That Was The Week That Was, also known as ‘TW3’, was a weekly television show in England that was fronted by David Frost (a Cambridge graduate whose laconic speaking voice is said to be based on Peter Cook’s EL Wisty character), employed a small army of writers (some of whom would be Pythons and Goodies), and though not actually responsible for launching the so-called 'satire boom' of the early 1960s, certainly provided evidence that it was truly underway. There was also an American version of the show. A clever singer-songwriter (who would give up writing clever satirical songs and touring the world performing them in order to return to lecturing mathematics at university) called Tom Lehrer used to write a clever song each week for the American edition and went on to release an album of the best bits, called That Was The Year That Was. It was much better than the single released as the 'theme' of the British version of the show.
For the second year in a row, the Sydney Opera House is home to a gala comedy event looking back satirically at the year that was, tipping its hat to the satire tradition from which it borrows its name: That Was The Year That Was. This year's line-up features Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Mikey Robins, Wendy Harmer, Flacco and the Sandman, Felicity Ward and Celia Pacquola, to name but several, and the poster suggests there are more, yet to be announced.
I'm taking the opportunity to present an interview with Felicity Ward, who appeared to come not quite out of nowhere and be brilliant in the shortest period of time. One minute she was producing Heath Franklin's Chopper shows, the next she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe.
This interview took place midway through 2009 after Wardy had enjoyed excellent festival seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney with Ugly as a Child, the show that had won her ‘Best Newcomer’ at Melbourne Fringe in 2008. At the time, wanting to try to develop my writing style, I decided to take on a proper in-depth profile – with a view to one day tackling a full-blown biography. Clearly, I bit off more than I can chew; it contains a heap of Wardy’s – and a certain period of Australian comedy's – history, but really should have culminated in more of a portrait of what it is she does. Or at least, what it was she was doing at the time. Rest assured, Felicty Ward is nothing short of brilliant. An hilarious comic, a worthy guest on your show and the perfect person to spend an afternoon chatting to in a café. She’s certainly less melodramatic and less highly strung than when first invited to guest on a live late night variety show at a comedy festival!
“I was so nervous before I went on. I got so worked up that I honestly thought – and I say this without any exaggeration – ‘when I get off stage I will probably kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I do on stage’. I just hated myself. I thought, ‘This isn’t funny, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is just terrible’.”
Okay. Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s just gone 4pm and I’m sitting in a café – two doors up from a primary school – that specialises in hot chocolate. Sitting opposite me is Felicity Ward, a comic I was first aware of on the Channel Ten sketch show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, where she was responsible for characters like cute little Poppy, the girl who innocently explains away inadvertently dodgy photographs, and scarily angst-ridden existentialist Gretchen. Nowadays, Felicity’s a stand-up comic. A good one. She made her festival debut at Melbourne Fringe last year where her show Ugly as a Child earned her the ‘Melbourne Airport Best Newcomer Award’. At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the show played to mostly sold-out houses. Somewhere in between Ronnie Johns and Ugly as a Child, Felicity started appearing on Spicks and Specks and proved to be nothing short of bloody good on that, too. Not long after we caught up for this conversation, she made her debut appearance on Thank God You’re Here. And guess what? She absolutely blitzed it.
But according to Felicity, her very first stand-up gig was going to
be her last. While many a comic may fear ‘dying’, metaphorically, on
stage, she wasn’t fussed; she reckons she was happy to do so literally,
after she got off stage. What’s more, she’s dead serious. But school
has knocked off for the day and we’re surrounded by a multitude of
kiddies peaking on a sugar rush, their mums seemingly indifferent to
the chocolate stains that will have to be removed from uniforms later
on, so now’s not quite the right time to chase down the suicide story –
lest a multitude of ‘Poppies’ repeat it for ‘show and tell’ tomorrow
So. First things first: Ronnie Johns. “That was a big accident,”
Felicity insists. “I had never done comedy in any sort of form.”
