Pictures of Lilley


What do a sixteen year-old school girl , an ex-cop, a Ph D physics student, a middle-aged woman who intends to roll from Perth to Uluru and a country kid who wants to donate his ear-drum to his deaf twin brother all have in common?

Well, they’re all appearing in a new show called We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year.

More importantly, they're all played by the one person, comedian Chris Lilley, who wrote and stars in the series.

Here's a short version of my interview with Chris, which is going to be (or was, depending on when you read this) broadcast on ABC NewsRadio Breakfast, Wednesday 27 July. (Listen to it here if you like!)

Demetrius Romeo: Chris, where did We Can Be Heroes come from?

CHRIS LILLEY: It came mostly from me just wanting to play a whole bunch of different characters. I just wanted the challenge of being able to play male and female characters, Asian, young, old… I wanted to do five different people who were ‘hero’ types – you know, the sporting hero, the inventor, the medical miracle – and eventually have them meet and interact and that was the basis of it. And the format of ‘Australian of the Year’ awards was just a device to be able to do that, to have them all heading towards something.

Demetrius Romeo: Some of the comedy you come up with is kind of ‘wrong’ comedy, and I’m thinking the whole Ricky Wong being the Chinese physics student who’s involved in the musical about Aborigines called Indigeridoo. A lot of the time we’d give that sort of humour a wide berth without exploring it, whereas you’ve taken it head on.

CHRIS LILLEY: Well that was the idea; I thought, they’re the taboo things: you’re not allowed to impersonate an Asian person if you’re not Asian and you’re not allowed to… you’re barely allowed to mention Aboriginal people, certainly not impersonate them. And so I combined that to have a Chinese student dressing up as an Aboriginal person. So I’m just exaggerating it to try and be funny.

Demetrius Romeo: Chris, you do disturbingly accurate women. When you ‘frock up’, it’s scary.

CHRIS LILLEY: Well, I wanted to do it all accurately, and I think you have to just give over to it and just try to nail it and not be perceived as being anything ‘weird’. I think you just have to get into it and I tried to do that. I was surprised at how real it was. One of the executives at the ABC found Pat Mullins, the middle aged woman – she said, “that was your most real performance out of all the characters”. So, I don’t know, it’s a bit weird.

Demetrius Romeo: Chris Lilley, thank you very much.

CHRIS LILLEY: Thank you!

All Creatures Grate And Smell


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All The Residents’ Men


It sounded, at first, as though I had wrong-footed Mr Hardy Fox, the so-called ‘spokesmodel’ for The Residents, when I summed the group up as scary-looking and strange-sounding. Although the latter could be open to interpretation – (“no, all experiments in disrhythmic, atonal sea-shanties sung in distorted falsetto with bleeping synthesizer accompaniment sound like that…”) – the former was fair comment: their most enduring public image was a handful of Fred Astaire-alikes – top hat, tales and cane – who had huge bloodshot eyeballs for heads. The last time they’d toured Australia was in 1986. I was a school boy but I still remember the first time I became aware of them, on a giant poster on the wall of Red Eye Records. I even purchased a few CDs. Let me tell you: the bloodshot eyeball Astaires really were scary looking, and their music is weird-sounding.

Seeing them live didn’t quite live up to the mystery, although they were less painful to listen to than many of the other performers sharing the bill in the 2005 ‘What is Music? Onathon’. Basically, a few band members played at one side of the stage (synthesizer, guitar and drums), while a guy in a miner’s hardhat-with-lamp moved bits of the set around. A man and a woman with fake witchiepoo noses (not unlike Connie Booth in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), looking like rejects from HR Pufnstuf or any other Sid & Marty Krofft-produced television shows from the 70s, made the entire thing look like a bad high school musical. I’m told that in the mid-80s, this was the height of technology and a riveting show. This time around it didn’t quite deliver on the promise. But I’m still glad I got to talk to Mr hardy Fox.

The downloadable mp3 version is as lifted from that week’s ABC News Radio Music News segment, so it features Debbie Spillane as well as some interesting sounding music, courtesy of The Residents.

PS I suspect Hardy Fox is one of the eyeball heads when he isn’t acting as their ‘spokesmodel’.

Demetrius Romeo: What’s the best introduction for someone who’s coming to The Residents for the first time?

HARDY FOX: Well, probably not to tell them that they have eyeball heads and that they play weird music. That scares pretty much everyone away right off. We actually found that not everyone likes mainstream music. You know, maybe most people do, but that still doesn’t come down to ‘everyone’, and that leaves an awful lot of people. So generally, anywhere you go, you’re going to find a few people who basically can’t stomach what’s currently popular, and those people love to hear about someone like The Residents.

Demetrius Romeo: The Residents have been making the distinctive music that they make for a few decades. How did they come into being? Where they a collective of people who just didn’t stomach what was popular during the 70s and realized that there’s a different way, that there are different sounds to be made?

HARDY FOX: Well, The Residents as a group begins when they have the name ‘The Residents’. Before that, they existed, they knew each other and it goes all the way back to their childhood. They’re actually long-term friends who grew up together, which is so much how they’ve been able to communicate over these years in the way they do communicate. It comes out of a lot of children’s games, I think, and a type of understanding. They actually became The Residents in the 70s, when they decided to more formally organise to do something, or to do things together.

Demetrius Romeo: Had they collaborated together in smaller groups before they decided to come together as ‘The Residents’?

HARDY FOX: They collaborated as a group, but they didn’t have a name. In fact, they didn’t have a name until they sent a recording in to Warner Brothers without a name on it and when the demo was returned to them, they had just addressed it ‘To: The Residents’ because they didn’t know who to send it to. So they took that as an omen that they were to take that name.

Demetrius Romeo: Because so much is constructed behind an artifice of some sort, because there are hidden identities, because the music is unlike anything we have heard and because it’s harder to fathom how it’s made, is there ever a sense that it could all be some sort of on-going practical joke?

HARDY FOX: I think some people do think that. If it was, or if it is, it should at least be acknowledged as one of the longest-standing and longest-running practical joke in history, perhaps. But I don’t know, you know? I don’t know how music can really be a joke. Music has no value in itself; it’s a very abstract form. And if people enjoy it, then it seems like ‘enjoying it’ is ‘enjoying it’, no matter what.

Demetrius Romeo: How much of The Residents’ success is based on sensationalism; on the fact that we don’t know who they are or what they’re really doing back there?

HARDY FOX: I think, a large part originally, but I think after thirty-three years, not very much. I think the people who have been hanging in there for this long are in there because the things that The Residents do are actually very interesting and entertaining. Anyone who sees them on this tour will find that to be true.

Demetrius Romeo: For the uninitiated, why should they come and see the Residents? What can you guarantee at a Residents’ show?

