Thursday, July 9, 2015

What on earth happened?

The brilliant Tina Fay, in her comic element as unloved script producer Liz Lemon on the greatly missed American sitcom, 30 Rock.

In an earlier post, The Loneliness of Liz Lemon, I wrote about how upsetting it was being the script producer or head writer of a TV sketch show, and therefore being the one who has the unenviable task of rejecting scripts that writers have prepared, because you don’t think they’re good enough to be filmed and put on television. You are immediately disliked, no matter how politely you reject their work. Even if you give them money. And a car.

I now know what it feels like to be one of the rejected ones. Back in March, I received a phone call from producer Rick McKenna. He’s married to Gina Riley, who is a good pal, but I knew Rick long before I knew Gina. He ran The Last Laugh theatre restaurant for a time, so every comedy person in Melbourne knew him. I always found him affable, though I knew some comedians complained that he could be tough. That is, he wouldn’t let them perform because they weren’t funny enough on stage, in his opinion. It was his call to make and, frankly, he was usually right.
The not-funny-enough-on-stage category is one in which I undoubtedly fall, but fortunately most of my visits to The Last Laugh were more about coming to see people do material that I had written for them, than getting up on stage and trying to be funny. Rick’s phone call came first thing in the morning. We’re both early risers. His excuse is that he’s got a family. Mine is that I am suffering so badly from insomnia that I tend to get up at five and try to get some work done, when St Kilda is relatively quiet. I might as well take advantage of my sleeplessness. So I’d already been up for four hours when Rick called. Had I been less weary, I would probably have handled the call a little better. Rick told me he had got some money from Foxtel and had a sketch comedy project he thought I might like to work on. Normally I would have given an immediate but polite ‘No, thank you.’ Rick is nice, sketch comedy is tough. But this sketch comedy show that Rick pitched involved new and old, tried and tested talent. He wanted me to write some material for it. I really should have said no, but Rick is a good businessman and knows how to get the answer he wants. He said very persuasively that I’d be working with a lot of old colleagues whom I liked, in particular Gina Riley and Glenn Robbins, that I only had to produce about a minute of broadcast material per episode and that I could pretty much make my own hours. I was guaranteed a first series of ten episodes and then, most likely, a second series of a further ten episodes.
It was beginning to sound appealing, even though I had sworn I would never again do sketch comedy, the most depressing form of television to produce. The head writers of the show were two guys from advertising. They were Phil and a guy whose name I forget. We’ll call him Not-phil. They were nice guys. I first met them in a production meeting weeks before the series went to air and I told them what they could expect during the ensuing weeks. Somehow, I didn’t manage to dissuade them. I sat there telling them all these nightmare stories, about how they were about to lose all their friends and that they would carry the can if the show was deemed unfunny, because it’s usually the writers who get blamed, and it’s very hard to blame the performers when you’ve got veterans like Jane Turner, Michael Veitch, Magda Szubanski, Gina Riley, Glenn Robbins and Marg Downey, who all have the comedy runs on the board.

I bumped into Comedy Company mate Glenn Robbins, who was also keen to have me aboard. My agent did a deal and I was suddenly a contributing writer on a show that had only just been christened Open Slather. So I had said yes. Sort of. And I really shouldn’t have.
Before the show went to air on Sunday evenings on Foxtel, I wrote some stuff with Glenn Robbins. That was my single, solitary good experience during the time the first season went to air. I wanted to write with some of the other old hands, because it’s pretty miserable writing comedy on your own, but everyone was too busy. I did spend an afternoon writing with Magda, but I screwed that up because I was away from home and somehow convinced myself that I had left the iron on. Given that I so rarely use the thing, it was a fairly irrational fear.

Some of the alumni of Open Slather

The show would be around fifty minutes a week – which was a massive undertaking and everyone worked so hard that I never got a chance to work with any writers. I just submitted stuff week after week in the time leading up to the show. Some weeks there would be as many as ten sketches that I dutifully fired off to Phil and Not-phil, Then I watched the show going to air. It was the first time I have ever worked on a sketch show and been so far down the food chain that the only way I could see the show was to watch it on TV. There was to be no live night, because the style of the show precluded that. Not everything was funny, but it all looked fantastic, like a movie. I was used to sketch comedy shows where the sets were obviously just sets and the microphone boom shadows were ever present. Everything in the old live-audience shows was overlit.

