Cool McCool

Sam McCool is performing a great show at the Cleveland St Theatre this Saturday, called Around the World in 80 Jokes. Before you read the interview, get a little feel for the ease with which Sam can bung on an accent with this little snippet of our conversation – and then read on:


“Man-made borders are ridiculous,” Sam McCool insists, citing any number of examples of seemingly endless disputes in the world between people who, for all intents and purposes are far too similar to be killing each other over their differences. “It’s this silliness that we’ve created about these artificial borders that make up nationalities and national identity,” he says.

It’s such differences that inform Sam’s comedy. Which is ironic, because his current show, Around The World In 80 Jokes, involves him performing as a number of different characters, each of a different nationality – Indian, Samoan, Scotsman, Italian, Irish, French, Scottish, Maori – and the fact is, he’s convincing as every one. But perhaps that’s not the irony. Perhaps the irony is that – and I say this as someone who’s known Sam McCool for years – even though he’s clearly not a first generation, Anglo Australian, it’s hard to pinpoint just what kind of ‘wog’ he is.

Now don’t get het up, let me make a disclaimer here. I am of Italian descent, and I’m writing this in Australia. The word ‘wog’ isn’t offensive here. Unlike in England, where it’s short for ‘golliwog’, it doesn’t have the same connotations. It’s been reclaimed, and not like the n-word, which can only be uttered with impunity by someone of African American heritage – anyone can say it. It only becomes offensive when used to cause offence, and anybody who claims it’s difficult to know the difference when that’s happening is either a fool, or lying.

But even with that disclaimer, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.


Campus Comedy

Like a lot of comics not of his generation and not just from Australia, Sam cut his teeth while at university. In addition to faculty revues, the University of Sydney offered much opportunity to be funny on stage. There was Theatresports – pretty much run, at the time, by Adam Spencer – and a weekly stand-up competition known as ‘Five-minute Noodles’ – pretty much run, at the time, by Adam Spencer. Sam availed himself to both extra-curricular activities.

“My first mate at uni was a guy called Craig Reucassel,” Sam recalls. The name should sound familiar – Craig went on to be a member of the Chaser team. “I remember going to his house and testing material out on him. Little did I know who he’d then become. I guess that’s the toughest audience you can get, really: a one-man audience of Craig Reucassel.”

As it happens, the University of Sydney was rich with up-and-coming comedic at the time. One of the first winners of the Five-minute Noodle competition was Tom Gleeson, a fine stand-up comic who, for a time, regularly appeared on television as the Australian Fast Bowler, on Skithouse. Other finalists of that season who went on to greatness included Sarah Kendall, a hot stand-up in the UK right now; Bec De Unamuno, not only one our nation’s best improv thatre performers, but the one Jason Alexander specifically requests as part of the ensemble with which he tours Australia; Chas Licciardello, another key Chaser member.

“I’ve still got a video of that final somewhere,” Sam says, and although I reckon it’s time to find it and leak it onto YouTube, it’s a slight sticking point for him that he’s the odd one out – the one who hasn’t made it to (inter)national prominence. Or at least notoriety.

“I got into it for a bit,” Sam says. And he did. He had started making inroads into the local stand-up circuit – before the travel bug bit and he chose “a different path” that took him overseas. “I went out there for life experience before deciding to come back into my first true love, which is comedy.”

Comedic journey

Fact is, Sam’s travels ought not to be dismissed. He’s “racked up” 50 countries over the last little while, and that life experience serves him well. Having a life actually gives you something to talk about when you do get back on stage, as Sam well knows.

“It comes through when I’m MCing,” he acknowledges. “Particularly when you’ve got a bit of diversity, audiences that are not your generic, homogeneous, middle class Anglo Saxons – places where you’ve got travelers and backpackers.” When bantering with such audiences, Sam’s able to easily pick where punters are from, and, having done so, can follow through with a brilliant observation regarding their homeland that’ll make them, and everyone else, laugh. I’ve generally got a good idea of where people have come from and something about their place or country to make them laugh.

And that, essentially, is the core of Sam McCool the comedian: he combines his two passions, comedy and travel, to create an informed view that “isn’t so much ‘global’ as ‘international”.

If you’ve seen Sam McCool on stage, you’d know he’s good at accents. There was a time when he’s routine involved the truism, about how anything becomes funny in the right accent. And to prove it, he could give us a perfect Jimeoin or Billy Connolly impression. Often both. But Around The World In 80 Jokes takes that a lot further. In the last year, rather than doing a routine that included some accent-based impressions, he’d instead take the stage in character.

“Whether it be Scottish or Lebanese or Indian or Pacific Island or whatever, I would start off in that accent and that character and allow the audience to believe that’s actually who I am and where I’m from. When I’d get to a lovely spot about ten minutes in, I would break their belief – and every preconceived idea they’d built up in me being a Pacific Islander or an Indian or whatever, by flipping into a totally different character.”

The result is palpable. You can hear the audience’s surprise. You see the looks on their faces: “Wait a second… Hang on…” They’re genuinely thrown. “I like that angle,” Sam says. And it all lies in the first bunch of assumptions the audience has made. Given the quality of the accent presented and the observations made, they’ve no reason not to accept the comedian in front of them is anything other than as he appears. And if there is an underlying message, it’s that “comedy is comedy”; the bottom line is, as ever, “make ’em laugh”, so it doesn’t really matter if he’s Samoan one night, Indian another, and French another. When he’s all of those and more in the one night, in the same act, audiences actually start to become aware of their own preconceptions, expectations and reactions. Audiences can sometimes be “so confused at the end of the gig” that they approach Sam with comments like, “We’re having a bet about this… where are you actually from?”