HARDY FOX: Well, that they won’t be going to you’re typical rock show. In fact the Residents sort of abhor the concept that bands have become, which they sort of feel is embedded deeply in 70s mythology, and they just feel that it hasn’t really gone anywhere since and that it’s a very tired form. So they’ll see people who are at least trying to re-shape the concept of the music group. It’s sort of like being captured by aliens, but that in itself is not a bad thing.

Demetrius Romeo: Hardy Fox, thank you very much.

HARDY FOX: You’re welcome.

The Wright Stuff


In 1991, in a book shop that used to be in the Holme Building at the University of Sydney, I discovered a collection of scripts for a bunch of fundraising and awareness-raising AIDS benefits organised by Stephen Fry. The shows were titled Hysteria! and the book Amassed Hysteria!, and I guess I should add that the scripts were compiled by (one-time Young Ones co-writer and former Rik Mayall girlfriend) Lise Mayer and Rachel Swann. In it I discovered the genius of an unkempt stand-up called Steven Wright. Even without being able to hear the man’s delivery, the printed routines were hilarious:

Every morning I get up and make instant coffee and I drink it so I'll have enough energy to make the regular coffee.

Sponges grow in the ocean – that kills me. I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that didn’t happen?

After discovering that Steven Wright had an album – I Have A Pony – he soon became one of my favourite comics, up there with Billy Connolly, Robin Williams, Woody Allen and Peter Cook. So the opportunity to interview him was – well, let me put it this way: I’m still pinching myself.

As it happened, the interview was a bit of an ‘exclusive’. Not so exclusive that other media sources that didn’t land an interview would happily run mine; I offered it to a couple of slots on Triple J but they were holding out for his live appearance. A long edit was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, with an excerpt accompanied by a sample of Wright’s comedy, broadcast on the ABC Local Radio network in one of my monthly chats with Richard Fidler. I also managed to stretch the material out to a couple of print articles in FilmInk and Last.

After all of this, I didn’t quite manage to make it to a performance – but I can’t complain. For the FilmInk article I managed to land a copy of a couple of Wright’s DVDs: One Soldier and A Steven Wright Special. But one day I intend to see Steven Wright live!

For now, a transcript of the interview appears below. Soon it will be moved to the Radio Ha Ha website at 2GB Plus. Meanwhile, you can hear the interview by subscribing to the Radio Ha Ha podcast: paste this link into your podcatcher: It appears as part of Episode 9.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

One night I stayed up all night playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house house and four people died.

I broke a mirror in my house and I’m supposed to get seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five.

Demetrius Romeo: Having a deadpan delivery and material that deals with a surreal outlook on life – is it a style that you developed or one that is essentially you, and always has been?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, the way I speak has always just been like that, y’know? That’s just how I talk. But the comedy… the surrealism of the comedy, that was kind of from the beginning when I was twenty-three, when I started writing comedy. I mean, I don’t know… I don’t know really what you’re asking me, really.

Demetrius Romeo: Well for one thing, you’re inviting your audience to look at the world from your distinct point of view, and my feeling is that it’s very different to any other point of view we usually come up against. So I’m wondering if it’s a hard thing to coerce an audience to see the world the way you see it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh no, the audience really doesn’t care. They’re only concerned with whether it’s funny or not. I mean that’s just the style of jokes that I write; that’s just the way that it is. But I don’t think they’re thrown off by the style. They’re only concerned whether it’s funny or not.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I like to reminisce with people I don’t know. Granted, it takes longer.

Demetrius Romeo: Most of your material that I’m familiar with consists of if not quite one-liners, jokes with so minimal set-up and punch lines that happen so quickly that the gag’s gone in no time at all. Do you find yourself burning a lot of material?

STEVEN WRIGHT: It’s difficult to come up with long, new chunks of time, but that’s just how it’s been. I’ve never done it another way, so it’s just normal to me. It is hard, you know, you tell five jokes in a minute. But on the other hand, I don’t know any other way to do it.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ and ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I like to fill my tub up with water and then turn the shower on and act like I’m in a submarine that’s been hit.

Just got out of the hospital; I was in a speed reading accident. I hit a book mark. I flew across the room.

Demetrius Romeo: Early on, in interviews, you were explaining how you can break your material up into three categories: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ jokes, and you can analyse an audience before you’ve even seen them from the way they sound, and know what sort of structure and pace you need to give your show, and which category to draw the jokes from as you go. How do you get to a point where you can know comedy so intimately?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, I was just meaning that I was reacting to the mood of the crowd, so then I would arrange the material depending on how they were reacting. I don’t move it around like that anymore. I pretty much know what I’m gonna do before I even go out there. I do it a little differently now.

Demetrius Romeo: So that suggests that you’ve got your ‘show’ and it’s almost set in stone, nowadays.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well I used to have the same amount of material but I would move it around depending on how they were reacting, but now I do it… it’s almost like a play to me, it’s one long flowing thing, depending on if I put some new material in there some how.

Demetrius Romeo: Is that because you’ve done it so many times that you’ve got the material that you know will always work on an audience?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, what happened was, the other way I was wasting a lot of energy figuring out which joke was gonna be next. That was spending a lot of my energy on stage. Then I thought I could perform the material better if I actually knew which material was… the order of it.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I hate when my foot falls asleep during the day because that means it’s gonna be up all night.

When I get real, real bored I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot and then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.

Demetrius Romeo: From the way you’ve spoken about it in the past it sounds like you really know what you’re doing; it’s not just an instinctual thing – there’s actually a mental process involved that you’re conscious of in the process of doing it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I think it’s both. I mean, a lot of it is a gut feeling and then there’s thinking about it, but it really happens very fast. I never really break it down unless I’m being interviewed like this. Y’know what I mean? I just go about doing it.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘Dog Stay’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

Recently I was walking my dog around my building. On the ledge. A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, there are some schools of thought that suggest that the best stand-up involves physicality, yet you create hilarity by almost having no physicality. The physicality is so understated.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, but again, like, what you said, the audience doesn’t really care about rules or physical or word play. They don’t care about the style of anything, really. Again, if it’s funny, they’ll laugh at the physical. If it’s funny wordplay, they’ll laugh. They don’t really care, I think.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

Today I was – no, that wasn’t me.

Demetrius Romeo: When you started out, did you know what made audiences laugh?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No. I knew what I liked. I knew what I liked to laugh at from comedians and films and everything, but I didn’t know what would make them laugh until I started going on the stage, started writing stuff. And I still didn’t know if that was gonna work. Going on in front of the audience is really where you learn everything, just from doing it over and over and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Demetrius Romeo: Is this the style that you’ve always had as a comedian, or did the audience determine that somehow by what they laughed at when you were starting out?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I pretty much had the style of short jokes, abstract jokes, right from the beginning. There was one difference though: in the beginning, sometimes I would connect the jokes into stories. I did that for about two years, and then I stopped. It was connected stuff, and a lot of it was also just floating around one-liners. And then I just stopped doing that: I didn’t connect them anymore. But in the last eight years I’ve gone back to having a lot of the new stuff connected into little stories. Still most of it is one-liners, but there’s a lot that is stories.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Water’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

Yesterday I saw a subliminal advertising executive, but just for a second.