It wasn’t a laugh riot, but Open Slather looked fantastic. The first episode seemed promising, though the stand-out parts were nearly all performed by the alumni, mainly Gina. The new and upcoming kids didn’t get much of a chance to shine. There was nothing of mine in the show, but I got a writing credit at the end, which I thought was odd. I’d been paid far too much money to get nothing on the show, so I rang up in concern, but the producers reassured me that the system was a bit gridlocked so they were shooting the stuff that had arrived earliest and was therefore prepped, or words to that effect. I didn’t want to seem anxious, with my grand track record in comedy, though of course I was. With a sheaf of new sketches I paid a visit to Phil and Not-phil. I didn’t ask them point blank if they disliked the last avalanche of sketches I had submitted, since nothing had been used. Instead I talked about their vision for the show. What sort of sketches did they want? I never really got an answer to that, but I wasn’t going to let it go. I actually pitched my latest bunch of sketches. I acted them out and got laughs. There was one sketch they really liked because they could shoot it on a location that had already been organized, so it seemed a ‘no-brainer’. One of them actually used that word. Like I said, they’re from advertising, but like I also said, they’re nice guys. My sketch was a takeoff of those really annoying Jeep ads where the revelation that someone has bought a jeep is somehow meant to generate overwhelming joy or envy or disbelief.
I actually wasn’t happy with that sketch, because it seemed a return to parody comedy. Shows that I had previously helmed had well and truly mined this seam. But because the production standards on Open Slather were so much better, the parodies were encouraged. One of the joys of the Fast Forward ad parodies was that they were only nearly lookalike. Director Ted Emery took great pleasure in recreating impossibly difficult locations, props, etc, and making them look deliberately amateurish, even though he made them seem filmic. It’s sort of like being shithouse, but pretending you’re not.

I thought that getting some new regular characters up would be the best way to give the show a brand of its own. To this end I spent a very short afternoon writing with Magda Szubanski. Magda had other people to see, I had steam irons to worry about, but I really needed to have Magda with me if I was going to try to invent new characters for her. She was obsessed about a woman  called Suzy Menkes. Check her out and you’ll see why. Magda launched in to an hilarious impersonation and I quickly wrote three sketches involving the character. It didn’t seem to matter that Suzy Menkes wasn’t widely known in popular media, since Magda was making the character funny in her own right. You didn’t need the recognition factor.
I explained this to Phil and Not-phil when I submitted the sketches, along with the usual fistful of accompanying material. We checked out Suzy Menkes on Youtube and yes, it certainly seemed good fodder for Magda. The next episode came and went. One of the supporting cast, Ben Gerrard, had a character he called Johann. I recognised Ben from the excellent ABC sitcom, Outland, in which he was very good. But Johann, his new character, was disappointing. He was far too much like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno (even down to the camp teutonic accent) and there really weren’t enough jokes. But this character seemed to be doing the same stuff as Magda’s proposed ‘Suzy Menkes’ character, thus the material that Magda and I had written no longer had a place in the show, since Johann was covering the whole fashionista world in his own weird way. So, the stuff that Magda andI had written could never saw the light of day.

The stuff that I had written with Glenn was hilarious, I was certain. They were mainly Glenn’s ideas. He’s very good at noticing the little, annoying and quirky aspects of life then riffing on them neatly till they morph into sketch material. And since Glenn was a main player in the cast, I figured he would be able to fight for our sketches.

Glenn Robbins, in non-fighting mode. One of the funniest guys out there, and a decent paramedic (see previous post about how I owe Glenn my life.)

But I watched the show week after week and didn’t see any of my stuff. Oddly, I still got a credit at the end of each episode. I rang my agent Kate and asked if she knew anything about the show. What were its prospects? Was it doing okay? Popular opinion suggested it wasn’t. More importantly, had Kate heard anything about me?  Was my stuff okay, yet somehow overlooked for one reason or another? Was it too long? Or, dare I say it, too not-very-funny? I could never get through to Rick Mckenna to ask him. He was apparently too busy fighting legal battles with Gina Reinhart about some supposed slight that Open Slather had made against her much envied reputation and sylph-like appearance. When I rang the head writers yet again to see if I could somehow help them with material that was more to their taste, they told me they had been sacked. But I was so overconfident about my own abilities as a comedy writer that I felt my position was still secure or would somehow be enhanced. Kate rang and told me that series one of the show still had two more episodes to go. Producer Rick McKenna would be travelling overseas, but according to my agent, I should continue submitting as I had been doing from the start of my contract. Kate emailed me that Rick wanted to come back to me with a ‘variation’ on last season’s offer. I’d been head writer on so many sketch shows, most of which went okay, I felt pretty sure Rick wanted to offer me the same gig on Open Slather. Thus, I worked very hard during those last precious weeks. I thought I should set out to be brilliantly comic, so Rick would have no choice but to give me the head writer gig. (Working on your own also makes you delusional.) Oddly enough, ‘head writer’ was a position I would not have considered accepting for a moment during the show’s preproduction, but now I had to make a point. I could fix this show. Even the nice critics were starting to write mean things about us, though some had been kind to us early on. Our ratings were apparently not great. And there was I thinking that working on a cable show might be more fun than working for normal TV, because there would be hardly any crits. I know we're meant to shrug off bad reviews, but if I ever bump into Bruce Elder from the SMH it will be very hard to prevent myself from throwing something heavy and metallic at his head. Apparently I'll have to join a queue.
After submitting a mountain of solid gold material I waited for Rick McKenna to return from Los Angeles and call. I wondered what tone I should take. Should I leave it to my agent, or should I make Rick beg me to come and fix his show? I was in the shower when he finally rang, but I wanted to take the call, since he was always so impossible to reach, so I kept him waiting as I dried myself off – it takes longer now I’m fat - and put on low-rent St Kilda winter wear. (That is, a black tracksuit. Usually not one’s own.) I waited patiently for Rick’s ‘variation’ on my commitment to series one, as promised by my agent. I was staggered when Rick told me, nicely, that I wasn’t to do further work on the show and that he had nothing to offer me. Why did this upset me so much? Not a thing of mine had been used, despite the weekly credit. I was clearly of no use to the show, such as it was. Open Slather was not exactly an ornament on my resume. It was just that I knew the show could have been better if only they’d used my stuff, or maybe paid me to edit some of the other contributions. Which is what dismissed writers always say or feel when they get the shove. I was in the same position I had gleefully put so many other writers in. (Okay, I was never gleeful about sacking people, it just seemed that way to them. Although there was one. Never mind.) And it does feel terrible. So, I won’t be watching the show anymore. Apparently I’m not in a minority.
I want to close by saying that the show was okay, and people were courteous. There are some good, funny sketches there, and George H. Xanthis, one of the new kids on the block, really stands out. (And that’s hard in a cast where so many of the men look alike. Let’s put it this way. George is the seriously handsome one. Sorry, Ben, but it's definitely George, so put your clothes back on.) I hate seeing comedy shows fail because I know how bloody hard they are. I hope things look up.           
Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski, still funny on Open Slather.