Oh. Okay. Looks like we need to backtrack even further.
Giving Wardy The Third Degree
It was 2004. Having attended performing arts schools growing up, Felicity Ward was momentarily distracted with an interlude of Music Business Skills at Wyong TAFE – (“I was gonna be a band manager or event manager because in some part of my history, that’s what I wanted to do...”) – before acting won out. Wardy moved to Sydney to be an actor, getting involved with ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), an entity run as a professional theatre company –with set and costume designers, actors and directors – by the Sydney Theatre Company. “They put on really great plays, specifically for young people. The people you were working with were really professional so you treated it like a job.”
Felicity appeared in an ATYP production of The Musicians, directed by Tim Jones for that year’s Sydney Festival. One of Felicity’s fellow cast members, Benedict Hardie, was directing the University of Sydney’s Arts Faculty Revue soon after and asked Wardy if she’d be in it. The fact that Felicity didn’t actually go to Sydney Uni wasn’t a problem. “There were twenty people in the cast,” Felicity says with typical modesty. “Not that it wasn’t a big deal, but lots of people got into that.”
The previous year, a couple of clever people from Macquarie University had acknowledged that university revues mostly follow the same pattern: a handful of awesome sketches appear in a show surrounded by the same old stuff. These guys – Chris McDonald and Heath Franklin – decided it’d be really cool to take just the awesome sketches from a handful of different university revues and combine them into really good show. The cast of the show would similarly consist of some of the best performers from those various revues. That show was called The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS, the ‘3rd Degree’ nicely referring to comedy derived from university revue (not unlike The D-Generation, from two decades earlier) as well as offering a pun on intense interrogation, the final stage of initiation and the most severe type of burn (they’re all known as ‘third degree’).
Successful enough to warrant a second year on the festival circuit, The 3rd Degree came together for the show Eskimos with Polaroids at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Having appeared in the 2004 University of Sydney Arts Faculty Revue, Felicity auditioned for that 3rd Degree show and “got in, somehow”. That second incarnation proved successful at Sydney’s Big Laugh Comedy Festival as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
On to the next stage
Someone who had noticed The 3rd Degree in Melbourne was comedian Glenn Robbins. He’d had a history of fostering up-and-coming talent with Headliners, a live stand-up show devised and taped for the Comedy Channel. He also had a history of sketch comedy, with Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Big Girl’s Blouse. When, he says, Channel Ten approached him enquiring if he “knew of anyone” worth developing, he pointed the network towards The 3rd Degree. Channel Ten liked the idea. Powers that be suggested Robbins ought to mentor the young comedians, and though initially reluctant – there was plenty of work coming through with the likes of The Panel, Russel Coight’s All Aussie Adventures and Kath & Kim – he realised “it’d be unfair to block that opportunity” for the up-and-comers.
The ‘up-and-comers’ were selected by Chris McDonald from the cast of both shows: Dan Ilic, James Pender, Becci Gage and Caz Fitzgerald, who’d been in the show’s first incarnation; Jordan Raskopoulos and Felicity, who had been in the second; Heath Franklin, who’d helped create the show with Chris, had been in both. (In fact, prior to The 3rd Degree, Pender, Franklin, Gage and Ilic had appeared in a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called The Beatification of Newt Berton and the Great Viagra Robbery, written and directed by McDonald.) But according to Felicity, news of Channel Ten’s interest came as a surprise:
“About three weeks after the Melbourne Comedy Festival had finished, we get this call: ‘Channel Ten want to give you a writing workshop’. It was unheard of; it meant we would be employed as writers. I was a waitress; Heath was a labourer; I think Dan was working in a computer shop; Jordan was working at his dad’s dry cleaners; Becci was becoming a teacher; Caz and James Pender were studying to become lawyers. This was none of our professions so that was really, really cool.”
