Peter Helliar - Nautical but Nice

It's been a pleasure seeing and hearing him regularly on Rove and radio, (not to mention his regular turn as Strauchanie), but it's been a few years since Peter Helliar has properly graced a stand-up stage - although the 2007 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala is a nice gig to have remembered as your last before taking a break to make a feature film. Back, if not with a vengeance, then at least with a new bunch of stand-up, Pete's playing the Sydney Opera House from Jan 5th with his Dreamboat Tour. In the meantime, here's an interview from a Sydney visit ages ago. It is from a time when Merrick & Rosso ruled drivetime radio with their shift on Triple J, and if it's too long ago for you to remember, rest assured, it seems like a life time ago for me, too. But even at the time, it felt like a particularly golden age of Oz comedy - Tripod appearing regularly with Peter on Merrick & Rosso's Triple J show. I know one day people will look back at a golden period just ended, when Ben Ellwood and Dave Jory would appear regularly on Dools's drivetime show. As it happens, Dools is now hosting Breakfast at Nova with Merrick Watts, all of which deserve a whole other bunch of blogs... for now, here's an early interview with Peter Helliar.


For Pete's Sake

“I saw Greg Fleet at the Comedy Club in Melbourne when I was 15 and I thought that that would be a kind of cool thing to do,” Peter Helliar offers as explanation of his comedic inspiration. “That, of course, was when I thought everyone was making huge amounts of money doing comedy.”

A deep desire to perform, too many beers, boisterous mates and the refusal to “get a proper job” actually led Helliar to adopt this ‘cool’ way of life. Eventually.

“It took me a good seven years to get off to it,” he admits, having opted for travel after finishing school. In fact, Helliar almost worked up enough nerve to have a go at comedy overseas: “I was in London and thought, ‘maybe I’ll try here, where I won’t be humiliated in front of people I know.” The London debut never eventuated. Helliar instead returned to Australia where he finally got up on stage to start telling jokes at Melbourne’s legendary Espy comedy club (in St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel). “The rest,” Peter assures me, “is history. Not an awfully interesting history, but a history nonetheless.” Helliar finishes his story by revealing just how huge the amounts of money to be made in comedy are: “The harsh reality is that it’s only a couple of million a year.”

Only a couple, Peter?

“Um. Slightly less.”

Although he’s only been joking for the last two and a half years, Peter has been to Sydney about six or seven times. However, if you have yet to see him live, you may be more familiar with the contributions he regularly makes to Merrick and Rosso’s Triple J drivetime slot as Peter Helliar, PI. Merrick Watts and Peter Helliar were already familiar with each other by the time Helliar had started making with the funny business; they’d been introduced by a mutual friend. However, a “mutual admiration society” quickly developed between Helliar and the grouse duo, Merrick and Rosso soon inviting Peter along to fill the support slot at their Christmas and grand final shows in Melbourne.

“They were the first people who could give me a real break,” Peter acknowledges.

Recognising, no doubt, a kindred spirit as well as talent, Merrick and Rosso continued to send breaks in Peter’s direction. Last year they asked him to contribute to Hair of the Dog, the Triple J Sunday slot they were then filling while Roy and HG were overseas. When they had landed the drivetime shift, they likewise brought him on board.

Merrick and Rosso left Pete's exact role on the show pretty much up to him; their first question was, ‘do you have any ideas?’ Peter confessed to harbouring only the one and it involved him being “a ‘PI’ kind of guy,” mainly because the idea of ‘a race against time’ appealed. Thus, each week, Peter pits his wits against all manner of challenges within certain time constraints, for the entertainment of the Triple J-listening masses.

“It opens itself up to so many different possibilities,” he explains, “from tracking various people down to professing my love to certain people to singing songs like the one I did with Steven Gates from Tripod recently.” Part of the attraction that such a role held was that it would be so different; it would not require Helliar to either pen ten minutes of new material or use up dependable chunks of his stage show each week.

In his capacity as ‘Peter Helliar, PI’ Peter has established a very good track record, having ‘failed his mission’ only once, and even then, under “reasonably dubious” circumstances.

“I had to write a poem about the town of Orange, NSW, to the tune of ‘The Man from Snowy River’. ‘Orange’ had to rhyme four times within that poem. For those who don’t know, ‘Orange’ is one of few English words that has no rhyme.”

