of Revolver.

Burning Down the House: Adam Hills gives it up for the fireys.

Some time in the late ’60s, the Beach Boys’ in-house acid casualty and resident genius, Brian Wilson, chose to abandon the now legendary concept album Smile. Ever the perfectionist, Wilson had been ensconced in the studio recording infinite takes of various parts of songs, with the ‘Fire’ section of the so-called ‘Elements Suite’ proving particularly elusive. It was this section that broke him: a particularly intense recording session happened to coincide with a devastating blaze that destroyed a fair chunk of (depending which myth you choose to believe) either California, or his studio. Convinced that the Fire sessions had been responsible for invoking the flames, Wilson apparently aborted the album and binned the mastertapes, the odd song from sessions cropping up in simpler form on subsequent Beach Boys releases.

Aussie comic Adam Hills may be able to identify somewhat with Brian Wilson. On the night that he first unveiled his show Go You Big Red Fire Engine, Hills and his mates decided to adjourn for a couple of post-show bevies at a local watering hole known as Q Bar. They got there just in time to see it go up in flames. In fact, it was Adam and his mates who first spotted the fire. “We grabbed as many people as we could and went straight out the door,” he explains. “The whole place was evacuated and three people were taken to hospital with smoke inhalation. The building was completely gutted.”

Watching those big, red fire engines come and go was all too much of a coincidence, and Adam’s agent agreed. It turned out that Adam’s next gig, at the Fringe Bar, would most likely also be cancelled because that venue caught fire on the same night. “Two different clubs in one night,” Adam acknowledges, laughing off my suggestion of a ‘curse’. “It was only two; I don’t think it’s technically a ‘curse’ until there’s three.”

Ah, but there was a third. Well, almost. When Sydney’s Comedy Store relocated to Fox Studios, Adam Hills was acting as MC at its gala opening. He happened to be on stage when the smoke alarm went off. Thankfully, that time at least, it was a false alarm: a combination of too many cigarette smokers in the audience and not enough ventilation in the venue had set off the smoke alarms. So it doesn’t really count.

Despite the freakish coincidence of two fires, the show certainly went on for ‘Go You Big Red Fire Engine’: in addition to being recorded and released as a comedy CD, the show earned a Perrier Nomination for Adam at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As is the custom, nominated shows get to play at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London.

“That was about mid-October,” Adam explains, “so I decided to donate all funds from that performance to the New York Fire Department.” That should have dissipated any remnants of a curse.

But if it didn’t, Adam’s next project will. He has just recorded ‘Working Class Anthem’, a song consisting of the words of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ sung to the tune of Jimmy Barnes’s ‘Working Class Man’. It has been in Hills’s repertoire for a while and Adam has wanted to release it for almost as long, but has been unable to obtain permission to do so until now.

“When I got back to Australia this year, Triple M asked me to sing ‘Working Class Anthem’ at the Fire Fighters concert and I thought it’d be great if we could release the single for them. Without a word of a lie, that day I got the call saying, ‘guess what, we’ve got permission!’”

Joining Adam on the song is the Comedy Brig-Aid – a horde of comedians featuring, amongst its ranks, the likes of the Scared Weird Little Guys, Bob Downe, Paul McDermott and Tripod. In addition to the single being very funny, all proceeds will be donated to the Australian Fire Authority Council. “On a selfish note,” Adam admits, “I’d love a number one song. But on an altruistic note, I’d like it to raise lots of money.”

The following interview originally appeared in Revolver in the first week of February 2002.

Adam Hills’s Happy Feet

“At the risk of sounding cheesy, September 11 made me question what I do for a living and whether I really help people,” explains comedian Adam Hills. “Three days after the attacks I was gigging in Paris, and there was an American guy in the audience. I started to do some material about how Americans are an optimistic people, and that if any country could get through this it would be America. He laughed harder than anyone in the room and I realised that he really needed to laugh about America again. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of material about the ‘War on Terror’ and how it affects us all, especially ’cos I’ve been spending time in the UK. I was on a flight five weeks ago when someone stood up and yelled that there was a bomb on board and we were all going to die. He was bluffing, and was eventually offloaded, but it was very scary. The more I talk about that flight, and laugh about it, the less scary it becomes.”

Although he should be packing for his flight back to Australia, Adam has taken time out for an e-mail interview to discuss what, at this stage, will be his next show, tentatively entitled Happy Feet. It takes its name from a song that was popular during the Great Depression. “It was a very tough time, and yet some really up-lifting songs were written to buoy the spirits,” Adam explains. “In fact, entertainment was about the only business that improved during the ’30s. When people are down or scared, they want to laugh, and that’s where I come in.”

Adam Hills is not only one of the most optimistic, happy people you will ever meet, he is also quite possibly the ‘nicest’ comic this side of Michael Palin “I love comedy, and I love comics,” he insists when pressed. “We are a breed apart, and I think we should support each other whenever we can, ’cos it can be a harsh industry. But I’ve met so many brilliant and supportive people along the way that I don’t really know why I’m supposedly the ‘nice guy’ of comedy. I don’t mind it, as long as I’m also considered to be one of the funniest.”