For two months, the team just wrote. “‘Let’s see what the funniest shit we can come up with is’ – that was our job description,” says Felicity. “No promise of anything at the end: no promise of even an episode; of employment with Channel Ten; nothing. It was just, ‘let’s see what you can do’, which was so cool, now that I think back to it.” During this period, Robbins would spend a day each week workshopping their material. “We’d talk about how we could hone the characters and improve it. Because none of us had any idea about TV, or that there would be any kind of transition to make from the page to screen.”
Glenn says it was as much of a learning experience for him. “I don’t actually know how I do most of my stuff – I just write it and do it. Putting into words the reason why they should be editing something or doing something a different way was hard.”
After two months of writing, the day came to pitch to Channel Ten. “We just went in and said, ‘this is what we do’ and had all these different scene ideas and recurring character ideas,” Felicity recalls. “About a month later they were sort of saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do something, yeah, we’re gonna do something’, and I thought, ‘It’s not gonna happen, but that’s okay, I had a really cool time’.”
A month after that, Channel Ten offered the team a pilot, which they spent a fortnight filming. “We handed the pilot in on the Friday and on the Monday, got a call saying we had six episodes of a TV show. And then got a call on the Tuesday saying, ‘Actually, you’re going to have 13 episodes’.” And so, The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – to give it its full title – was underway. All told, Felicity calculates about “thirteen months in total” from her first performance, as a Sydney Uni Arts Revue ring-in, to her first day of proper work on a TV show. “It was… kind of inexplicable, really,” She says, and then corrects herself: “Not even ‘kind of’; it was inexplicable. Wonderful. All the superlatives. Because I’d tried for a really long time to be an actor and just couldn’t get parts in anything. But as soon as I started comedy, it was easier. Not ‘easier’ – Ronnie Johns was really, really hard work. But it just seemed to progress quicker.”
True enough. All the character roles Felicity failed to land while slogging away as an actor suddenly appeared more-or-less at once on Ronnie Johns. Some were her own. Some were devised by others, but brought to life by Felicity. Others still were people she just happened to notice.
There was the deceptively innocent little girl, Poppy, with the photo album, whose explanations were a little bit disturbing. It turns out Poppy grew out of the first week of writing workshops. The rule was, everyone had to arrive each morning with five things: “They could be a funny line, a joke, a sketch, a funny character, a concept, a clipping from a newspaper that you wanted to satirise, anything, but you just had to come up with five of them. Often, four of them were absolute rubbish.” Felicity, having trouble coming up with stuff, noticed her dictionary.
“I started flicking through. It fell open on the page with the word ‘macabre’ and I thought, ‘It’d be kind of cool if there was a little girl who read out really dark definitions from the dictionary.’ Messing around with voices and characters, she realised the definitions themselves weren’t so funny. But what if she had pictures… say, of animals… that she could define…? Then there’d be room for humour. “I showed it to a network executive and he went, ‘A six-year-old showing pictures of animals is cute, but it’s not really that funny; it needs a spin.’” So Felicity came up with the spin. In the pilot episode, Poppy shows us a picture of a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a mirror, and explains, in her cutest little girl voice: “This woman likes to look at herself through a straw in a mirror and she does that sometimes for money but she won’t kiss a boy on the lips because it means something.”
“I remember writing that and thinking, ‘That’s rather dark, Felicity; we’ll see how that goes.’ That ended up being a flagship character for me.” Poppy would go on to offer innocent explanations for photos of Ku Klux Klan members and prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.
Justin Heazlewood – also known to comedy fans as ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’ (and more recently, for playing the role of young John Safran in Race Relations) – served as one of the show’s ‘non-performing writers’ and he came up with ‘Underground Girl and Underground Guy’. These were a pair of emo kids who essentially talked about “how ‘underground’ they were”. Felicity played Underground Girl while Jordan was Underground Boy. The quality of Justin’s writing was such that, when she read it, Felicity reckoned – adopting the emotionless emo tone ¬– she “could, like, tell they were, you know, like, not really into each other”. Adopting, along with Jordan, the appropriate nonchalant tone, they “tried to out-nonchalant each other”. The sketch came at the end of the first season and proved extremely popular on YouTube – so much so that Underground Girl and Underground Guy became recurring characters in the second season.