Geez, I offer, if that’s the only time you’ve failed, don’t be too hard on yourself. It was a pretty hard ask to begin with.

“Oh, thanks mate,” Peter replies, “but I do strive for a one hundred percent record.”

It appears that the “other hiccup” Peter Helliar, PI encountered involved Olympics commentator Bruce McAvaney. “We wanted Bruce to sing ‘Islands in the Stream’ because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s work. He refused. But Matthew White from Sports Tonight was great enough to step in and take over the mantle and he loved it.”

According to Peter, Sydney crowds often emanate “the right kind of vibes” for comedians who would otherwise avoid trying out fresh material. Thus, Helliar’s Sydney shows will be an amalgam of his recent Melbourne Comedy Festival show, This Much is True, and what will eventually become next year’s Comedy Festival piece.

“Just on the topic of this year’s show, This Much is True, Peter,” I ask. “How much of it was actually true?”

“Three percent,” Peter answers without pausing.

“That’s pretty good,” I acknowledge. “There are reconstituted  orange fruit drinks that cannot boast as high a content of actual orange juice." And it's certainly greater than the comic's - or, let's face it, anyone's - hit rate at rhyming the town Orange in a parody of 'Man From Snowy River'...

The Return of Rove
(Will the Real Rove McManus
Please Stand Up!)


I was pretty excited that Rove McManus was planning to do stand-up again. It’s been about five years since the last time, I’m guessing; Rove was about twenty-six then. Is the return to stand-up a reality-check brought about by the big three-oh? Well, I’m not likely to find out first hand, because I’m not likely to get an interview with Rove this time round. Not that he needs to do press to guarantee bums on seats.

So instead I’ve dug out this old interview, conducted for Revolver a few years back when Rove took the cast of Rove [Live] on the road for a show they called Rove [Live] Live.

At the time, Rove was the antidote for the sorry state of Australian television, at least as far as comedy was concerned. Little did we know that before long, without having a Daryl Somers to compare him to, people would start referring to Rove as the new Daryl Somers. Bastards. It’s just not true. Although, truth be told, Somers himself provided an important show. For a while. It’s just that Channel Nine never knows when to let go of a show (only when it’s doing good, evidently.) Anyway, when Graham Kennedy died, Rove went on the record proclaiming the King of Television’s greatness. I have no trouble putting my reputation (such as it is; and you can stop laughing) on the line and stating that subsequent to Kennedy, Rove is the one of this current television generation that comes close to being able to lay a claim to that crown. I said as much four years ago — much to Rove’s evident disdain — and I’m saying it again now.

And just for the record — whatever Rove’s show in its current prime time slot is perceived to lack that it may have had in its earlier incarnation in a later timeslot on another channel — like sketches and other silly shenanigans — is made up for by the fact that Roving Enterprises makes the show skitHouse. The sketches and other silly shenanigans have merely been bundled together in a stronger, separate package. Anyway, enough ranting. Read an old interview.

Oh, I guess I’d better link to some tour dates.

Everything’s Coming Up Rove
First published in Revolver December 4, 2000, according to this bastard website that has posted it without crediting me or linking to my blog.

Bert Newton, Daryl Somers and Andrew Denton now have something in common that goes beyond the fact that each has, at one time, been the funniest television personality ever to entertain Australian prime time audiences. It is this: they have all bantered with Rove McManus on his show, Rove [Live]. Of all the comics taken for a test-run by Channel Nine last year, McManus was the one able to go the distance. He was also part of the team that took Good News Week around for a final victory lap. Thus, it would appear that these people who once were the funniest television personalities are happily accepting Rove as their rightful heir and successor. When Andrew Denton was on the show, you could practically see the torch change hands. It was as though the former were ‘anointing’ the latter. “Is that a fact?” Rove asks when I put the theory to him. “Was he ‘anointing’?” It happened when Rove asked Denton if he’d consider hosting the Logies ceremony again. Denton thought that twice was quite sufficient, but suggested that Rove might well want a go instead. He was very much ‘anointing’.