One time I went to the drive-in in a cab. The movie cost me $95.00.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you go about writing nowadays? When you’re young, you’re having new experiences all the time, so there’s a lot of stuff that you look and and say, ‘hey, life’s like this!’ After you’ve been doing it for a few years, is it easy to still find things that inspire you?

STEVEN WRIGHT: It’s the same. I’m really just ‘noticing’ stuff. I mean, it’s endless really: from when you wake up to when you go to sleep your mind is bombarded with words and images and sounds and things on the television and movies and conversations with people and… Writing is really thinking. It’s a specific way of thinking about something, and nobody ever stops thinking and nobody ever stops experiencing. So that’s why I think that it just continues.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

I got up the other day and everything in my apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. I called my friend and I said, ‘look at this stuff, it’s all an exact replica; what do you think?’. He said, ‘do I know you?’.

Demetrius Romeo: The other thing is, when you’re starting out and you’re doing a lot of little clubs all the time and you’ve got to always be writing new material if the same people are seeing you every week because they want to see new stuff – when you get to be a comedian that’s operating on the world stage, do you still have to be writing a lot of material, or do you get to develop and polish older ideas?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, even when I was in clubs, I was writing a lot but I was still adding to what I know already worked. And I still do that. That is an endless process. I mean, I haven’t been in Australia in seven years – I’ve done a film there but I haven’t done stand-up there in about seven years – so there’ll be a lot of stuff that I’ve written over that time that the audience has never seen before. But there’ll be stuff that I did that they have seen before.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.

I’ve been doing a lot of painting lately. Abstract painting. Extremely abstract: no brush, no canvass. I just think about it.

Demetrius Romeo: Now you said that you came out to do a film. Do you do a lot of film work?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I do it occasionally. I mainly do stand-up. I just do a film once in a while.

Demetrius Romeo: When you do do film and television work, you’re still portraying essentially the same persona – the Steven Wright I’m talking to right now; the one that I’ll see on stage. [Wright laughs] People don’t actually hire you expecting you to act as someone else; they’re hiring you as you. Does that make the acting harder or easier?

STEVEN WRIGHT: The actual acting it doesn’t affect. This is how I am, so when I’m acting, I’m really just acting like me saying some sentences someone else made up in their movie. I think it limits my opportunities, though, because they either want it or they don’t want it. I mean, I’m not going to go in and act completely another way; I’ve never done that. I’ve never really focused on acting, so it’s not disappointing to me. It’s not like, ‘oh, they should give me a chance, I could act like a high-powered lawyer in a courtroom scene’. That never was my goal anyway.

Demetrius Romeo: What about when you’re doing something like voicing a character on The Simpsons, when you’re hanging out with other funny people doing funny lines? Is that fun? Would you want to do more of that?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Sure, I would do more. But it was more like working… I mean, it was ‘light’ in there, but it was more like getting the lines down. They do them separately; it’s not like you’re even talking to many of the other actors.

I’ve done a lot of other movies like that. I mean I did Babe 2, and Swan Princess, an animated film where you’re not even talking to the other actors.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s the magic of cinema. In my head, everyone at The Simpsons was standing around the microphone making each other up.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well they didn’t when I was there. I was only there that one time. Maybe they do that when the rest of the cast is there. I was just a guest.

Demetrius Romeo: Fair enough. I should have known what it was like.

STEVEN WRIGHT: No. How would you know, y’know? Nobody knows.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Water’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

I’m tired of calling up the movies and listening to that recording of what’s playing, so I bought the album.

Went to the cinema. It said ‘Adults - $5.00; Children - $2.50’. I said, ‘alright, gimme two boys and a girl’.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that role in Reservoir Dogs come about?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Sally Menke was the editor of that movie. She edits all of Quentin’s movies. They got to the end of the movie where everything was almost finished, and they didn’t have the guy on the radio yet, the DJ, and she suggested me to him. It was her idea. She suggested me and then Quentin Tarantino really liked it, so that’s how it happened. It was before he even had a movie out, and she told me that he was a different filmmaker and this film was really going to be very different and she really thought that if he wanted me to do it, I should do it. So I totally went on her. I knew her and I trusted her sensibility. So I went in and did it. She was very, very correct. I was happy to be in that film. To be in a movie that was such a milestone in cinema… it’s fun to be part of that.

Soundbite: Opening tracks of the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs

K-Billy Supersounds of the 70s weekend just keeps on coming with this little ditty that reached up to 21 in May 1970: The George Baker Selection – ‘Little Green Bag’.

STEVEN WRIGHT: It was funny because I made some mistakes on some of the takes. When I said ‘behemoth’ I stumbled on that word and he used that one. He chose the one where I stumbled and he put that in the movie. That’s always amused me.

Demetrius Romeo: Directors tend to do that. I was watching a documentary on the making of Dr Strangelove and George C. Scott was annoyed that it was always an ‘over-the-top’ take that Kubrick used.


Demetrius Romeo: Yeah. But I think that makes the film.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Where did you see that? I’d like to see that. That’s cool. I didn’t know there was a Making of Strangelove.

Demetrius Romeo: It’s part of the DVD extras on the new re-issue.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh, okay. I love that movie. I’ll have to check it out.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you still live in New York?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I live in Massachusetts.

Demetrius Romeo: So you’ve moved back to your home town?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Not to my home town, but to near my hometown. I lived in New York. I went from New York to Los Angeles and then I lived in LA for seven years, and then I wanted to go back to where I started. I was gone about twenty years.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you happiest where you are now?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I like being in New England. I mean, I’m from that area. I travel so much so it’s not like I’m just there, but I like that I live there again. I’m very comfortable there. From growing up there, with all four seasons, that area is really in my blood so I’m comfortable to be there just because of that.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you watch a lot of DVDs?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I watch a lot of movies on the movie channels – on Bravo and ANE. I don’t really buy or rent a lot of DVDs.

Demetrius Romeo: So you wouldn’t get to see a lot of ‘making of’ documentaries or hear directors’ commentaries when DVDs are re-issued?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, not so far, no.

Demetrius Romeo: You were saying that Dr Strangelove was one of your favourite films; there are a few ‘bells and whistles’ included as bonuses with the new re-issue, like an extended interview with Robert McNamara, who was the US Secretary of Defence during the 60s.


Demetrius Romeo: And he gives a lot of good info about the milieu that Dr Strangelove was created in.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I don’t know. I should do that. I don’t know.