The new kids on Open Slather. (I didn't write this sketch).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How did I get fat?

I was always skinny in high school. Tall and gangly. It meant that I had a gaunt face and would have made a terrific Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes. It also meant that I had to play a female part in a few school plays because I was at an all-boys school and was the only one skinny enough to wear a dress with a waist. And I looked hot!

Being thin gives you high cheekbones, as you will note in this shot of me in the eighties. It doesn't make your hair go curly and orange. You need chemicals for that, and no sense of shame.

When I went to the Victorian College of Arts (now part of Melbourne University) to study script writing I had to do something called The Alexander Technique, which is a way of sitting that is supposed to give you balance and poise.  Our Alexander Technique teacher, Graeme Pearl, took pictures of us wearing nothing but our underpants. They were full-length mug shots. We had to stand alongside a measure and stare down the camera. I remember that Mr Pearl was a little startled when he saw how skinny I was. It was quite easy to count my ribs, if you had nothing better to do with your time.  It was quite a long journey to get to college, so I used to have a rushed breakfast in the canteen. They didn’t serve muesli. I remember that two chocolate-covered liquorice twists was my usual choice. I didn’t go to a gym, though I did ‘action’ classes with the drama students, even though I was in the writing stream. In the first year, all writers had to do the acting classes. This was to give us an idea of how it felt to be a puppet for someone else’s words or ideas. I looked skinny and extremely gangly in tights and a tank top, but that’s what we all had to wear. My leanness was readily apparent, and no one could work out why I stayed this shape, as I had chips for lunch on most days and never did anything as strenuous as a sit-up.

Herewith some proof that I used to be thin. That's me in the background with Andrew Knight in Barcelona. No doubt we are composing an hilarious sketch for the TV show Fast Forward, on which we both worked, and the picture was taken for tax reasons.

If anything, I lost weight during my time at college. In the second year, Graeme Pearl took more photos of us, to see how we had progressed. He didn’t look terribly pleased with my starvation victim’s build and asked if I’d been doing the Alexander technique properly. I told him I had been sitting up and down in the traditional Alexander manner. I didn’t add that most of the time I was sitting down, I was eating food from the canteen bain marie. It really didn’t occur to me  that my thinness might have been an impairment until we students went on a tour of the Latrobe Valley, to gather research for a show that we would perform in schools, if they were prepared to have us. On one of the many free days I joined six other students for a dip in the Hazelwood pondage. This artificial lake was created to cool the turbines of the huge Hazelwood power plant that rested on its rim. The lake wasn’t huge, you could easily see from one side to the other. It was warm from the turbines. In winter it provided a horror movie style effect. A shroud of water vapour rose from the lake There was a yachtclub there. They proudly referred to their pursuit as ‘sauna sailing’. I had been a member of the club as a kid when I lived in Traralgon, about 10km from Hazelwood. (I didn’t live there long. Dad got work in Melbourne., so we moved to the city, which was a relief for me. The air was cleaner.)
Back to the pondage, six of us inm our underpants went bobbing and wallowing in the muddy warm water. Stephen Scully, who went on to become a cabaret star with a group called Tick Where Applicable regarded me with mild distaste when I hoisted myseld out of the pond and onto the muddy bank.  He made the usual comment about how skinny I was. Though this surprised me, because Stephen himself was long and lean, but apparently my ghastly thinness eclipsed even his. I shrugged off Stephen’s remark but he told me I really had to get bigger or I would never get a girlfriend. Stephen might have been onto something. He’s had plenty of girlfriends. But I certainly hadn’t found a girlfriend at college, where the female students outnumbered the male students three to one. For the first time, my thinness had been pointed out as a severe handicap. And so, I made a point of joining a gym and trying to gain weight. It didn’t work. I did weight-lifting and ate calorific food but remained at about 60kg (which is impossibly light for someone as tall as I am). I began to accept that I was destined to be a skinny – and perhaps lonely – old man.

