“Oh, where do you even begin?” Tommy Dean asks.
Where indeed? It’s as good a point of departure as any for an interview on the eve of his one and only 2012 Sydney Comedy Festival show.
I’ve known the long-haired American for a decade-and-a-half as a true comic genius: a man who seemingly can take anything you give him and fashion it into hilarious material. And when he watches other comedians – or, more to the point, wanna-be comedians and newbies – Tommy can point out weaknesses and suggest ways to make stronger the stuff they come up with by adhering to things like ‘truth in comedy’ and ‘answering comedy with comedy’. He's also as decent a guy as you’ll get to meet.
But Tommy’s questions are in fact answers to one of my own that comes much later, and more important ones that should come first are ones such as, why is such a brilliant comic comparatively so little known in Australia? Other brilliant comics – like Fred Lang, for instance – will describe him as ‘Australia’s best kept comedy secret’. But then, there are people who claim to love comedy who have never had the supreme pleasure of seeing Fred Lang in action either, so perhaps we should start somewhere else again.
Okay, how about this one: why is it that Tommy Dean only doing one Sydney Comedy Festival show?
“I guess I’m supposed to say, ‘I’ve been very busy, I’m obligated to a lot of other things, the schedule didn’t really come together, I’d love to do more but it didn’t really work out…’” Tommy offers.
All of which is true, as this interview will demonstrate.
What is patently not true, though, is that Tommy Dean's sole one-night-only performance is in fact his only show of the Festival. He’s already appeared in that brilliant Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza-produced Set List, in which an array of comics is given topics virtually on the way to the microphone, from which to construct their ten minute set pretty much as they’re delivering it. And he’s got a few Thank God It’s Friday obligations in the live Thank God It’s On Stage: the first, in Wollongong, has already taken place, but there’s still Saturday’s Seymour Centre show, and one at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre a week later. And Tommy’s also appeared in one of the [“lesser”] galas that have taken place.
So really, Tommy Dean is all over the Sydney Comedy Festival; but even if he weren’t, his ‘cover story’ sounds pretty convincing. And that’s because it’s pretty much true: Tommy does seem to be busier than ever. And, to be fair, there was a time when Tommy seemed less gung-ho about pursuing opportunities. If anything, he is a less well-kept secret, surely.
“I think that’s probably still fair,” Tommy says. “I mean, one night in the Sydney Comedy Festival is just another night in Sydney. I’m around all the time, so why should people come to this one night in Sydney when then can find me on any given night in Sydney?”
Good point. Of course, being part of something like the Sydney Comedy Festival does at least bring Tommy to the attention of the ‘special event’ comedy audience – the people who don’t go and see comedy every night of the week all year round. People, let’s face it, who may not even know you can see comedy regularly in venues around Sydney.
And the other point worth raising is, can you actually still see Tommy Dean in a comedy club any time you want to? Not as regularly as you used to, surely. I mean, nowadays, I see Tommy more often as the hilarious warm-up guy at the taping of a television show – (and note, not all warm-up guys are hilarious) – than I do as the killer headline act in a comedy room.
“Yes,” Tommy concurs, “that has become my main source of grocery buying at the moment. It takes precedence over club work. That ate up the front part of the year, this year.”
“I love doing warm-up for Denton’s shows because the nature of the shows he produces makes it easy,” Tommy explains, although he prefers the term ‘focused’ to ‘warmed up’. “Most audiences come to a show wanting to have fun; Andrew Denton’s shows are fun, so I feel good about the product behind me. I’m not saying ‘Whoo, let’s be all excited about this’ knowing full well I’m about to hand them over to a pile of crap that I can’t justify.” For Tommy, it’s a matter of principal: he doesn’t want to be the entertainment equivalent of the snake-oil seller.
He also doesn’t want to be the guy desperate to ‘get laughs’; see – or hear – him as a guest on a panel show, and you won't see him hog the limelight or talk over people. “The nature of what I do, comedically, is share what I think is funny. It’s always about ‘sharing the laugh’, rather than ‘getting the laugh’.”