Demetrius Romeo: What do you do when you’re not writing material or performing material? How do you kick back?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I like to visit with friends and my brothers and sister and just hang around. I’m a big baseball fan, and I’m from Massachusetts, and I was excited that the Red Sox finally won the World Series last year. I like to play the guitar, I fool around with the guitar, I make some songs, I recorded some songs with a friend of mine just for the hell of it, I have a couple of them on my website. There are two that we’ve recorded on there – serious songs. I like to read, I like to go to movies. Just tuff like that: normal stuff. I’m a bicyclist, I ride a racing bike almost every day. I like to exercise. I like to occasionally go downhill skiing. I like to be around in nature. I’ve lived in cities for so long; that’s one reason I wanted to go back to Massachusetts and live more in the country.

Demetrius Romeo: Now Steven, you said that you like to record songs. There was a time when you used to strum short songs on your guitar on stage, that were dedicated to your girlfriend. Does that sort of performance mode still enter into your live stand-up?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I have about three or four really insane songs now in my act. That’s one of my favourite parts of the show. The one about my girlfriend’s not in there anymore, but the other ones, I really like doing that.

Demetrius Romeo: Would there be a time when you would release your more serious songs?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I don’t know. Sometimes I think of that, and at other times I think, I don’t know if I want to have that be criticised also. I go back and forth. Actually, I would like to do that some time. We’ve piled up a bunch of them. We have about ten or eleven of them.

Demetrius Romeo: May I ask permission to download the ones on your website and use them for this broadcast?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Um, maybe, you know, but let me talk to some people about that. That might actually be a good idea. That would be fun, actually. But first I want to make sure that they’re copyrighted. But if it’s okay, that would actually be fun to me.

Demetrius Romeo: Excellent. Well, Steven, I’m very happy because I’ve finally had a chat with you – you’ve been one of my heroes for a little while; I actually got you to giggle a couple of times through the interview; and you used the word ‘fun’ by the end of it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh, thank you. Very nice talking to you. I appreciate it. And if you go to the show, come backstage and say hello if you want!

Demetrius Romeo: That you very much.

Soundbite: ‘Run to You (So Goes)’ from Steven Wright’s website

Bo Diddley: Rock ’n’ Roll Legend

A gorgeous young woman came into Egg Records looking for some Bo Diddley recordings because, she said, he was playing at the Enmore Theatre. She wanted to listen to some of his music before she went to see him. There was nothing in stock on vinyl or CD, but the poor woman couldn’t escape without getting my lecture on the ‘Bo Diddley’ beat – that syncopated strum pattern that also gets referred to as the ‘ham bone’ beat – that turns up in songs like ‘Not Fade Away’, Fred Smith’s ‘Imogen Parker’ and even the introduction to U2’s ‘Desire’. I figured the ideal thing would be to would be to corner Bo Diddley for an interview. Wouldn’t it be cool to find out about the ‘Bo Diddley’ beat from the man himself? Maybe he could even explain where the term ‘ham bone’ comes from.

Thankfully, it turned out that Richard Glover was going to feature Bo Diddley live in the studio during his drive segment the day before the Enmore gig; Diddley’s publicist and people very kindly let me have ten minutes straight after. In ten minutes we managed to cover a rough outline of the man’s career, we established that the ‘ham bone’ beat is different to the ‘Bo Diddley’ beat, and Bo threatened to undress me.

An exceprt went to air on ABC NewsRadio the following morning, in time to publicise the Enmore gig, with pretty much the entire piece getting a run in that weekend’s Music News segment. I present a version here, recut with a bit more music.

Soundbite: ‘I’m A Man’ from the BGO CD Hey! Bo Diddley/Bo Diddley

Demetrius Romeo: Bo, you’ve been playing music for the better part of sixty years, I’d gather…


Demetrius Romeo: You started in school, though.

BO DIDDLEY: Well I been playing music well before that. I was playing classical music from eight years old. I played for twelve years. Then I got the guitar. My sister Lucille gave me the guitar. I learnt myself how to play that.

Demetrius Romeo: Were you more passionate about the rock n roll than the classical music?

BO DIDDLEY: I had no idea what I was doing, I just did it.

Demetrius Romeo: Of course, it wasn’t called ‘rock n roll’ then, was it?

BO DIDDLEY: No, no. It was just called, uh, I would say that everyone was trying to say that I was playing boogie woogie. Not blues, boogie woogie. Then they couldn’t figure out whether I was blues, boogie woogie or what, you know? And then when I came up with the song ‘Bo Diddley’, Alan Freed named a whole trend of music which has lasted until now. I was the first one he named. He said, “here’s a man with an original sound, an original beat that’s gonna rock n roll you right out of your seat.” The word was born right at that time, not with Elvis Presley.

Demetrius Romeo: And did you rock n roll them out of their seat?

BO DIDDLEY: Oh yeah, I’m still doing it.

Soundbite: ‘Bo Diddley’ from the BGO CD Hey! Bo Diddley/Bo Diddley

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve been playing all those years.


Demetrius Romeo: What’s keeping you going?

BO DIDDLEY: Well I love to play, and I’ve got a lot of fans. You know, I know a lot of people around and I – I hope I see some of them while I’m here.

Demetrius Romeo: In all that time, how’s the music industry changed?

BO DIDDLEY: A lot! A lot. Now we’re dealing with rap. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it, I just don’t like the dirty lyrics that our children should not be subjected to.

Demetrius Romeo: There was a time, though, when adults felt that the music you were playing…

BO DIDDLEY: Was dirty.

Demetrius Romeo: Yeah.

BO DIDDLEY: You can’t find nothing that sounds like some of the stuff I’ve heard. They’re using words that – I’m seventy-six years old – that I won’t use. You understand what I mean? And I just think our decency or our morals have been walked on a little bit by some new entertainers, because your children should not listen to certain things until they’re old enough to handle it. I can’t help being a little bit old fashioned, but I’m sorry, it works.

Soundbite: ‘Bo Diddley’ from the BGO CD Hey! Bo Diddley/Bo Diddley

Demetrius Romeo: You’re actually one of the few musicians who has a rhythm, a beat, named after them – the ‘Bo Diddley’ beat.

BO DIDDLEY: Yeah, because I was the one who invented it. I came up with it, and everybody likes it. You know, it’s kind of primitive mixed up with a little bit of spirituality, and it’s a trance that I can put into it. The way that I execute sometimes, I can almost make you undress.

Demetrius Romeo: Not right now, please. Now, it’s also got another name, the ‘ham bone’ beat.

BO DIDDLEY: No, it’s not ‘ham bone’. Let me straighten you out right quick because I’m afraid your gonna fall into a hole. Sings an example of the ‘ham bone’ beat, and then an example of the ‘Bo Diddley’ beat.

There are two different melodies. Know what I’m saying? Two different melodies. And anyone that knows anything about music will understand that.