Then I had the stroke, a few years back. I was on all sorts of medication and lived for a few weeks on a diet of hospital food. I was discharged when I was well enough to walk without falling over. I still take the medication I was on at the hospital. I exercise regularly, thought not with weights. Aerobic stuff is more important for full stroke recovery.

I didn’t have any work on, because most authors make their own work and deadlines, unless they are really fortunate enough to sell well and have a publisher prepared to offer ludicrous incentives to meet deadlines they have set. I’m not in that category. So, ‘returning to work’ simply meant returning to my computer and making up stuff.

I don’t think I’ve written anything really good since the stroke. Even blogging was hard. I got out in public quite a bit, because that was also an important part of stroke recovery; finding my way around public areas, and communicating, presumably on a meaningful level, with my fellow humans Most friends commented on how well I looked. I think I disappointed some people who wanted to see a more stroke-ridden me. But my mouth didn’t droop and dribble. My voice was nasal because my upper palate had fallen, but people could still understand what I was saying and I don’t think I said anything I would live to regret. And people continued to tell me how well I was looking. I looked in the bathroom mirror and couldn’t see any difference in my face. Maybe a few less lines? Ah well, I has been staying out of the sun, so maybe that was keeping the wrinkles at bay.

Finally the penny dropped. A doctor colleague told me I had put on weight. (Seriously I was so clueless I hadn’t noticed. It was also a condition to which I was unaccustomed.) Getting around in tracksuit pants and not caring so much about what I ate, had taken its toll. The real shock came when I tried to buy proper pants and found out that I had ballooned from a 28 to a 40.  Perhaps unwisely, I went to a DFO outlet to buy proper trousers, not just ones with elasticised waists. There were sales in all the clothing stores. But I couldn’t find ‘normal’ pants anywhere. The current trend is still for skinny-leg jeans, and most people can’t – or shouldn’t – wear them.

And here I am today. How did this happen?

I ended up in Rivers, which I always thought was a middle class bogan shop, a step or two above Target. But I fitted right in! Here at last were proper pants that I could wear, provided they were XXL. The jeans that fit me were called Big Fit. Sadly, the font they used on the label make the’F’ in ‘Fit’ look remarkably like a T. So, momentarily amused by the notion of buying ‘Big Tit’ pants, I headed for the dressing rooms. And everything I wanted to try on, fitted me! I had a waistline that looked like a beer belly, despite all the work on the gym cross-trainer that I’d been doing every day. And when I go to the gym I make a point of doing 300 sit-ups – one set to the left and one to the right. No change.

The gain in weight began to depress me when I realised that it wasn’t just my face that betrayed it. I couldn’t wear anything in my pre-stroke wardrobe. Gradually I became more aware of obesity ‘miracle cures’ that were always being offered on the web. The world was obsessed with weight-loss. The media seemed intent on presenting an ideal  body type that was nothing like my own. But then, I’m nearly 55. It’s just that I’m used to being skinny.

A colleague called Rita, who is a lovely person, hadn’t seen me in years but commented that I had gained weight. She must have recognised my downcast expression and she immediately tried to cheer me up by telling me that she too had gained weight. Worse still, her uterus had fallen out, she announced, in a desperate attempt to prove that, compared with her, I had a good lot in life. In trying to make me feel better about my corpulence, she had probably gone a step too far. But I could no longer pretend I still had my pre-stroke body.

I spent hours in the Rivers changing rooms. Amazingly, in a shop that seemed to cater for the older generation, there were no chairs, and pulling on new trousers became like a labour of Hercules. Despite this, I realised that I liked Rivers. I had become a Rivers convert. It was such a sensible shop, with clothes that offered genuine comfort and warmth. I vowed that I would always buy my clothes here. The days of Armani and Boss were long gone. Everything about Rivers made sense. Their Big Tit (sorry) range was just what I needed. (Urgent update: Rivers now have chairs in their changing rooms. You see how sensible these retailers are?)

My gorgeous OT at Caulfield Rehab says it doesn’t matter how you look in public – after all, I’m not seeking a new partner. Quite true, but I would prefer to be able to wear proper trousers when I venture into town. I’m also a closet fattist. I didn’t realise, but all my life I had been prejudiced against overweight people. (That’s pretty weird, given that my Dad is pretty much obese, and I love him.) I became so self-conscious about my increase in weight, that I even tried one of those crackpot ‘cures’, simply because Dr Oz, the famous American TV doctor, had guaranteed they would work. I bought a bottle of tablets called green coffee bean extract, that apparently turned your body into a ‘fat burner’, and you didn’t have to change your diet. They didn’t work, of course. Neither do any of the other tablets, except maybe the ones that give you a tape worm, though I believe these are no longer available and might in fact be an urban myth. It’s really a matter of diet change and exercise. And I’ll still keep exercising in the hope that I might one day cease to be a type 40. I realise now that Doctor Who’s Tardis is known as a ‘Type 40’, clearly outmoded and regarded with contempt by most Time Lords. Maybe the author who dreamt up that model of Tardis had the same identity crisis as I. I do not wish to be outmoded and regarded with contempt.

An old type 40. Tardis, I feel your pain.