Hills is one of the funniest. He is utterly and irrefutably hilarious, as his 2001 Edinburgh Festival show Go You Big Red Fire Engine proved: it received a Perrier nomination for ‘most outstanding up-and-coming stand-up comedy or comedy cabaret’. Not that this has changed Adam: such an accolade “does more for your self-belief” than anything else, he says. “You’re still only as good as your next gig, and an audience will heckle you regardless of what you’ve been nominated for.”

Despite a bunch of television offers that came after the nomination, Hills is adamantly dedicated to developing his stand-up rather than using it as a stepping-stone to other show-biz gigs. “I believe that stand-up is a legitimate art form,” he says. “Television can’t really capture it; there is something magical about the live experience”

A live CD, however, is not out of the question. For those who missed last year’s Australian run of Go You Big Red Fire Engine the show was recorded for posterity. “The idea of Go You Big Red Fire Engine is to take the phrase as far as I can, so if it makes it onto the charts I’ve achieved another goal. Plus, I grew up listening to Bill Cosby, Billy Connolly and Robin Williams albums, and I love the idea of being in the same category of the record store as them.”

Although, like everyone, Hills does have “a few ideas” for film and television, and even a book, kicking around in the back of his mind, he can’t “give away too many secrets” just yet. The next big project is a “major world tour” for later this year. After that, Adam is “very keen” to break into the US circuit. In short, he sums up his plan as “world domination, my friend, and nothing less!”

The following interview originally appeared in the 2 October 2000 issue of Revolver.

Dream a Little Dream

“I wanted to be doing something in Sydney during the Olympics,” nice-guy comic Adam Hills offers as the reason for his current spate of appearances on the Sydney comedy circuit. He claims that the week of Comedy Store gigs he recently completed was “partly an excuse to be here for the Olympics, and partly to enable me to do my little bit for Sydney.” That, of course, is only partly true. Following his success at the Edinburgh Festival last month, Adam is breaking out of his standard Sydney mode – serving as MC or the twenty-minute feature act – by road-testing an hour-long show he calls My Own Little World. If ever a successful Edinburgh act would go down a treat it would be this one; providing, as it does, a kind of international humour, it can’t help but appeal to a multicultural metropolis undergoing ‘welcome, valued guest’ mode as Sydney is at present. And if ever a traveled comic felt happy to be back home, it is Adam. After four months of international success, he returned triumphant to play his first gig – in a beer garden in Bundaberg – and was chuffed. Looking skyward from the stage of the partially covered garden and being able to see the Southern Cross, he says, forced “pangs of Australian nationalism” to flood over Hills. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! And furthermore, oi, oi, oi!

Adam Hills has been dedicated to comedy for most of his life. As a kid, he listened to Bill Cosby and Billy Connolly albums while his mates were listening to music. A high school career as a debater, public speaker and valedictorian taught him that being able to make a speech that “purely existed just to be funny” constituted just about “the best feeling ever”. After beginning a journalism degree, Hills got wise to his true vocation after a mate dragged him down to the Comedy Store’s open mic night. “As soon as I saw that,” Adam confesses, “I thought, ‘oh yeah, I have to do this for the rest of my life’.” It wasn’t very long at all before he found himself writing gags for 2Day FM’s then-breakfast shift hosts, Wendy Harmer and Agro. A year and a bit later, Adam found himself heading interstate to host the breakfast shift on Adelaide’s equivalent of 2Day.

“I did that for four years,” Adam says, “until I decided I was sick of getting up at four o’clock in the morning and wanted to do stand-up again.” Adam is grateful to have made the discovery this early in his career that he doesn’t enjoy broadcasting as much as he does live stand-up. Adam thus differs from many other comics, for whom stand-up is merely the first step towards television or radio. “All I have to worry about,” he says, “is how to make a better show on stage, rather than ‘How am I gonna be more famous?’” As far as he’s concerned, the audience can tell when comics are doing stand-up “just as a step along the way” as opposed to doing it “for the art of stand-up”.

Does the fact that Hills has just returned from the Edinburgh Festival prove that he is interested in perfecting the art of stand-up? “My bank balance would reflect that,” Adam offers, laughing. “I’m certainly not doing it for the money.” The first time you go to Edinburgh, Adam claims, “you know that you’re going to lose a lot of money”. You look upon it as a business investment that “may pay off” some time down the track. It wasn’t until his third Edinburgh Festival that Adam broke even – which meant that, through contacts made and the work that followed thereafter, he finished that year ahead of the game. This recent visit, Adam’s fourth, was the best. Adam received five-star reviews and sell-out crowds, as well as the best comic training. “I ended up doing something like fifty-six shows in twenty-three days,” he says. “I learnt what you’d normally learn in a year of doing stand-up comedy.”

It’s not hard to see why Adam was so successful in Edinburgh. Not merely because of the universal appeal of My Own Little World, incorporating, as it does, national anthems and recognisable caricatures. Hills offers a distinctly happier world view than many fellow comics on the world stage. “A lot of comics are very cynical and very world-weary,” he observes. “If you’re watching that for an hour at the end of the day, it can be quite draining.” Adam’s own attitude is to have fun and to “play” with the audience. Besides, he says, when you’re doing shows in places like the Gold Coast, it’s hard to be grumpy on stage. “Everyone’s spent the day on the beach; imagine me walking out and going, ‘well, isn’t life shit!’ It just doesn’t sit right.” In Adam’s Own Little World, life is frequently filled with joyous song – each one a loving piss-take, of course.