Soundbite: ‘Elephant Man’ from the Raven CD Drive By Bo Diddley – Tales from the Funk Dimension 1970-1973

Demetrius Romeo: In the 70s, your music took a heavier, funkier kind of turn. Would you agree with that?

BO DIDDLEY: Me still being here should tell you something. I believe in changing with the times. I studied something new; every time you see me, I’ll have a new song that I bring to people because I built this monster, and I have to feed him. This rock ’n’ roll thing, I have to keep it going. I don’t copy nobody else, I do my own thing, and I try to put my music where other people would like it. If I don’t like the song, I don’t fool with it, you know. Long live rock ’n’ roll!

Soundbite: ‘I’ve Had It Hard’ from the Raven CD Drive By Bo Diddley – Tales from the Funk Dimension 1970-1973

Sean Choolburra and Akmal Saleh

In honour of their respective Opera House seasons, I chatted to Sean Choolburra and Akmal Saleh. Which was important, since, although Akmal has some prime webspace on the Sydney
Opera House homepage, the details for Sean Choolburra’s show are a bit harder to come by – no doubt the result of the fact that ‘scheduling details’ led to Sarah Kendall’ show, originally intended to be playing at that time, being cancelled. I’m not even going to mention Libbi Gorr (the former Elle McFeast), save to note that one of the write-ups designed to drum up business for her show went so far as to suggest, in the nicest possible way, that there’s a good chance that this time around, her show would be significantly better than her last. In those immortal words of John Lennon, quipping, mid-Macca lyric, during the song ‘Getting Better’: “couldn’t get much worse!”. Stand-up isn’t the strongest weapon in her comedic armoury just yet. But enough snide disclaimation. Here’s the MP3 as broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, if you prefer, and if you don’t, here’s the text:

Soundbite: Sean Choolburra performing stand-up.

The whole world would be one big, happy world, we’d be one big, happy family, if we didn’t talk about and mention race, politics and religion.

I remember my first introduction to politics was when my old grandfather took me out to my homelands and he said, ‘ninanoka broolega boolega ninanega’[1], and he’s like a wise old man, my granddad.

Basically, he was saying, ‘You look out there at your forefathers’ country; one day, you won’t own that anymore.

Demetrius Romeo: Sean, comedy lovers might be familiar with you because you made you debut a couple of years ago with Raw Comedy. You were the Sydney finalist who went down to Melbourne. Did you find that Raw Comedy opened doors for you?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Yeah, massively. I only just went on a couple of times at the open mic on a Tuesday night at Fox Studios’ Comedy Store. How I got to doing the Raw was, one of the other comics who worked with the Comedy Store, he was putting people’s names up [on the marquee] and I was just mucking around one day and I said, ‘one day you’re gonna be putting my name up there’. He was laughing and he said, ‘hey, you should try out for Triple J’s Raw Comedy competition!’ I said, ‘yeah, okay’, so I went down there, watched it for the next week and kept going for it, doing what I knew, with a bit of dancing and a bit of didgeridoo stuff.

Demetrius Romeo: You clearly were a performer before you were doing comedy because the dance moves were so proficient. How long had you been performing before you took the stage as a comic?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: I’ve sort of been into dancing since 1983/84; riding around on my bike in Townsville with big sheets of cardboard, doing breakdancing and stuff like that, so that’s when I first started dancing, then coming down to Sydney and studying at the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre in Glebe, I studied there for about three years – you’re supposed to stay for five but I lasted three – but you study jazz, tap, ballet, modern and traditional dance. After that I joined Bangarra and then had a year with Bangarra and then joined the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a resident artist and then opted out into comedy!

Demetrius Romeo: What a fantastic CV! I also notice that you played the didgeridoo in your early days of stand-up. Do you still play the didgeridoo on stage?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Yes. I use it in my show at the moment – I do a sort of hip hop song. It looks at Aboriginal identity, or just Australian identity, as being very Americanised. My old grandfather says, “look at you kids, you’re dressing up like Americans,” but at the same time the old people aren’t realising – ’cause he’s wearing a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots – that they’re dressing up like the old American westerns’ John Wayne days. But he’s having a go at all the young guys wearing American hip hop gear and he has a go at me for wearing an LA cap and says, “you’ve never even been to Los Angeles,” and I say, “Granddad, ‘LA’ doesn’t stand for ‘Los Angeles’, it stands for ‘Love Aboriginals’, so check this out.” Then I do a bit of a didgeridoo hip hop rap song.

Soundbite: A bit of a didgeridoo hip hop rap song, from Sean Choolburra’s stand-up.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, Akmal, when you started doing comedy, there was no Raw Comedy.

AKMAL SALEH: The whole thing was ‘raw’! The whole scene was really rough and raw and ready.

Demetrius Romeo: So how did you get into comedy?

AKMAL SALEH: By accident, I think. I tried a lot of other professions and I failed miserably at all of them. This was the only one I could do with any sort of competency.

Demetrius Romeo: As a comic, you’ve done a lot of interesting things. I mean, you had a sketch show with some mates who started out around the same time – …


Demetrius Romeo: … The Fifty-Foot Show on the Comedy Channel – …

AKMAL SALEH: I think seven people saw that. They used to come to our house and have pizza and used to watch it. Comedy Channel! Who watches that?!

Demetrius Romeo: And you’ve also helped make a feature film.

AKMAL SALEH: Yes. I wrote and starred in a film called You Can’t Stop the Murders, and nobody’s heard of it. Again.

That particular film was the unluckiest film in the history of filmmaking. This is absolutely true. It took us two years to write and finish production, and it opened the day that America declared war on Iraq. That night, the film opened, it was called, You Can’t Stop the Murders, starring Akmal Saleh. You just could not get it any more wrong, could you. How unlucky is that?

Demetrius Romeo: I was about to ask you what opened the comedy doors for you, but it seems that they were all…

AKMAL SALEH: No, they were all well and truly slammed in our faces. You might as well have called it Osama Bin Laden Hates Aussies. Come and see that.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the things I find interesting about you, Akmal, is that when you started out doing comedy, you had a different name. You were ‘Peter’ Saleh.

AKMAL SALEH: I was always Akmal, but then I changed my name to Peter, so that people would think that I was white. I thought, “maybe they won’t know.” ‘Peter’ seemed like a common name. ‘Akmal’ is such an awkward name, a very difficult name to remember.

When I started at the Comedy Store, there was a woman who you may know. She was quite aggressive. I guess you have to be because it was a very male-dominated, very competitive environment, and you had to go and put your name down for the open mic.

Finally I got in and she went – she was really abrupt, and she said – “Okay, we can fit you in. What’s your name again?”

I said, “Akmal Saleh.”

She went, “What?!”

I said, “Uh, Peter.”

She went, “Oh, okay. I thought you said something different.”