Having a Denton-produced program as the reason to focus an audience makes that sharing so much easier: able to remain relaxed and confident, Tommy essentially treats his sessions with audiences – getting them primed for the show, filling in the gaps if there are technical issues that halt proceedings – as ‘improv’. He’s playing games with them, talking to them, bouncing off them rather than delivering prepared material. “I like to share the show along with them, as though I’m just the audience member who talks more.”
Though not always much more – Randling, for example, has Denton up front and comedians and similarly quick-witted guests. If something did go wrong, there was always sufficient banter to ensure Tommy's presence out front was not required. “In fact," he says, "I can remember no moment during the entire time I was doing it where, once I said ‘here’s the show’, I had to come back out!” Watch any episode – Wednesday nights, 8:30pm, until some time in October – and you'll see why: hilarious television!
Tommy has a theory that comedians are like prophets: they’re loved more in lands other than those they were raised. “I still believe it, and therein lies the rub of why I’m not doing a full run in the Sydney Comedy Festival,” Tommy says with a chuckle. “I am of Sydney Town, so Sydney takes me for granted; there is no rush to go and see me. If I were playing Perth’s Wild West Festival, it’d be a case of, ‘this is the only time he here this year’ and there’d be a rush to go and see me.”
Yet, according to Tommy, even if a comedian is better loved away from home, the cruel irony is that the comic is also funniest in his or her own hometown, since they know it so intimately. “You should be at your most perceptive at that to which you have the most knowledge,” he insists. But he illustrates it with an example of the other extreme:
“I was recently in Malaysia, where the entire audience was Malay, and I’ve never been more ‘not funny’. We just didn’t have a common ground.”
I’m a bit surprised by this – what about the whole ‘innocent abroad’ thing – where the outsider sees the place for what it really is, noticing stuff the locals don’t because they take it for granted?
“I would argue that that’s the case if you’re ‘of the background’,” Tommy says, essentially explaining that there has to be some common ground. There wasn’t any for him and his Malay audience. “I’ve never been to England, but I would expect to do well there, being more-or-less of the English ethos and presenting a view that would be easily understood to the English.”
None of that holds true when he visits Malaysia, and furthermore, Tommy says, Malaysia is a “very interesting case in point” because it feels as if it’s “very new” to comedy: “There’s a very interesting dynamic there, in the old guard of the oppressive government holding out, while the new internet-trained, westernised youth coming up through the system starting to rebel against it.” Stand-up, and having touchy subjects discussed out load, seems very new to them, so when an outsider starts “having a go”, the locals have trouble dealing with it. "It feels like a very fresh wound; they’re not sure if they can accept that.”
Really, it’s not unlike initial reactions to Tommy Dean when he first hit the stand-up scene in Australia. Some audiences resented the ‘Seppo’ telling them how things were. “In Malaysia, if you made any reference to corrupt police as an outsider, they were very, ‘oh, let’s be a little bit cool now, you’re judging Malaysia!’ But the locals could talk about corrupt cops and the audience would be all, ‘oh yeah, they’re corrupt!’ Generally speaking, the locals were better prepared to service the comedy needs of Malaysia than I was. And fair enough, too!”
In conclusion, however, Tommy still maintains: “You must go abroad to be at your funniest. Or at least, to be seen as being at your funniest.”
Pick a card/perception of doors
Another thing I recall Tommy mentioning in the past, is his process of delivering comedy. He likens it to constantly shuffling a deck of cards, knowing at any one time only the card he’s currently playing, and the one he’ll play next, but otherwise he is constantly going through the deck.
“That is so true,” Tommy insists: “Comedy is a game tactical manoeuvres, not strategy.” Because you can plan an entire set, but if something unexpected happens, you should be prepared to address the unexpected thing and veer ‘of piste’ as necessary, rather than stick to the script. It’s much funnier that way.
‘That’s exactly right,” Tommy says. “And I like the metaphor more now, because I’m thinking I probably only have about 52 cards. It’s not an endless deck.”
There was also a metaphor of ‘going through doors’: you’re constantly faced with options on stage – choices between different doors.
“It’s simply a re-visualisation of the cards metaphor, isn’t it?” Tommy reasons. “Same idea: you walk through a door, now you’re in this room; this room only has so many doors out of it.”