Gretchen the Nihilist
Felicity’s favourite character was the Nihilist, Gretchen. Dressed in black and flanked by similarly clad Simon (Heath Franklin) und Sigmund (James Pender), they were a trio of emotionless existentialists who somehow end up where colourful, exuberant, larger-than-life characters ought to be: hosting kids’ shows, exercise shows, playing Santa Clause in department stores…. Although the Gretchen character wasn’t devised by Felicity – the Nihilists originated in the Macquarie University Revue that Heath, James, Dan and Chris were involved in – she took to it immediately. “For some reason, it was one of those characters that, as soon as I read it, I knew exactly what to do and where to pitch it. Sometimes you just read stuff and it’s like a present: ‘There you go!’”
The initial gift was a sketch in which the Nihilists host the equivalent Playschool. It appeared in the live 3rd Degree show as well as Ronnie Johns. Felicity loved the way they “got darker and darker” as the love story developed between Gretchen and Simon in subsequent sketches. “Well,” she corrects herself, “not between Gretchen and Simon; Gretchen was in love with Simon.” Her affections were not reciprocated. In fact, the sketches “turned into a big ‘shitting on Gretchen’ competition” as Simon and Sigmund set up Gretchen in order to cut her down. “It was so much fun to do,” says Felicity. “It was great.”
Some characters didn’t make it from stage to screen, like ‘The Inbreds’ – hillbilly characters who were brother and sister as well as boyfriend and girlfriend. “I didn’t really understand the concept of things being ‘too big’ for TV,” Felicity says. “I had no idea it could be an issue. They were really funny and good on stage, but they were just too big for television.”
Judy de Groot
Another character who never made it to air was Judy de Groot, a school counsellor. “I’d written heaps of sketches for her. We would read them around the table and everyone was laughing and I was laughing. We’d do the scene, and that was fine as well. And then we’d put it in front of a live audience and it didn’t breathe – for some reason, in a studio it was just weird. So we thought, we’ll pre-record it on location somewhere. We did that, and then played that back to the audience in between the live sketches, and again it just didn’t work, and we didn’t know why. That’s something we really had to learn: we had characters that were hilarious in the room, but – I don’t know what happened between the room and filming – some just didn’t make it.”
One character who did come to life – and continues to live on for fans – was lawn bowls instructor with the serious speech impediment, Heidi. “She’s not a character,” Felicity insists. “I met her in real life. She was just ‘ready to go’.”
At a bowling club for a friend’s party, Wardy confessed utter ignorance of the ways of lawn bowls. “This bowling instructor stepped up – she was so awkward: about my age, and had that strange dichotomy of being very womanly while living just for sports – and said:
“‘Okay, we have four teamsh – you have to take a shilver band, or an oranshe band, or a…’.
“I was just looking at this woman, going ‘are you for real…?’
“She was wearing zinc, Steve Waugh sunglasses, blue knee-length shorts, and a blue polo t-shirt that said ‘rock’n’bowl’ – it’s all in the show. I just… it was… just incredible. There was nothing about the character that I made up physically.
“She went through and explained the rules about how this hilarious lawn bowls competition was gonna go for about five minutes, and then at the end, she goes, ‘of the two teamsh, the winner getsh the ashesh…’ – she had this little trophy of ‘the ashes’ – ‘… and the losher getsh the donkeysh arshe…’ – and there was this little picture of the donkey’s arse. And she lost it – she just thought it was the funniest thing.