So I got on as Peter, and I did well. For the first show, I did actually all right. And all the comics were going, ‘Hey, Pete. Well done, Pete! Good onya Pete!” and it just kind of stuck.

Demetrius Romeo: Which would have been great, until all the other Peters came through, like Peter Berner, Peter Green, Peter Egner…

AKMAL SALEH: Peter Meisel![2] There’s a lot of Peters. It never stops. So it was the worst name you could pick. So, yeah, when September 11 happened, I thought it would be a good time to be an Arab again. No, I actually changed it when I did The Fifty-Foot Show, because Anthony and Gary – Gary Eck and Anthony Mir – who I wrote the show with, decided – they said – “just use ‘Akmal’”. And I thought, “It’s the Comedy Channel; who’s going to see that?” Who cares? So they credited me as ‘Akmal’. But strangely enough, enough people saw it and saw me in the street and said, “Hey Akmal, good show mate! Loved The Fifty-Foot Show.” And it just felt so much nicer to have people call you by your real name, so I changed it back.

It’s a terrible career move; I think I’ll change it again to something Aboriginal. I’d like an Aboriginal name, I think.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, Sean, when you first started out in Raw, you weren’t ‘Sean Choolburra’, you were Jilkamu. Why the original name, why the name change?

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: Well, with ‘Jilkamu’, I thought the audience would have thought that I’m a white person. No…

AKMAL SALEH: You should have gone on as ‘Peter Saleh’.

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: … And then I changed it to ‘Peter’! But um, I thought ‘Jilkamu’ because it is my Aboriginal name. ‘Jilkamu’ is a name up in the eastern and central Cape York meaning ‘taipan snake’. My other Aboriginal name was ‘Gidgeroy’[3] which means a centipede. And then ‘Sean’ is my birth name, which means ‘double-oh-seven’. But I used ‘Jilkamu’ because I thought it would be a great name. It is my actual spiritual name and I thought, well, there is a million Daves, and like Akmal was saying, a million Peters, and I thought there’s only one ‘Jilkamu’. But my agent said, “how about going back to your original name, ‘Jilkamu’”, and I thought “oh, okay”, and they said, “”, and obviously, ‘Choolburra’ sounds like ‘kookaburra’ and so on. I just thought, “well, what the heck; I’ll just stick with Sean Choolburra. Yeah.”

Demetrius Romeo: Your name does tie in to the sort of comedy you do, which is also tied into your ethnic backgrounds, respectively. Tell me a bit about your comedy.

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: A lot of my comedy’s based on, I guess, white stereotypes and how we laugh it off, because I think we may not have survived as a race if it wasn’t for our humour. And that’s with a lot of races around the world, not just meaning black races; like, the Irish will say the same thing, and the Jewish will have similarities as well. So I find a lot of comedy in things like everyday experiences with Centrelink or real estate – just everyday experiences.

Demetrius Romeo: Akmal, like Sean, you play a lot on your background and experiences, and the fact that you’ve gone back to being ‘Akmal’ plays a part in your humour. Tell me a bit about how you come to comedy, and what sort of jokes you make.

AKMAL SALEH: Well, I do talk about terrorists, but I actually talked about terrorists before September 11, and suddenly September 11 happens and those jokes are much funnier. So there’s always a positive outcome to every tragedy.

Soundbite: Akmal Saleh in performance.

I reckon the most uncool thing that can happen to you is if you’re walking in the street during the day, and you walk into a spider web. You ever done that? You feel like an idiot when that happens, because noone else in the street can see spider web. All they see is you walking and then suddenly going, “Ah, f…!” And people just look from across the street, and go, “Ah, what’s wrong with that guy?! Ya gotta watch ’em, mate, these darkies just go off; Pauline was right!”

You have to talk about your background no matter who you are, because we’re all ethnic in some way. You know, you’ll get five white guys, and they’ll have very varied experiences of life. No one’s had your experience in the same way that you’ve experienced it. And you add to that a cultural difference, of course it’s going to play a part in what you talk about.

Demetrius Romeo: So you’re saying that to make the comedy you make, you’ve got to talk about yourself, because that’s what you know, and that’s where you derive your humour.

AKMAL SALEH: Yeah. You know, whatever you choose to talk about, reflects who you are and your experiences. You may not ever mention that you’re from another background, but it will come through somehow if you’re honest enough. Because stand-u[‘s so raw; you’re just presenting yourself out there, and it’s kind of hard to leave out something like your cultural heritage because it is such a big part of who you are.

Demetrius Romeo: When you guys do what you do, you make it look easy. How hard was it the first time you had to get up and be yourself on stage and communicate who you are for laughs?

AKMAL SALEH: Well, to me, it’s the audience, right: if the audience allows you to do that. I can get up and be myself, only if the audience is open to that, if it’s a good crowd. That’s why doing a show like the Opera House – you’re going to get an audience that’s going to allow you to open up and be yourself. Someone said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “you’re only as good as the audience allows you to be.” And that’s true. You’re limited by them. If they’re a good crowd, you’re going to be at your best, you’re going to open up and relax, and reveal yourself. And if they’re a terrible audience, you’re just going to have to go and just be aggressive and hammer them with the jokes and do the job so that you can get the ten bucks and go home!

SEAN CHOOLBURRA: I once watched Akmal and was just blown away with how, when he performed his comedy, how proud he was of his background. It is something that is drummed into us, and obviously, with mainstream society, it allows us to being mainstream and fit right in. Having comics like Akmal who are proud of their heritage is more comforting for someone like me, because I am, at the moment – I don’t say ‘the only Aboriginal comic’; y’know, I think we’re all comical people – but I’m the mainstream at the moment, yeah.

Demetrius Romeo: Akmal, Sean, I look forward to seeing you. Thank you very much.

AKMAL SALEH: Thank you.


[1] I’ve tried to spell this phonetically. Download and listen to the MP3 version.
[2] Let’s not forget Peter Wylie!
[3] See note [1] above.

Goody Goody Yum Yum

I spent a fantastic (by my standards - he may beg to differ!) half hour this morning chatting to Dr Graeme Garden, formerly of The Goodies. Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie will be coming to Australia to undertake a tour as The Goodies once again, kicking it off in Parramatta as part of the Big Laugh Comedy Festival.

I haven’t sat down and edited a proper version of the interview yet, but m’colleague John Barron has already edited down a version to play as part of ABC NewsRadio Breakfast this week. Here’s the snippet he excerpted to be broadcast Wednesday morning - it follows on from the question (that he will no doubt paraphrase as part of a live-to-air introduction) “How did this Goodies reunion come into being?”

GRAEME GARDEN: This gentleman John Pinder got in touch with us and said he’d been asking around for people, asking people who they would like to resurrect from the old days, I think, was perhaps how he put it, I don’t know. Our name came up on his list and he got in touch with us and said, “would you three guys like to come over to Australia and have some fun?”