Perhaps, but at least with the doors, you can go back the way you came if you hit a dead end or a situation where you don’t want to go through any of the doors currently on offer…
“Yeah, I suppose, in a pure metaphorical sense, the door philosophy is probably better,” Tommy agrees. “But you could backtrack on the card play. I see no reason not too. Maybe you’d take the card metaphor kind of like a game of solitaire: you play the card, they only allow certain options, but eventually, because of card play on the right hand side, you suddenly now have access to move that shift back to the left side… ‘oh, finally, a red 8! Right, 9 – and we’re back in business on the left side!’”
The card metaphor is most telling; the best door to open when it comes to Tommy Dean, is the one that leads to the games room. See, Tommy loves games. Board games in particular. His collection of games has featured on the ABC show Collectors. Indeed, Tommy is a member of Board Games Australia, a body that exists to “promote gaming as a fun and educational tool”. Board Games Australia awards annual ‘best game’ in various categories, with Tommy on the panel for ‘Best International Game’.
Again, there’s nowhere to start with this one apart from the most basic and obvious place:
“Tell me about your love of games, Tommy.”
“Oh, where to begin? Where do you even begin?” Tommy replies. “This is my true, true passion. I absolutely adore it at so many levels.”
Tommy reckons he “spotted very early” the “glory” in sitting around the table with friends and family playing games. It was his favourite adolescent pastime: “While cooler kids were sneaking into keg parties and getting interested in drugs and alcohol, I found it much more satisfying to gather with a few friends and play cards all night.”
The father of one of those friends was “a high-rated chess master whose mental processes went to all things games” so the interest spread from card games to board games:
“It was hilarious fun, just at a social level,” Tommy explains, “and then at a tactical thought level, it became energizing and engaging, being able to deal with thought processes and results that you never had a chance to experience in real life. There’s something about playing for survival in a game where, on the board, you lose and the world is destroyed, but in real life, the world is fine.”
It sounds to me like Tommy’s describing ‘Risk’, a game that has come up time and again in his stand-up over the years. But suggesting as much makes me sound ignorant: “There are many, many other games that put the entire world at stake,” Tommy says. His favourite at the moment is ‘Twilight Struggle’, a two-player game based on the cold war; one player is the US, the other Russia, and game play is card-driven.
“You attempt to influence the various continents such that you score more points and prevent nuclear war. If things go wrong, the world gets lit up!”
It's not too much of a stretch to consider the decision-making and strategic – or rather, tactical manoeuvring – as good training for a leadership role. We seem to be a at somewhat of a loss with regards to the top job in this country right now. Any chance, Tommy?
“It’s not bad training,” Tommy says, but he’s a bit reticent to commit to that kind of responsibility, pointing out that winning the cold war by avoiding a nuclear apocalypse is not the same on the game board as it is in real life. “It’s the difference between playing poker for chips and playing poker for cash,” he says, explaining that “it’s one thing to go all in on a bluff when the only thing you lose is your pile of plastic. It’s a different thing when your house is there in the middle.”
After the briefest of pauses, Tommy adds: “By the way, I hate poker. Just so we’re clear on that. I like board games. Gambling games, not so much, for that reason right there: I like the stakes to be fantastical, as opposed to real.”
For Tommy, it's all about the tactical thought and the games themselves.
“I love the themes that come out of the games, I love tactically manoeuvring against the mechanics of a game – the concepts the game’s designer has given you to play with – manipulating those concepts to make happen whatever needs to happen in the game. And I do love pushing against the other players. There’s something amazingly telling about what you can learn about the other players over a board game.”
Games Mormons play
I’m vaguely aware of Tommy’s Mormon upbringing, and I’m wondering how formative it was of the young Tommy Dean. Was it particularly strict? Is that what led to his love of games over other adolescent pursuits? Is that what gave rise to his love of Coca-Cola, something that would have been denied a child in a strict Mormon household? And how did his love of comedy develop?
“We were a very religiously aware family, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘strict’,” Tommy advises. He was initially raised a Southern Baptist – in fact, had an uncle who was a preacher – which meant not just Sunday School, but also “Wednesday night pot luck”, entailing midweek “casserole and preaching”.