“I didn’t think, ‘I’m gonna make a character out of her!’ I just went to work the next week and went, ‘My god, it was so funny – there was this chick… blah, blah, blah…’ and Chris said, ‘You should write a sketch about it’. ‘Oh… okay!’ We ended up writing about five or six more of those in the second season.”
I let Felicity know how much this reminds me of that story Garry McDonald occasionally tells of the airline stewardess with the ‘shot jaw’ and bogan accent who gave him and David Frost some grief. Her name was Norma Gunston…
“There are moments like those where my eyes just sparkle now,” Felicity says, “because I had no experience writing comedy or doing comedy before Ronnie Johns. It didn’t occur to me that everything that I see every single day is a possibility.”
Like all successful television sketch comedies, some items were outstanding; a few were painful; many were somewhere in between. But like all successful television sketch comedies, few agree on which sketches fall into which categories. I recall 2GB talkback radio host Ray Hadley, who trades professionally in perpetual outrage, being particularly gobsmacked by a Ronnie Johns sketch. Specifically, he was flabbergasted that Channel Ten would put to air a sketch that involved the cast spitting food onto one another. Essentially, it’s a dinner party that falls to pieces with a food fight.
“That’s what he got worked up about?” Felicity demands incredulous. I take her point. When I saw it on DVD I found it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Australia You’re Standing In It ‘Chunky Custard’ sketch, and more importantly, utterly hilarious.
“This sounds sentimental and daggy, but that was the last scene that we filmed for the last episode of the first season, and at the end of that sketch was the moment where I looked around and went, ‘Oh my god, I get paid for this’. It was really one of the best moments of my whole life: just sitting there, spitting food at my mates.”
She elaborates: one of the team’s policies, established early on, was to avoid ‘corpsing’ – the breaking of character by laughing, or causing other cast members to laugh. “We didn’t like it. We wouldn’t film it; it wouldn’t go to air. Not to say that we never broke character and never laughed, but in the beginning, we were quite hard on that. We didn’t want the audience to think that we were having more fun than they were.”
According to Felicity, that was one of only two scenes ever retained featuring the team corpsing, and the DVD contains an extra thirty seconds of them losing it. “There was supposed to be this carry-on effect where someone said something offensive and Jordan spat onto James, James spat onto Heath, Heath spat onto me, I spat onto Dan and Dan spat onto Caz. There were so many disgusting bits – it was one of my favourite sketches that we did. There’s a bit where ham lands in Pender’s mouth – it’s so disgusting. It’s gross. So much fun.”
That was a gross moment in a sketch from the final episode. There’s a similarly golden ‘gross’ moment for Felicity in a sketch in the first episode, in which she ‘hosts’ a kids’ show with a puppet frog and they ‘get to know’ each other very well in the process. “I don’t know if I would do that again,” Felicity admits. “There was a lot of stuff that, if it made us laugh, we just did it. We didn’t really think of the consequences. I was a pretty big attention-seeker and I was like, ‘that’ll make 200 pople laugh in a sudio audience’, forgetting that everyone would see it.” Forgetting, perhaps, that ‘everyone’ included people she also knew. That first episode went to air with Felicity’s family watching proudly.
“My sister rang me the next day and went, ‘Grandma and Grandpa came over to watch the show last night, and I had to sit there while you received cunnilingus from a frog. I am gonna kill you!’” Understandably, Felicity avoided visiting her family for a while. “Poor Grandma! All she wants is to be proud of me. She wants to tell all her friends, but usually I’m doing things that she can’t brag about. Grandma’s not any less proud of me but she couldn’t go to a CWA meeting and go ‘my granddaughter’s on a lovely program called The Ronnie John’s Half Hour…’.”
‘Everyone’ also included people Felicity didn’t know. “About six months after we’d filmed it, this guy leaned over to me in a pub – it’s so clear in my mind; I don’t get recognised very often, which is good and fine and appropriate – but this guy leaned over to me and went, ‘Hey, hey, are you from Ronnie Johns Half Hour?’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah!’ He goes, ‘I loved the frog sketch’. I’m like ‘Oooooooh… Yuck, yuck, yuck.’”