I vainly hoped that the change in body shape had happened because of all the medication I had been taking, to slow my blood down and keep my brain working. My doctor said quite plainly that, no, the medication doesn’t cause weight increase. The simple truth was, I had allowed myself to be fat. I had started eating more starchy foods, sugars, etc. I have become that person towards whom I used to be so dismissive. I’m reading Lionel Shriver’s book, Big Brother, which deals with the sort of change I’m going through. I realise that Lionel Shriver also wrote We Need to Talk about Kevin, which was a nightmare story. Big Brother isn’t quite nightmare, but it veers close.

No mass murders in this one. Mind you, I'm only halfway through.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why I am not a stand-up comedian and why I owe Glenn Robbins my life.

Where are they now?

In the late eighties and early nineties I fell in with a crowd of stand-up comedians in Melbourne, which is purportedly the Australian live comedy capital. I got to meet most of the comedians by playing Theatresports, and was lucky enough to end up on a team with Glenn Robbins, and various other experienced comedy practitioners. I was quite good with the word games. In  the ‘typewriter’ game I always played the role of the typewriter, who had to spontaneously come up with a plot and descriptive passages which the rest of the team would enact. I loved the rhyming couplets game. Sometimes as an extra challenge a sequence of rhyming couplets was added to the longer games. I tended to excel at the rhyming couplets and the rest of the team usually left it to me to sort things out and somehow come up with a line that rhymed with one that had ended with the word ‘breakfast’. I found the theatresports nights pretty nerve-racking and rarely felt that I’d put in a good performance. I was rubbish with any games that demanded actual acting skills, and in the physical games (the mime ones, and so forth) I was so bad that I would graciously remain in the wings, watching my fellow team members makeup terrific improvisations for a (usually) appreciative audience.  I only ran on stage if it looked like a lifeline was needed, ie the game really did require a fourth player, albeit one who was weedy and nervous and couldn’t sing or do anything much. Through playing regularly and pretty well, my team, The Gutless Wonders ended up being Australian national champions one year. Glenn Robbins was keen to keep me on the team, because I was the ‘wordy’ one that somehow complemented the other players. He kept talking me into doing it, though it unnerved me and he gave me tips on how to be a good player. The first tip was to try not to be nervous, which was, of course, ridiculous. Everyone got nervous. But the fact that experienced comedians also felt nervous about going on stage with no scripts, and an audience wanting a halfway decent two hours’ entertainment.  (They had paid for tickets, after all.) On some nights there were around two thousand people out there and there was something very ancient Rome about what we were doing. The difference was, if we didn’t perform well we weren’t killed. Though playing a dud game felt like a sort of death. You’d spend the night wishing you’d said something clever or done anything that pleased an audience. And we did do practically anything. There was a fair whack of nudity in some of the shows, though I never dropped my strides.

 Melbourne Town Hall, the heart of The Melbourne Comedy Festival.

The world famous Melbourne Comedy Festival started when Theatresports was at its height. The Gutless Wonders played a special celebrity night against seven other teams made up of well known comedian and TV personalities. We tanked horribly, didn’t even make it past half-time. The whole comedy scene in Melbourne really started heating up. On three of the four free-to-air TV networks, there were prime time weekly sketch comedy shows – and they all worked! That is, they all ran for many seasons and rated well. The characters on these sketch shows became part of Australian iconography. I got the ‘head writer’ gig on The Comedy Company because of my contacts with Melbourne comedians. In this role, I was insufferable. If ever the media needed a comic view on something, they would contact me. All of a sudden I had a sort of gravitas, and I became pompous and unbearable, giving lectures about the science of comedy writing, and so forth. I really do look back at those days with acute embarrassment and I understand why I was not well liked, just tolerated. But Glenn Robbins was incredibly encouraging and kept urging me to do stand-up comedy. At the time there were a lot of comedy clubs (pubs with stages, basically) that had try-out nights. These would be presented by an experienced comic, to sort of tie the thing together. On these nights, people who had never done stand-up comedy before could show the world what talent they had. In particular, The Dick Whittington Hotel in St Kilda, had a monthly try-out night called Comedy Genocide. It was always a vaguely special occasion because even the top Melbourne comics would perform there. But the rule was ‘no old rope’. You weren’t allowed to get up and do stuff you had done before. It all had to be new, untested material. The Comedy Genocide nights were a bit like Theatresports. You never knew what you were going to get. I started doing some of these nights as a would-be stand-up comedian. I always wrote down what I was about to present then memorised it. Because most of the audience was very accepting and encouraging, I went over okay. I didn’t really have an act, it was just a shambles of monologue with bits of bizarre poetry woven through it. The generosity of the audience went to my head and once again Glenn Robbins persuaded me to do some sets at le Joke, the famous comedy bar above The Last Laugh comedy venue in Collingwood. I practically lived at this place, catching every new act and trying to work out how they managed to get the laughs that they did. Some were cool musical acts, like the Bouncing Czechs or Bent Brass. Then there was Circus Oz. One of their drawcards was a drummer hanging upside-down from the ceiling. Believe it or not, the funniest show I ever saw there was a mime, Julian Chagrin. 