From 13 to 15 years of age, Tommy was indeed “embroiled in the Mormon faith”, which, he says, involved “playing a lot of games”. But even if the Mormon faith is “even more dedicated to itself” than other denominations, for Tommy and his family, it wasn't really a change at all. “Church is just what you did,” he says. “We just joined different churches. It wasn’t until much later that I even recognised a difference between religions. It was just ‘church’.”
Yeah, but still – Mormons are the ‘no caffeine’ denomination, aren’t they? It’s only an issue – potentially – because I notice Coke is Tommy’s tipple of choice, and the biggest sin is putting lemon in it…
“Absolutely,” Tommy says of his Coke imbibing. But as to Mormons eschewing caffeine, it’s “all down to how hard-line they take it”.
Turns out there is a major split in the Mormon faith, and it has something to do with The Doctrine and Covenants, the book upon which, along with The King James Holy Bible and The Book of Mormon, the Mormon faith is based. The Doctrine and Covenants is the Word of God as transcribed by the prophets to whom God spoke. “Those are where the basic rules of Mormonism are given and taken away,” Tommy explains, “and one of them, referred to as ‘The Word of Wisdom’, has a sort of health plan for Mormons. The key phrase is, ‘No hot drinks’.”
‘Hot drinks’ of the time were coffee and tea. “Now that we know what caffeine is, that’s probably what God was getting at,” Tommy says. “Because God, who also at the time should have known what caffeine was, wanted to be obscure.”
There was a backlash later on, when it was discovered that the Mormon Church held a lot of stock in the Pepsi company, apparently. It was seen by many to be hypocritical. Of course there is the stricter Reformed Church of Jesus Christ And Latter Day Saints branch of Mormonism who take a harder line still, according to Tommy: “I don’t think they even eat soup!” Well, he adds, not until it cools down. But then, the point at which ‘hot’ becomes ‘tepid’ becomes a point of issue. And ‘Jesus loves iced coffee!’ becomes a major heresy.
The community that prays together…
“The reason we got into the Mormon Church,” Tommy says,“is the same reason we got into most churches: the neighbourhood responded in kind to our arrival.”
Tommy’s family moved around a lot, dictated mostly by his father’s work. Both parents were born to Maryland farmers, but Tommy’s dad chose not to live ‘off the land’, opting instead for “IT, before they called it IT”.
A project manager for various projects that involved computers, he happened to be be managing a project for “the bank of Disney World, Sun Bank” that took the family to Florida for a couple of years. Later he worked for a company that sold mailing lists, as a kind of precursor to spam email. "That took us to Michigan. Then my mum had asthma and the Michigan climate didn’t suit her, so he took a job in Arizona and off we went to the Asthma State.”
Tommy’s family arrived in Arizona when he was 12 and the new neighbours “came around with casseroles and hellos and invited us to come to church with them.” Taken with the very social nature of the neighbours – who happened to be Mormons – Tommy’s mum decided to take up their offer.
“The reality is, the Mormon Church, for all of its odd philosophies and theologies, is – take away the religion – one of the greatest social co-ops,” Tommy says. “They do more to support their members than any other church I’ve ever been involved in. They’re very much community based, neighbourhood based”.
He also points out that churches in places of “heavy population” such as Arizona are like schools: “you don’t choose what church you go to; you live here, so you go to that church during that time period. And everyone you go to church with lives in your neighbourhood, the idea being to build giant community ties so when your parents are sick, your neighbourhood rallies to take care of you.”
In fact, he says, “every Sunday one of the meetings was the women’s group, and the main thing they discussed was who was on the casserole list that week. Almost everything the Mormon Church does is designed to keep Mormons hanging out with Mormons, helping Mormons, espousing Mormonism. That was also part of it: I played a lot of board games with those guys – softball leagues, basketball leagues and Wednesday night dances to keep the youth together.” That was until Tommy was 15. “Then I fell in with a group called ‘Concerned Christians’, which was really sort of ‘We Hate Mormons’.”