Demetrius Romeo: Now, Graeme, is this the first reunion proper for the Goodies in a while?

GRAEME GARDEN: In a long time, yes. We’ve been together… we’ve done a couple of shows – one at the national film theatre here, and one in a West End cinema – where we’ve had an audience and shown clips and chattered about the show, and making it, and things, and answered a few questions, and the last time we did that was to launch the DVD, which sold very well in Australia, I know. And so it would be taking that one step further, that kind of a show together. I don’t think we could offer an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza; certainly nothing as physical as the stuff we used to do on the screen. My hip needs replacing for one thing. What we would hope to do is offer some ideas of where we started out together, how we started out, what we were doing, shows before The Goodies that we collaborated on, and maybe illustrate that with some of the material we used to do on radio. Things like that.

Demetrius Romeo: One thing I do notice about the original Goodies shows is that part of the humour you created couldn’t be created in that way anymore because part of it comes from the fact that you had to use props and models, whereas today, so much of it would be CGI.


Demetrius Romeo: Do you think that people coming through with the same sort of ideas could ever get a show with that same sort of charm and humour working?

GRAEME GARDEN: I don’t know that they could. You’re quite right, because some of the fun was you could see that if someone fell of a cliff it was a dummy, and then when they hit the ground it was replaced by somebody else, and you laughed if it looked reasonably good because you felt, “well, they got away with that, then! Very funny.” Now, as you say, it would be incredibly elaborate with flying cameras and god knows what, and CGI and stuff, so it would be… I don’t know if it would be more expensive; I don’t know. But you’re right about the charm, that it would lose that sort of ‘home made’ feel that it had.

I will get around to posting the full thing - and its various permutations - up here, along with supporting stuff from the Big Laugh Festival (including an interview with its founder and mastermind, John Pinder).

Just Big Actors

When I was in high school, bitching and moaning about having landed the latest role equivalent to a spear-carrier in whatever insipid musical we happened to be doing that year, my drama teacher assured me that “there are no big parts, just big actors!”

This is especially true of the classically-trained John Rhys-Davies, who began with Shakespeare but nowadays makes a name and a living for himself in a lot of science fiction and fantasy roles. As big a part as his role as the dwarf Gimli - in The Lord of the Rings - may be, Rhys-Davies is much bigger than that: he stands at 6"1' – taller than most of the rest of the film’s cast.

Whilst awaiting my chance to interview him, I heard Rhys-Davies do all the ‘bits’ – the carefully rehearsed (through the constant repetition of countless interviews) ad libs – that pertain to his roles. The best one was his answer to the standard “but you’re so tall; how could you possibly play a dwarf?” Pausing for dramatic effect, Rhys-Davies replied that it involved him being on his knees a lot – “and that was after I had accepted the role!” Despite cuing such answers with perfect questions, I couldn’t get him to repeat the same lines into the microphone. There were a couple of moments when I wanted to scream, “just do the bits, okay?!” Of course the end result was much better because it didn’t consist of the standard bunch of grabs. I came away, for example, as one of the only journalists he offered to kill. Lucky me. (Not with the twin-bladed battle axe he wields in the film, though, unfortunately!)

Convention-attending anoraks might also wish to hasten my demise, seeing as I lay into them a bit. Truth is, I’m a train-spotting geek about a heap of other stuff, so I don’t mean any real disrespect - particularly when I set Shakespeare up as the antithesis of scifi and fantasy. Thanks to the work of Joseph Campbell, the parallels between Shakespeare and things like Star Wars, Tolkein and any number of enduring fantsies are well documented.

At this point, I should mention the Friends of Science Fiction who host John Rhys-Davies’ first appearance on this “wretched continent”. An edited (naturally) version of the interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 4 September, and if I get around to it, I might link to an MP3 file of it - but as I seem to be going way over my allocated memory allowance, it will not be happening in the near future!

Demetrius Romeo: John, your career began with Shakespeare, and you’ve trained with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and yet, you do a lot of science fiction. Is science fiction a bit of ‘relief’ between the more serious jobs, or is it something you approach as seriously as the other drama?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I’m not sure that ‘seriously’ is the word. You take every job with some attention and some dedication, I think. I like science fiction because I like speculating about the future. I’m one of these guys who actually do believe that the sooner we get off this planet, the better. In fact, it could be summed up, I suppose, as “environment? Ah, screw that! Use the planet, move on”.

That might be a little bit of a travesty of my opinion, but … ooh, I upset a lot of people then, didn’t I! Let’s leave the slow ones behind and move on to Mars.

You see we could transform Mars in about four years. What we need on Mars is what we’ve got a lot of on earth: ozone! What we want to do is we want to pollute Mars extensively. We can make an atmosphere in about four years, you know. Trap heat. Melt the permafrost. Get an atmosphere. Yes, you know, there may be a lot of things we over-run and destroy and all that sort of thing, but you know what? We could have people living there within fifty years.

Demetrius Romeo: So what you’re saying is that science fiction is something that you’ve thought about!

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Yes, I love science fiction. I like science, actually. And I like the contradiction between what scientists promise, and what they deliver. Which is frequently a huge gap! We tend to label all scientists with the same label, you know: ‘He’s a scientist!’ I’ve been privileged to meet really earth-shakingly great minds who are scientists. I’ve also met some very mediocre people who use that label with as much authenticity as I do to being a conductor of a symphony orchestra. I have no knowledge. I mean, I listen to music, but I can’t conduct and I really have no idea what happens. We should separate between the two. One of the ways scientists get grants is by speculating and attracting attention by hyperbole. You know:


“Oh, give ’em money, give ’em money, give ’em money.”

“Oh, thanks, that’s my career.”

I mean, the damage that a man like Paul Erhlich did in the 70s and 80s is monumental. He was one of these sort of ‘the future shock’-type people who predicted that by 1976 we’d be completely out of oil and completely out of minerals, that sort of thing and therefore added bucketfuls of regulations to every economy of the world, you know, slowed the economy of the world down and really retarded the prospects of getting so many millions of people out of poverty – but all in the name of the environment.

That’s not to be cynical about the environment – but you should be very, very, very wary about making any prediction about things like global warming. Is there global warming happening? I think there probably is, but to the extent that human activity is involved, I think there’s still a question. If we stopped every form of human activity, would the global warming continue? I suspect that just might happen. I think it’s something to do with sunspot activity, and that’s governed by cycles which are within cycles which are within cycles.

Demetrius Romeo: Let’s take it back a few cycles, back to you and your acting.

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Oh, that! That’s boring stuff! Nobody’s interested in actors. This is the story of actors: “Oh, look at me, look at me! Do you know how much I’ve suffered for my art? Do you know how much pain that make-up cost to put on, so that I could give you this wonderful performance? Oh, poor me, poor me. I’m over-paid; I get to travel freely; people will treat me nicely; people come up to me all the time and say, ‘gosh, you are so good!’ But that’s the life in which I have to endure and suffer.” It’s bullshit!