Wardy on board
Ronnie Johns came to an end with the clearest path appearing almost immediately before Heath Franklin: his ‘Chopper’ character clearly had a life on stage beyond the show. And despite initially sussing Wardy out as a bit of a trouble-maker – (“I am a bit of a trouble-maker; he wasn’t too far off the mark!”) – Heath hit it off very well with Felicity, so Chris McDonald, as producer of Franklin’s Chopper tour. made Wardy an offer.
“I didn’t really have a job,” Felicity recalls. “Well, none of us had jobs – but Chris said, ‘You wanna be tour manager?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ He went, ‘You wanna be stage manager?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, all right!’”
Despite utter inexperience, Felicity helped Heath and Chris organise a 90-city national tour. “It meant four months of living in each other’s pockets. And it was the first tour, so we didn’t know if it was going to be successful or anything, so often it would be me and the two boys sharing a hotel room. Not like a hotel apartment, where we’d each have our own room – we would literally be sharing a room. I was going through a tough period of my life and it was really, really hard work and we just knew each other inside-out.” The following year, Felicity served as production manager for Heath’s comedy festival Chopper shows.
That still doesn’t explain how she got back on stage. As a stand-up comic in her own right. In fact, initially, Wardy considered cobbling together a character-based show. But she gave up on it. “I’d started writing one but I just couldn’t get it together in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it would have been me producing, writing, directing, all of that stuff, and it was just too much for me.”
Enter. Stage right.
What happened next, Wardy explains, is that following the first Chopper tour, she travelled overseas and ended up in Edinburgh the year Phil Nichol was directing a production of Breaker Morant for the Fringe Festival (that is, 2007). In addition to Heath Franklin, the cast included the likes of Brendon Burns, Sammy J and Adam Hills. Hanging out with Heath meant, at times, hanging out with Hillsy. So Wardy got to know Hillsy well enough to be hanging out with him while he toured Australia subsequently with the live Spicks and Specktacular.
“We were out and at a pub with Adam and he said, ‘Do you want a drink?’,” Wardy relates. “I said, ‘No, I’m fine’. He said, ‘It’s on me’. I said, ‘No, I don’t drink’. He said, ‘Really? If you’re like this when you’re sober, we’re gonna get you on Spicks and Specks; If you can be half as funny as this…’.”
Hearing the words coming out of her mouth, Wardy checks herself with her customary modesty: “I sound like a real dickhead saying this. Sorry, I’m not trying to say I’m funny or anything like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure Adam, nicest guy in the world, that’s a really nice thing to say’.” In Felicity’s head, Adam was paying her a nice compliment; she never expected to be invited onto the show. But she was:
“I get a call two weeks later saying, ‘Hi, I’m calling from Spicks and Specks, Adam’s recommended you, I’m just wondering if you’d be interested in coming on the show…’.”
Felicity finds it a bit hard to believe that she was asked onto the show for – she says – “no better reason” than she’s “a friend of Adam’s friend”. Sure, she’d appeared on Ronnie Johns, but she herself is the first to acknowledge that since it was “quite ‘culty’”, nobody really watched it (except Ray Hadley, during a slow week, when sport was rightfully getting more press than the arts, and for the right reasons). And furthermore, even if she was “a funny sketch comedian” (which she is), it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’d be “funny in real life” or “ enjoyable to watch” or “affable” or, she concludes, “any of those things”. (Felicity Ward is in fact all those things.) “So it was a pretty big risk.” (Actually, it wasn’t – not as far as Hillsy was concerned, clearly.)
“Then I went on and it was great. I had lots of fun. They got me back a couple of times and every time I finished there I thought, ‘Maybe it’s all right that I’m just me; maybe I don’t need to do character stuff.’”