That must have just been a phase; Tommy doesn’t really seem to hate anyone, and unlike a lot of comics, isn’t hell-bent on pointing out – humorously – the logical flaws in belief systems. Not specifically. He loves pointing out logical flaws generally.
Barréd from school
It was neither the religion nor the travel that was to inform the young Tommy Dean, wandering prophet of comedy. Rather, he says, his “main line of formation” resulted from childhood illness: Tommy contracted Gillain-Barré Syndrome at age 8. “I was paralysed for two years from the waste down and spent all that time out of school. There’s something about spending all that time out of the system at a time when you’re at your most malleable.”
Home-schooled for grades 2 and 3, Tommy Dean “spent two years out of the system, developing my own way of thinking” before returning to school for grade 4. At which point, after two years of paralysis, Tommy was “barely starting to walk again, in a very obvious and bully-drawing way.” He’s quick to point out, however, that “bullying” is a “big term”; in this instance, he means that people made fun of the way he walked at school. “So I think my sense of humour first develops around the defense of that. I was getting heckled for the way I walked, and I was quick to recognise that ‘yes, I do walk funny, but you guys have got your problems too, I notice…’”
Some of the ways in which people have reacted to Tommy’s distinct walk were quite amusing. He recalls a time at college when his gait mistaken for cockiness. “Somebody said to my best friend, ‘Hey, I see you’re friends with that guy Tommy – he sure seems to strut a lot! What’s his deal?’ ‘No, no, that’s just the way he stays upright’.”
The permanent effect of Guillain-Barré Syndrome on Tommy is a lack of muscle tissue in his legs. “I have about 85% muscle activity in my upper thighs, down to about 10-12% in my ankles. Normally people walk ‘heel to toe’, whereas, very much like an artificial limb, I swing my foot through and land it flat.”
That’s why Tommy’s classic stance on stage is to keep hold of the mic in the stand “in a classic left foot forward, right foot back pose”: he’s using the stand to help balance. “I have a really hard time standing up straight and still. If I take the mic off the stand, you’ll notice I’ll walk left to right a little more often than is necessitated by the dialogue, and that’s just me self balancing.” The worst scenario, of course, is when Tommy’s doing a corporate gig: wearing ‘corporate’ shoes – “which I’m completely uncomfortable in” – and they haven’t given him a mic stand.
“I’ve seen photos where I’ve ended up in this hilarious half-squat as I try desperately to stay upright in dress shoes! I’ve lost my balance and I’ve ended up in a half-kneeling position, but I’m halfway through a joke so I’m adjusting my posture, trying to stay upright and not lose the timing on the riff.”
I think about it, and yes, I’ve noticed Tommy’s tendency to balance with the mic stand, and pace. But it’s only now that he’s told me – I’m usually too interested in the comedy to notice the physicality. But I know that Tommy plays baseball. Doesn’t he?
“Yeah. Poorly. I play in an old man’s league, so even though I’m quite slow, compared to the other 50- and 60-year-old guys I run around with, I can keep up for a base or two.” Even as a kid, playing, Tommy says, the big joke was that he “had to hit the ball to the fence just to get to first base”. Back then, though, he played better, so he could hit it all the way to the fence in order to get to first. “The other big joke in baseball was to flash me the signal to steel second. That wasn’t gonna happen either!”
Game, Set List and match
If the first stage of Tommy’s comedic development as a comic was his homeschooling at a formative age, forcing him to devise his own world view, the second stage was his discovery of drama.
“The Mormon Church do a lot of ‘church plays’, and somebody said, ‘you seem to have a thing for this ‘church play’ business; when you get to high school, you ought to investigate the drama club’”
That’s exactly what Tommy did, and “that’s where stagecraft became the game.” Four years of drama at high school involved “the competitive element” known as Speech and Debate – the ‘Speech’ aspect of which consisted of monologues rather than public speaking. “They judged you on your ability to interpret 8 minutes of drama or poetry or comedy.” There was also a ‘two-hander’ option, known as ‘dual acting’. Tommy was State Champion in Dual Acting and State Finalist in Poetry Interpretation.
“The reason I got that was because I did a piece from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that was quite funny,” Tommy says. I don’t doubt it. Tommy is hilarious. The night he did Set List – which, unfortunately, I missed – I bet he ‘hit it all the way to the fence’.