Like I said upfront, it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of wog he actually is. “That,” he says, “is the beautiful thing. People are trying to find a label, but when the show works well, their final conclusion is, “We just spent 20 minutes laughing at this guy. Don’t really know where he’s from; doesn’t really matter!’”


(H)accent on the character

If I can get a bit philosophical for a moment, I reckon the show is an extension of the struggle every second-generation Aussie – or every second-generation person in any ‘foreign’ country – faces in life: a search for identity. Sam concurs. “Anyone who has been brought up with a certain culture at home and a slightly different culture outside has that identity crisis,” he offers. “If you’re brought up Italian, in Australia you’re Italian, but in Italy, you’re Australian.” Although Sam suffers from it “the same as anyone else”, because he was born to travel as surely as he was born to tell jokes from a stage, he has finally realised that he’s “a nomad and a gypsy, and it doesn’t matter what label anyone puts on me – today I’m Australian and tomorrow I’m… whatever”.

“Hilarious” is the word Sam’s looking for, but for the record, Sam is “Australian born, Leb bred”. So on one level, life was about trying to determine who he was. That’s one of the reasons comics turn to the stage. But for a ‘wog’ turning to comedy the search for identity continues on stage. What do you do on stage? Every comic begins the same way, doing self-deprecating autobiographical material. But the comic’s job is to find some ‘accepted’ common ground between the himself and the audience and then revealing the differences. That’s a bit harder when there’s so little common ground. To talk about your own experience as a wog to a mainstream audience can be difficult unless they share some knowledge of the context. Pioneering comedy like Wogs Out Of Work made the breakthrough, turning wog experience mainstream. There is a danger, following in that wake, of making the same old observations that a mainstream audience no longer digs, or making the observations they can’t possibly get. Or, the added problem only wog comics have, of trying to appeal as a mainstream Aussie comic.

“Can I sit there and just do mainstream Aussie jokes? Of course I can, and I’ve done that. But I’ve had success lately because I’ve stayed true to talents I have. One thing that I do as well as other people, if not better, is accents. And beyond the accents is the knowledge of those countries and the ability to change those as and when necessary, to suit a crowd.”

It’s a difficult task for all comics: finding their voice and their audience. But because of stereotypes and attitudes, it’s a bit harder for a non-Anglo comic to find the right voice and right audience without seeming too much like every other wog comic that preceded him. Someone’s already gotten the laugh about Miss Helena never seeing you through her magic mirror on Romper Room because your name was too difficult or out-of-the-ordinary; someone’s already commented on the smelly, but awesome three course meal your mother would fix you for lunch. Not that that was an issue for Sam.

“Another wog comic doing wog stuff about being a wog – that’s not true to me.”

Early on, Sam was given the opportunity to play the National Theatre in Canberra as part of Show Us Your Roots, a comedy night that showcases comics of a non-Australian heritage. “I was asked as ‘a Lebanese coimc’,” Sam reports. “I did four minutes of my five-minute routine doing ‘dumb Leb’ jokes, and then I said, ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t actually talk like this. I talk like you guys.’ And a thousand people went, ‘Oh, right…’” Adamant that he’s not trying to judge anyone else’s humour or how they’re trying to do it, Sam says he “always felt like a bit of a chameleon” and tries to bring that to the stage.

So being able to do a multitude of accents does add a good, new dimension. Mostly.

“I’m going to have to ask a potentially difficult question,” I hazard.

“That’s okay,” Sam says. “I’m going to give you a potentially difficult answer…”

Gulp. Here goes. Some comedians are of the opinion that impressions are easy, or ‘hacky’; they get laughs more readily than not doing them… Admittedly, it’s the comedians not getting laughs with accents, possibly because they can’t do them, saying that. But what does Sam think? Are there some jokes you can ‘get away with’ by bunging on an accent, that you couldn’t make fly without one?

“Absolutely,” Sam says. “But that doesn’t mean the accents are easy…”

No, of course not. If they were, everyone would to them. But given you have the talent for accents, do you agree that some jokes that wouldn’t be good enough necessarily without an accent, can be funny with an accent?

“Of course,” Sam says, explaining why. “It‘s the thing of…” – and he bungs on an Irish accent to explain – “put an Irish accent on, and people just listen. They don’t care what you’re talking about, but it’s a lot funnier in an Irish accent…” – bunging on a Scottish accent – “and you’re doing a wee story, and people are absolutely mesmerised by your accent.” Reverting to his real speaking voice, Sam adds, “at the end of the day you can stand up and do an accent and still not be funny. It’s all about the delivery and the performance. You’ve got to be the comic first and then the character.”

On with the show

Of course, there’s nothing easy or hacky about weaving a whole stack of characters with accents into a full-length show with a narrative. Around the World in 80 Jokes, Sam explains, is “about a guy who loses his sense of humour and has to travel around the world to find it”. He travels on a magic carpet with the help of an Indian guru. The original idea was to have the main character travel to different comedy festivals around the world in order to showcase different types of humour. Instead, different humour is now ascribed to the various comic characters, all of whom embody “some weird derviation of humour: the French guy is a mime; the German is a Professor of Comedy; the Russian is a comedy assassin.”

Added to the mix is a series of filmed inserts – “to drive the narrative along,” Sam says, “and to give me time backstage to change into different characters. It’s literally a one-man stage show.”

It sounds great. But the story of a guy who loses his sense of humour and travels the world to find it? I suspect I know how it’ll end; the main character sounds remarkably like a guy I know who took time off from comedy in order to concentrate on his other passion – travel – and realised his ideal destination, wherever he ended up, was being funny on a stage.

Around the World in 80 Jokes - 7pm Sat 5th June - Cleveland Street Theatre, 199 Cleveland Street.