Demetrius Romeo: Tell me a bit about the endurance and sufferance. I understand that in order to put the make-up on to be Gimli in Lord of the Rings, you actually had to endure a bit of hardship.

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Oh, god! If I have to repeat this story yet again, I think I might just kill myself. Or probably you, actually; I think that might be the better thing. I developed a reaction to the make-up; I got a topical eczema and every time it got put on, it used to do a skin-peel for me, around the eyes. That’s probably why I’ve got this youthful skin around the eyes now! You know what? There are people with real pain, real suffering, who don’t get any of the attention or approval or the opportunity to bitch and moan and complain about it like I do.

Demetrius Romeo: Okay. So you’re in Australia to attend a few science fiction conventions…

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: To cast a few incendiaries in front of audiences!

Demetrius Romeo: … Are conventions the necessary evil for actors who do fantasy or science fiction films?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Gosh! I don’t think so, I think they’re great fun. When you’re working on the stage, you’ve got feedback from the audience all the time. When you’re working in film or television, you never do, and it’s very easy to get so off-target. In the end, it’s about burning energy and convincing people that the character you’re playing is real; that the situation that he is in, is real; and if you’re not in contact with real people, and you can’t enter the sensibility of real people, you’re acting will get false… although I must say, I never try to tint my acting with any hint of naturalism! [big, ale-quaffing in a tavern-type thespian laughter] Aah yes, what’s that wonderful line? Walter Savage Landor wasn’t it.

Nature I loved, and after nature, art. I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

It’s so pretentious and pompous, it’s wonderful! I love it, I love it.

Demetrius Romeo: So you’re saying that when you go to a convention, you’re dealing with the real people that you wouldn’t otherwise have contact with. But let me ask you then – are they real people that you’re dealing with?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: [Sharp intake of breath.] Hmmmmmm.

Demetrius Romeo: I mean, don’t you ever get that feeling where you want to say, ‘come on, people, it was just a film’?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I did get a very extensive letter the other day from a gentleman who had loved Sliders. Sliders was a television series I did with Jerry O’Connell a few years ago. The little ‘telephone’ channel-changing device that we used to sort of jump from universe to universe – he was very interested in that. He wants my help in developing it commercially. He sent me his drawing of how it should look, but there is this slight problem of how it works inside. I had to pass on it. Clearly he thought that I, as a professor of cosmology and ontology, and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist – or of that order, anyway – should be interested and able to help him. Unfortunately, parallel universes are not something I’m working on right at the moment.

There are times when you do meet real lunatics, but what I find about science fiction conventions is that you also meet such an extraordinary range of rather bright people. I’ve met real rocket scientists, real physicists. There are a number of computer guys – and they like to call themselves ‘computer geeks’ – bank managers, firemen, prison officers, the occasional man from the Inland Revenue – it’s true! – and some soldiers and sailors and airmen, vets. There are some pretty dishy girls who come along as well, and that’s always a plus. But at these conventions we’re going to see a brighter audience than most. Anyone who comes, I think, will find themselves in the company of people who are just a little bit out of the ordinary.

Demetrius Romeo: Does it ever make you wonder why there isn’t that sort of mass adulation and people willing to change their lives when you play a character from Shakespeare on the stage, for example, rather than a character from a science fiction film?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I think Shakespeare was the most popular artist of his time. I think people did gain a huge amount from watching him at that particular time. I’m sure that there were a lot of people who wanted to grow up to be like Prince Hal, to be that chivalrous noble leader of military terms, or like Hamlet: introspective, withdrawn, philosophical, and yet a man of action as well. Isn’t that so like you or I? [big thesp laugh again]

Demetrius Romeo: In The Lord of the Rings you play a dwarf, and yet in real life you tower over that dwarf’s size. How did you effectively portray the character?

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: I had an awful lot of help: great make-up; great filmmakers; great costuming; great supporting actors; a director of real genius; a basic story that was a pretty good tale; a grand script; thanks to all of that, I was able to create something that, clearly, some people have liked. I would like to say that it was purely my genius. In fact I used to say to Peter Jackson, when we were trying something, “now Peter, you understand, these are the rules: if this works, it is down to my genius as an actor. If it doesn’t work and they hate it, blame the director”. He said, “John, I’ve got it.”So, if it works, god what a good actor I am. And if you didn’t like it – BLAME THE DIRECTOR!

Demetrius Romeo: John Rhys-Davies, thank you very much.

JOHN RHYS-DAVIES: Thank you very much, and do come to that science fiction convention that’s going to be all over this wretched continent.

Show Us Your Roots

Me and the so-called ‘wog humour’ don’t see eye-to-eye, for reasons I’m still coming to terms with. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy the television show Acropolis Now, but I see it as a kind of Aussie Happy Days, and I like the idea of that ground-breaking live stage show Wogs Out Of Work but it seems to me that it just keeps recurring – in only slightly varied forms – far too frequently (like Greeks on the Roof, the Aussie adaptation of The Kumars At No. 42 that replaced the Indian comics with Greek ones – although it also saw fit to include a non-Greek actor doing a cheesy ‘wog’ accent with the evergreen [and purple] ‘Effie’ character).

This inability to deal with wog comedy means that I continue to neglect talented individuals – like Joe Avati and Nick Giannopoulos – who don’t quite fit into the unified field theory of comedy I’ve pretty much been working on since day one. The problem is that they are either preaching to the converted – doing gags that can only appeal to a limited audience – or selling themselves short – deliberately fudging the facts in a patronising and self-deprecating way, in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Or maybe both those things are close to what I’m doing by avoiding wog comedy.

So then a bunch of comics – some with that Wogs Out of Work ‘wog’ background – take part in a show whose angle is that everyone in it is a foreignor of some sort (cue the Monty Python song ‘Never Be Rude To An Arab’) although the inclusion of an American and the Irishman seem to be the escape clause – the hedged bet for the bits of the audience that can’t or won’t embrace the less Anglo of the ethnic humour. (Ie people like me.)

However, I discover the show is hilarious, and the comedians, possibly even more interesting to talk to in this ‘wog comedy’ context as they would be under any other circumstance. And the presence of the American and the Irishman adds to the insight and the enjoyment, by allowing contrast. They enable me to put the ‘wog’ thing into context, and hence develop that unified field theory. Maybe I will even get around to giving Joe Avati the attention he deserves. But I still draw the line at Nick Giannopoulos!

Having said all of that, the transcript of the interview that used to live on this page was removed, to add to the Radio Ha Ha website, the sound file likewise removed since it appeared in Episode 4 of the Radio Ha Ha. I have yet to restore the transcript, but here is the sound file.