“I don’t want to sound all braggy, but I pretty much did. I played the game exactly the way it was meant to be played, which I truly enjoyed.” Again, the game metaphor: seeing the rules and playing by them is clearly important to Tommy. So, with Set List, rather than see each topic and improvise free-standing bits, or throw the rules away in mock indignation of the ridiculousness of it – which can also be hilarious – Tommy went with the rules, justifying why each note existed on his set list and delivering a spontaneous set that carried the logical links, structure and – I’m guessing this last bit – call-backs that a polished set would carry.
Tommy on his dad, on Thank God It's On Stage
Given the ‘warm-up’ – sorry, ‘focusing’ – work, Thank God It’s Friday and appearances on [“lesser”] galas and things like Set List, even if it’s taking its time, Australia’s best-kept comedy secret is still getting out, slowly but surely.
“My schedule would suggest that’s the case,” Tommy agrees. I still think that I’m still the person with whom nobody can figure out what to do.”
Yes, there has always been that aspect to Tommy’s career. Clearly, he can do stuff. But what stuff should they get him to do? When his contemporaries were getting stabs at non-ratings period seasons of stuff, or being asked to audition for present jobs on game shows, it seemed like Tommy was still too much ‘the foreigner’ to be offered those gigs. I mean, how on earth could an American front a game show in Australia? I’d ask Bob Dyer if he were still alive…
“There does still seems to be a weird reticence,” Tommy acknowledges, describing his career so far as having been “defined by benevolent champions” such as “Richard Glover”. However, he is also aware that he himself would have a hard time finding the ideal category to place himself in:
“If someone said to me, ‘you could do any of these things, you choose,’ I’m not quite sure what show I would host. I’d like to think that I could do it.”
Again, Tommy turns to his gaming metaphor: “I define myself by the game I’m asked to play. I don’t know which game I want to play but I can play the game you ask.”
And, he says, it’s interesting to see “just how many games” he’s currently involved in: “there’s radio panelist guy” (Thank God It’s Friday); “warm-up guy” (Q & A and Andrew Denton’s shows); “corporate work” (either as the guest who “injects a bit of irreverence to your corporate setting” or the MC who “plays it straight but provides just enough irreverence to add a point of interest to your corporate gathering”).
But television’s the weirdest one. I watch Tommy focusing the audiences for shows he could easily be guesting on – be it Q & A or Randling. “It’s interesting that Spicks & Specks found me useful, but Good News Week didn’t,” Tommy says. “They strike me as the same game”.
And there, I think, is the way for it for the comic guided by game theory: he should be playing it far more obviously, and be writing his own rules. Rather than seeking the role of panelist or guest on a game show, he should be hosting a show. Perhaps about games. Or perhaps hosting the next television presentation of the Paralympic Games. Television would love that perfect fit. Point is, since he’s brilliant at ‘sharing the laugh’, Tommy would be a brilliant host, and one who’d be able to step in the moment anything comes off the rails.
Well. Tommy Dean fans live in hope.
For now, take the opportunity to see his festival show – the one that actually appears under his own name, for which he’s appearing up front rather than as an integral team member. It’s called Drop Off and Pick Up – most likely about him being a dedicated dad. But titles are almost irrelevant to Tommy’s festival shows – it’s always gonna be a bunch of his funniest stand-up, each routine hilarious and relevant to that very moment it’s being delivered.
• Tommy Dean’s sole Sydney Festival show Drop Off and Pick Up is on 7:30pm, 4 May at the Factory Theatre.
• He’s appearing in Thank God It’s On Stage 8pm, 5 May at the Seymour Centre.
• He’s also in Thank God It’s On Stage 8pm, 12 May Parramatta Riverside Theatre.
• Board Games Australia’s Best Game Awards will be announced at the 2012 Sydney Toy and Game Expo taking place in Homebush June 9-11.
• Tommy’s appearing with Josh Earl, Kate McLennan, Kevin Kropinyeri and MC Dave Thornton at the Manning Entertainment Centre, Mid North Coast, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow 15 July.