  • The incredible Julian Chagrin

  • Julian Chagrin had an amazing two hour mime act. I, like most people, have a low tolerance threshold for mime artists. Chagrin’s trick was that he would talk throughout the mime, but it would rarely relate directly to what he was miming. So, you sort of had two comedy acts going on at once. One of the funniest bits involved him performing very precisely a mis en scene concerning a bicycle trip to a fishing hole, but he added a BBC voiceover to it, which he would deliver smoothly as he performed. The voiceover was a clever mix of cricket and arts commentary and they got everything wrong. While Julian Chagrin was fairly obviously miming fixing a flat tyre on a bicycle, the commentary would be all at sea. Thus, the mime of pumping up a flat tyre was described breathlessly and awkwardly by the commentators as playing a strange sort of violin to a small bird who seemed to enjoy it.

    Despite being a long way short of having skills like Julian Chagrin, I did two five minute spots  at Le Joke, where I got only sporadic laughter, not guffaws, then I vied for a spot on the New Year’s Eve comedy line-up at the Dick Whittington. I wrote heaps of stuff and learned it. But this was no Comedy Genocide night. I had to face a very raucous crowd of drunks who didn't know me and would have been happier watching a comedian - even a ventriloquist - who told good, old-fashioned jokes, and not one who seemed determined to crap on about everything, or do things that rhymed or whatever I was doing. I don't remember. I completely lost my bottle. I tanked so badly, I could almost feel the audience’s hatred eating away at me like acid.

    And that’s when Glenn Robbins saved my life. He became a paracomic, leaping to my rescue. That is, he emerged from the wings, took the microphone and gently told me to leave while I was still alive (the audience wouldn’t have heard, though it was clearly what they wanted). Professionally, he asked the audience to show their appreciation for me (amazingly, they did clap) then he did what a stand-up comedian is supposed to do – viz, he made people laugh. I never attempted stand-up comedy again. I am a deeply unfunny person, when I don't have a pen and paper. I didn’t luck out genetically in the appearance stakes, I look ordinary and bland. Some comedians like the English star David Mitchell can turn this ordinariness into a strength, but I never could. I wasn’t even ugly enough – pretty bloody close, though - to make a thing out of that. I looked far from impressive or memorable and I just didn’t have it in me to tell straightforward jokes. Or at least jokes that an audience might conceivably want to hear.

    In closing, I would offer some advice to those considering a career in stand-up comedy.

    1.   1. Never get up on stage if you’ve never made anyone laugh before.  At a party you really do need to be the person who cracks everyone up. If you’re not that person, if you haven’t made people laugh in this way, do not be a stand-up comic.
    2.   2. If, by some cosmic accident, you are offered a gig on New Year’s Eve, make sure you’ve got something pretty bloody hysterical in mind to tell the audience.
    3.   3. Never go out on a stage not really knowing what you’re going to say or do, unless you’re brilliantly clever like Josh Thomas or Simon Rogers or Fiona O'Lochlan or Judith Lucy and can more or less cajole the audience into laughing, then surf on that.
    4.   4. Do not drink or take drugs before taking the stage. People notice stuff like that, and the result is usually woeful.
    5.   5. Don’t steal. I was genuinely ignorant of the comic’s code and one night I did a joke that I had seen years ago in a Chris Langham live show. I don’t think anyone would have picked it, as Chris Langham was English and not super famous back then. But I do sometimes lie awake thinking about it. It was a bloody good joke and it got me my only laugh. But I was wrong. I'll go to comedy purgatory for that.
    6.   6. Do not make the mistake of thinking that standup comedians must be wonderfully cheerful and affable people. They aren’t and if they have just done a bad gig, you really don’t want to go anywhere near them.

     Chris Langham, please forgive me.

    Monday, June 30, 2014

    Terse Verse

    (Don't click on any of the green links. They're spam.)

    I went to the launch of the docklands library in Melbourne recently. The Master of Ceremonies was Brian Nankervis, whom I first met when he was working as a primary teacher at Kingswood College, long before the rockwiz days. Brian gave a shout-out to me in the third row. I wasn't expecting it but I was chuffed. Brian used to read my poems aloud to the kids. He never 'taught' poetry, he didn't believe you could. I think he was right. Brian is also one of the nicest men in the business. Really. He puts the curmudgeons to shame. At the library launch, Brian described me as a poet, which was kind but no longer correct, since I've stopped writing it. It felt nice to be called a poet, and put me in a reflective mood.

    Here is an interview conducted by author and friend Di Bates who asks some questions about the verses I used to write in an earlier life:

    What was the first poem you ever remember reading and/or reciting?
    It would have been one of the Dr Suess verses, probably ‘The Sneetches’. I was hooked on Suess and was happy to buy a book recently that featured his work for adults.

    Did you write poetry as a child?

    I tried. I wasn’t good. I was better at drawing the pictures. For a while I thought I might be an illustrator, but I wasn’t good enough for that either. I get embarrassed when I look back at the pictures I drew for Puffinalia magazine. I edited this Penguin children’s magazine with Di Bates for a few years.