Variety - the spice of taking your own life
That is the plain truth of it: some people really are natural born
entertainers whose best work is pretty much whatever they do when
they’re being themselves – but learning how to just be yourself on
stage is one of the most difficult things to do; often it is other
people around you who recognise the natural talent people you have just
Hillsy wasn’t the only person who recognised Wardy’s talent and sought to include her in his show. Ali McGregor,
the operatic soprano and singer of burlesque who has been hosting a
late night variety show on the festival circuit for the last few years,
encountered Wardy at Adelaide Fringe in 2008 and, with the Melbourne
International Comedy Festival to follow shortly thereafter, asked her
if she might “want to do something one night”.
“I’m like, ‘Um… yeah, okay, sure!’” Felicity relates, not having
thought anything of it at the time. “Then I ran into Ali again in
Melbourne and she’s like, ‘When do you want to come on?’ I’m like, ‘Um…
oh… like… er… whenever?’ She said, ‘Well… just tell me when.’” A couple
of weeks later, with the festival almost over, Ali saw Wardy in the
street and said, “We’re running out of slots; do you want to do
something?” Felicity had to agree, she says, “because I knew that if I
didn’t, I would really hate myself”. So Wardy was locked in for the
final night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
“I didn’t have to do comedy or anything like that,” Felicity says.
“I could do anything, basically.” Jordan Raskopoulos, Felicity’s old
Ronnie Johns colleague and himself a veteran of several subsequent
festivals, both as a solo act and as one third of The Axis of Awesome,
had some remote control toy tanks that, when ‘fired’, resulted in
giving the user electric shocks. “I thought, what I should do, I should
order these electrocuting toy tanks online and use them in the show,”
Wardy decided. “I will pick someone from the audienc, ask them trivia
questions, and if they get them wrong, I’ll zap them – and vice-versa.
I don’t know where that idea came from but that was the idea.”
Electrocuting tanks were duly ordered and arrived on the Friday.
Felicity’s gig, as a guest on Ali McGregor’s Late Night Variety Show,
was on the Sunday. But Felicity happened to be on the phone when the
postman buzzed her, and even though she instructed him to “just bring
them up”, it was ages later that she finished her phone call and
realised he hadn’t come up. “I was staying in this little apartment in
Melbourne,” Wardy says. “They weren’t outside my door, they weren’t in
the foyer, they weren’t outside… he must have just stolen them. I was
like, ‘Oh no! Oh no! What am I gonna do now?’ I just started freaking
With twelve minutes to fill on Ali’s show, never having done
stand-up before, and not much more than two days to write something,
Felicity began to have a breakdown. Or would have, had she not been
keeping notebooks full of ideas since her Ronnie Johns days. “I just
started writing furiously – anything I could think of. I ended putting
together ten minutes.” It was at this point that Felicity Ward began
planning her own demise, as outlined at the beginning of this piece. It
was her coping mechanism: it didn’t matter how bad her performance
would be – and she was certain it was going to be terrible – because
she’d already formulated her exit strategy. She was going to take her
own life. And then…
“It was amazing. It went really well. I thought, ‘Why have I been waiting so long to do this?’”
Just like a Hollywood film
Two weeks later, Felicity decided to move to Melbourne, started doing stand-up and began creating her first festival show. Four months later she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe with her award-winning show Ugly As A Child.
“I figured out the other day, I did less than twenty stand-up gigs before the first show at Melbourne Fringe, which is not enough time to run-in a craft…” Wardy says.
Yeah, okay, Felicity. Shut up. Except that, being so humble, down-to-earth and modest, talk about it all you like. Wardy’s welcome to say whatever she wants about her comedy because she’s not only good, she’s also right: she did take less than twenty gigs before she was clearly being acknowledged as brilliant. And although it ‘should’ take more time to run-in a craft, it is a craft, not a science, so none of the laws or rules have to hold in every situation. You can know all there is to know about comedy before realising that irrespective of what you know, if you get in front of an audience and fail to make them laugh, in that moment, you know nothing…
Wardy, on the other hand, knows she’s onto something good. Or at least, she should. Ugly As A Child is hilarious, involving singing, characters, acting, absurdism, audience participation (with the trivia quiz-based electrocuting tanks) all based on an uncomfortable trawl through an awkward childhood. I can’t help wondering if I can detect autobiography done up as fiction.