That Rove is where he is and is only twenty-six may be impressive, but McManus himself acknowledges that he had an early start, even if he couldn’t quite accept it at the time. Growing up in Western Australia, friends and relatives of the adolescent Rove would insist that he “should be a comedian”. Rove, however, was “definitely afraid” of even the thought of “having to get up on stage and try to be funny in front of a group of strangers”. However, he didn’t mind acting. “If someone else had written the lines and they weren’t funny,” he explains, “you could always just go, ‘blame the playwright, don’t blame me.’” By the time he’d left school, Rove himself was writing the lines with his mates. When they had trouble getting other people to perform their material, they decided, “stuff it, we’ll just do it ourselves!” and got themselves onto the local community radio station. Before long, Rove built up the confidence to be funny on stage in front of strangers as he began to work the “not very big but certainly healthy and thriving” Perth stand-up scene. “It was a great place to start because it was so small,” Rove says. “You were doing a gig every three weeks, as opposed to one every three months in Melbourne or Sydney”

Soon getting to a point where he felt he “couldn’t go any further”, Rove decided to move to Melbourne. He likens his arrival on the Melbourne scene to a ‘fireworks display’ that “exploded very quickly”. As the new kid in town, McManus was usually lumped with other equally unfamiliar comics, but the difference between them was that whereas the others had never performed before Rove had two years experience and two years of material to his advantage. Therefore, he was noticed from the start. Despite this, however, it wasn’t long before he found himself in the same boat as his peers: “I soon hit a brick wall; I was fighting for gigs at all the regular comedy clubs, like everyone else.” Rove recalls that period of his life and career as “enjoyable times” but admits that he certainly was not living comfortably: “I soon saw how far a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter can actually stretch,” he says. The lesson this experience taught him: “Never get too complacent; you’re never one hundred percent safe” – as he was reminded again last year, he says, when his season at Channel Nine came to an end.

The point at which Rove was well and truly thrust into our comedic consciousness was when he was one of a bunch of ‘up-and-comers’ profiled in a special comedy issue of Juice a little while back. Also present and accounted for were Merrick & Rosso, Peter Helliar and Adam Spencer, who we all knew from Triple J, as well as the familiar Wil Anderson and the somewhat less so (at that stage in Sydney) Corinne Grant. But this Rove McManus guy who was featured had many a non-Melbournian scratching his noggin. Rove agrees that at that stage of his ascendancy, he was “behind most of the others”. Although he’d been on Good News Week like Wil and Corinne, he was not quite “in the regular loop” yet. However, successful annual appearances at the Melbourne Comedy Festival had brought him to the forefront of that town’s comedy scene and a hosting gig on community television station Channel 31’s The Loft Live kept him there. Live community television was the perfect proving ground for the primetime personality-to-be. When important guests were not turning up late (“one time the guest was so late, it ended up being a brief two-minute interview at the end of the show”) or failing to arrive altogether (“on our very first show, the guest had just forgotten to turn up”) there was always the possibility of equipment malfunction to keep Rove on his toes: “Our audio box blew up. No-one at home could hear us so we had to go off air.”

Such strong grounding in live television coupled with the stand-up experience made McManus a natural for prime time commercial television. It shows, not just in his ability to host so well, to be able to work with such a good team and to make it look so easy, but also in the way he appeals to so wide a demographic. McManus himself likens the job to being a bus driver, who is trusted by all the passengers. “The essence of it is that I’m having fun,” he says. “It reflects to the viewing audience that I’m having fun, and they can’t help but have fun themselves because I don’t look like I’m uncomfortable. I absolutely love it.”

Rove reckons that if, two years ago, you’d asked him where he wanted to be in five or ten years time, his answer would literally be what he is actually doing now. “So I’ve been very blessed in that I’ve been given a lot and achieved it in a relatively short amount of time,” he says. I reckon there’s more to it than that. When shows like Hey Hey It’s Saturday and Good News Week had to call it a day, they left a gaping hole that Rove himself claims he’s only “paved over slightly” or “put a couple of sticks and leaves across” to make it look fixed. Now’s the time, Rove McManus. If visitations from the Three Wise Kings of Comedy is not enough and you need some sort of ‘John the Baptist’ figure as well, then Graham Kennedy must be that man. When he finally returns from the wilderness to give McManus his blessing then we’ll know for sure that Rove is the chosen one, sent to save our miserable television-watching lives from eternal damnation… Meanwhile, thank Christ he still loves to stand-up. For, with all his long-term goals satisfied in the short term, the answer to ‘what do you most look forward to’ is ‘coming to Sydney to do live stand-up in a “back-to-basics” outrageous comedy revue’.

Amen, brother.