    Did your parents recite or read poetry to you? Any inspiring teachers?
    Dad and Mum both read to us kids when it was time for bed. Dad never used to read much fiction until he met my mum, who made him read the books that she liked – and these were generally books of funny kids’ stuff. So Dad was more or less discovering the stories at the same time as we were. His enthusiasm wore off onto us. We also both loved Spike Milligan’s seminal radio series, ‘The Goon Show’, so I started reading the Spike Milligan verse books. Mrs Bullen in year 2 was my best teacher.

    Can you talk about your first book of poetry which you published (and illustrated) as a teenager?
    It was an exciting time, with a lot of publicity. Because I was young I was indulged, and often found myself talking about things that I really didn’t understand.  I was writing some verse for The Age newspaper every month. They had a big kids’ lift-out called ‘Og’s’. In the end, I did what a lot of authors do. I gathered up these verses and sent them to a publisher, Outback Press. They recommended I send them to writer Michael Dugan, who was editing some books for them. Michael liked the book (it was an anthology of verse with my own pictures) and in the space of one afternoon we went about compiling the manuscript into a workable draft. I owe Michael a great debt. When he died, I found the first letter I sent to Michael. He had kept it for all those years. It wasn’t a very good letter. It was far too pompous and I was obviously a bit full of myself. But I was 14 and hadn’t learned grace and decorum. Michael was a kind man for continuing with the project, even though I had been a bit odious. Michael also showed me how vital editors are. We all miss him. My nervous parents asked Michael if I could make a living from writing. He was guarded but he told them I probably wouldn’t starve.

    Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns (illustrated by Craig Smith) was a huge success; can you outline your experience of writing and compiling the poems and how you submitted the collection?

    The Sister Madge book really was the most wonderful thing to assemble. Jane Covernton from Omnibus books in Adelaide was putting together an anthology of ‘putrid poems’. She asked me to contribute, which I did. For some reason, a few of the verses were about wicked nuns having extraordinary adventures. (I’m being disingenuous. I do know why I wrote these verses.  Back then nuns were regarded as being fairly serene, gentle creatures. Comedy often works by mixing two unlikely scenarios together. Nuns having a Harley rally in a supermarket, for example.) There was a lot of slapstick. I realised later that I had been inspired by the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about ‘trampo-nuns’ – an order of nuns that started each day by bouncing on trampolines. They were called ‘The Leaping Berylians’. We had the sketch on a record and I would play it a lot. Peter Cook, the Mother Superior, waxes lyrical about what a joy it is to leap. For many years she held the convent record – eighty feet vertically, though unfortunately she landed in a lawn mower, so she had to curtail her morning ritual leaping to just a few inches, still enough to 'keep one in practice'.
    These nun poems were quite different from my other offerings. They were more like verse stories. So I sent them under a pseudonym – ‘Sister Madge’ -  using my parents’ address as the location of ‘Our lady of Immense Proportions’, an imaginary convent for wayward nuns. My parents were surprised to receive a letter addressed to ‘Sister Madge Mappin’ at their mud-brick home in Eltham. I hadn’t warned them. Jane Covernton knew exactly what was going on, but she played along and urged Sister Madge to write her own, separate anthology of verse. Craig Smith illustrated, and of course his work was beautiful. (There's more about the practical joke history of this book on my website. You can even see a photo of me dressed as a nun, in an effort to call Jane Covernton's bluff when she asked for an author photo.) The book was a bestseller because it was very cheeky back then to write about God, Christ and his brides, as though they were cartoon characters. The book was reissued a couple of years ago, but it didn’t do as well, even though people have fond memories of the original book, they felt the joke had run its course, and the Catholic Church was in all sorts of trouble. The reprint is actually a superior book because I fixed up some of the things that weren’t quite right and added a verse explaining how ‘Our Lady of Immense Proportions’ came to be. Craig’s illustration for this poem is some of the best work in the book. I urge you to seek out this new, improved version of the original hardback. It has a shiny yellow cover.

    How many poetry collections have you published to date? And there any in the pipeline at the moment?
    I’ve contributed to a lot of anthologies. I did two collections of my own stuff back in the eighties – ‘In The Garden of Badthings’ and ‘The Fed up Family Album’. I revisited them recently and was surprised by how may of the verses end in the bizarre death of a character. One critic in Queensland attacked me about that, and of course I was arrogant enough to feel offended. I think I rang him up and argued with him. ‘Never respond to a critic’ really should be a golden rule for writers. Remember they can always get you back. It’s their sandpit, not yours. And ‘a critic is someone who reads arrogantly and swiftly but not well.’ That is a paraphrase from the movie based on David Mitchell’s beguiling ‘Cloud Atlas’. I took great delight when early in the book and movie an aggrieved writer met his damning critic at a cocktail party in a twelfth floor apartment, and he threw the critic over a balcony. The critic made a very agreeable squishing noise when he hit the ground.
    When I stopped working in television (which I had done full-time from 1988 to 2002,) I wrote two further poetry collections, both illustrated by Craig Smith. They were ‘Spiky, Spunky My Pet Monkey’, which I really liked but it didn’t sell. (It contained more bizarre deaths and extremely weird subject matter.) Then in 2002 I put together a book called ‘On The Cards’, for 'Comic Relief'. Granada, the TV production company I worked for, was about to bring ‘Comic Relief’, the famous charity, to Australia. I thought there should be a book to go with the event.