“There’s nothing fictional about it! It’s just autobiography,” Felicity admits. And then qualifies her statement. There are a couple of elements that aren’t based on fact. Judy de Groot, the school counsellor character who never quite worked on Ronnie Johns, works a treat in Ugly As A Child. And in the first, Melbourne Fringe incarnation of the show, a segment called ‘Meat Dad’, that didn’t make it to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival version, isn’t real. Although it did grow out of a real element of Felicity’ life. “Basically, my dad used to go out west and sell vacuum cleaners for a living, so he’d be gone for weeks at a time,” Wardy explains. “I thought it would be funny if I had this puppet called ‘Meat Dad’ which was two steaks stuck to a ruler with a face on it, and I would talk to him while dad was away. That and the school counsellor were made-up, but apart from that, everything in the show is true.”
Ugly in Sydney
After a successful Melboure Comedy Festival season that saw Wardy make the shortlist for ‘Best Newcomer’ – the award she won at the Melbourne Fringe late last year – she brought Ugly as a Child to Sydney for Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. “I was really nervous,” she admits. “I said, ‘Look, Grandma, I really want you to see this, but I have to let you know there is some really full-on language in it and I don’t want you to be offended. Come if you’d like; I want you to be there. But…’
“After the show, I came out and I was so nervous. She just came up to me and said, ‘I am so proud of you. I thought it was wonderful’. It was like, ‘It’s okay, Gran’s proud of me. Good.’” Of course, Gran also enjoyed Wardy’s turn on Thank God You’re Here – it’s a family show, so there’s no swearing.
The question, at the time of our conversation, is: what next for Felicity? She already had her next show planned. It was to be about hedonism. But before doing a hedonism show, she was going to engage in some travelling to the UK for pleasure. Which meant she wouldn’t have time to work on a new show for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival and beyond. “I’m not comfortable having a half-baked show,” she says. Thankfully, ‘plan b’ made itself apparent instead.
“What happened,” Wardy eplains, “was I did this gig at a Bar Mitzvah. It was the worst gig I’ve ever done – excruciating from start to finish. The whole story of how it happened was a mess.” Despite going home from the Bar Mitzvah “devastated”, she decided to write about what happened. She ended up with a story, two pages long, which she delivered as stand-up. “And then I just started writing essays because I really like doing them,” she says. One of them was about the time she attended a poetry night. “That essay’s called, ‘I forgot to tell you, I hate poery!’” she says.
What’s amazing is that it took friend and producer Chris McDonald suggest “Why not just do an essay show?” After all, says Felicity, “ they’re crafted, well-written and humorous. I feel comfortable doing that. So that’s the next adventure.” That essay show was lovingly entitled Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron, and has served Wardy well: it was her 2009 Melbourne Fringe show, in preparation for the Aussie festival circuit of 2010. Meanwhile, the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe was impressed by Felicity Ward’s Edinburgh Season – the most recent incarnation of Ugly as a Child.
Meanwhile, that hedonist show may be developed down the track – which means Felicity can finally rest easy. Although she was once terrified that she’d “used up” all her “good stuff” early on, and now, unable to ever write another funny joke, it was time to “pack it up and retire undefeated,” she knows it’s not the case. “Things have been happening lately that I’ve been writing about and trying nervously, and they’ve been great. As in, the audience is responding very well. So that’s a relief I’m not ‘all out’ after thirteen months of stand-up.”
Indeed. Rest assured, even if she was one of the last people to realise it, Felicity Ward is here for the long haul.