    Writing 'On The Cards' was a joy. The rest was horrible, because Red Symons had a go at me in The Age newspaper, on the front page of section two, before the book was even published. He wrote terrible things, about how bad an author I was and how the book was just a cash-in. I couldn’t believe he did it because we had been mates. I'd also done a lot of work on the book and felt offended. Like a moron, I tried to fight rEd's review by writing a letter of complaint to The Age. It made me look small and stupid. The 'review' was a product of Red’s frequently misplaced sense of humour, and it would have been funny if delivered as a monologue, but it didn’t work on paper. When I complained to the editor of the newspaper, she was appalled to learn that I was a real person. Penguin was likewise horrified, but the book is still out there and I think it’s pretty good. The experience with Red left a nasty taste in my mouth. That was the last verse book I wrote. But Red didn’t stop me writing verse. The market did.

    Have you had any poetry writing mentors? Any poets whose work you particularly love?
    My heroes were mainly English, because there weren’t that many Australian poets doing stuff for younger audiences back in the eighties. I was a mighty fan of Roger McGough and some of the other Liverpool Poets. Then there was Kit Wright, who wrote stuff that was mad and disobedient. I liked him very much and probably stole his style a bit. There was also the wonderful Charles Causley, who published a kids’ collection called ‘Figgie Hobbin’. That book is a real masterpiece. It’s genuine poetry, not just verse. He has a huge amount of fun with language.

    What inspired you to write poetry?
    Teachers were very encouraging. I also had a friend in school, and I used to delight in making up verses funny enough to make him laugh. (But no fart or bum jokes, which I thought were cheap.) These days I’ll scribble down a verse if I get a strong idea for it. My colleague Humphrey Barclay, is putting together a collection of limericks in the UK, so I’ve been creating stuff for that as well.

    Can you describe your process of writing a poem?
    I always write longhand, because there are often ideas I’ve crossed out that can be used elsewhere. I’m careful with the words I choose. There’s a lot of assonance, dissonance, and alliteration. In the ‘Spiky Spunky’ book I tried to come up with poems that made me laugh. Many of the poems have killer last lines or ‘stings in the tail’. I’m rather proud of some of them. But I think it was one of the last collections of verse that Penguin published in Australia. Teachers complained that they couldn’t teach poetry, because after hearing some verses that made them laugh, the students would write kilometres of really bad verse. It never made sense, it just rhymed.
    I would never attempt to ‘teach’ poetry, I would just introduce into the classroom a tradition of reading poetry aloud. The kids who have a knack for it will start writing poems in their own time. Kids (and some parents) never seem to get the idea that a poem is rarely good on the first go, you have to do various drafts to get it working.

     Do all of your poems rhyme?
    All my poems rhyme, because I’m a musician and poems to me are like lyrics. I think that kids also prefer rhyming verse, though it’s so very hard to get right.

    Do you workshop your poems with anyone?
    I don’t, because I’m self-critical and won’t send a verse to a publisher unless I’ve already written out about five drafts. I also had a stroke not long ago, and it’s hard to write. I make stupid mistakes, not just misspellings, but often I leave out entire sentences. For example, I’m finding this interview very hard to type, though I am delighted that Di has invited me to do it.

    How do you know a poem you write is finished? And how do you know if it’s publishable?

    You just know. It sounds good when read aloud; it has the jokes in the right places. Sometimes I take work-in-progress to schools. I did that with ‘On The Cards’, and the kids were very helpful. (They weren’t paying for the session, so they didn’t feel cheated.)

    Are there any poetry anthologies and/or collections you could recommend to readers?
    Anything by Roger McGough, but The Kestrel Book of Poetry is probably the best anthology. There is a very funny McGough poem about a teacher who is sick and tired of his class misbehaving, so he teaches a lesson about ‘Violence’. The strength is in the wordplay and the outrageous images that are instilled into your brain. One fairly dim-witted primary teacher got the kids to draw pictures to go with the poem. Where Roger had been oblique and witty, the kids seized every opportunity to go overboard with the gore, so much so that there were complaints from parents and there was an outraged report on TV of kids drawing torture porn. I know that Roger would have been horrified about that, because he was a gentle man, and if there were gory moments in his verse, he represented them with great wit and subtlety.

    Do you have any advice to struggling poets (including children)?
    Keep everything. Read other poets. Don’t show your work to others until you’ve done a few drafts, and you’re sure the work is in reasonable shape. Never show your work to anyone as soon as you’ve done it, because it won’t be right and you’ll lose confidence. When I did the Sister Madge book, I received a lot of letters from kids who had written their own ‘nun poems’ and they were almost always dreadful, but I tried to be encouraging. A girl sent me some work that was really dire, and I didn’t reply to the letter. Six weeks later I got a very angry letter from her Mum, lambasting me for impoliteness and making her daughter cry because every day the teacher would ask her, ‘Has Doug MacLeod written back yet?’. These days I always reply, but I don’t get anywhere near so many letters. They are mainly emails that arrive via my website. Get in touch, if you have a question.

    The amazing Roger McGough

    And check out Di Bates' Australian children's poetry blog here.